2017 World XC Champs Senior Women’s Preview: A Comically Loaded Kenyan Team Should Roll, Can Alice Aprot Win Worlds Like Her Brother?

By LetsRun.com
March 24, 2017

KAMPALA, Uganda — In 2007, when the IAAF World Cross Country Championships were held in Kenya, LetsRun.com went and the result was one of the wildest sporting events we’ve ever attended. After a 10-year wait, World XC returns to Africa on Sunday as Kampala, Uganda, hosts the world’s hardest race to win. And we’re pleased to be on site to cover it for you once again.

In all, 557 athletes from 60 countries are expected to run in the Ugandan capital, the largest contingent since 2006. There are also some changes in store: the IAAF is leading the way in gender equity as both the men’s and women’s senior races will now be 10 kilometers (the men used to be 12k/women 8k), and for the first time there will be a mixed-gender, 4 x 2k relay featuring Asbel Kiprop and Genzebe Dibaba, among others.

We’re on-site in Kampala this week to give you updates on the course (the course has a crazy man-made pit a man made hill, plus some hills with 90 degree turns, course preview here) and the top American and international pros, but before we get to that, we have to preview the races. We already took a look at the senior men; here is our take on the women.

What: 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships

When: Sunday, March 26, 2017

Where: Kololo Independence Grounds, Kampala, Uganda (The Course is Tough, Video Preview and Photo Gallery of it here)


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Mixed 4 x 2K relay: 2:00 p.m. local/7:00 a.m. ET
Women’s U20 6K race: 2:30 p.m. local/7:30 a.m. ET
Men’s U20 8K race: 3:10 p.m. local/8:10 a.m. ET
Women’s senior 10K race: 3:55 p.m. local/8:55 a.m. ET
Men’s senior 10K race: 4:55 p.m. local/9:55 a.m. ET

How to watch / listen: If you live in the UK, you can watch it live on BBC Red Button or if you have a UK IP address, you can watch the race live online via the BBC. In the U.S., the races will be streamed on NBC Sports’ website on tape delay, with coverage beginning at 12:25 p.m. ET. We do not know of a (legal) live stream in the U.S, but are sure you will be able to follow the race on our fan forum / messageboard and likely will find a link to a stream to watch from there.

The IAAF will also have a live radio broadcast (active during competition sessions) of the championships as well as live results and a live blog (active during competition sessions). 

Entries * Official site * Local organizing committee site * 2015 LRC World XC coverage

Important note: Kampala sits at modest elevation (3,900 feet). But since most of the top runners are based at elevation, that shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Another thing to keep in mind: it’s going to be HOT. The races will be held on Sunday afternoon, and the current forecast calls for a high of 78 degrees on Sunday. Plus it’s going to rain, which could lead to a very muddy course by the time the senior races go off (though those clouds could shield runners from the hot Ugandan sun). Just as the U.S. men produced a shock silver by deftly navigating cold, muddy conditions in 2013, we could see some surprising results if athletes struggle in the conditions. Remember, last time World XC was held in Africa, five-time defending champ Kenenisa Bekele dropped out of the race due to the oppressive heat. This year won’t be hot like that but the heat should be a factor.

Kenya and Ethiopia have ruled the men’s race for years, but their dominance is even more pronounced on the women’s side: they’ve gone 1-2 in some order in the last 11 editions of the meet. We don’t expect that to change on Sunday as the Kenyan squad is totally loaded and the Ethiopian women definitely look to be #2 on paper.

Kenya: Just Hand Them the Gold Medal Now

Name Previous World XC finishes Notable PRs Comment
Irene Cheptai 7th, 2015; 10th, 2013; 2nd, 2008 (jr. race) 14:43 3-for-3 in XC races this year and won Kenyan trials
Lilian Kasait Rengeruk none 8:53/16:04 ’13 World Youth champ + ’14 World Junior runner-up at 3k. 2nd at Kenyan trials
Faith Kipyegon 1st, 2013 (jr. race); 1st, 2011 (jr. race); 4th, 2010 (jr. race) 3:56/8:23/14:31 Olympic 1500 champ is a good XC runner but is 10k too long for her?
Alice Aprot 9th, 2010 (jr. race) 14:39/29:53 4th in Olympic 10k last year, running 5th fasetest time ever; 4th at Kenyan trials, brother of 2010 World XC Champ Joseph Ebuya
Agnes Tirop 1st, 2015; 2nd, 2013 (jr. race) 14:50 Defending champ was 3rd behind Obiri + Kipyegon at Campaccio but only 5th at Kenyan trials
Hyvin Kiyeng none 9:00 steeple Olympic steeple silver medallist was 6th at Kenyan trials
Can Kipyegon complete the Olympic-World XC double? Can Kipyegon complete the Olympic-World XC double?

Holy cow is this team stacked. You’ve got the Olympic 1500 champion (Faith Kipyegon), the Olympic steeple silver medallist (Hyvin Kiyeng), and the fifth-fastest 10,000 runner of all time (Alice Aprot). You’ve also got the defending champion (Agnes Tirop) and it’s quite possible none of them could finish as Kenya’s #1 runner as Irene Cheptai is undefeated this year and won the Kenyan champs back on February 18. It’s not inconceivable that Kenya could become the first country to sweep the medals. That outcome is unlikely — 2015 silver medallist Senbere Teferi could well win the whole thing this year — but that it’s even on the table is a testament to the talent on this Kenyan squad.

Let’s begin with Cheptai, the Kenyan champion. She’s run well in all three of her previous World XC appearances and this year she won the Kenyan trials. Of course, recent history has shown that to be more of a curse than a blessing when it comes to an athlete’s finish at World XC. But at the very least, Cheptai is a reliable veteran who can be counted on for a top-10 finish. Aprot is a monster, winning the Kenyan Prisons Champs in January on the heels of African and All-African 10,000 titles in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Kipyegon is the most talented woman in the entire field, and though her best distance is 1500 meters, she’s run a stellar 14:31 for 5k and was a two-time World Junior champ in cross country. She’s more than held her own this winter (2nd Campaccio, 3rd Kenyan Champs).

It is uncommon for the Olympic 1500 champ to run World XC, doubly so now that the distance has been moved up to 10,000 meters. Could you imagine Matthew Centrowitz flying to Uganda to run World XC? But Kipyegon has run cross country for years, including last winter, when she won both of her races. Kipyegon’s agent Valentijn Trouw said that she believes in using the winter for improving her endurance and doesn’t want to stress herself with tough speed work before it is necessary. He also said that Kipyegon’s endurance is so good that he believes the 23-year-old will be a successful marathoner one day.

“What we see in training and her mentality, she is ready to go for the 10k,” Trouw said. “Of course, as a 1500 runner, the 10k is a bit far but she’s done some wonderful long runs…The goal will be minimum a medal and hoping to be in the mix fighting for the gold.”

Though Kiyeng is a brilliant steeplechaser, she was only sixth at the Kenyan Trials and does not have a distinguished cross country background. She probably won’t be a big factor on Sunday. The other two women on the roster might be, however. Rengeruk was second at the Kenyan champs, and though her PRs aren’t great, her accomplishments (World Youth champ, World Junior silver) suggest that she’s capable of much more. The final member of the squad is the defending world champion, Agnes Tirop, but her 2017 form suggests that she’ll struggle to retain her crown — she was third at Campaccio but only fifth at the Kenyan champs. Moreover, she hasn’t shown any signs of improvement since her 2015 victory, and while you don’t necessarily need to improve when you’re starting from #1 in the world, Tirop is at an age (21) where we’d expect a breakout win to be followed by some serious PRs on the track. That hasn’t happened, as her 1500, 3k and 5k PRs all date from 2013; in fact, she hasn’t broken 15:00 since then.

