Ethiopia’s Imane Merga won the Cross Internacional de Atapuerca, the opening race of this winter’s IAAF Cross Country Permit series, for a fifth consecutive year on Sunday (15).
Merga started the men's 9km race as the favourite after capturing four successive wins since 2011, the same year he also won the world cross country title at the other end of Spain in Punta Umbría.
However, after last season’s narrow finish with his fellow Ethiopian Muktar Edris, Merga’s fifth win was by no means a certainty.
After two kilometres, the front group consisted of Uganda’s Moses Kibet and Timothy Toroitich, the Ethiopian pair of Merga and Edris, Spain’s Alemayehu Bezabeh and Ayad Lamdassem, Bahrain’s Aweke Ayalew, Eritrea’s Goitom Kifle and Kenya’s Thomas Longosiwa.
Pushing the pace in particular were Kibet, Kifle and Ayalew, the latter a late addition to the field and who placed 10th at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships earlier this year, while Merga and Edris ran comfortably in the middle of the pack.
Successive 1.95km laps of 5:43 and 5:32 eliminated the two Spaniards from contention.
Just before the final big lap, Ayalew accelerated and was only followed by Merga and Toroitich.
Ayalew then lost ground on his two rivals some 600 metres from the line and the Toroitich-Merga clash didn’t last long either. The Ethiopian attacked earlier than usual, with 300 metres to go, to easily pull away and secure his fifth straight victory in Atapuerca, as he himself indicated while waving his right hand – one win for every finger – just before crossing the finish line in 25:02.
Toroitich was second in 25:06 and Ayalew another four seconds further back.
“I’m very pleased for my fifth success here but also for the nice weather we’ve enjoyed this weekend," said Merga. "Last year it was much tougher because of the rain, wind and cold. I attacked at the right moment, just when I knew Toroitich wouldn’t be able to catch me."
Edris, the world cross-country bronze medallist, admitted he wasn’t currently in the shape of last year when he pushed Merga all the way to the line.
Oljira maintains Ethiopian dominance
The women’s 8km event was weakened by the late withdrawals of Ethiopia’s world cross-country silver medallist Senbere Teferi and Kenya’s Mercy Cherono but the race still started quickly thanks to the initiative of the Ethiopian duo of 2014 Atapuerca winner Belaynesh Oljira and Alemitu Heroye whose early pace could only be followed by Spain’s Trihas Gebre.
This trio were ahead after the first kilometre with the Polish duo of Dominika Napieraj and Iowa Lewandowska travelling 50 metres behind.
Headed by Heroye most of the time, the leading trio clocked successive laps of 6:30, 6:26 and 6:16; the latter proved to be too much for Gebre who began to fade after halfway.
Oljira decided to make her move with 400 metres remaining and her young compatriot Heroye had no answer to her surge, four seconds separating them at the tape as the pair clocked 24:52 and 24:56 respectively.
Gebre had no difficulty staying in third and coming home as the top Spaniard in 25:34, running a solitary race for the final three kilometres as the best of the rest came home more than a minute behind her.
“I felt more comfortable today than last year as weather conditions were much better today,” said Oljira, reflecting the comments of Merga about the better weather conditions.
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF