Throw Back Thursday #3
By Jonathan Gault
April 23, 2020
Welcome back to Throwback Thursday. With no live sports during the coronavirus quarantine, I’ve decided to go back and watch one classic race per week. For our first two installments, I tackled two American races: the 1998 NCAA XC Championships and the 2000 Foot Locker XC Championships. This week has more of an international flavor. We’re going to head across the Atlantic for one of the wildest days in the history of running: the 2007 World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, Kenya.
A little context: this was the first time Kenya had ever hosted the meet, and it was totally insane. Tens of thousands of fans were on hand, and the conditions were absolutely brutal. Unlike much of Kenya, Mombasa is not at altitude — it’s on the coast and features a hot, tropical climate with an average high in the 80s every single month of the year.
For some reason at World XC, the races were held during the hottest part of the day: the junior women’s race started at 3:30 p.m., followed by the junior men, senior women, and finally the senior men at 5:20 p.m. The weather during that span, per Weather Underground: 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 62% humidity, and an absolutely oppressive dew point of 75. If you want more details on what it was like, LetsRun co-founder Weldon Johnson was there, so check out his recap (the photo gallery is terrific as well and gives a great sense of the atmosphere).
2007 World XC is most famous for the men’s senior race, in which Kenenisa Bekele was going for a record sixth straight long course title, though the entire meet is worth watching. So click play on the video below, and let’s wind the clock back to March 24, 2007. Below the video, I’ll share what I was thinking as I watched it.
0:15 We’ve got two legends in the broadcast booth today: British commentator Stuart Storey and five-time World XC champ Paul Tergat of Kenya.
“Welcome to Kenya,” Storey says. “Welcome to Mombasa. Cross country running has finally come home. Running here is a way of life.”
Fun fact I discovered while researching this race: Miami was in the running to host these championships. Could you imagine World XC in Miami?
0:26 Kenya is known for the high-elevation training meccas of Iten and Eldoret, but this race is taking place at sea level at the Mombasa Golf Course in southern Kenya, right on the Indian Ocean. Altitude won’t be a challenge, but the humidity will be…
0:47 Start of the junior women’s race. The start line is a lot narrower than what you’d see at NCAAs (though the field is smaller — just 86 starters) and they’re using corrals, like a horse race.
2:40 We flash forward to later in the race. You’re not going to believe this, but the Kenyans and Ethiopians have dropped everyone else. The last runner in our lead pack of seven? A 16-year-old Genzebe Dibaba.
2:47 Pauline Korikwiang, the leader and defending champion, almost takes a wrong turn and runs off the course. This is hard to do, because the entire course is ringed in tape. Thankfully the tape did its job. Korikwiang runs into it and, realizing her error, quickly corrects course.
3:14 Undeterred by her mishap, Korikwiang immediately launches into her finishing sprint, to the delight of the Kenyan crowd. Dibaba and fellow Ethiopian Emebt Etea do their best to run her down, but they can’t catch Korikwiang, who celebrates across the line. There’s only one problem…
3:32 …There’s another lap to run!
Credit to Storey: he knew immediately there was another lap to go. But the leaders kicking so hard has him questioning himself. Listening to a puzzled Storey try to understand why everyone has stopped running is delightful, particularly when he briefly tries to justify the insane times (13:36 for 6k, or 3:39 mile pace) as a result of the wind.
“It can’t be! Surely that can’t be! It must be…it must be the wind? I can’t believe that. That looked to me as though there was another lap. There is another lap, surely, at 13:36?”
Korikwiang, Dibaba, and Etea — the three women who just spent all of their energy trying to outkick each other — are chilling in the middle of the course as the rest of the field runs by them. I feel bad for them. Korikwiang, who was heading back toward the “finish” line after celebrating her “win,” resignedly hangs her head, turns around, and slowly begins walking in the right direction, but the new leaders are long gone.
