In Bathurst, the “World’s Greatest Footrace” Lived Up to Its Name

Gidey Falters, Chebet Pounces, & Kiplimo Rules at an Incredible 2023 World XC Champs

By Jonathan Gault
February 18, 2023

BATHURST, Australia – When we refer to the World Cross Country Championships as the “World’s Greatest Footrace,” this is what we mean. The 2023 edition, held in the shadow of Mount Panorama in the middle of an Australian motor racing track, displayed everything that is brutal and beautiful about World XC.

It is a race in which one must be prepared to be tested on every skill a runner could possibly possess. Endurance. Speed. Agility. Toughness. Strategy. If you have a weakness, World XC will expose it.

Ask Letesenbet Gidey. Less than half a mile from the finish line in a steamy women’s senior race held in humid mid-80s Fahrenheit temperatures, everything was going according to script. Gidey, the world record holder at 5,000m, 10,000m, and half marathon and the heavy pre-race favorite, was rolling toward her first senior XC title after winning the junior race in 2015 and 2017. She appeared to have run a perfect tactical race, staying patient by hanging at the back of the lead pack early and on the shoulder of Beatrice Chebet of Kenya, her successor as junior champion in 2019, on the final lap. With just over 1200m to go, Gidey took the lead with a strong move up the course’s biggest hill, and with 500m left, she had opened up an eight-second lead on Chebet.

As Gidey ran down the home straight, her impending victory was proclaimed over the loudspeakers. But something was wrong. Gidey was slowing down. Chebet smelled blood.

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“When I saw Gidey went [with 1200m to go], I decided to accept to be position two,” Chebet said. “But when she dropped a little, I decided to give a kick.”

Gidey looked over her shoulder once, twice, three times, as Chebet barrelled down the hill, closing the gap with every stride. And then, just as Chebet passed her, Gidey collapsed 30 meters from the finish line, the product of the punishing heat and her hard move on an unforgiving course. Beatrice Chebet was your 2023 world cross country champion, running 33:48 for the 10k course. Silver went to Ethiopia’s Tsigie Gebreselama, bronze to Kenya’s Agnes Jebet Ngetich as Kenya won the team race with 16 points.

As Chebet celebrated her victory, utter chaos was unfolding behind her. Gidey’s coach Haile Eyasu, seeing his athlete in trouble, invaded the course along with another Ethiopian official, helping Gidey to her feet. As a result, after crossing the finish line in 4th, Gidey was DQ’d for receiving outside aid. She would leave the course in a wheelchair, receiving treatment for dehydration.

(Editor’s note: Gidey’s DQ didn’t cost Ethiopia the team title as even if she’d finished 4th the team score would have been Kenya 18, Ethiopia 19).

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images for World Athletics )

It was shocking, dramatic, and a reminder of just how difficult it is to win this race. We saw something very similar six years ago with Joshua Cheptegei in Kampala. Even all-time greats like Cheptegei and Gidey, athletes so talented they can make world records look easy, must push their bodies to the limit at World XC. Miscalculate your effort by just a little, and the punishment is severe. **Full results *WA Recap

The Men’s Race – Jacob Kiplimo Delivers

Jacob Kiplimo didn’t miscalculate. With one 2k lap remaining in the men’s senior race, the half marathon world record holder from Uganda was part of a star-studded lead pack of four that included his Ugandan countryman and reigning champ Joshua Cheptegei, two-time World XC champ Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya, and rising star Berihu Aregawi of Ethiopia, the 2021 Diamond League 5k champ. It was the slugfest everyone wanted to see from one of the strongest fields in World XC history. The only man missing was Olympic 10,000 champ Selemon Barega, who had been dropped and would finish 12th.

Cheptegei made the first move early in the final loop, testing the others’ defenses, but gained little separation. Then Kiplimo attacked with 1400m to go and…that was it. The Jacob Kiplimo Show was on, and there would be no surprise guests. Kiplimo powered through the rest of the course, leaving an all-star field in tatters. He claimed gold in 29:17, a one-spot improvement from his 2019 silver, and the gaps behind him demonstrated just how thoroughly he pummeled this field. Aregawi, the silver medalist, was nine seconds back. Cheptegei and Kamworor, 3-4 in that order, were 20 seconds behind Kiplimo, with another 20 seconds to fifth placer Kibiwott Kandie, a 57:32 half marathoner made to look ordinary by Kiplimo’s brilliance. Kenya took the team title with 22 points, its first victory since 2011.

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Kiplimo did all this in conditions bordering on apocalyptic. With a thunderstorm moving in, the men’s race had been pushed up by 20 minutes to start at 6:10 p.m. and as the humidity from the women’s race began to break, the sky grew dark, the temperature dropped, and fierce winds sprayed dirt and sand across the course. You wouldn’t know any of that by watching Kiplimo, who moved with machine-like efficiency toward the finish line.

“The weather was good,” Kiplimo said, smile on his face in the media tent after the race.

World Athletics’ decision to move up the race proved to be vital. Any lightning strike within 10 kilometers of the course would have necessitated a race stoppage, and within 15 minutes of Kiplimo crossing the line, rain was blowing sideways as lightning lit up the sky. Spectators were asked to leave the course, and did so having witnessed one of the greatest editions of what remains a truly great event. Once they all departed, and the course was empty, a rainbow shone down over Mount Panorama.

*Full results *WA Recap

9 more thoughts on a terrific day in Bathurst

Quick Take: What an incredible day

The storm was coming when the senior men started (Photo by Steve Christo)

If you could stage the most dramatic cross country meet possible, what would you include?

A demanding course? Check.

Wild weather? Check.

Top athletes? Check.

A dramatic finish? Check.

A major upset? Check.

Maybe I’m missing a few things, but there’s no doubt 2023 World XC was an incredible meet. Gidey’s collapse and Chebet’s sprint to victory instantly becomes one of the most iconic moments in World XC history. The men’s race didn’t have the same signature moment, but every fan can appreciate true greatness, and Kiplimo’s domination of a stacked field was exactly that. 

Quick Take: Jacob Kiplimo is now master of two surfaces. Can he add a third?

Three years ago in Gdynia, Kiplimo became a senior world champion for the first time by winning the World Half Marathon Championships. The following year, he set the world record of 57:31 in Lisbon. Now Kiplimo is the World XC champion, adding the senior title after winning the junior title six years ago in Kampala.

Only one man has won World XC, the World Half, and a global track title: Morocco’s Khalid Skah (1990-91 World XC, 1992 Olympic 10k, 1994 World Half). It’s possible Kiplimo has gone up a level and this was a passing of the torch from Cheptegei to Kiplimo as King of Long Distance Running (non-marathon division).

But it’s equally possible Kiplimo ends up like men such as Paul Tergat, Zersenay Tadese, and Geoffrey Kamworor, all of whom won World XC and the World Half. Tergat, Tadese, and Kamworor are all running legends, and if you’re in the same sentence as them, you’re doing something right. But none of them ever won a global title on the track, even though all three came very close: Tergat earned four silvers, Tadese a silver and a bronze, and Kamworor a silver (Kiplimo has two bronzes so far). To win on the track, you need a big-time kick that just isn’t as important in XC or the half.

Quick Take: Geoffrey Kamworor is back

Going into this race, we weren’t sure which Kamworor we were going to get: the one who medalled at the last three World XCs or the one who was only 6th at the Kenyan trials. It was definitely the former as Kamworor finished 4th and missed a medal by fractions of a second. Slowed by injuries in recent years, Kamworor’s 2022 season (18th at the Boston Marathon, 5th at the Worlds Marathon) was a down year by his high standards. He may not be leaving Bathurst with a medal, but he ran great today. It will be really interesting to see how he does in the London Marathon in April. His training partner Eliud Kipchoge said this week that Kamworor “a good position to win London this year” and Kipchoge knows a thing or two about winning London, having won it 4 times.

Quick Take: Beatrice Chebet looks like the next great Kenyan distance runner

When Vivian Cheruiyot moved up to the roads in 2017 after five global titles on the track, Hellen Obiri stepped right in to fill the void by winning the World 5,000 title in 2017 and the World 5,000 plus World XC in 2019. Last fall, Obiri moved to the roads as well (she won the RAK Half today in 65:05), but it looks like we may have found her replacement already. After failing to make the Olympics in 2021, Chebet broke out last year by taking 2nd at Worlds in the 5,000 and winning the Diamond League final. Now she’s the World Cross Country champ, and she’s still only 22 years old.

Quick Take: Sam Chelanga shows up again, top American at age 37

Sam Chelanga was one of the greatest cross country runners in NCAA history, winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2009 and 2010 and narrowly missing out to a third in 2008 to Galen Rupp, who was in the midst of one of the greatest NCAA distance seasons ever. That seems like a while ago now, but Chelanga, who briefly retired in 2018 to join the Army before getting sucked back into the sport, is still going strong. In 2017, Chelanga was only 4th at USA XC but wound up as America’s top man at World XC in 11th place. This year, Chelanga was only 5th at USA XC but finished as America’s top man once again in 21st – another great run on the big stage in challenging conditions.

US champ Emmanuel Bor was 32nd – a disappointing day for him considering he said after winning USAs that he was shooting for a top-10 finish at Worlds.

(I didn’t speak to any of the American men as the mixed zone was shut down at that point due to the storm. Only a few athletes were allowed to come through, and then only to give flash quotes to World Athletics).

