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LetsRun.com Goes To Amman
An Analysis Of German Fernandez's Medal Prospects In The Boys Junior Race

History Says Fernandez Will Have His Hands Full
March 25, 2009

By Robert Johnson

Let's be honest here. While we're trying not to incite the hype around German Fernandez to even more ridiculous levels, the fact of the matter is there is probably no chance I'd be in Amman covering World XC if it weren't due to our excitement about seeing how German Fernandez and the US junior men perform.

The question is: Does Fernandez have a chance to medal?

Junior Men's Analysis
Americans in recent years have yawned at World XC as many of America's top talents have skipped the meet to focus on other events. Not this year. The great news is that one of America's best talents is here in German Fernandez and World XC is obviously a huge priority for him, as he just skipped NCAAs to get ready for this race The better news is he is still a junior so his medal prospects are at least in the realm of theoretical possibilities.

The question (rephrased) is: How realistic are those possibilities?

Fans need to realize the simple math says they are very unlikely. In the 24 years since 1985, American Dathan Ritzenhein is the only non-African to win a medal on the junior boys side. It's actually been easier for a non-African to win a medal in the senior men's race, as four non-African born people have medalled since 1985 with Portugal's Paul Arpin in 1987 (bronze), Britain's Tim Hutchings in 1989 (silver), Portugal's Paula Guerra in 1999 (bronze) and the Ukraine's Sergey Lebid in 2001 (silver).

Africans Mature Early
Whether it's the fact that African runners advance at an earlier age or perhaps discrepancies in birth certificates or more likely a combination of both, the fact is that the African runners are truly very advanced at a very early age. For example, Kenenisa Bekele won the junior title in 2001 and then came back and won the first of 5 straight senior titles in 2002. Similarly, Kenya's Leonard Komon was 4th in the juniors in 2007 and then took 2nd in the seniors in 2008. 2007 junior champion Asbel Kiprop could have run in the junior meet last year but he ended up getting the Olympic 1,500 silver instead. The junior world records at 3k 7:28.79, 5k (12:52.61), and 10k (26:41.75) are all significantly better than the US overall records.


Will German Be Smiling on Saturday?

Further supporting this point is the fact that at the age of 22, Tariku Bekele is the 2nd oldest member of the senior Ethiopian squad.

So the stats say it's going to be tough and that only the very best American seniors would probably have a shot at medaling in the junior race. But general stats are meaningless. Who is German's big competition?

The junior men's race appears to have a "clear favourite" according to the IAAF in 18-year-old Ethiopian Ayele Abshero. This guy ran 29:21 for 10k in 2007 at the Great Ethiopia Run at altitude in Ethiopia. Last year, he got the silver in the junior XC race and then went on to run 13:35 for 5k last summer in Berlin.

Big deal you say? Yes, American junior Chris Derrick did run 13:44 indoors on January 30th but he didn't defeat some of the finest runners on the world in January like Abshero did. On January 11th, Abshero crushed the last two silver medallists from the senior race in Moses Mosop and Leonard Komon in Elgoibar, Spain. A week later, he was 6th in the Seville IAAF meet - only 12 seconds behind Moses Kipsiro and Tariku Bekele, who have shots at a medal in the senior race.

So it certainly looks like Abshero is going to be basically impossible to beat if he's on top of his game.

Looking At The Kenyans
As for the Kenyans, the good news is not a whole lot was known about most of them. Additionally, the Kenyan junior trials were fairly close as 1st through 5th finished less than 7 seconds apart. Optimists might take that as meaning there isn't one Kenyan who is leaps and bounds better than anyone. Below, we'll list the known track PRs of the guys that finished 1st through 4th and 6th at the Kenyan junior Trials.

1. John Kemboi (25:22.9 at Trials) - No known track PRs.
2. Paul Tanui (25:23.6 at Trials) - No known track PRs.
3. Japhet Korir (25:25.9 at Trials) - 14:11.39 for 3rd at Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008.
4. John Chekpwony (25:29.3 at Trials) - No known track PRs.
6. Charles Chepkurui (25:35.1 at Trials) - No known track PRs.

