Perfection: The Kenyan Women Perfect Score The World And Go 1-2-3-4-5-6 at 2017 World XC Champs

by Jonathan Gault
March 26, 2017

KAMPALA, Uganda — In the greatest team display in the history of professional cross country, the Kenyan women perfect-scored the rest of the world to run away with the team title at the 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships at the Kololo Independence Grounds on Sunday. Led by individual champion Irene Cheptai, who completed the 10-kilometer course in 31:57, Kenya went 1-2-3-4-5-6 to score the minimum 10 points (only the top 4 score) and trounce runner-up Ethiopia by 35. Olympic 10k fourth-placer Alice Aprot (32:01) and Kenyan trials runner-up Lilian Rengeruk (32:11) were the other medallists; you’d have to go all the way down to eighth-place Belaynesh Oljira (32:53) of Ethiopia to find the first non-Kenyan-born finisher.

Kenya’s performance today can never be topped and will require some serious rewriting of the record books. It not only marked that the first time that a team swept the individual medals in the women’s senior race; it was the first time that any team had gone 1-6 in any race at World XC. Cheptai’s victory was the sixth straight by a Kenyan senior woman, also a record.

We recap the race below, followed by analysis and video interviews.

The Race

Irene Chepet Cheptai wins the World XC title. Photo by Roger Sedres for IAAF. Irene Chepet Cheptai wins the World XC title. Photo by Roger Sedres for IAAF.

Conditions were difficult for running, with temperatures in the high 70s and humidity in the 60% range. Though the clouds offered occasional cover, for the most part the athletes had to compete in the bright sunshine of a Ugandan afternoon; hardly ideal for a 10-kilometer race.

A pack of about 20 women came through the first lap in 5:58 (the first lap was just under 2 kilometers), and just as she did in the Olympic 10,000-meter final, Aprot led the way. Kenyan-born Aliphine Tuliamuk, the lone American among a sea of East Africans, was also in the pack, though she was struggling to deal with the pace and would soon fall off the back. Aprot continued to push on lap two, and by 4k, eight women remained up front: the six Kenyans, Olympic steeple champ and world record holder Ruth Jebet and 2015 World XC silver medallist Senbere Teferi. The Kenyans really began to string things out on laps three and four, and as they entered the fifth and final lap, eventual medallists Aprot, Cheptai and Rengeruk were 14 seconds clear of Kiyeng in fourth and a Kenyan victory was assured. All that was left was to determine the order.

Rengeruk was the first to attack, and midway through the final lap, she and Cheptai had opened a gap on Aprot. Cheptai was feeling good, though, and followed with a move on her own a minute later. That move proved to be decisive, as she would not be challenged the rest of the way, earning her first world title. Aprot wound up catching Rengeruk for the silver as both women earned their first senior global medals.

Tuliamuk held on well on a tough day for running to finish as the top American in 15th (despite losing a shoe), with Stephanie Bruce (22nd), Natosha Rogers (23rd) and Sarah Pagano (30th) rounding out the scoring for the U.S. team, which wound up fifth in the team scoring with 90 points.

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*Full Results

Quick Take #1: Utter domination by the Kenyan women

Going into the race, we expected Kenya to win handily, but recent sporting history has seen a slew of favorites go down in championship events, from the 73-win Golden State Warriors to Edward Cheserek at NCAA XC. The Kenyan women suffered no such fate, as they didn’t just win, but did so in such a historically dominant fashion that their achievement can never be bettered.

While we expected someone (perhaps Teferi or Oljira to break up the Kenyan pack), the reason behind the result is obvious: Kenya is the world’s strongest nation when it comes to female distance running, and they took the event seriously, sending most of their best athletes to World XC.

With that said, Kenya doesn’t win in this fashion without every single one of their athletes running well. That’s not to say that they all ran their best possible race — Olympic 1500 champ Faith Kipyegon won’t be happy with fading from fourth to sixth over the final 4k — but getting six strong performances on the same day in less-than-ideal conditions is a remarkable feat. Nobody’s going to go 1-2-3-4-5-6 and perfect-score the rest of the world again anytime soon. The Kenyan women receive our highest praise.

Quick Take #2: Irene Cheptai is for real

The 25-year-old Cheptai is far from a nobody, as she finished 10th and 7th in the last two editions of these championships, but until today she was not a global star. But when you add her world title to the Kenyan title she claimed in February and her win at the Discovery XC meet in Eldoret in January, it’s clear that Cheptai has reached another level in 2017 and should be a contender for a medal in London this summer. Of course Cheptai, who owns a 14:43 5,000 pb and was 7th at Worlds in 2015, isn’t guaranteed success on the track; her teammate Agnes Tirop hasn’t done much in the two years since winning World XC in Guiyang.

Cheptai also broke the recent streak of Kenyan champs failing to win World XC. Though Kenya claimed the individual titles in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2015, none of those women also won the Kenyan Trials. Cheptai was the first woman since Florence Kiplagat in 2009 to win both.

One of the reasons why Cheptai may have been able to break the bad streak for Kenyan Trials winners is the fact that she missed about half of the Kenyan training camp as she was getting treatment on a minor leg injury according to her coach Renato Canova. As Cheptai was pulling away for victory on the final lap, we were talking to Canova about her and he wasn’t shy about expressing his disdain for the Kenyan training camps. He thinks it’s absurd that in Kenya the star athletes are forced to go to training camps and switch coaches right before the biggest championships. He thinks the camps burn the Kenyans out and thinks it’s crazy that the training isn’t more individualized as someone like 1500 runner Faith Kipyegon should clearly be doing different workouts than a 29:53 10,000 runner Alice Aprot.

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Canova thinks Cheptai can definitely run under 30:30 for 10,000 but also added he thinks she’ll be a top marathoner in a few years.

Video of Renato Canova Celebrating Cheptai’s Win, Then Embracing Her and Then An Interview With Cheptai

Post-Race Interview With Cheptai

Quick Take #3: Is African dominance at World XC becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?

To find the top non-African-born finisher in the women’s race, you’d have to scroll all the way down to 22nd place and the U.S.’s Stephanie Bruce. We fear today’s result may help trap World XC in a vicious cycle: fewer nations elect to send full teams because of East African dominance, which in turn leads to even greater levels of East African dominance. But with the next edition of the meet in Aarhus, Denmark, a relatively short plane ride for most of Europe, we hope to see more teams out there in 2019.

The Danes were here to observe and the word on the street is that they are going to have a more traditional (hilly) and tough cross country course in 2019.

Quick Take #4: Team USA ran well in tough conditions but a medal was always going to be a big ask from this group

Tuliamuk was the team’s top finisher, and the fact that she was able to hold on for 15th despite running the last couple laps with one shoe was very impressive. But even before she lost her shoe (she first said it happened on the third lap but later said it happened on the fourth lap), she knew she was overmatched.

“In the second lap, those women are on a different level than I am,” Tuliamuk said. “And they just kept pushing and pushing and oh my gosh, they’re amazing.”

Tuliamuk is a road ace, winning US 5k, 20k and 25k titles last year. She’ll definitely return to the roads this spring and summer, but is undecided about running at USAs on the track.

Stephanie Bruce (22nd) post-race

Natosha Rogers (23rd) post-race

Sarah Pagano (30th) post-race

Emily Pritt 74th Place

U20 Race: Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey Repeats as Ethiopia Nips Kenya for Team Title

If Letesenbet Gidey’s victory in the U20 race at 2015 World XC marked her as an athlete to watch, her win today cemented her as one of the sport’s top prospects in recent years; she joined Faith Kipyegon, Genzebe Dibaba and Viola Kibiwot as the only women to win two U20 titles. That is some seriously elite company. Kipyegon is the Olympic 1500 champion, while Dibaba is the world champion and world record holder at the same distance. Kibiwot, meanwhile, has run 14:29 for 5,000 meters and has taken fourth in the 5,000 at the last two World Championships.

Gidey covered the six-kilometer course in 18:34, well ahead of countrywoman Hawi Feysa (18:57) and Kenya’s world U20 steeple champ Celliphine Chespol (19:02).

The Kenya-Ethiopia show rolled on behind them, as the Ethiopians used their 1-2 finish to earn a narrow 19-20 victory as Kenya went 3-4-5. The U.S. women finished 12th overall with 212 points, with Oklahoma State freshman Michelle Magnani the top finisher in 37th (21:32). Logan Morris (45th in 21:58), Aubrey Roberts (56th in 22:18) and Madison Fruchey (74th in 22:54) rounded out the U.S. scoring.

*Full Jr Results

Michelle Magnani post-race

Logan Morris post-race

Kristen Garcia

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