2015 World Cross-Country Women’s Preview: Kenyan Women Try To Win For The Fifth Straight Time

By LetsRun.com
March 25, 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.

Here’s our look at the top women’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


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

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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.

In our men’s preview, we noted how Kenya and Ethiopia traditionally excel in the senior men’s race at World XC. Well their dominance is even more pronounced on the women’s side. Kenya and Ethiopia have gone 1-2 in some order in the women’s senior race in 17 of the last 18 championships dating back to 1995. Only the U.S. in 2002 broke up the streak, taking silver on the strength of a 2-3 finish by Deena Kastor and Colleen de Reuck. So, as we did in our men’s preview, we will start with those two nations (we’ll have a separate preview of Team USA later this week).

Kenya: Shooting for a Fifth Straight Title

Name Previous World XC finishes Notable PRs Comment
Emily Chebet 5th 2003 (jr. race); 1st 2010; 1st 2013 14:46/30:47/68:01 Medals in 10k at African Champs/Commonwealths last year, but only 14th at Kenyan trials
Irene Cheptai 2nd 2008 (jr.); 7th 2013 14:50/31:45 (road) 4th at Kenyan trials
Agnes Tirop 2nd 2013 (jr.) 8:39/14:50 Two-time World Junior 5k medalist was 2nd at Kenyan trials
Margaret Chelimo Kipkemboi none 2:07/4:23 (1500) All-Athletics.com shows no results since 2012 (7th at Kenyan trials)
Janet Kisa 5th 2011 (jr.); 6th 2013 8:32/14:52 Commonwealth silver & African bronze at 5k in ’14
Stacy Ndiwa none 8:30/15:15 6th at Kenyan trials
Chebet will go for title #3 on Saturday in Guiyang Chebet will go for title #3 on Saturday in Guiyang

There is good news and bad news for Team Kenya. The good news is that they return three of their top five runners from the 2013 squad that easily won the team title, 19-48 over Ethiopia. The bad news is that the 2015 Kenyan XC champion, Faith Kipyegon, will not be running in China due to injury and defending World XC champ Emily Chebet is trending in the wrong direction. Chebet appeared in great form earlier this year, defeating World 5,000 silver medalist Mercy Cherono by 19 seconds at an IAAF Cross Country Permit race in Seville on January 18. But she was upset by Bahrain’s Mimi Belete in Elgoibar the following week and wound up just 14th at the Kenyan XC trials on February 14, only making it onto the team as a wildcard selection.

Going from 14th in Kenya to first in the world in six weeks is a big jump, but Chebet has made significant improvements between the Kenyan trials and Worlds in the past. When she won her first World XC title in 2010, she was just fifth at the Kenyan trials; title #2 came after a fourth-place finish at the Kenyan trials. Fourteenth is obviously a lot worse than fifth and fourth (places that earned her an auto-spot on the team), but Chebet has proven she knows how to peak correctly in the past. In addition to her two World XC titles, she won medals in the 10k at last year’s African Champs and Commonwealth Games and finished fourth in the 10k at 2013 Worlds.

We do wonder if altitude has anything to do with Chebet’s struggles at the Kenyan XC trials. Both her World XC victories came at sea level and she ran well in her two Spanish XC races this season (first and second) prior to the Kenyan trials. Right now, it’s still correlation and not causation, but if she struggles in Guiyang (elevation: 4,183 feet) on Saturday, it’s more evidence that she may not handle altitude well.

Even if Chebet doesn’t win the race (a victory would make her the fifth three-time winner of the women’s senior long race, joining Tirunesh DibabaDerartu TuluLynn Jennings and Grete Waitz), the Kenyan team is still formidable. Janet Kisa, like Chebet, won medals at the African Champs and Commonwealth Games last summer on the track and was sixth at World XC in 2013. Agnes Tirop took bronze at World Juniors in the 5,000 in 2012 and 2014 and was second at the Kenyan trials, while Irene Cheptai has run 14:50 (one of four Kenyans under 14:53) and was seventh in 2013. All four have a shot at a top-five finish on Saturday.

Margaret Chelimo Kipkemboi and Stacy Ndiwa are both relatively unproven, but between Chebet, Kisa, Tirop and Cheptai, Kenya has a four-woman team capable of winning another title. Should one of them falter, however, Kenya is vulnerable, leaving the door open for the Ethiopians.

Ethiopia: Searching for First Gold Since 2008

Name Previous World XC finishes Notable PRs Comment
Mamitu Daska 12th 2009; 8th 2010 66:28/2:21:59 Great year on the roads in ’14; ran 66:28 for 2nd at RAK Half on Feb. 13
Netsanet Gudeta none 68:45 6th at World Half Marathon Champs last year
Alemitu Heroye 3rd 2013 (jr. race) 8:36/14:52 ’14 World Junior Champ at 5000
Belaynesh Oljira 10th 2011; 3rd 2013 14:58/30:26/67:27 ’13 WC bronze medalist at 10k won World’s Best 10K on March 1
Senbere Teferi none 4:04/8:41 ’12 World Junior bronze medalist at 1500 ran 8:46 for 3k on Feb. 21
Genet Yalew 5th 2010 (jr.); 2nd 2011 (jr.); 15th 2013 14:48/31:47 (road)/69:14 Won second straight Ethiopian XC title in February
Oljira was third two years ago and will look to improve on that performance in Guiyang Oljira was third two years ago and will look to improve on that performance in Guiyang

Ethiopia’s 48 points in 2013 was its highest total since 2001. The Ethiopian team is loaded with talent, so expect a much lower score (10s or 20s) this time around. At the 2013 World XC meet, Ethiopia finished a distant second to Kenya despite going 2-3 as its fourth finisher, Sule Utura, was only 28th, dooming any chances for gold (Kenya scored a total of 19). How rare was it for Ethiopia’s #4 to finish 28th? Consider that from 2002-2011, Ethiopia’s highest team score (four runners) was 29.

