The World’s Greatest Footrace Is (Finally!) Back. Here’s What to Look For At 2023 World XC.

By Jonathan Gault
February 14, 2023

It’s been way, way too long since the last World Cross Country Championships. From 1973-2011, it was an annual affair. After 2011, it went biennial. Now, thanks to COVID-19, we’re going on almost four years since the last World XC in Aarhus (one of the best editions ever). After being postponed twice, it’s finally here: the 2021 2022 2023 World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst, Australia.

One of the great things about World XC is that it is a truly global event. The last three editions were staged in China, Uganda, and Denmark. The next three are in Australia, Croatia, and the United States. Five continents in six editions. Running through an Australian vineyard in 90-degree heat is a world away from racing up a Danish museum roof, but it’s still World XC.

American fans, it’s a 16-hour time difference between the US East Coast and Bathurst, so if you’re planning on watching live on Peacock, maybe get a pot of coffee ready if you live on the East Coast. West Coasters, you’ve got no excuses. The first race, the mixed relay, begins at 11:30 p.m. ET on Friday night, and the men’s senior race doesn’t start until 2:30 a.m. ET.

11:30 pm ET: Mixed 4 x 2k Relay
12:10 am ET: U-20 Girls’ Race
12:50 am ET: U-20 Boys’ Race
1:30 am ET: Women’s Race
2:30 am ET: Men’s Race

Here’s what you need to know ahead of the races this weekend.

The men’s race should be a classic

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The last World XC in Denmark was incredible, and one of the reasons why was the men’s senior race. A ton of studs showed up, they battled it out over one of the toughest courses in history, and in the end Joshua Cheptegei beat them all. Since then, Cheptegei has become the world’s finest long distance runner (non-marathon division), winning 10,000 world titles in 2019 and 2022, Olympic 5,000 gold in 2021, and breaking the 5,000 and 10,000 world records in 2020. You can’t have a proper World XC without Cheptegei back to defend his title, and he will be in Australia trying to repeat on Saturday.

Cheptegei will not have it easy, though. His countryman Jacob Kiplimo — the silver medalist in 2019 who has since gone on to win the World Half Marathon title in 2020 and set the half marathon world record of 57:31 in 2021 — is back as well.

Ethiopia is sending a number of its top athletes. The biggest name is Olympic 10,000 champ Selemon Barega, which is a bit of a surprise. Barega, who was 5th at World XC in 2019, was only 7th at the Ethiopian trials (6 run per team at World XC), and after he won the Juan Muguerza XC meet in Spain on January 8, he said he would likely not do World XC and race indoors instead. But it looks like the Ethiopian federation wanted Barega on the team, so he’s running — and there’s no denying World XC is way more exciting with the Olympic 10,000 champ in the field. In addition to Barega, Ethiopian trials champ Berihu Aregawi (7:26:12:50/26:46) should also contend for the win in Bathurst while 2021 world U20 3,000 champ Tadese Worku (World U20 XC silver in 2019) should be competitive as well.

The strongest team on paper belongs to Kenya, whose team is so deep that two-time World XC champ Geoffrey Kamworor could only finish 6th at the Kenyan trials.  Here is the Kenyan squad.

  1. Sabastian Sawe — Kenyan trials winner had virtually no results prior to 2022 but broke out in a big way last year, running 27:09 on the track (26:54 roads), 58:02 in the half (point to point), and spoiled Kibiwott Kandie‘s run at the one-hour WR by smoking Kandie and almost breaking the record himself.
  2. Daniel Ebenyo Simiu Ran 12:54 last year. 4th at World Indoors in 3k, 10th at World Outdoors in 5k.
  3. Kibiwott Kandie Former half marathon WR holder (57:32) won the Kenyan 10k trials last year with a 27:33 at altitude in Nairobi but didn’t get to run Worlds as he didn’t have the standard. Commonwealth bronze at 10k.
  4. Emmanuel Kiprop Kipruto PBs of 13:08/27:24 (road 10k).
  5. Nicholas Kipkorir Kimeli 2022 world leader (12:46) and Diamond League champion at 5,000.
  6. Geoffrey Kamworor Has slowed down a little due to injury in recent years but his resume is insane: 2-time World XC champ (2015, 2017), 3-time World Half champ (2014, 2016, 2018), 2-time NYC Marathon champ (2017, 2019).