So the fact that 5 of the top 6 from the Kenyan trials have been listed probably means German Fernandez fans are probably getting real excited now. You're thinking, "The Kenyans are down!!! The Kenyans are down!!! The Kenyans are down!!!"

But the more rational fan might be saying, "Wait a minute, why did he skip #5."

And there is the problem. Titus Mbishei, who was 5th in 25:29.5 at the Kenyan Trials, ran 7:50.23, 13:27.65 and 27:31.65 last year. No chance in hell Fernandez could have run any of those times last year.

And while we don't know much about John Kemboi Cheruiyot other than the fact that he's the best in Kenya we do know that he trains at times with 2006 senior World Cross runner-up  Isaac Songok and Commonwealth 5000m champion Augustine Choge. That says a lot.


Will The Africans Make Fernandez Squirm In Pain?

And take the 14:11.39 run by Japhet Korir at the Commonwealth Games. That was a sprint finish which was won by Uganda's Moses Kibet in 14:10.89. Kibet ran 8:05.04 for 3k last year which is nothing to sneeze about (The second placer from the Commonwealth Youth Games last year is also Ugandan in Dickson Huru and he's also running in Amman).

So what does it all mean? It means all of the Kenyans on paper can't be ignored. The fact that all but one don't have big-time track times to their names doesn't necessarily mean much, as being the Trials champ was enough to vault Kiprop to stardom in 2007.

Looking at the other Ethiopians besides the favorite Abshero, Yetwale Kende was the runner-up at the Ethiopian champs. Last year, he ran 8:06.00 and 14:03.29. Don't think for a minute that the 14:03 is indicative of his maximal ability, as that was run in the Berlin Golden League meet, which was the fastest on the planet last year and won in 12:50. If his agent thinks he's good to run in Berlin, he's certainly super-talented.

As with the Kenyans, it appears that there is quality all the way down the line for the Ethiopians, however, as Legese Lamiso was only 6th in their Trials. Last year, he ran 8:30 for the steeple and 13:53. The year before that, he was the World Youth champion in the steeple.

Fernandez Catches A Big Break
Fernandez's medal hopes did get a big boost by the fact that many of the top juniors eligible to return from last year aren't entered in the race. Seven of the top 15 were eligible to return based on age but only two of those seven are here are here in Abshero (2nd) and Mbishei (5th).

Third-placer Lucas Rotich didn't make the Kenyan team nor did 7th-placer Peter Some nor 15th-placer Charles Kibet.

More significant is the fact that last year's 9th placer, Amanuel Mesel of Eritrea, who has a 13:25 PR to his name, isn't running.

But the biggest break of all is the fact that the Ethiopians opted to run Feyisa Lilesa in the senior race even though he's only 19. Lilesa was only 14th last year but he's a total stud. His PRs are 13:34.80, 27:46.80 and 62:26 (half marathon). Plus he just got 2nd in the Ethiopian senior trials. It's basically a certainty he'd have at least medalled had he run in the junior race since he might medal in the senior race, so this development is huge.

There are other African-born athletes in the field whom we couldn't find any info on, including three from Bahrain, four from Uganda and six from Eritrea and the Sudan. Morocco also has six in the field and it's known that Youssef Nasir has run 29:19 and Adil Rachid 13:47.

What About The Non-Africans?
Looking at the non-Africans, the biggest competition that Fernandez may face in Amman as he "goes for a medal in the fans' eyes" may very well come from his own teammates in Chris Derrick and Luke Puskedra. Remember last fall, people were wondering whether Fernandez could somehow win the NCAA cross-country and in the end, he ended up as a DNF as Oregon's Puskeda and Stanford's Derrick ended up in the top 10.

