By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2019 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
AARHUS, DENMARK (30-Mar) — In Kampala two years ago Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei tried to run away with the men’s senior title at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Spurred on by thousands of home-country spectators, he broke away from the field at about the halfway point, and built up a 12-second lead over defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya. But with about a kilometer to go he slowed badly, overwhelmed with fatigue. He was not only passed by Kamworor but faded to 30th place, barely able to finish.
With that harsh lesson seared into his memory, an older and wiser Cheptegei came here well-trained and with a clear plan from his Dutch coach, Addy Ruiter. Following the pace of his younger compatriot Jacob Kiplimo, 18, it was Cheptegei who broke Kamworor this time, pulling away on the final lap to win his first IAAF/Mikkeller World Cross Country Championships in 31:40 over the 10.2-kilometer distance. With today’s victory a great weight had been lifted off of the 22 year-old athlete’s narrow shoulders.
“If there was anyone who really wanted this gold medal it was me,” Cheptegei told reporters after the race. “I really lost to my colleague Geoffrey Kamworor in Kampala, and if there was anybody who really wanted this gold medal it was me. I think I have lived to expectations.”
In this year’s championships, Cheptegei employed a much more conservative strategy. In the first of five two-kilometer circuits around a torturous course on the grounds of the Mosegaard Museum, Cheptegei made sure he was close enough to the front not to get caught in the main group behind him. According to the official splits, he was only in 26th place after the first lap, and ninth after the second. He was trying to save energy, especially running up the ten percent grade of the museum’s grass roof.
“The trick was really to start slow and finish fast,” Cheptegei explained.
At the end of the third circuit, only five men were still in contention: Cheptegei, Kamworor, Kiplimo, Aron Kifle of Eritrea, Rhonex Kipruto of Kenya and Selemon Barega of Ethiopia. Barega and Kipruto tried to stay with the leaders, but eventually faded to finish fifth and sixth, respectively. Kifle was the next to falter, drifting back by seven seconds at the end of the penultimate lap. That left Cheptegei, Kamworor and Kiplimo to battle for the medals.
Kiplimo was confident that he could not only beat his younger teammate, but also deny Kamworor the threepeat.
“A lot of things have changed between that time and now, because I developed into a senior,” Cheptegei said. “Last time I had less experience, I can say. I was much stronger last year in 2017 than this year, but what made a difference is that I have grown as a senior. I had less experience; I can say that.”
Cheptegei and Kiplimo worked together on the last circuit to drop Kamworor who was then safely slotted into the bronze medal position with about 500 meters to go. Cheptegei had a few steps on Kiplimo as the pair headed for the roof climb the fifth and final time, and Cheptegei pressed his advantage, dropping Kiplimo on the climb. Executing the S-shaped descent without losing his balance, Cheptegei entered the downhill homestretch with a comfortable lead and stopped the clock at 31:40, four seconds up on Kiplimo. Kamworor was timed in 31:55 and was accepting of his performance.
“It was really a tough competition,” said the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon champion. “You can expect anything to happen. I can say I gave it all, I did what I could. It is unfortunate that I didn’t win and I got the bronze medal. I accept it, and I should congratulate my friend Joshua. There’s always a next time.”
Making today’s win even sweeter for Cheptegei was leading Uganda to their first-ever IAAF World Cross Country Championships team gold medal, breaking the Ethiopian/Kenyan stranglehold which began in 1981. The Ugandans finished first, second, seventh and tenth to score 20 points. Kenya edged Ethiopia for second, 43 to 46 points.
In the women’s senior race, also contested at the 10.2-kilometer distance, Hellen Obiri of Kenya made some history of her own. Prevailing in a last-lap, three-woman battle over Ethiopia’s Dera Dida (silver) and Letesenbet Gidey (bronze), Obiri became the first women ever in the senior ranks to win career IAAF world titles in indoor track (3000m), outdoor track (5000m), and cross country. Her finish time was 36:14, two seconds up on Dida. The exhausted Obiri was happy, but promptly announced that her world cross country career was over.
“As you can see there’s tough, tough hills, downhill, muddy, water jump, sand,” Obiri told reporters. “There’s no flat places here. Maybe downhill you relax, but when you hit the headwind you are dying. I had run well because I knew it was my first cross country and my last cross country.”
But unlike Cheptegei, Obiri would not also win the team gold. The Ethiopian women finished second, third, sixth, and tenth to score 21 points, edging the Kenyans by four points for the gold. Uganda got the silver with 36 points.
In the individual finish order, African athletes took the top 14 places. But, Denmark’s Anna Emilie Møller –a 21 year-old, 9:31 steeplechaser– delighted the home crowd with a plucky 15th-place finish.
“It’s fantastic,” Møller said in English after doing half a dozen interviews with the Danish media. “I didn’t have any specific goal, actually. I just wanted to do my best today and see how it was going.” She added: “It was a fantastic atmosphere today.”
A Kenyan woman also won the under-20 individual title, but not without some controversy. Coming into the homestretch after nearly six kilometers of running, Beatrice Chebet appeared to have out-sprinted her two Ethiopian rivals, Alemitu Tariku and Tsigie Gebreselama. She raised her arms in victory as she crossed the official finish line painted on the ground, but the ceremonial break tape was about two meters farther away. There, the two Ethiopians hit the tape before her, flanking her on both sides. But the photo finish and replay video showed that Chebet had indeed won, and officials quickly updated the results. Tariku was given the silver, Gebreselama the bronze, and all three athletes were given the same time: 20:50.
“I won the race because I even knew in the television showed that I was the first one to cross,” said Chebet. “So I’m happy that I won the race.”
The under-20 Ethiopian women won the team title with a scant 17 points, placing second, third, fifth and seventh. Kenya got the silver with 16 points, and Japan edged Uganda to get the bronze, 72 to 73.
There was no controversy in the men’s under-20 race. Ethiopia’s Milkesh Mengesha and Tadese Worku finished one-two in 23:52 and 23:54, respectively, over the 7.7-kilometer distance, with Uganda’s Oscar Chelimo taking third in 23:55. The team title went to Ethiopia with 18 points over Uganda (32) and Kenya (34). Last summer’s double European champion in the 1500m and 5000m, Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway, finished 12th after running with the lead pack in the early kilometers.
In the four-lap, mixed gender relay, held over 8.2 kilometers, Ethiopia got the win handily in 25:49 over Morocco (26:22). Morocco was disqualified (reason unknown, but probably related the exchange), but reinstated by the jury of appeals. Kenya got third in 26:29.
It was a disappointing day for the United States team. The only athlete to crack the top-30 in any of the individual races was the University of Wisconsin’s Shuaib Aljabaly, the reigning national junior cross country champion, who finished 29th in the men’s under-20 race. Marathoner Steph Bruce was the highest-finishing woman taking 33rd in the senior race.
“It was a really tough day,” said the 35 year-old Bruce who has two sons at home in Flagstaff, Arizona. “I just kept hearing what place I am. I was, like, I feel like I’m passing people but I’m so far back.”