2024 World XC Men’s Preview: Ugandans Cheptegei & Kiplimo to Battle in Belgrade

World Half champ Sabastian Sawe of Kenya and 12:40 man Berihu Aregawi are also running

The World Cross Country Championships — aka the World’s Greatest Footrace — are upon us again. COVID postponements meant that we went four years between the 2019 edition in Denmark and the 2023 edition in Australia, but those postponements also mean that we get World XC in back-to-back years with this Saturday’s championships in Belgrade coming just 13 months after the last edition.

The road to the 2024 championships was not smooth. Initially, the meet was awarded to the cities of Medulin and Pula in Croatia, but World Athletics pulled the event in September, stating that “preparations have not advanced sufficiently” for the event to go forward. Thankfully, Belgrade — which hosted a successful World Indoors in 2022 — stepped up and saved the event for 2024.

I say “thankfully” because, in case you forgot, the last World XC was an absolute bangerBeatrice Chebet blew by Letesenbet Gidey to win the women’s race when the latter tied up just meters from the finish line. Jacob Kiplimo imposed his will on a tough field in apocalyptic conditions. The US men’s and women’s U20 teams both ended lengthy medal droughts.

That day in Bathurst was a reminder of what makes World XC so great: you must be ready for anything. The women had to be ready for heat and humidity. The men had to be ready for rain and wind. Everybody had to be ready for uneven footing and rollercoaster hills.

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On paper, the Belgrade course, tucked into Park Prijateljstva on the south bank of the Danube, seems flatter and more forgiving (the name certainly is — Prijateljstva translates to “Friendship” in English). But no one who signed up for a cross country race in Serbia in March could have expected a high of 78 degrees Fahrenheit on race day, which is what we’ll get this weekend. That’s World XC for you.

As usual, the men’s race figures to be a battle between distance superpowers Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Kenya are the defending team champions, but the biggest prize — the men’s individual title — has gone to Uganda in each of the past two editions, and both 2019 champ Joshua Cheptegei and 2023 champ Jacob Kiplimo are back this year. World Half champ Sabastian Sawe leads the Kenyan team alongside reigning U20 champ Ishmael Kipkirui, who is stepping up to the senior ranks for the first time. Ethiopia will rely on 2023 silver medalist Berihu Aregawi (12:40 5k pb), 26:45 man Tadese Worku, and surprising trials champion Boki Diriba.

The US, meanwhile, is sending one of its weakest squads in recent memory, with most top Americans choosing to focus on the Olympic Marathon Trials, World Indoors, or chasing the Olympic 10,000 standard. US champ Cooper Teare ran USA Indoors  (but did not make the Worlds team), leaving 8:13 steepler Anthony Rotich and Ahmed Muhumed (13:16/27:56 pbs) to lead the way for Team USA.

At LetsRun.com, we view World XC as one of the jewels of the sport and as always, we’ll have boots-on-the-ground coverage from Serbia starting on Thursday. Here’s what you need to know about the men’s race at World XC.

Race details

What: 2024 World Athletics Cross Country Championships
When: Saturday, March 30, 2024
Where: Friendship Park, Belgrade, Serbia
How to watch in the US: Live on CNBC/Peacock
*Course map *TV/streaming information

Schedule (all times US Eastern)

6:00 a.m. Women’s U20 race
6:35 Men’s U20 race
7:15 Mixed relay
7:45 Women’s senior race
8:30 Men’s senior race
12 noon ET: LetsRun.com Live Reaction Show From Belgrade – This is tentative but we think we’ll break down the action for you at 12 noon ET. To catch is on demand as a podcast, join our Supporters Club.

