The World’s Greatest Foot Race – 2015 World XC Champs Men’s International Preview: Kenya Or Ethiopia? Shame On Europe For Waving The White Flag

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By LetsRun.com
March 24, 2015

After two years of waiting, the world’s hardest race to win is almost upon us. On Saturday afternoon (late Friday, early Saturday morning in the U.S.), 444 athletes from 51 countries will assemble in Guiyang, China, for the 41st World Cross Country Championships. The combination of top-end talent, a challenging course and national pride means there isn’t another race quite like World XC anywhere on the planet. We’ll be previewing the races all week long and LetsRun.com’s Robert Johnson will be providing on-site coverage from China.

We start with a look at the top international men’s individuals and teams. Race details below, followed by our preview.

What: 2015 IAAF World Cross Country Championships

When: Saturday, March 28 (late Friday night U.S. time)

Where: Guiyang, China

Entries * Official site * Local organizing committee site * 2013 LRC World XC coverage

Schedule 

Women’s junior 6K race: 12 midnight Friday night ET/9:00 p.m. Pacific
Men’s junior 8K race: 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning ET/9:30 p.m. Fri. night Pacific
Women’s senior 8K race: 1:15 a.m. ET/10:15 p.m. Pacific
Men’s senior 12K race: 2:10 a.m. ET/11:10 p.m. Pacific

Universal Sports Network will have tape-delayed coverage starting at 12:00 p.m. ET on Sunday (a day later).

Important note: Guiyang sits at 4,183 feet of elevation. Since the top teams — save for the U.S. — all hail from countries whose athletes are no stranger to elevation (and the U.S. trials were held at 5,430 feet in Boulder), it may not make a huge impact but it is something to consider. Another thing to consider, Guiyang is one of China’s “least sunny major cities” and it gets a lot of precipitation. Rain is forecast for Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Will the race be muddy and help “mudders”? LetsRun.com will be on site to tell you.

One cool aspect of the World Cross Country Championships is that, just like NCAA XC, the team race matters. (A reminder: teams now consist of six runners, of which the top four score). And the best way to look at the men’s senior race this year is to start with the three nations that have dominated the competition over the past four editions: Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea (yes, we know the U.S. men were second in 2013; we’ll have a special preview on Team USA later in the week). Of the 24 medals available in the senior men’s race at World XC since 2009 (team and individual), those three nations have combined to win 20 of them; no nation outside of Kenya and Ethiopia has won the team title since the Carter Administration. So we begin our preview by taking a look at each of these cross country powerhouses.

Kenya: A Totally New Team Will Try To Regain Dominance

NamePrevious World XC finishesNotable PRsComment
Leonard Barsoton2nd, 2013 (jr. race)13:19/27:20’14 African XC champ
Geoffrey Kamworor1st, 2011 (jr. race)13:12/27:06/58:54’14 World Half Marathon champ; won Kenyan Police Champs in Jan.
Bedan Karokinone13:15/26:52/59:236th in 10k at ’13 Worlds; 5th at ’12 Olympics; two-time defending Kenyan XC champ
Joseph Kiptumnone60:26/2:09:56Last man on to Kenyan team with 6th-place finish at trials
Phillip Langatnone27:27 (road)/61:05Won several Kenyan XC races in late 2014/early 2015; 5th at Kenyan trials
Moses Letoyie Mukono11th, 2013 (jr. race)7:44/13:1919-year-old took bronze in 5k at ’14 World Juniors; ’14 African jr. XC champ
Karoki ran 26:52 for 10,000 at Pre last year

Karoki ran 26:52 for 10,000 at Pre last year

After failing to win the team title last time out for the first time since 2005, an entirely new team will seek to put Kenya back on top of the men’s senior race for the 25th time in the last 28 editions of the championships. Kenya’s 54 points at the 2013 championships was its highest point total since 1995. No one from that senior team returns, and no one on this year’s squad has any experience in the senior race at World XC.

Kenya is led by Japanese-based Bedan Karoki, who hails from Nyahururu, the hometown of five-time World XC champ John Ngugi and late Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru. Karoki has excelled over all surfaces over the past few years. Last year alone, Karoki won the Kenyan XC Championships in February, ran 26:52 for 10,000 meters on the track in May and won the Beach to Beacon 10K (27:37) and Philly Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon (59:23) on the roads in August and September. Karoki defended his Kenyan XC title at last month’s trials, winning by 11 seconds, and is one of the best bets to take home the individual title on Sunday. Though this will be his first World XC — at any level — his victory at the Kenyan trials proves he’s a strong XC runner, he has the fastest 10,000 pb in the field and he’s got big-race experience (6th at ’13 Worlds in the 10,000; 5th at the ’12 Olympics).