Ethiopia’s top woman in 2013, Hiwot Ayalew (our #1 steeplechaser in the world last year) is focusing on the steeple in 2015 but the 2013 bronze medalist, Belaynesh Oljira (who also won bronze in the 10k at Worlds later that year) is back. Mamitu Daska cleaned up on the roads last year (first or second in eight of her nine road races) and has already run 66:28 for the half marathon in 2015. Netsanet Gudeta was sixth at the World Half Marathon Championships last year and Alemitu Heroye won World Junior gold at 5,000. Oljira, Daska, Gudeta and Heroye is a gold-medal caliber squad on its own; add in 14:48 5k performer Genet Yalew, who won her second straight Ethiopian XC title last month, and the Ethiopians have top-end talent and superior depth to the Kenyans. Oljira (won World’s Best 10K), Daska (66:28 half) and Yalew (won Ethiopian XC Champs) have each already posted a very impressive result in 2015; any one of the three could wind up as the individual champion.

The team race offers a pair of compelling narratives. Kenya vs. Ethiopia is the obvious one, but what’s more interesting is how each team is constructed. Kenya’s squad consists mostly of track runners focused on the 5,000/10,000. Emily Chebet and Janet Kisa are the only members of the team to have run a half marathon (and Kisa has only done one, running 71:01) while Agnes Tirop and Margaret Kipkemboi have never run a road race of any kind. In contrast, four of the six women on the Ethiopian team have run half marathons; in fact, Mamitu Daska and Belaynesh Oljira both completed marathons last year. All-Athletics.com doesn’t list a single track race in Netsanet Gudeta’s career, either. The only two members of the Ethiopian team that remain focused on the shorter distances on the track are Alemitu Heroye and Senbere Teferi, which makes sense since each of them is only 19 years old.

We’ll find out which approach to team-building works better on Saturday, but right now we’ll give the edge to the Ethiopians. They’ve got three in-form runners in Daska, Oljira and Yalew and are a more decorated team overall than Kenya. Still, it will take a big performance to take down the Kenyans, who have dominated this meet recently. In the last four editions of the championships, Kenya has scored 14, 14, 15 and 19 points; the first three totals also happen to be the three lowest senior women’s scores in the history of the championships (a perfect score is 10 points).

Other Women of Note

  • 10 of the top 11 finishers at 2013 World XC represented Kenya, Ethiopia or Bahrain. We covered the first two countries above, and Bahrain isn’t sending a senior women’s team this year. The other woman in the top 11 was ninth-placed Juliet Chekwel, who won the Ugandan championships by 27 seconds last month. Her track PRs (15:43 and 32:57) are modest, but she’s got experience (this will be her third World XC meet).
  • A European-born woman hasn’t placed in the top 10 of the long race at World XC since Paula Radcliffe won the race in 2002. The best hope to end that drought is European champ Gemma Steel of Great Britain, who was fifth at the World’s Best 10K in Puerto Rico earlier this month. Even though the Brits won Euro XC in December, they’re only sending two senior women to Guiyang — not enough to even score as a team.
  • Morocco’s Salima El Ouali Alami has moved up in each of her appearances at World XC, going from 34th in 2009 to 28th in 2010 and 12th in 2013. The steeplechase specialist (9:21 pb) will look to crack the top 10 for the first time on Saturday.
  • The hometown favorite will be China’s Ding Chanqin, a Guiyang native who took second in the Asian games 10k last year. We don’t like her chances though considering she ran a 2:26 marathon on Sunday.
  • The oldest woman in the race will be Spain’s 40-year-old Jacqueline Martin, who will be running World XC for the 14th (!!!) time. Her first one was the junior race in Boston in 1992, in which marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe and 1996 Olympic 5,000 gold medalist Wang Junxia went 1-2. Martin is 78 years older than the second-oldest woman, the U.S.’s Jen Rhines. Martin isn’t the oldest competitor in the meet. That would be 41-year-old Shadrack Hoff who will run in the men’s race for South Africa.
  • On the other end of the age spectrum, look for a Kenyan or Ethiopian woman to take home the individual crown in the junior race as those two nations have accounted for 47 of the 48 individual medals in that race since 1997. That is an amazing stat.  Letesenbet Gidey won the Ethiopian trials while Kenya is led by Rosefline Chepngetich, the World Junior runner-up/Youth Olympic champion in the steeplechase who is the top returner from the junior race two years ago (seventh). Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet — who defeated Chepngetich to win World Junior gold in the steeple last year and later ran 9:20 in Zurich — has a shot to break up Kenya/Ethiopia’s stranglehold on the medals, though it should be noted that she was born in Kenya.
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