Men’s preview: Cheptegei v Kiplimo in clash of the titans

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Between them, the Ugandan duo of Joshua Cheptegei and Jacob Kiplimo have won every major title and broken every world record from 5,000 meters to the half marathon. Cheptegei has done most of his damage on the track, winning three straight world 10,000 titles, Olympic 5,000 gold, and setting world records in the 5,000 and 10,000. Kiplimo is better on the roads, where he won the 2020 World Half title and set the half marathon world record of 57:31 in 2021 (he also earned 10,000 bronze at the 2021 Olympics and 2022 Worlds). One area where both have excelled is cross country: Cheptegei won the 2019 World XC title, defeating Kiplimo by four seconds in Aarhus, while Kiplimo turned the tables four years later with a dominant win in Bathurst as Cheptegei earned bronze.

Each is already a legend of the sport, which is why we should appreciate Saturday’s showdown — and applaud each of them for showing up to World XC, year after year. Many athletes run World XC as they climb the ranks of the sport, but fewer keep showing up once they’ve reached the summit — Mo Farah, for example, ran World XC seven times, but never once he became a world-beater on the track. Wake up for the race on Saturday morning and you’ll see the world’s best 10k man against the world’s best half marathoner (which Kiplimo still is, despite recent injuries).

Both men will have some extra motivation after the way the last seven months have played out. After dominating World XC last year and running a big 5,000 pb of 12:41 in Oslo in June, Kiplimo looked to be in the shape of his life. Then he injured his hamstring, which ruled him out of Worlds on the track and prevented him from defending his title at the World Half. Cheptegei was also in great form last year, running 12:41 in Lausanne and three-peating in the 10,000 at Worlds, but a foot injury ate into his buildup for his marathon debut in Valencia in December, where he ran an underwhelming 2:08:59.

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Kiplimo and Cheptegei are both healthy and in shape now. Kiplimo ran 26:48 to win the Valencia 10k back in January while Cheptegei ran 26:53 in a road 10k in Laredo, Spain, on March 16. Cheptegei was beaten convincingly in that race by Yomif Kejelcha (26:37), though to be fair to Cheptegei, Kejelcha was chasing the world record of 26:24 while Cheptegei seemed more interested in just making sure he hit the Olympic standard of 27:00.

Still, considering he has run slightly faster this year plus the beating he laid down at World XC last year, the 23-year-old Kiplimo deserves to be slight favorite over the 27-year-old Cheptegei.

Who else could win?

Cheptegei and Kiplimo are the biggest and most accomplished names, but there are a few other guys who could challenge them. The best of that group is Berihu Aregawi, who is looking to become the first Ethiopian champion since Imane Merga 13 years ago. Aregawi was 2nd last year in Bathurst, nine seconds behind Kiplimo but 11 seconds ahead of Cheptegei. He ran faster than either of them on the track last year — a world-leading 12:40 in Lausanne — but was only 4th (10k) and 8th (5k) at Worlds in August. In January, Aregawi defeated a solid field to win the Juan Muguerza XC meet in Spain but a week later only finished 3rd at the Ethiopian trials. A classic grinder, Aregawi has the right skillset to succeed in this race. If anyone is going to break up the Ugandans, it’s him.

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Kenya’s best hope is Sabastian Sawe. Seventh a year ago in Bathurst, Sawe followed that up by running 26:49 on the roads for 10k and winning the World Half Marathon title in October. More recently, he won the Kenyan trials on March 2. But as strong as Sawe is, he has not yet shown himself to be on the level of Cheptegei and Kiplimo. The field at last year’s World Half was not nearly as strong as usual, and when Sawe showed up to the Valencia Half Marathon three weeks later, he got spanked and finished 5th. Sawe did not run poorly, clocking 58:29, but that was 39 seconds behind 4th placer Selemon Barega.