Quick Take: NCAA runners impress

Chelanga was the top non-African finisher in 21st place. The top two non-African-born finishers both ran NCAA cross country last fall: Aaron Las Heras of Spain, who was 26th at NCAA XC for Wake Forest and 22nd today, and Ky Robinson of Stanford, who was 10th at NCAA XC and 23rd today. Two great runs in a race featuring a course and a field much tougher than anything the NCAA has to offer.

Quick Take: Ednah Kurgat and Weini Kelati lead the US women (despite Kelati losing track of her laps)

US champ Ednah Kurgat and Weini Kelati, college teammates at the University of New Mexico, ran together for much of the race today, hanging onto the lead pack for the first three laps before the top women broke away. Kurgat, who became a US citizen in 2021, finished 18th and was proud of her result in grueling conditions.

“It’s my first international competition, my first USA team, and coming top 20 is a great achievement for me,” Kurgat said.

Kelati finished 22nd – an impressive result considering all the things working against her. First of all, she entered the race at less than 100% due to hip pain that worsened throughout the race. Kelati also said she didn’t eat before the race, which may have left her disoriented as she closed her eyes at one point and fell to the ground. After getting up, Kelati thought she heard her coach Stephen Haas say there were two laps left so she slowed down when in fact there was only one lap left.

“If I wasn’t confused, I think I would have improved,” Kelati said. “…I didn’t give up. I fight.”

Quick Take: What a month for Nozomi Tanaka

Nozomi Tanaka has been busy. On February 4 in Boston, the 23-year-old ran 4:28 to break the Japanese indoor mile record by 15 seconds. On February 10, again in Boston, Tanaka ran 2:04.68 in the 800 in the morning, then doubled back that evening to set a Japanese indoor 3000m record of 8:45. Then Tanaka hopped on a plane to Australia and today finished 14th at World XC – not just the top non-African born finisher, but the best finish by any non-African-born woman since Neely Spence Gracey was 13th in 2013.

Quick Take: Team USA loved the 4 x 2k relay and Jessica Hull asks for World Athletics to add a DMR

There was a lot of excitement surrounding the 4 x 2k relay with hosts Australia entering a “dream team” of Ollie Hoare, Jessica Hull, Stewart McSweyn, and Abbey Caldwell. And the Aussies were indeed competitive, earning a bronze medal behind the winning Kenyan team of Emmanuel Wanyonyi, Mirriam Cherop, Kyumbe Munguti, and Brenda Chebet and silver medalists Ethiopia. This race generated the loudest cheers of the day, with the crowd going nuts at the second exchange after Hull ran a storming second leg to take Australia from 3rd to 1st, handing off to McSweyn with a five-second lead.

On paper, the 3:29 man McSweyn would have been favored to keep the lead against 3:36 Kenyan Kyumbe Munguti, but Munguti ran out of his mind, turning a five-second deficit into an eight-second lead, one Chebet would mostly maintain as Kenya won by seven seconds in 23:14. 

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images for World Athletics )

Afterwards, the Aussies paid respect to the victorious Kenyans but were proud of their bronze medal.

“No world medal is just given to you,” Hoare said. “You have to work hard for it.”

Professional distance runners rarely get the opportunity to be part of a team, and Hull, who won an NCAA XC team title and two NCAA DMR titles at the University of Oregon, said she hoped World Athletics would add more opportunities for distance athletes to compete together.

“World Athletics, can we please have a DMR?” Hull said. “…You can go to some pretty dark places individually, but when you’re doing it for a team, you can always find another level. I know distance runners would jump on board any relay World Athletics might want to throw at us.”

World Athletics did have, at times, a 4 x mile, DMR, and 4 x 800 at the World Relays, but a series of uncompetitive races led to them scrapping the events and turning the World Relays into a sprint meet. But it might be worth exploring adding a DMR or 4 x 800 to Worlds or the Olympics (LRC note: It’s LRC’s official policy that the 4 x 800 is way more exciting than the DMR). All of the top sprinters run the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400. Give the 800/1500 runners a couple days’ to recover and I’m sure most would love a chance to chase a gold medal in a relay.

The US squad of Alec Basten, Emma Coburn, Jordan Mann, and Heather MacLean took 5th in 24:32 and the whole team said they had a great time representing the country Down Under. It was clear from their faces in the mixed zone that, just like the Aussies, the Americans loved being part of a team again.

“I enjoyed every minute of it, even on the hills, even on the hard sections,” said Coburn, who took the US from 10th to 5th on the second leg. “…I found it to be incredibly rewarding and so much fun, and I was saying to the guys, if I get invited back ever again, I’m saying hell yes.”

USA U20 Teams Both Get Medals

Both the US Women’s U20 Team and Men’s U20 won bronze medals. Ellie Shea led the Americans in 10th as they had 4 in the top 19 and Leo Young led the USA men’s team to its first medal since 1982.

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