Trials runner-up Geoffrey Kamworor (perhaps better known to many as Geoffrey Kipsang) is no slouch, either, as he won the junior race at World XC in 2011 and took home the gold medal at last year’s World Half Marathon Championships. Kamworor, who placed fourth at last fall’s Berlin Marathon in 2:06:39, also won the always-competitive Kenyan Police Championships in January. He and Karoki are two of the most-accomplished runners in the entire field; both are serious contenders for the win in Guiyang.

The other two runners who figure to score for Kenya are youngsters Leonard Barsoton (20) and Moses Mukono (19). Barsoton was the silver medalist in the junior race two years ago (losing only to Ethiopia’s Hagos Gebrhiwet, who five months later would take silver at Worlds in the 5,000) while Mukono took bronze at World Juniors on the track last year in the 5,000.

Cross country is always difficult to predict at the professional level. There is mud. There are hills. There are obstacles. This year, the race is even at elevation. Who responds best is an inexact science and lasting success is rare (defending champ Japhet Korir didn’t even make this year’s Kenyan team). Based on their career accomplishments, you’d expect Karoki and Kamworor both to finish in the top five or so. That means Barsoton and Mukono, with a combined age of 39, will likely decide Team Kenya’s fate. Over the last five editions, it’s taken an average of 28 points to win the men’s team title. That means Barsoton and Mukono will both likely need to be in the top 10-12 for Kenya to win. Given their credentials, that certainly seems possible — one of them could even win the thing (Korir was only 19 when he won in 2013) — but we won’t truly know what they’re made of until the race is over on Sunday.

Ethiopia: Going For The Repeat For 1st Time Since 2004-5

NamePrevious World XC finishesNotable PRsComment
Tesfaye Abera14th, 201360:32/2:09:46Ran 2:09:46 to win Mumbai Marathon on Jan. 18
Bonsa Dida4th, 2011 (jr. race); 17th, 2013 (jr.)28:58/61:11/2:12:33Ran 63:36 HM in Jan.; 14th at ’14 World Half Marathon Champs
Muktar Edris7th, 2011 (jr. race); 3rd, 2013 (jr.)12:54/28:44’14 world leader at 5,000; ’12 World Junior 5k champ
Hagos Gebrhiwet1st, 2013 (jr. race)7:30/12:47’13 WC 5k silver medalist; ran 7:34 indoors last year & 13:06 outdoors
Tamirat Tolanone28:24 (road)/61:27/2:06:17Won Ethiopian trials; ran marathon pb in Dubai last year
Atsedu Tsegaynone27:28/58:474th-fastest half marathoner of all-time but best performance in ’14 was just 63:03
Edris broke out last year with a world-leading 12:54 5,000 in Stockholm

Edris broke out last year with a world-leading 12:54 5,000 in Stockholm

If you want an example of how wonky cross country can be, take a look at the results of the 2015 Jan Meda International Cross Country on February 1, Ethiopia’s World XC trials. With a field that included the fastest 5,000 runner of 2014 (Muktar Edris) the defending world silver medalist at 5,000 and world junior xc champ (Hagos Gebrhiwet), the fourth-fastest half marathoner of all-time (Atsedu Tsegay), the 2011 World XC champ/’13 silver medalist (Imane Merga) and Yenew Alamirew (five Diamond League wins between 2013 and 2014), the top two finishers were Tamirat Tola and Bonsa Dida. Neither of them are scrubs — Tola has run 2:06:17 for the marathon, while Dida was fourth in the junior race at World XC four years ago — but the fact that they took the top two spots while runners like Alamirew and Merga didn’t even make the team speaks to both the depth of Ethiopian running and the fickle nature of cross country.

A few weeks ago, we gave a slight edge to Ethiopia as they have more sub-13:00/27:00 guys (two vs. one) and more sub-60:00/2:07:00 guys (two vs. one). The Ethiopians probably still deserve to be favorites based on track/road PRs but as Tola and Dida showed at the trials, those aren’t always the best criteria for determining XC success. On their best day, Ethiopia, like Kenya, can put four in the top 10 with Tola, Dida, Gebrhiwet and Edris, which should be enough to win. The question is, how well will the track studs Gebrhiwet and Edris run in a 12K cross country race? They went 1-3 in the junior race at World XC two years ago, so theoretically they should be contending for the win on Sunday (to be honest, we thought Gebrhiwet would have contended for the senior win in 2013) even if the 12K race distance is a little longer than they’re used to. They could just as easily fall outside of the top 10 as they were only fourth and sixth at the Ethiopian trials.

Watching 5,000 specialists Gebrhiwet and Edris take on 10k/half marathon runners Karoki and Kamworor is what makes World XC great. Whichever group prevails will likely determine the team champion.

Eritrea: Can Medhin Lead Them To A Medal in 2015 Over USA?