It would be a shock to see anyone outside of Cheptegei/Chelimo/Aregawi/Sawe win in Belgrade, but here are a few other names who should be in the lead pack:

  • Thierry Ndikumwenayo, Spain: Ndikumwenayo, who represented Burundi until last year, has impressive track pbs of 7:25/12:55 and a lot of cross country experience, including a victory at the final World Athletics Cross Country Tour Gold meet in Albufeira on February 25 (he was also 9th at World XC in 2019). He failed to make the 5,000 final at Worlds last year but did break 13:00 three times in 2023.
  • Ishmael Kipkirui, Kenya: Kenenisa Bekele. Eliud Kipchoge. Geoffrey Kamworor. Jacob Kiplimo. What do all of those guys have in common? All won the U20 race at World XC, which is what Kipkirui did last year in Bathurst. Kipkirui, who was 10th in the 5,000 at Worlds last year, is clearly a huge talent, though he may be a better bet at the next World XC in Tallahassee in 2026. Kipkirui, who was 6th at the Kenyan trials, only turned 19 in February (he’s actually eligible for the U20 race in Belgrade).
  • Boki Diriba, Ethiopia: Diriba, who earned bronze in the U20 race last year, won the Ethiopian trials at age 19 in January. He has since turned 20, but anyone who wins the Ethiopian trials has to be taken seriously.
  • Nicholas Kipkorir, Kenya: Kipkorir has run 12:46/26:68 and was the 2022 Diamond League champion at 5,000 meters but barely made the Kenyan team for World XC. He was 8th at their trials in January and is only in Belgrade after others backed out.
  • Tadese Worku, Ethiopia: Worku won the world U20 3,000 title in 2021, has a 10,000 pb of 26:45 on the track, and he’s in shape right now — he ran 27:02 on the roads to win the Castellon 10K on February 25.

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The Americans

Because of the Olympic Trials/World Indoors/The TEN, a number of top Americans did not try out for the World XC team this year — of the top 10 finishers in the 5k/10k at USAs last year, only one (Ahmed Muhumed, 8th in the 5k) will be running on Saturday. Furthermore, US champ Cooper Teare elected to pass on World XC while US fourth-placer Morgan Pearson is focused on the Olympic triathlon this summer. That leaves a team of Anthony RotichAhmed MuhumedEmmanuel BorChristian AllenReid Buchanan, and Anthony Camerieri.

World XC has been a difficult meet for the American men. No US man has medalled in the senior race since 1982, and only two men have finished in the top 10 since 1995.

A more realistic aim for the top American is top 20, but even that has proven challenging. Across the last eight editions, six Americans have cracked the top 20. Four of those came in 2013 in the “Miracle on Dirt.” The other two came in 2017 (Sam Chelanga 11th, Leonard Korir 20th).

Top American man at World XC, 2009-23

Year Location Top American
2009 Amman Ryan Vail, 33rd
2010 Bydgoszcz Patrick Smyth, 34th
2011 Punta Umbria Ben True, 35th
2013 Bydgoszcz Ben True, 6th
2015 Guiyang Chris Derrick, 24th
2017 Kampala Sam Chelanga, 11th
2019 Aarhus Shadrack Kipchirchir, 34th
2023 Bathurst Sam Chelanga, 21st
Kevin Morris photo

Anthony Rotich, second at the US trials, is the top American contender in Belgrade and enters in the form of his life. Rotich was a four-time NCAA champion (three steeplechase, one mile) in college but his pbs had been largely stagnant since leaving UTEP in 2015. But last year, Rotich ran 8:13 in Monaco (his first steeple pb in 10 years) and in February ran 13:17 in Boston, his first 5k pb in nine years. Most recently and most impressively, he ran 27:08 two weeks ago at The TEN in California. If he is recovered from that effort, he could challenge for a top-20 spot this weekend.

Ahmed Muhumed is the other American worth watching. Muhumed was only a second behind Rotich at USA XC and beat him at the Valentine Invite 5k on February 10, running a pb of 13:16.

2023 USA XC champ Emmanuel Bor has come close to making US teams on the track and has strong pbs of 13:00/27:22, but he turns 36 next month and is beginning to show his age. This year, he has run 13:23 for 5k in Boston and ran 27:42 at The TEN.

Who isn’t coming

World Athletics wants the World Cross Country Championships to succeed. The last two editions, in Aarhus and Bathurst, featured creative courses designed by passionate local organizing committees. They were terrific events to attend as a spectator.

But there are two main problems with World XC.