Kenya’s presumptive top three of Aprot, Cheptai and Kipyegon looks unstoppable, but if the Kenyans are to win a fifth title in six years, they’ll need one out of Kiyeng, Rengeruk and Tirop to come through for them in Kampala. Chances are that happens, but if not, the door could be left open for…

Ethiopia: The Only Country With a Chance to Beat Kenya

Name Previous World XC finishes Notable PRs Comment
Gebeyanesh Ayele none 70:21/2:34:07 6th at Xiamen Marathon on Jan. 2 (2:34)
Dera Dida 2nd, 2015 (jr. race) 14:42/68:06 20-year-old was 2nd in jr race in ’15; coming off nice debut HM in Houston (68:06); also won Ethiopian champs
Sentayehu Lewetegn none 9:02/15:06 6th at Ethiopian champs
Zerfie Limeneh 14th, 2015 (jr. race) 15:49 7th at African junior XC champs last year; 4th at Ethiopian champs
Belaynesh Oljira 9th, 2015; 3rd, 2013; 10th, 2011 14:42/30:26 Ran 30:50 last year, but that was only good for 7th at Ethiopian Olympic Trials
Senbere Teferi 2nd, 2015 14:29/30:40 5th Olympic 5k, WC silver in ’15; has won both of her XC races in ’17

Ethiopia is 3/4 of the way to challenging Kenya. They’ve got two studs in Senbere Teferi and Belaynesh Oljira and a potential breakout star in 20-year-old Dera Dida, who was second in the junior race two years ago and won the Ethiopian title in February. But you need four runners to win World XC. More accurately, you need four studs if you’re hoping to beat this year’s loaded Kenyan squad.

And right now, it’s hard to see where that fourth stud is going to come from. Gebeyanesh Ayele was third at the Ethiopian champs, but she’s never broken 70:00 for the half or 2:34 for the full marathon. Sentayehu Lewetegn has never broken 9:00 or 15:00 and snuck onto the Ethiopian team by finishing sixth at the trials. Zerfie Limeneh‘s best time on the track is 15:49; she was seventh at the African junior XC champs last year, but it’s a long way from that result to top 10 in the world. And one of those three women has to finish no lower than 10th for Ethiopia to have a chance. Even that may not be enough. Check out this stat:

Year Winning team Winning score 4th scorer
2015 Ethiopia 17 8th
2013 Kenya 19 7th
2011 Kenya 15 7th
2010 Kenya 14 6th
2009 Kenya 14 7th
2008 Ethiopia 18 9th
2007 Ethiopia 19 10th
2006 Ethiopia 16 7th
2005 Ethiopia 16 8th

That’s right — no winning team has scored more than 19 points since 2004, nor have they had a single finisher outside the top 10. It makes sense — World XC is essentially a dual meet between Ethiopia and Kenya every year, and if you don’t have four in the top 10 in a dual meet, you’re almost certainly going to lose.

The Kenyans definitely have a few question marks on their roster, but even if one of its studs falters, their depth is still better than the Ethiopians’. The Ethiopians’ only hope is that the Kenyans wilt in the heat. Multiple DNFs or heat-related meltdowns are enough to doom any team, even one as talented as Kenya. Or somehow Ethiopia has to go 1-2 (or preferably 1-2-3) and hope that their fourth finisher runs the race of her life.

Ethiopia has a better chance of winning individual gold — likely in the form of Teferi — than team gold, and that would be an achievement in and of itself as no non-Kenyan has won since Tirunesh Dibaba in 2008.

The Americans: Super Slim Chance for a Medal

Name Previous World XC finishes Notable PRs Comment
Elaina Balouris 64th, 2015 9:09/15:45/32:27 William & Mary grad was 11th at US 15K champs on March 11; did not qualify for Olympic Trials in ’16
Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton 9th, 2005 (jr. race) 15:18/31:54/69:16 US champ was 6th at US 15K champs
Stephanie Bruce none 15:49/32:14 Came back from giving birth twice to make first World XC team at age 33
Sarah Pagano none 15:26/32:16 5th at USA XC; also 9th at Great Edinburgh XC and 2nd at Club Cross
Emily Pritt 44th, 2009 (jr. race) 9:31/16:23 Unsponsored athlete surprisingly made team after three women ahead of her scratched
Natosha Rogers none 15:28/31:59 2012 NCAA 10k champ/Olympic Trials runner-up was 5th at US 15K champs

In a typical year, the United States has a much greater chance of a team medal in the women’s race than the men’s.

This is not a typical year.