NamePrevious World XC finishesNotable PRsComment
Goitom Kifle14th, 2009 (jr. race); 15th, 2010 (jr.); 17th, 2011 (jr.); 7th, 201313:22/27:32/60:2017th in 10k at ’13 Worlds; ran 60:20 last year in HM
Teklemariam Medhin9th, 2009; 2rd, 2010; 3rd, 201313:04/27:16Won 3 XC races in Spain in January; 7th in 10k at ’12 Olympics
Abrar Osman18th, 201313:16/28:05 (road)3rd at ’14 African Champs 5k
Hiskel Teweldenone61:38Ran HM pb on Feb. 7
Berhane Tsegaynone62:54
Tsegay Tuemay21st, 2011 (jr.), 4th, 2013 (jr.)13:20/28:13 (road)/61:147th in ’14 World Junior 5k
picture of Teklemariam Medhin

Spending two nights in an airport couldn’t stop Medhin from picking up his second World XC medal in Bydgoszcz two years ago.

Eritrea doesn’t have quite the same star power as Kenya or Ethiopia, but the East African nation of just over 6 million traditionally runs well at these championships and is led by a pair of World XC veterans in Goitom Kifle (7th in 2013) and Teklemariam Medhin (3rd). Add those two to 2014 African Champs 5,000 bronze medalist Abrar Osman and Tsegay Tuemay, who was 4th in the junior race at the last World XC and you’ve got a four-man team that should be capable of challenging for Eritrea’s third team medal in the last five editions of the championships.

Medhin is the top returner from 2013 and will be one of the favorites for the men’s individual title. Medhin’s personal bests of 13:04 and 27:16 are not that impressive, but he’s also as close to a pure cross country runner as you’re going to find in the year 2015. He won a trio of Spanish XC races in January — the latter two, in Seville and Elgoibar, were competitive IAAF Cross Country Permit events — and comes into Sunday’s race in great shape.

Here’s what he told the IAAF after his third win, in Elgoibar, on January 25:

“I think I’m in the form of my life… definitely, [World Cross Country] is my primary goal in 2015.”

Not only is he on fire in 2015, but Medhin has three times placed in the top 10 at World XC. He took silver in 2010 and bronze in 2013; a win in Guiyang would round out his medal collection nicely. That bronze was incredibly impressive as he overcame illness and sleeping in an airport for two nights (in a chair one night and on the floor another) just days before the race, earning Athlete of the Week honors from us for his efforts. You can read all about Medhin’s crazy 2013 race here.

Other Athletes to Watch

  • Uganda is the only team other than Kenya, Ethiopia or Eritrea to have an individual medalist since 2005 and that man, Moses Kipsiro, returns for his eighth World XC in 2015. In the past five editions, he’s finished 13th, 2nd, 3rd, 11th and 4th; though he was only fifth at the World’s Best 10K on March 1 (13 seconds ahead of Ben True), he’s a talented veteran with plenty of championship experience (he’s the two-time defending Commonwealth champion at 10,000). Kipsiro should certainly be in the mix once again in China.
  • Though Uganda is only sending five men (they’re allowed to enter six), it should be in medal contention in the team race. Uganda’s top three from 2013 (when it missed fourth by one point) return in Kipsiro, Timothy Toroitich and Geofrey Kusuro. We covered Kipsiro above, but Toroitich (5th in ’13) should also run in the top 10 on Sunday as he’s won four Spanish XC races this winter — one better than Teklemariam Medhin. Toroitich even beat Medhin back in November in Soria, but Medhin has beaten Toroitich in their last two races.
  • Two-time NCAA 5,000 champ David McNeill and 13:18 man Brett Robinson lead the Australian entries. Wisconsin freshman Morgan McDonald (75th at NCAA XC) is in the junior race for Australia.
  • Turkey’s Kenyan-born Polat Kemboi Arikan, who won the European XC Champs in December, will make his World XC debut. No athlete representing a European nation has medalled in the men’s senior race since Ukraine’s Sergiy Lebid in 2001. The highest European at the 2013 championships was Spain’s Sergio Sanchez in 16th (Sanchez tested positive for EPO later that year).
  • Top junior entrants include Ethiopians Yihunilign Adane (Ethiopian jr. champ and top returner from World XC in ’13) and Yasin Haji (silver in 5,000 at ’14 World Juniors), though the favorite is Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei, last year’s World Junior champion at 10,000, who has run 13:32 and 27:56. He’ll be looking to become the first non-Kenyan/Ethiopian to win the junior men’s race since 1991.

What About the Sport? Shame on Europe

While perusing the entries for the meet, we found it disappointing (if not surprising) that Turkey, which won the European XC Champs in December, is sending just one athlete — male or female, junior or senior — to the meet. That got us wondering: how many countries will be sending complete teams (six athletes in a race) to China? After reviewing the entries, here are the answers:

Junior men (13): Algeria, Australia, Canada, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Kenya, South Africa, USA
Senior men (9): Algeria, Australia, China, Eritrea, Spain, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, USA
Junior women (10): Australia, Canada, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Great Britain, Japan, Kenya, South Africa, USA
Senior women (10): Algeria, Australia, Canada, China, Spain, Ethiopia, Japan, Kenya, South Africa, USA

Only six countries will bring the maximum 24 athletes — Australia, host China, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and the USA.

