Joshua Cheptegei Is Ready to Go & More Insights From the World XC Course

By Jonathan Gault
February 17, 2023

BATHURST, Australia — At the last two editions of the World Cross Country Championships, Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei has been at the center of the action. As a 20-year-old in Kampala in 2017, Cheptegei carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders. Through the fourth of five 2k loops, Cheptegei appeared headed to a famous win, building a 12-second lead over defending champ Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya and sending the crowd at Kololo Indepedence Grounds into a fit of hysteria. The lead would not last, however. Cheptegei would succumb to the oppressive heat and humidity, staggering home in 30th place in one of the bravest runs in World XC history as Kamworor romped to a second straight title.

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Two years later in Aarhus, Cheptegei was the star of the show at World XC, avenging his defeat to Kamworor and leading a Ugandan 1-2 with Jacob Kiplimo. It kicked off a four-year stretch that would see Cheptegei win world titles in XC and on the track (10,000 in 2019 and 2022), set world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in 2020, and win an Olympic gold medal in 2021 (5,000). He has accomplished everything one can accomplish in the sport.

Now, Cheptegei is in the legacy-building portion of his career. He has already assured he will go down as one of the greats of the 2020s. The question is whether he can one day enter that Zatopek-Gebrselassie-Bekele-Kipchoge discussion for the greatest ever. And to do that, he has to keep winning.

Cheptegei running the course on Thursday

A win on Saturday at the 2023 World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst would certainly add to that legacy. The field includes Kiplimo (who has since added the World Half title and half marathon world record to his accolades), Olympic 10,000 champ Selemon Barega of Ethiopia, and a stacked Kenyan team led by Kibiwott Kandie (57:32 half pb), Kenyan trials champ Sabastian Sawe, and Kamworor, seeking to regain his form after injury setbacks in recent years. That’s a ton of the world’s best distance talent; whoever wins will have truly earned it. But make no mistake. Cheptegei is once again the star attraction.

I bumped into Cheptegei’s agent Jurrie van der Velden and his coach Addy Ruiter on the course on Thursday, and both men were excited about Cheptegei’s chances in Bathurst. After last year’s World Championships in Eugene, Cheptegei was meant to run the Great North Run in September but developed a slight injury and was forced to withdraw. But he returned to action with a 27:09 10k win on the roads in Madrid on December 31 and Ruiter said his training has gone well since then and that Cheptegei’s shape is comparable to where it has been when he won championships in 2019, 2021, and 2022, so should be fit enough to win on Saturday.

Both van der Velden and Ruiter also believe the course plays to Cheptegei’s strengths. The hard, uneven surface and the hills are exactly the sort of terrain Cheptegei trains on back home in Kapchorwa.

“They’re used to this type of grass in most African countries, so I think that’s an advantage for Ugandans and Kenyans,” van der Velden said. “I’m not sure about Ethiopians — I’ve never been to Ethiopia, so I don’t really know. But especially Kenyans and Ugandans are used to this footing and the rolling. At points, it’s really tough. This nature of the course will do them good. I think you will see big gaps at some point because of the toughness of the course.”

Remember, Cheptegei is a guy who runs his “track” workouts on a worn path in a grass field that’s 406 meters long, egg-shaped, and features 5 meters of elevation change. Bathurst’s course will not faze him.

No, the complicating factor is the heat, which has proven in the past to be the great equalizer at World XC. Ten years before Cheptegei’s meltdown in Kampala, Kenenisa Bekele rolled into the World XC in Mombasa, Kenya, on the back of 10 straight World XC victories (five short course, five long course) and wound up dropping out on a steamy day (90 degrees, 75 dew point!). Sometimes, even the best of the best are no match for Mother Nature.

Both Ruiter and van der Velden believe Cheptegei is more equipped to handle the heat than he was in Kampala. For one, he has six more years of race experience — he was 20 then, 26 now — and Cheptegei has since won gold in warm conditions in Tokyo and Eugene. He also won’t face the same pressure in Australia as he did in front of the home fans in Uganda.

“I think through the years you learn things and you know how to manage things better,” van der Velden said. “We took it as a learning curve. As we speak, we are not worried about that. But for sure, it is a big factor which you need to factor in, not only for Joshua but for everybody.”

Stanford’s Ky Robinson is set for a huge month ahead with World XC and NCAA indoors

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Four years ago, as a 16-year-old, Ky Robinson came two spots shy of qualifying for Australia’s U20 team for World XC in Aarhus. With the next champs at home in Australia, Robinson was determined not to miss it. Robinson, who has finished 14th and 10th at the last two NCAA XC champs for Stanford, has been busy this winter. Back in December, he ran a 5,000 pb of 13:11.53, putting him #3 on the all-time NCAA indoor list (Tennessee’s Dylan Jacobs subsequently bumped him down to #4). In January, he ran pbs in the mile (3:55.87) and 3,000 (7:49.72), and once he returns from World XC, he’ll likely take a crack at another fast 3,000 to so he could run a potential 3,000/5,000 double at NCAAs on March 10-11.

But in the midst of all that, Robinson wanted to run World XC at home. He flew in from Stanford and arrived in Australia Monday morning. He ran the course on Thursday, and on Saturday a number of friends and family will make the trip from his hometown of Brisbane (600 miles north) to watch him take on the world.

“It’s going to be magical,” Robinson said.

Robinson has run two NCAA championships at Oklahoma State, considered the toughest NCAA course in recent memory, and believes the Bathurst course isn’t all that different (though the footing here is significantly worse).

“I’ve heard a lot people saying it’s the toughest course they’ve ever seen,” Robinson said. “But I feel like it’s a bit overhyped. Don’t get me wrong, it is tough. There’s a lot of hills and it’s going to separate the boys from men. But it’s one of those ones where if you know how to handle it, you can prepare for it and go after it.

“I feel like if you take out the sand, take out the mud and all the fun stuff they’ve added in here, I feel like OSU’s a little bit tougher. But we’ll see if that mud pit takes more out of you on Saturday.”

Stephen Haas provides a Weini Kelati update: “A good result is to come out of here healthy”

At the start of 2023, coach Stephen Haas was optimistic that Weini Kelati, whom he coaches as part of Under Armour’s Dark Sky Distance team, would be able to to something big at this year’s World Cross Country Championships. Kelati has a strong XC background (Foot Locker champ in HS, NCAA champ at New Mexico) and was coming off a stellar fall in which she set a course record at the USATF 5K road champs in New York and posted a second straight victory at the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving.

But Kelati developed an ankle injury before the USA XC champs on January 21, which limited her to 5th in a race she entered as a considerable favorite. While Haas said she’s in a better place now than at USA XC, her fitness isn’t where it would he if she had been fully healthy this winter.

“We’ve had this one ligament in her ankle that’s been bothering her that has then thrown off her hip,” Haas said. “We’ve been working with John Ball and he’s got her feeling a lot better. The ankle, when it gets really aggravated, it messes up her stride and then that causes the hip and that’s what’s actually really painful, it’s not so much the ankle.”

The main aim, Haas said, is for Kelati to come out of this race healthy after five challenging loops around the course.

“She’s a competitor and I think she’s going to come out here and run hard no matter what,” Haas said. “I know you’re going to get 100% out of her on race day.”

More: Full 2023 World XC Coverage including race previews, course tours and on-site interviews.

We are doing a live preview show from Australia at 11 p.m. US ET on Thursday night:

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