Kenya’s two long-distance track medalists last year, Jacob Krop (5,000 silver) and Stanley Mburu (10,000 silver), aren’t on the squad but will hardly be missed.

The other name you should know for Saturday is Rodrigue Kwizera of Burundi. His track times are decent (13:20/27:25 pbs, plus 26:56 on the roads), but the dude lives for cross country. As a 17-year-old in 2017, he finished 39th at World XC (in the senior race). As a 19-year-old in 2019, he improved to 11th. Now 23, he’s entering his prime. He was only 16th at Worlds in the 10,000 last year, but since the fall of 2021, Kwizera has run 15 XC races. He’s won 11 of them (including four on this season’s World Athletics Cross Country Tour Gold) and never finished lower than 3rd (apart from one race where he was DQ’d). Burundi has never won a medal of any kind at World XC.

Not every big name will be there — Grant Fisher and Jakob Ingebrigtsen will be racing in Lievin on Wednesday instead of making the trip Down Under. Ingebrigtsen, who is the world 5000 champ and the king of European cross country having won the last two European titles, was only 12th in the junior race in 2019. Fisher, while a two-time Foot Locker champ in high school, never won an NCAA XC title and an American man hasn’t medalled at World XC since Alberto Salazar won silver in 1982.

Letesenbet Gidey leads women’s field

Gidey winning the U20 race at 2017 World XC (photo by Roger Sedres for IAAF)

24-year-old Ethiopian Letesenbet Gidey just might be the most talented female long distance runner the world has ever seen. She is one of just four women to win the U20 race at World XC twice (and the only two that have done it two years apart are all-time legends, herself and Faith Kipyegon), she’s the world champion at 10,000 meters, she’s the world record holder at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and she ran the fastest debut marathon in history last fall (2:16:49 in Valencia). And none of those things is her most impressive running accomplishment. That would be her 62:52 half marathon world record from 2021.

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Gidey has never won the senior race at World XC, but to be fair, she has only had one opportunity, placing 3rd back in 2019. After dominating the Ethiopian trials, she’ll be the favorite in Bathurst. A win would be a nice boost to her resume when we start debating how Gidey ranks among the sport’s all-time greats a few years down the line.

Three women figure to give Gidey the biggest challenge:

  • Beatrice Chebet, Kenya: Worlds silver medalist/Diamond League champion at 5,000 last year. She won the U20 race at the last World XC in 2019 but DNF’d the Kenyan trials in December.
  • Rahel Daniel, Eritrea: Ran huge pbs of 14:36 and 30:12 and finished 5th in Worlds 10,000 last year at age 20. 3-for-3 in XC races this year.
  • Francine Niyonsaba, Burundi: DSD runner has been virtually unbeatable on the track the last two years since moving up from the 800 but was a well-beaten 5th in her most recent XC race, the Juan Muguerza meet in Spain on January 8.

Two-time World XC champ Emily Chebet is also running, though she will turn 37 years old on race day and didn’t compete at all from 2015 to 2019 as she was serving a ban for the masking agent furosemide.

The Aussie relay will be favorites for gold

This is the first World XC ever held in Australia, and the home team is taking it very seriously. The men’s senior team includes Jack Rayner, who set the Aussie 10,000 record of 27:16 last year, and Brett Robinson, who ran 2:07:31 to set the Aussie marathon record in Fukuoka in December. Two of the top Aussies in the NCAA are also entered – Stanford’s Ky Robinson (10th NCAA XC, 13:11 5k) and New Mexico’s Amelia Mazza-Downie (22nd NCAA XC, 15:18 5k).

