Bahrain’s Aweke Ayalew ended Imane Merga’s historic streak at the 13th ‘Cross Internacional de Atapuerca’, the opening race of this winter’s IAAF Cross Country Permit series, held on a sunny and warmer-than-expected Sunday (13).
Senbere Teferi, the world silver medallist at 5000m and cross country, took a commanding win in the women’s race to maintain the Ethiopian dominance in Atapuerca.
Ayalew is the new king
Merga started the men’s 9km race as the favourite after grabbing no fewer than five successive wins since 2011, the same year he won the world cross-country title on the other side of Spain in Punta Umbria.
But the classy field which gathers every year here made Merga’s sixth win by no means a certainty and today the 28-year-old Ethiopian could not live the late burst of speed from Aweke and Uganda’s Timothy Toroitich.
The race opened cautiously as 30 athletes compounded the leading group after the first 2km. After respective opening 1.95km laps of 5:34 and 5:40, the front group was still large with 16 men in contention.
After about 15 minutes of running, the first serious movement came from Toroitich, who injected a much brisker rhythm. His relentless pushing soon paid dividends as only four athletes – Merga, Muktar Edris, Ayalew and Jairus Birech – remained in close attendance one kilometre later.
By the bell, reached in 19:26 after a frantic 5:29 circuit, Ayalew powered his way to the front in an attempt to drop more of his rivals. Toroitich managed to stay with him, while Merga – known to the locals as ‘Mr Atapuerca’ – ran some five metres behind the leader.
Much to the delight of the crowd, Merga re-joined the leading duo during the final kilometre, but shortly afterwards Toroitich unleashed a strong change of gear to drop Merga for good and build a narrow margin on Ayalew.
Toroitich was still a few metres clear of Ayalew with 200 metres to go, but the 23-year-old never surrendered and he pipped the Ugandan in the final metre to win by a narrow margin as both athletes were given the same time, 25:05. The defeated former champion Merga finished seven seconds in arrears.
It was the second year in a row in which Toroitich had to settle for the runner-up spot. Ayalew and Merga, meanwhile, exchanged their third and first places respectively from last year.
European 10,000m bronze medallist Antonio Abadia was the first European finisher, crossing the line in seventh place, just one second clear of fellow Spaniard Ilias Fifa, the European 5000m champion.
“It’s wonderful to be able to beat one of the world’s best cross-country specialists like Imane Merga who is an idol here,” said Ayalew, who finished 10th at last year’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships. “Winning has been really hard but fortunately I found the extra energy I needed in the closing stages and could do it.”
“My only target today was another win but I just couldn’t manage it,” said Merga. “I promise to come back next year to resume my winning streak.”
Teferi maintains Ethiopian dominance
Held immediately before the men’s race, the women’s 8km event kicked off conservatively as the top four Africans assembled – the Ethiopian pair of Senbere Teferi and Belaynesh Oljira plus the Kenyan duo of Agnes Jebet Tirop and Alice Aprot – led from the gun, but they were closely followed by the rest of the field.
Tirop, the world cross-country champion, made most of the early pace alongside Aprot while the Ethiopians ran comfortably at their shoulder. Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack and Britain’s Kate Hulls were able to live with the Africans’ pace through the second kilometre, which was covered in a moderate 6:50.
But Hulls and then McCormack gradually lost ground and by midway the contest became the expected Kenya vs Ethiopia fight with Tirop and Aprot dictating the pace and Teferi and Oljira in close attendance.
Just before the athletes embarked on the final 1.95km lap, defending champion Oljira began to fade as Teferi moved to the front for the first time to heat up the pace. Tirop and Aprot followed her for some 300 metres, but with one kilometre remaining, Teferi broke away with unexpected ease – taking into account that she was leaving well behind Tirop, the world cross-country champion, and 29:53.51 10,000m runner Aprot.
Teferi stopped the clock at 24:48 to finish four seconds ahead of Tirop, while Aprot finished another six seconds adrift. McCormack was the fastest European in fifth, some 38 seconds in arrears, showing convincing form four weeks prior to the European Cross Country Championships.
“I knew my form was fine but I was not sure to beat three top athletes like Tirop, Aprot and Oljira,” said the 21-year-old Teferi after securing the fifth successive Ethiopian victory in the women's race at the Cross de Atapuerca.
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF
1 Aweke Ayalew (BRN) 25:05
2 Timothy Toroitich (UGA) 25:05
3 Imane Merga (ETH) 25:12
4 Muktar Edris (ETH) 25:22
5 Jairus Birech (KEN) 25:24
6 Phillip Kipyeko (UGA) 25:30
7 Antonio Abadia (ESP) 25:34
8 Ilias Fifa (ESP) 25:35
9 Jaouad Tougane (MAR) 25:35
10 Carlos Mayo (ESP) 25:39
1 Senbere Teferi (ETH) 24:48
2 Agnes Jebet Tirop (KEN) 24:52
3 Alice Aprot (KEN) 24:58
4 Belaynesh Oljira (ETH) 25:11
5 Fionnuala McCormack (IRL) 25:26
6 Sofia Ennaoui (POL) 26:15
7 Trihas Gebre (ESP) 26:22
8 Kate Hulls (GBR) 26:24
9 Elinor Kirk (GBR) 26:32
10 Juliet Chekwel (UGA) 26:40