6:00 Korikwiang tries to keep running, but, having exhausted her energy at the end of lap two, is really struggling in the heat. In sixth place on the final lap, she grabs the tape marking the boundary of the course and holds on for dear life until a team official arrives to whisk her off the course.
6:12 Another victim of the heat: as future 10,000 world champ Linet Masai runs to victory, she passes by a collapsed runner who couldn’t even make it fully into the infield.
7:30 Watch out for the rifle!
9:30 The finish line resembles a MASH unit, with runners collapsing and having to be carried off left and right. The organizers are prepared — there are seemingly a million volunteers on hand to assist — but we might not want to hold World XC in 90+ temps ever again.
15:48 Now it’s the junior men’s race, and I want to give a shoutout to the Kenyan fans. Just look at the support.
18:40 A lanky young fellow named Asbel Kiprop wins the junior men’s race. I wonder what happened to him…
20:07 For the second straight race, Kenya is perfect in the team scores by sweeping the top four places, though two of their top three would end up serving doping bans (Matthew Kisorio was also popped).
A few other notable names farther down the results: future London Olympic champions Stephen Kiprotich (marathon) was 19th and Taoufik Makhloufi (1500) was 82nd.
23:35 The Kenyan-born Lornah Kiplagat of The Netherlands’ leads the way on lap three of the senior women’s race. There’s nothing too difficult about the course’s topography — no major hills — but I do enjoy that the runners go through the golf course bunkers rather than around them (as you see at many US courses).
28:16 Kiplagat grabs a Dutch flag 50 meters from the finish line and starts celebrating. It’s always nice when you can begin your victory lap before the race is over.
29:43 Famed coach Brother Colm O’Connell plants a kiss on Kiplagat’s cheek after her victory. Storey is pulling no punches telling the viewers what he thinks of athletes switching nationalities. This is the third time he’s referred to Kiplagat as a “Kenyan wearing the colors of Holland.”
30:29 These Ethiopian and Kenyan teams were both loaded — future Olympic and world champ and 2:18 marathoner Vivian Cheruiyot was Kenya’s fourth woman — but ultimately Ethiopia earns the victory with 19 points to Kenya’s 26 (four women score per team).
31:04 “This is the big one,” Storey tells us. “The senior men’s — six laps, 12 kilometers.” Reminder, until 2017, the men ran 12k and the women ran 8k at World XC.
It’s hard to understate how big a favorite Bekele was in this race. He was the world record holder at 5,000 and 10,000 and the reigning world and Olympic champ at 10,000. He had won 27 straight XC races dating back to 2002, including his last 11 at World XC — the junior title in 2001, followed by the short (4k) and long (12k) races every year from 2002 through 2006.
Bekele was going for his sixth straight long course title (World XC scrapped the short race in ’07, in part due to Bekele’s dominance), aiming to break a tie with Kenyans Paul Tergat and John Ngugi for most long course wins at World XC. And he was trying to do it in Kenya. So yeah, the stakes were pretty high.
31:45 There is nothing like the opening 100 meters of the World Cross Country Championships — just an all-out sprint between the best distance runners on Earth. Sometimes it’s silly, but in this case, the course narrows down quickly, so it makes sense that everyone would want to be in a good position early.
32:21 It took 49 seconds for Bekele to assert himself up front. He is not messing around, and Storey begins gushing.
“He looks so easy. I know it’s the start Paul, but this is a different kind of athlete.”
33:54 I’m not really sure what prompted this shrug from Bekele, but I enjoyed it.
36:20 It’s a little blurry, but yes, that is a water bottle in Bekele’s right hand, not even halfway through the race. The race was only 12k, but the conditions were so brutal that there were volunteers stationed every few meters offering water to the athletes.
37:50 We’re on the penultimate lap, and it’s down to Bekele and Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese. They’re using a motorcycle on the infield to film this and, it’s incredible. The camera is super close to the runners, which gives you great perspective into just how fast these guys are going. They are hammering and well clear of the field.
38:50 Just look at the water bottles on the course. It’s like a marathon drinks station.