Of the two, Derrick has looked the best this winter as he was the runner-up to Fernandez at USAs and he pulled off a nice double at NCAAs when he was 4th in the 5k and 5th in the 3k after running the 13:44 that we mentioned earlier. Puskedra has run 13:46 and was 6th at NCAAs in the 5k.

The IAAF has rightly made a lot of the juniors from Australia. But the fact of the matter is their star in Ryan Gregson has zero chance of medalling. His 3:37 is insane and basically equivalent to Fernandez's 3:55 mile, but Gregson himself admitted he was shocked he was able to run that fast given he's coming back from a stress fracture. He's more of a middle distance runner and he's coming back from a stress fracture. Not a good combination. The fact that he only ran 13:56.83 at their national champs for 5k proves he's not fit enough to contend in Amman. The truth is Gregson won't hold a torch to Fernandez in Amman.

The runner-up at the Australian trials, Richard Everest, has run 13:49 and 8:00 and, considering he was only 5 seconds behind Gregson at the Australian Trials, he might actually be Australia's top finisher.

Looking at non-Africans not from Australia, Japanese prodigy Hirotaka Tamura can't be totally ignored as a top 10 threat. Even though he just turned 17 a little over three months ago, he was 20th last year as a 16-year-old. 20th was 5 spots ahead of Fernandez and Tamura's track PR is only 3:47.

The stats are definitely stacked against Fernandez. But if you are optimist, he did catch a good break as many of the top potential returnees aren't in the field, including Eritrea's 13:25 runner Amanuel Mesel and, more importantly, Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa, who is in the senior race as the Ethiopians are a bit thin in that race.

Regardless, the fact of the matter is for Fernandez to have any chance of medaling, he'll have to run really, really well.

But What About Fernandez Himself?
The fact that Fernandez popped a 3:55.02 solo mile is insane. The fact that he could come back a few hours later and run 7:57 is very impressive. But Fernandez last year proved that he's amazingly good at running by himself and doubling on the same day. That by no means assures he will medal in Amman.

Given the fact that Fernandez failed to win the 2008 Foot Locker High School championships and given the fact that even if he had not been injured at NCAAs in XC, he might not have been the top freshman at NCAAs; the fact of the matter is Fernandez hasn't proven himself to a top notch XC racer or a top notch racer in a real crowded race with a ton of contenders.

Yes, he destroyed people at the California state meet last year but he didn't win Foot Locker. Yes, he destroyed two very good runners in Puskedra and Derrick at USAs, but we have no idea if they were going all out, do we? Yes, he destroyed everyone at Big 12s with a fantastic double, but none of those guys even really made NCAAs and didn't Fernandez do that at Big 12s in XC, kick-starting the ridiculous hype at NCAAs?

When I was talking to Dave Smith, Fernandez's coach, after NCAAs about Fernandez's injury, he indicated to me that while Fernandez loves XC way more than track, the stats so far indicate that he's a better track runner than XC. I have to agree.

Is he really a top notch XC guy? We'll start to find out on Saturday.

Rojo's Final Overall Take: I'd be the first to admit there is no chance I'd be here in Amman if Fernandez wasn't here, but the facts state that Fernandez faces a huge challenge if he is going to medal. I think Dave Smith talking about a top-15 finish as being the goal is very smart even if that's lower than where I think he'll finish.

(Editor's Note: Dave Smith has told RunnersWorld Fernandez has a "stress reaction" and has been training on an Alter G treadmill. Message board thread here)

People need to remember Fernandez was only 25th in the junior champs last year and some 1:13 away from medaling. Fernandez is much improved this year, but that's a lot of ground to make up.

An honest analysis of the odds would state that his chances of medaling might be about the same as the chances he gets beaten by Puskedra or Derrick. What percentage is that? I have no idea. I just know that every time I lower expectations for Galen Rupp's performances, he surprises me. Let's hope that Fernandez does the same on Saturday.

PS - As for an actual prediction, I might make one before the race, but I want to talk to the Kenyan press first.

  

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