Aliphine Tuliamuk wins the 2016 USA 5-K Championships in Providence, R.I. (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly) Aliphine Tuliamuk wins the 2016 USA 5-K Championships in Providence, R.I. (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)

Let’s start with the history: in 11 of the last 12 editions of this meet, the U.S. women have finished higher than the men. No doubt the U.S. had some strong women’s squads during that time, but they were greatly aided by the fact that men’s running is more advanced globally, in part because women in other countries aren’t always afforded the support and opportunities that they are in American. And if the U.S. were sending its strongest possible women’s team, they still might have had a chance to outperform the men in Kampala.

However, this is far from an American A team. Half of the top eight finishers at USA XC declined their spots on the team, either due to marathon prep (Kellyn TaylorLaura ThweattLiz Costello) or to focus on track (Courtney Frerichs). And it’s not as if the field at USAs was bursting with studs to begin with: Frerichs was the lone Olympian in the field, and as we mentioned, she’s not running this weekend. The warm conditions forecast don’t help, either.

While we applaud the women that are going for taking the chance to represent their country, there’s no way around it: the Americans are going to struggle at Worlds. Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton is the U.S. champ and the team’s best runner, but her most recent race (6th at U.S. 15K champs in 50:11 on March 11) was a disappointment for her and she’s never faced competition like this before. The closest she’s come is the Olympic Trials last summer, but she was only 8th in the 10K. Anything in the top 20 for Tuliamuk would be a great day.

The B.A.A.’s Sarah Pagano had a strong 2016 season, but she was well behind Tuliamuk at both the Olympic Trials and USA XC. Pagano’s teammate Elaina Balouris was 64th when she ran two years ago, and while the other members of Team USA have some nice backstories, backstories don’t help you contend for medals.

Nonetheless there are some inspiring stories on the US women’s team- Stephanie Bruce came back from missing basically two years to give birth to two children, Natosha Rogers made a U.S. team after giving up the sport after college, and little-known Emily Pritt made the team without a sponsor and while holding down a full-time job.

While we like the U.S. men’s medal chances more than the women’s, we should point out that this is not a particularly deep edition of World XC. A medal is still unlikely, but a top-five finish is well within the realm of possibility on a good day.

Other teams/individuals to watch

  • Bahrain has the inside track for bronze, and they’re sending a strong team with Olympic steeple champ/world record holder Ruth Jebet, Olympic marathon 8th placer Rose Chelimo and Mimi Belete (4:00/14:54, though she had a rough 2016). Jebet was second in both her XC races this winter and could be in the hunt for an individual medal.
  • Uganda earned team bronze two years ago in Guiyang, but only one of their four finishers from that race returns in 2017 (Emily Chebet, who was 33rd in 2015). Mercyline Chelangat won the Ugandan champs in Kampala two months ago, and was fourth in the World U20 5k last summer, but she’s still only 19 years old. Carrying this team to a medal on home soil is a lot to ask of an athlete so young.
  • Turkey are the European champions, but they’re punting on the women’s senior race entirely to focus on the relay. Individually, the top six women from Euro XC in December will all be absent. The top finisher that will be in Kampala is Spain’s Trihas Gebre, who was seventh and has run well on the cross country circuit this winter.

So Who’s Going to Win? Can Alice Aprot Become World Champion Like Her Brother?

Irene Cheptai, Faith Kipyegon, Alice Aprot, Ruth Jebet, Senbere Teferi and Belaynesh Oljira all have a case to win. We like Aprot. Let’s not overcomplicate this. She’s run 29:53 for 10,000 meters, way better than anyone else in the field, and this happens to be a 10,000-meter race. She also ran that time seven months ago, so she’s in the prime of her career. And she showed in the Olympic final in Rio that she’s not afraid to push the pace early. That’s the kind of strength and confidence you need to win World XC.

And if Aprot wins, what a story it will be. Her brother Joseph Ebuya was the surprise winner of the 2010 World Cross Country Championships.

As for the team battle, Kenya should run away with it. We’d be interested to see the score of a dual meet between Kenya and the rest of the world. If the Americans could finish in the top five, that would be a great day.

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