39:14 Bekele makes a hard move to open up a gap on Tadese. History beckons…
“It’s not just going to be six wins,” Storey says. “It’s going to be six in a row.”
39:30 This is the first sign something is wrong. Bekele puts up one finger — the universal gesture for I’m number one. But that is not what he means in this instance. In fact, Bekele has just learned that he has made the same mistake as Pauline Korikwiang in the junior girls’ race — he has miscounted his laps. There are still 2,000 meters to go. He slows precipitously.
The traditional narrative with this race is that the heat did Bekele in. But Storey has mentioned several times how both the commentators and the athletes have been confused by the course — first Korikwiang, and now Bekele. Would the race have been different if Bekele hadn’t miscalculated? We’ll never know.
40:13 It’s interesting to hear Tergat, in real time, go from crowning Bekele to realizing he’s in serious trouble as Tadese catches him before the final lap.
“Bekele has actually destroyed everybody now. He’s absolutely running superbly here in Mombasa. He’s going for his…he’s slowing! Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong!”
42:02 Bekele tries a couple of surges, but he’s clearly spent; he keeps looking back, hopefully, to see if Tadese has dropped, but the Eritrean is still right there. Then, to the delight of the crowd (they don’t want an Ethiopian winning the most important race of the day), Tadese takes the lead.
Someone has dropped Kenenisa Bekele in a cross country race. This does not happen.
“This is a big, big story now,” Storey says.
44:32 Bekele runs down a steep descent, grabs briefly at his left leg, and ducks under the tape. OMG. No Mas. The 10-time world champion has quit.
Let’s just pause to consider how insane this is. The greatest cross country runner of all time — going for a record sixth straight world title — has just dropped out of the World Championships with barely half a mile to go. While in second place. Totally crazy.
44:50 Adding insult to injury, Bekele’s DNF is shown on the big screen, which causes the Kenyan crowd to lose their minds. They erupt with the biggest cheer of the day, fans literally jumping for joy. If a Kenyan can’t win, at least an Ethiopian didn’t seems to be the thinking. But it’s no way for the cross country GOAT’s win streak to end.
“That’s pretty unkind for a champion,” Storey says.
45:44 I don’t think this horse enjoys the crowd going crazy for Tadese.
46:26 Tadese celebrates a famous win…
46:47 …and is immediately tackled by someone carrying an Eritrean flag. This is Eritrea’s first — and to date, only — gold in any race at World XC.
48:25 Anyone recognize the future four-time Olympic champion getting outkicked for 10th place? Yes, that’s Mo Farah finishing 11th — 1:41 behind the winner.
49:43 Final results. A big day for Kenya, which won three of the four team titles.
“That was one of the great days of cross country running,” Storey says. “I don’t think I’ve been so excited for a long, long time.”
50:24 With five in the top six, the Kenyan men destroyed everyone in the team battle (six runners scored in the men’s senior race). You’ll notice the US is not in this table. USATF did send teams to Kenya, but I can’t recall seeing a single US singlet during the entire broadcast. The men were just 11th out of 13 teams — though they still managed to beat Ethiopia, who didn’t record a team score thanks to four DNFs.
Want to know what it was like to be at the race? Read LetsRun.com co-founder Weldon Johnson‘s recap: LRC 2007 World Cross Country Championships Recap From Mombasa, Kenya: Controlled Chaos. With people climbing into trees to watch, Wejo wrote, “The atmosphere was crazy. A party, a sporting event, a carnival, a once in a lifetime event with tremendous national pride associated with it all rolled into one.”
Talk about the race on our world-famous messageboard/forum. MB: Throwback Thursday: I Was Bored, So I Watched the Insane 2007 World XC Champs in Kenya
Previous: TBT#2: I Was Bored, So I Went Back and Watched Ritz, Webb, & Hall Battle at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships
*TBT#1: I Was Bored, So I Went Back and Watched the 1998 NCAA Cross Country Championships