So in the entire continent of Europe, not one country could manage to send the maximum 24 athletes. Only Spain will enter a full senior team of either gender.

That’s embarrassing.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again — sending full teams only when you’re convinced you can win a medal is the wrong mindset. Look at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. We’re pretty sure that none of the players on 14-seed Georgia State thought they had a legitimate chance to make the Final Four. But they showed up in Jacksonville for their second-round game last week anyway, and this happened:

Yes, the comparison doesn’t quite work (the NCAA pays for teams’ travel while national governing bodies would have to cover the cost to China), but it’s not good when the top European nations (save Spain) are content with simply competing amongst each other rather than taking on the world’s best. The IAAF should offer to pay travel costs for the top three European teams to World XC. A better solution might be to mandate their participation if they want to host Worlds or the Olympics. But what’s the point of holding a World Cross Country Championships if an entire continent chooses not to take it seriously?

Cross country is the heart and soul of distance running and that’s why LetsRun.com is spending a small fortune to get itself to Guiyang, China to cover it live for you.

Youth Movement

The team competition looks as if it will really be two races: Kenya vs. Ethiopia for gold and Eritrea vs. Uganda vs. the USA for bronze (we’ll analyze the Americans’ medal chances later this week). In examining the top two teams, Kenya and Ethiopia, two things stand out: 1) how young the athletes are; 2) how much turnover there is on each team.

The first point obviously needs to be taken with a grain of salt. African athletes have a huge incentive to lie about their ages as it’s way more impressive to a potential agent or sponsor to have run 13:15 at age 18 versus age 20. So it’s very possible that not all of the following ages are accurate. But consider the following:

  • Edward Cheserek (born February 1994) is officially older than Ethiopia’s Hagos Gebrhiwet (born May 1994). Before Cheserek had even entered the NCAA, Gebrhiwet had already won a silver medal at the World Championships on the track. Without a doubt, we know of people who have doubts about both of their ages but it’s something to consider.
  • The average age of the American team is 26.2 years old. Maksim Korolev, at 23, is the youngest member of the team. He’s still in college, at Stanford in grad school (after graduating from Harvard). If he were on the Kenyan team, he’d be one of the older runners: the average age of its team is 22.8. And compared to the Ethiopians, Korolev is ancient. Ethiopia’s average age of its senior men’s team is 21.5; its oldest runner, Tamirat Tola, turned 23 in August.
  • Since 30-year-old Mohammed Mourhit (who was one of the first athletes to be banned for EPO) won the senior men’s long race in 2001, no one over the age of 25 has won the senior men’s race. It makes sense: young athletes use World XC to raise their profile before chasing riches on the track or roads. But it’s a reminder that on the world stage, cross country is very much a young man’s game.

That final point also helps explain some of the year-to-year turnover the top teams experience. Check out the top five teams from the last championships and how many athletes from that team made the team for the next World XC (in parentheses).

2013
1. Ethiopia (1)
2. USA (2)
3. Kenya (0)
4. Eritrea (3)
5. Uganda (3)

2011
1. Kenya (1)
2. Ethiopia (2)
3. Uganda (2)
4. Eritrea (1)
5. South Africa (0)

2010
1. Kenya (2)
2. Eritrea (3)
3. Ethiopia (3)
4. Uganda (3)
5. Morocco (2)

Some turnover is to be expected, especially now that there is two years between each World XC. But it shows you just how hard it is to make some of these teams — and how much more unpredictable cross country is than track. The top finisher for each of the three podium teams at World XC in 2013 — Japhet Korir of Kenya, Imane Merga of Ethiopia and Ben True of the USA — each ran his country’s World XC trials this year. None of them made the team despite their heroics two years ago.

What to Expect

We’ll have a report on the course (map) conditions and weather later in the week (currently the forecast in Guiyang calls for a high of 70 on Saturday with a low of 54 and thunderstorms in the forecast). For now, we have Ethiopia as a narrow favorite over Kenya for gold. There’s no clear favorite in the individual race, but we like Eritrea’s Teklemariam Medhin, who has been unbeatable in 2015 and has two medals in the past three editions of this race. Each of the top teams has contenders for the medals though — Bedan Karoki and Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya; Tamirat Tola, Bonsa Dida, Muktar Edris and Hagos Gebrhiwet from Ethiopia; Moses Kipsiro and Timothy Toroitich from Uganda; Chris Derrick from the USA and Polat Kemboi Arikan From Turkey.


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