The event Australian fans should be watching closest, however, is the mixed-gender 4 x 2k relay. Stewart McSweyn (3:29.51 1500 pb) and Ollie Hoare (3:30.12 1500 pb) are two of the best milers on the planet and rank 1-2 on the all-time Aussie 1500 list. Both are running the relay in Bathurst. So is Australian women’s 1500 record holder Jessica Hull (3:58.81 pb). The final member of the team is no slouch, either: Abbey Caldwell, who ran 4:04 last year and won the Australian 1500 title at the age of 20. That team should be favored for gold.

Ethiopia and Kenya will contend as always, though both teams will be counting on youngsters to come through for them. Ethiopia has Mekides Abebe (bronze in women’s steeple at Worlds last year) and Getnet Wale (7:24 3k/8:05 steeple pbs) but will also be counting on 19-year-old Adehana Kasaye and 17-year-old Birke Haylom. The good news for Ethiopia is Kasaye (3:36 pb) was 4th at World U20s last year in the 1500 and Haylom (4:02 pb) won World U20s last year as a 16-year-old. 

Kenya could be similarly young. Steeple WR holder Beatrice Chepkoech was part of Kenya’s winning team in the first edition of the 4 x 2k relay in 2017 and was 7th at World XC in 2019, but she was not the same runner last year, running just two steeples, neither faster than 9:24. The other three legs: Daniel Munguti (3:36 1500), 18-year-old Brenda Chebet (4:04 1500, World U20 silver), and 18-year-old Emmanuel Wanyonyi (1:43 800, 4th at 2022 Worlds). A 2k XC leg might seem a little long for Wanyonyi, but Kenya actually held a trials race for this team back in December, and he won it in 5:23. The fact that the Kenyans held a trials should worry the Aussies – this was not a team of athletes slapped together by accident but a squad that has known this race is coming for months.

Expect hot conditions and an easier course than last time

Bathurst isn’t in the Outback, but it is not one of Australia’s better known towns. Located 120 miles west of Sydney, the city of 37,000 is best known for the Mount Panorama auto racing circuit, which is where the race will be held on Saturday: the entire XC course is located in the infield of the auto racing track.

As usual, the course consists of a 2k loop that will be run multiple times and includes a few features designed to lend local flavor to the event. There’s a sandy “Bondi Beach” section, a muddy water crossing known as “The Billabong,” but the part I’m most excited to check out when I get to Australia is a portion of the course that runs through a vineyard. The gaps between the vines are only a couple meters wide, so athletes will get their choice of three parallel paths to follow during that section – making it the ideal place to throw in a surge. There may even be some kangaroos on the course – they’ve been known to roam the Mount Panorama grounds.

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Athletes will get to pick which path they take through the vineyard (image courtesy World XC media guide)

The course is not as hilly as Aarhus, but there’s definitely some climbing as every loop includes an elevation rise of at least 20 meters, including a tough one to begin the race (full elevation profile here). The toughest component could be the weather. February 18 is in the middle of the Australian summer, and the high for Saturday in Bathurst is forecast at 94 degrees (34.4 C), which is the expected temp at 2 pm local. The mixed relay starts at 3:30 local and the U20 races are at 4:10 and 4:50. When the senior women’s race starts at 5:30 p.m., the temp is expected to drop to 88. Even at 6:30 when the senior men start, it’s still going to be 82 as the sun doesn’t set until 7:50 so it could be challenging, especially for those northern hemisphere athletes who have been preparing in wintry weather.

The good news is it’s a  dry heat as the dew point at 4:30 p.m. will be just 53 degrees (26% humidity). As the temperature drops, the dew point will rise however as at 6:30 when the men’s race starts, the dew point will be up to 60 (46% humidity).

Who else isn’t at World XC?

Previously, I mentioned how Fisher and Ingebrigtsen won’t be at World XC. Here are a few others who won’t be there.

