Steeplechase rivals Conseslus Kipruto and Soufiane El Bakkali (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Aarhus, Denmark

Mixed relay preview: Kenya mounting strong title defence

Kenya made history in Kampala two years ago after a strong quartet produced a convincing victory in the mixed relay event's debut at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. The east African powerhouse will return to action well armed for a successful title defence in the race that will kick off Saturday's action in Aarhus.

First, the rules: the 8070m race will be contested by teams composed of two men and two women who will each run one loop of roughly two kilometres --the first and last loop are slightly longer than loops two and three-- in any order they wish. The runners will pass a wrist band that serves as the baton through a 20-metre long exchange, or takeover zone.

Quartets from ten countries have entered, but the contest is once again expected to be a battle between the world's two most dominant distance-running rivals, Kenya and Ethiopia, with a strong Moroccan contingent arriving in northern Europe with solid podium ambitions as well.

Two members of the Kenyan squad are well-known names who will be making their senior debuts at the World Cross: Conseslus Kipruto (3000m steeplechase world rank: 2), the reigning world and Olympic champion in the 3000m steeplechase, and among the most entertaining runners on the circuit; and Elijah Manangoi (1500m world rank: 2), who raced to the world 1500m title in 2017. While the latter will be making his first appearance at the World Cross, Kipruto brings solid cross country credentials to the start line, courtesy of a fifth place showing in the U20 race in 2013.

They'll be joined by Winfred Nzisa Mbithe (mile world rank: 43), a member of the maiden gold medal winning squad two years ago, and Jarinter Mawia, a relatively unknown 800m specialist.

Conversely, the Ethiopian squad is composed largely of little-known runners, adding to the race's intrigue. The most experienced internationally is also the youngest, 19-year-old Taye Fantu Worku, who was sixth over 3000m at last year's IAAF World Indoor Championships. Joining here are Teddese Lemi and Kebede Endale, who sport 3:37 1500m bests, and Bone Cheluke, whose best performance is a 4:08.64 1500m PB from 2017. She competed in this event two years ago, helping Ethiopia to a silver medal finish. 

On paper, a Moroccan squad led by Soufiane El Bakkali (3000m steeplechase world rank: 1), the 2017 world steeplechase silver medallist and fierce Kipruto arch-rival, appear to be Kenya's strongest challengers. Indeed, a head-to-head between Kipruto and El Bakkali could be one of the weekend's most thrilling highlights. 

El Bakkali forms the backbone of a strong team that includes Abdelaati Iguider (1500m world rank: 11), one of the most consistent middle distance runners of the past decade and Rababe Arafi (800m world rank: 9; 1500m world rank 5), a world (2017) and Olympic (2016) 1500m finalist. Iguider, 32, won a second world indoor 1500m bronze last year --he won the title in 2012-- while Arafi, 28, joined the 1500m sub-4 club last summer with a 3:59.15 run in Lausanne. 

Twenty-three year-old Kaoutar Farkoussi (5000m world rank: 103), the 2018 Mediterranean Games 5000m champion, rounds out the squad.

On a good day, Uganda, led by African Championships bronze medallist and 3:33 1500m runner Ronald Musagala (1500m world rank: 38), could also be in the hunt for a podium finish.

So, will we see Kipruto and El Bakkali, two of this generation's finest steeplechasers, going head-to-head sans barriers? Let's hope so. But we won't know until race morning. The deadline to declare the running running is at 8am local time Saturday morning, three hours before the start.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF