The Race of the Year Is Here: Get Ready for a Five-Way Slugfest in the Men’s Race at 2019 World XC
March 25, 2019
If you’re a fan of distance running — and since you’re reading this article, it’s a safe assumption that you are — you owe it to yourself to watch the men’s race at the 2019 World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, because it’s going to be an ALL-TIMER. With a 9 a.m. Eastern start time, it shouldn’t be a challenge for most of America to get up and watch it on a Saturday morning (we know you can do it, West Coasters!). So brew some coffee, scramble some eggs, and find a live stream — or better yet, hop on a flight to Denmark (there’s still time and plenty of cheap flights and hotels available ) — because you are not going to want to miss this race.
It’s not just the course, which is epic, and one of the best we’ve ever seen for World XC (learn more here: LRC Mud, Beer And VIKINGS! A Behind-The-Scenes Look At How The Incredible 2019 World XC Course Was Designed). It’s the athletes who will be running on it, a field of studs that make this year’s edition worthy of the moniker “World’s Greatest Footrace.”
From Kenya, there’s Geoffrey Kamworor, king of all surfaces, who will be looking to win his third straight World XC title. He’ll be joined by 19-year-old phenom Rhonex Kipruto, the World Junior 10,000 champ who came just two seconds shy of the 10k road world record last year by blitzing a 26:46 on the streets of Prague. And to show you just how strong the Kenyan team is, those two were only 5th and 6th at the Kenyan trials; the win went to Amos Kirui, the bronze medalist in the steeple at last year’s Commonwealth Games. Paul Tanui, who has medalled in the 10k at four straight global championships, couldn’t even make the team as he finished just 8th at the trials.
Ethiopia has a young star of its own in Selemon Barega — you know, the guy who ran a 12:43 5k last year — to pair with Bonsa Dida (10th at ’17 World XC) and surprise trials winner Mogos Tuemay. And Uganda has a 1-2 punch that potentially could be every bit as good as Kamworor and Kipruto, with Joshua Cheptegei — who fell agonizingly short of the win in front of his home crowd two years ago — and 2017 World Junior XC champ Jacob Kiplimo.
Plus we haven’t even mentioned the Americans, who, led by the red-hot Shadrack Kipchirchir, will be shooting for just their second team medal in the last 18 years.
So out of Kamworor, Kipruto, Barega, Cheptegei, and Kiplimo — total studs all — at least two of them will not medal. It’s going to be an epic race on an epic course, and we break it all down below.
Can Kamworor Join the Three-Timers Club?
Saturday Night Live has the Five-Timers Club for people who have hosted five times or more. But with all due respect to Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake, and Alec Baldwin, the group of men who have won three titles at World XC is even more exclusive. The Three-Timers Club consists of just four men, and all of them are distance running legends: Carlos Lopes, John Ngugi, Paul Tergat, and Kenenisa Bekele.
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If World XC was still contested on an annual basis — as it was when Lopes, Ngugi, Tergat, and Bekele were competing — Kamworor may already be in the Three-Timers Club. After all, he won the World Half Marathon champs — the even-year replacement for World XC — in 2014, 2016, and 2018. But as it stands, he’ll have to wait until Saturday — at the earliest — to gain admission.
Can he do it? Well you might be inclined to panic when you see that Kamworor was only 5th at the Kenyan World XC trials on February 23, 13 seconds behind winner Amos Kirui. But Kamworor has done this before. In 2015, he was 2nd at the Kenyan trials. In 2017, he was 3rd. Both times, he wound up winning Worlds.
Indeed, winning the Kenyan trials isn’t always a good thing. Because it’s such a competitive race, you have to be in great shape to win it. But if you get too fit a month before Worlds, it can be hard to improve or even maintain that peak: no man has won the Kenyan Trials and World XC in the same year since at least the 1990s. Kamworor is good enough that he can come into the trials a little undercooked, still make the team, and then peak for real at Worlds a month later. Not every Kenyan has that luxury.
“The trials is more for Geoffrey to make sure he’s in the team,” says his agent Valentijn Trouw. “We have to focus fully on the championship. For the trials, he was still building in his training and the training after the trials went well.”
Assuming Kamworor comes into the champs in similar shape to 2015 and 2017 — which Trouw says is the case — the one thing that could possibly hold him back is the course as the weather forecast look pretty great for distance running (high of 55F on Saturday) and even if it turns, Kamworor has prevailed in poor weather before.
As for the course, that seems unlikely to be a problem. He doesn’t mind the hills, having won on the undulating terrain in Guiyang four years ago (though Aarhus is much hillier) or the many momentum-sapping turns as Guiyang also featured at least 10 90-degree turns. Trouw actually thinks a difficult course will benefit Kamworor.
“I think Geoffrey is a tough character and mentally strong,” Trouw says. “I don’t see any problem for him. It should be a challenging course and I think Geoffrey likes it like that. That one will be nice for him.”
If Kamworor is going to get beaten on Saturday, it won’t be because of the weather or the course. It will be because one of the studs below is better.
One more thing about Kamworor: later this summer at the Doha World Championships on the track, he’ll be looking to join Kenenisa Bekele as only the second man to achieve the trip crown of distance running — winning a major title on all three surfaces — road, track and XC.
Challengers for the Throne
If Kamworor is the reigning monarch of global cross country, consider these next four the men who would be king. Here’s why each of them will (and won’t) take down Kamworor.
Joshua Cheptegei, Uganda
Age/PBs/Major Medals: 22, 12:59/26:49, 2017 World Championship silver in 10,000
Why he’ll win: When he’s healthy, he may be the best in the world over 10,000 meters (non-Farah division)
With 2k to go at 2017 World XC in his native Uganda, Cheptegei had a 12-second lead on Kamworor and looked on course for a dominant victory before his body betrayed him in the heat and humidity of Kampala and he staggered home in 30th place after leading with less than 800 remaining. He followed that up with a 10k silver on the track in 26:49, a performance that caused us to label him the successor to Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, and Mo Farah as the world’s next great 10,000 runner.
But he picked up a nagging knee injury after 2017 Worlds, and though he battled through it to sweep the 5k and 10k at the Commonwealth Games in April 2018, he missed the entire summer. He returned in fine form last fall, running 41:05 to break the world 15k record on the roads, but was injured again in a car accident in December — thankfully he survived, as his car was in rough shape after the collision:
Grateful to my #GOD for saving me from a terrible accident in kapchorwa town… another car while trying to connect to the highway lost control and hit me..I thank the @PoliceUg
Kapchorwa for intercepting the car that knocked me while trying to take off,I am recovering steadily pic.twitter.com/dmesPzCo1d
— Joshua Cheptegei ???? ?? (@joshuacheptege1) December 22, 2018
Cheptegei has proven his mental and physical toughness time and again. What better way to celebrate his most recent comeback than with a title in the race that conquered him two years ago? (For more on Cheptegei’s last two years, check out this story).
Why he won’t win: Cheptegei may not even be the best cross country runner in Uganda
Cheptegei has raced twice this year, and both times he was beaten handily by fellow Ugandan Jacob Kiplimo: by 16 seconds in Seville on January 20, and by 11 seconds at the Ugandan trials on February 16. Like Kamworor, Cheptegei may be making sure he times his peak correctly for Worlds, but it’s a possible area of concern.
Jacob Kiplimo, Uganda
Age/PBs/Major Medals: 18, 13:13/27:26, World Junior XC gold in 2017, World Jr 10,000 bronze in 2016, World Jr 10,000 silver in 2018
Why he’ll win: He’s on fire
Kiplimo was only 16 years old officially when he became the first Ugandan to win a gold medal at World XC, winning the junior race in Kampala two years ago. Though he’s eligible to defend his title in Aarhus, he’s passing it up to run against the big boys. Based on recent evidence, he more than belongs.
He heads into World XC riding an eight-race win streak across all surfaces dating back to October. It began with a pair of victories on the roads before ripping off XC wins in three straight weekends in November in Atapuerca, Soria, and Alcobendas. Those wins came by an average of 19 seconds over the likes of 5k world champ Muktar Edris, World Junior 5k champ Edward Zakayo, Abadi Hadis (2017 World XC bronze), and Aron Kifle (5th at ’17 World XC).
On New Year’s Eve, he returned to the roads to run the fastest road 10k ever (26:41) on a downhill course in Madrid, before posting three more XC wins in Seville, Albufeira, and the Ugandan trials. No one enters the championships in better form.
Why he won’t win: Youth
Kiplimo is still only 18, and he’s not as battle-tested on the big stage as Cheptegei or, especially, Kamworor, nor nearly as accomplished at the senior level. Kiplimo did make it to the Olympics in 2016 and Worlds in 2017, but didn’t make it to the final in either of them. His biggest international final at the senior level is last year’s Commonwealth Games, where he placed 4th in the 10k. He also got spanked by 19 seconds by Rhonex Kipruto in the World Junior 10k final last year.
That said, Kiplimo did win the junior race at World XC two years ago on home soil — a race with big-time pressure — and we’ve seen newbies win this race before. Japhet Korir‘s win at World XC in 2013 was his first appearance at a senior international championship.
Selemon Barega, Ethiopia
Age/PBs/Major Medals: 19, 7:37/12:43, 2016 World Junior champ at 5000, 2017 World Youth champ at 5000, 2018 World Indoor silver in 3000
Why he’ll win: Speed, baby, speed
Barega’s 5,000 PR is 12:43. Only three men have ever run faster for that distance: Bekele, Geb, and Daniel Komen. Barega made a big leap from 2017, when he was 5th at Worlds in the 5k and ran a PR of 12:55, to 2018, when he earned silver at World Indoors in the 3k, won the Diamond League final, and shaved 12 seconds off his 5k PR. He has won world titles at the youth and junior levels; could 2019 be the year he wins his first senior crown?
Why he won’t win: Can he hack it at 10k cross country?
Barega has run three XC races this year, and he’s finished second at all three: to Hagos Gebrhiwet (who’s not running World XC), to Rhonex Kipruto (who is), and to Mogos Tuemay at the Ethiopian trials.
Also: Barega’s sexy 5k PR is no guarantee that he’ll be the best on a tough course in Aarhus. Of the 16 fastest men of all time in the 5k, only one — Bekele — has won World XC. Admittedly, the race used to be 12k, not 10k, but that’s a very interesting stat.
Age/PBs/Major Medals: 19, 26:46 (road), 27:21 track, 2018 World Jr champ in 10,000
Why he’ll win: He’s already a 10k stud
Kipruto has been one of the world’s best over 10,000 meters ever since bursting onto the scene as a 17-year-old in 2017 with his 27:13 on the roads in Prague. Last year, he lowered his best on the roads to 26:46 — just two seconds off the WR and that was after he ran 27:08 in the hills of Central Park — and won the 10k at World Juniors by 19 seconds, destroying Jacob Kiplimo in the process.
He’s been very impressive in XC as well. Last fall, he beat Abraham Kiptum by 32 seconds at the Ndalat Gaa cross country; two weeks later, Kiptum ran a 58:18 half marathon WR. He won again in Eldoret in November, and earned wins at the Juan Muguerza in Elgoibar, Spain, and the Discovery Kenya XC in January.
If Kipruto wins, the following tennis analogy will apply. Geoffrey Kamworor is incredibly good (think Roger Federer), but just when we are starting to debate where he belongs in the GOAT (greatest of all time) debate for XC runners, someone else comes along (Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic) who is just as good, if not better, on their best day.
Why he won’t win: He had an injury setback, and this is his first senior championships
After his two XC wins in January, Kipruto pulled a muscle in his upper leg that cost him some fitness and caused him to finish 6th at the Kenyan champs on February 23. Since then, he’s been training well, but that hiccup could cost him against a field full of studs.
The conditions shouldn’t faze Kipruto. The course in Elgoibar was hilly with some mud, with weather similar to what he’ll face in Aarhus, and he won there handily, beating Barega by 22 seconds.
The bigger concern is simple: the field at World XC is very, very strong, and this is Kipruto’s first international championship at the senior level.
“He knows [Kenya has] a very strong team,” says Kipruto’s agent Michel Boeting. “He just wants to do well for his first appearance in a senior championships. Of course you want to go for the gold, but I think if he’s beaten by strong guys, he can be happy with a bronze as well.”
What About the Americans (And Everybody Else)?
We feel strongly that your 2019 world cross country champion will be one of the men listed above. Those five guys are too good for one of them not to win it.
There are a few other guys who could contend for a medal. The best among that group is Aron Kifle of Eritrea, who was 5th in 2017 (he’s the #2 returner) and earned bronze at the World Half Champs last year. Just 21, he has pbs of 13:07, 27:09, and 59:51.
Kenyan champ Amos Kirui,the21-year-old who won World Juniors in the steeple in 2016, can’t be totally ignored but we’d be surprised if a guy who ran 11 steeplechases last year and didn’t break 8:12 in any of them ended up as the World XC champ a year later (his steeple pb is 8:08). Kirui’s countryman Rodgers Kwemoi, the 2016 World Junior 10k champ who has spent much of his early career in Japan, deserves a mention as well, but we’d be surprised if a 22-year-old with pbs of 13:18 and 27:25 takes down this stacked field. Likewise, it would be foolish to overlook Mogos Tuemay, the winner of the Ethiopian trials, but all we really know about him at this stage is that the 21-year-old was 4th at the World Youth Champs in 2013 (running 8:03) before running 13:27 and 27:48 in 2017 (our results database lists no results for him in 2018 save for a 2nd place XC showing in Antrim on January 8).
The leading contender for top non-African-born honors is probably Aussie Stewart McSweyn, who ran 13:05 last year; former Northern Arizona University star Matt Baxter of New Zealand, the 2017 NCAA XC runner-up, 2018 NCAA 10k champ Ben Flanagan of Canada, and his former University of Michigan teammate Mason Ferlic of the US could all be in that mix as well.
No American man has won World XC since Craig Virgin in 1981, and none has medalled at the senior level since Alberto Salazar in 1982. We don’t see that drought ending this year. The US team, led by national champ Shadrack Kipchirchir, is a strong one, but the 30-year-old Kipchirchir has looked overmatched at the highest levels of the sport; he was 16th at Worlds in 2015, 19th at the Olympics in 2016, and 21st at World XC in 2017. Even in his best performance at Worlds, when he ran an impressive 27:07 in the 10k in 2017, he finished 9th, well back of guys like Cheptegei and Kamworor. Kipchirchir’s coach Scott Simmons told us he’s in the “best shape of his life” right now, but even if that is the case, he’s a dark horse medal contender at best.
We’ll have more on Team USA and their medal chances in a separate article.
Shame on Europe
Two years ago, we criticized Europe for sending just two teams with the potential to score (minimum four guys) to Uganda for World XC.
You’d figure with the world champs being back in Europe for the first time since 2013, we’d see way more teams this year, right?
Great Britain, thankfully, is sending full teams in the men’s and women’s junior and senior races. And Denmark and Spain, who both sent senior men’s teams in 2017, are both doing the same in 2019.
And that’s it. Three European teams. For a World Championship in Europe.
Denmark’s Scandinavian rivals Sweden, Norway, and Finland? Two senior men between them (Jakob Ingebrigtsen is entered the junior race for Norway but we won’t know for sure if he’s running until Tuesday).
Turkey? One man. They have no problems importing Kenyans to beat up on other countries at Euros. But when it comes to Worlds against the big boys, they chicken out.
Germany and Poland, “serious” athletics nations just south of Denmark? Zero men between them.
SIXTEEN countries entered teams in the senior race at the Euro XC champs in December. Over half of them didn’t have a realistic shot at a team medal in that race, so please don’t use that as an excuse as for why they’re not in Aarhus. This is an embarrassment.
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CORRECTION: This article originally stated that only three men had won World XC three times. Hat tip to agent Dan Lilot, who pointed out that Portugal’s Carlos Lopes is also in the club.