Uganda’s world 5,000 bronze medalist Oscar Chelimo also won’t be there, which is a little strange considering he’s already run two cross races this year.

Obiri was won-and-done at World XC

On the women’s side, defending champ Hellen Obiri said she was done with cross country in 2019 after adding World XC gold to her World Indoor and Outdoor titles. She’s running the RAK Half this weekend instead. Olympic 5,000/10,000 champ Sifan Hassan isn’t running either – she’s never run World XC and hasn’t run an XC race of any kind since 2015.

Sadly, none of the Americans who made Worlds on the track last year are running World XC, with most – including athletes like Fisher, Joe Klecker, Woody Kincaid, Alicia Monson, and Elise Cranny – opting to run an indoor season and/or chase the World/Olympic standards at The TEN on March 4. If they hit the Olympic 10,000 standard there, their 2024 Olympic spots will be very close to becoming a reality as only a tiny number of Americans will hit it. Two-time NCAA XC champ Conner Mantz is preparing for the Boston Marathon.

World XC is one of the great spectacles in our sport, and if the best athletes like Cheptegei and Gidey are going down there, everyone else should too. The idea of skipping World XC to chase qualifying marks for Worlds on the track is a bit silly – World XC is a world championship too, after all.

On the other hand, it’s been pretty exciting to see athletes like Kincaid, Monson, and Yared Nuguse break records this indoor season. And for those who are skipping World XC to try to hit the Olympic standard at The TEN…well, the Olympics is the biggest event in our sport, and there aren’t many opportunities to hit the 10k standard. Can you really blame them for doing everything they can to qualify for the Olympics?

The real shame should be directed toward some of the federations. Guess how many European countries are entering a full team in the men’s senior race? Zero. Heck, only five European countries are sending anyone in the senior races. No Germany. No France. No Turkey, even though they’re more than willing to clean up at the European champs every year. Here’s the full list of European entries across all five races:

Men’s senior race
Spain – 5
Denmark – 2
Great Britain – 1
Latvia – 1

Women’s senior race
Great Britain – 6
Spain – 5
Estonia – 1

Men’s U20 race
Great Britain – 5
Spain – 4

Women’s U20 race
Great Britain – 5
Spain – 4

Mixed relay
Great Britain

At least Spain and GB sent teams in every race (except GB in the men’s senior race). Yes, Australia is a long way to travel. But Australia has sent scoring teams in the senior races to every World XC since 2010. It would be nice if a few more federations repaid the favor now that it’s Australia’s turn to host.

Reminder, you can run well at World XC and Worlds in the same year

Top athletes who don’t show up to World XC have given a number of excuses through the years for why they don’t run the meet. But hampering your preparation for a track race that’s months away should not be one of them, particularly in the year 2023 as world xc was moved up by more than a month (it was held on March 30th in 2019).

Across the last two editions, 10 athletes who ran the long race at World XC have gone on to medal at the World Championships later that year, including gold medals in every event from the 1500 to the marathon. All 10 of those eventual medalists finished in the top 10 at World XC.

Athlete Year World XC finish Worlds result
Joshua Cheptegei 2019 1st 1st, 10,000
Selemon Barega 2019 5th 2nd, 5,000
Rhonex Kipruto 2019 6th 3rd, 10,000
Hellen Obiri 2019 1st 1st 5,000, 5th 10,000
Letesenbet Gidey 2019 3rd 2nd, 10,000
Beatrice Chepkoech 2019 7th 1st, steeple
Muktar Edris 2017 6th 1st, 5,000
Faith Kipyegon 2017 6th 1st, 1500
Agnes Tirop 2017 5th 3rd, 10,000
Rose Chelimo 2017 9th 1st, marathon

That’s it for now. Check back later this week for boots-on-the-ground coverage from Australia. We are doing a live preview show from Australia at 11 p.m. US ET on Thursday night:

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

Editor’s note: On 2/16 at 8 pm EST, we updated the weather forecast to the latest info.

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