1) Many of the best athletes do not view World XC as an important event

There were 19 men who finished in the top 10 at Worlds in either the 5,000 or 10,000 last year (Berihu Aregawi was top 10 in both). Of those 19, only four will run in the men’s senior race at World XC (a fifth, Hagos Gebrhiwet, is entered in the mixed relay).

Fisher ran The TEN on March 16 rather than World XC (Kevin Morris photo)

That’s not to say that there is no talent at World XC. Cheptegei, Kiplimo, Sawe, and Aregawi are all terrific athletes. But many of the world’s top runners bypass the event, and a big part of that is due to incentives. Medaling at World XC is basically as hard as medaling on the track but not as financially rewarding. There’s also an opportunity cost — prioritizing World XC means not prioritizing other events. You can debate the extent to which that opportunity cost exists (Weini Kelati ran The TEN and is still doing World XC; Joshua Cheptegei ran a road 10k two weeks ago and is still doing it), but it’s an Olympic year and every athlete is going to do what they believe is in their best interest to succeed at the Olympics.

American star Grant Fisher, who chose to run The TEN instead of World XC in order to get the Olympic standard ran, explained the calculus on the LetsRun.com Track Talk Podcast earlier this year:

If I didn’t have that in front of me having to get the standard, yeah, US indoors, World Indoors, World Cross, all those things would be on the table, and those would be really fun. It’s a shame that not the very best athletes are at every single one of these events. But it’s an incentive conversation, even boiling down to our contracts. You’re not really allowed to talk about contracts, but I guarantee everybody’s contract incentivizes the Olympics the most over World Indoors or World Cross. So nobody’s gonna take big risks in an Olympic year like that. 

2023 Worlds 5,000 final

Name Country 2024 WXC?
1. Jakob Ingebrigtsen Norway No (coming off injury)
2. Mohamed Katir Spain No (doping ban)
3. Jacob Krop Kenya No
4. Luis Grijalva Guatemala No (The TEN)
5. Yomif Kejelcha Ethiopia No (Laredo 10K)
6. Hagos Gebrhiwet Ethiopia Yes*
7. Moh Ahmed Canada No (The TEN)
8. Berihu Aregawi Ethiopia Yes
9. Jimmy Gressier France No (Lille 10K)
10. Ishmael Kipkirui Kenya Yes

2023 Worlds 10,000 final

Name Country 2024 WXC?
1. Joshua Cheptegei Uganda Yes
2. Daniel Ebenyo Kenya No
3. Selemon Barega Ethiopia No (World Indoors)
4. Berihu Aregawi Ethiopia Yes
5. Benard Kibet Kenya No
6. Moh Ahmed Canada No (The TEN)
7. Rodrigue Kwizera Burundi No
8. Nicholas Kimeli Kenya Yes
9. Yann Schrub France No
10. Birhanu Balew Bahrain No

*Entered in mixed relay

2) Most European federations do not even try to field competitive teams

This is somewhat related to the first reason. If you do see a top track athlete running World XC, they probably hail from Ethiopia, Kenya, or Uganda. And yes, those federations have more world-class distance runners than most, but the federations also take World XC seriously.

In a related note, the top 20 men’s finishers at 2023 World XC in Australia all represented African countries. That’s not a problem in and of itself — African nations are always going to do well at World XC. The problem is that most European countries have chosen to give up on World XC. At 2019 World XC in Aarhus — a simple trip for most European federations — only three federations fielded a scoring team in the men’s senior race: Spain, Great Britain, and Denmark (the hosts).

This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. European nations don’t send anyone to World XC, which leads to African domination, which leads to European nations not sending anyone to World XC which leads to…

The picture is not much brighter in 2024. Great Britain is the only European nation sending a full team of six in either the men’s or women’s senior races. Spain (five men, four women) and France (four men) are the only other European countries entering enough athletes to score in the senior races. Compare that to 14 senior men’s teams at the European XC champs in December.

To Seb Coe‘s credit, World Athletics recognizes this is an issue and there is talk of moving World XC to December or January to encourage more participation. The next edition, in Tallahassee, is scheduled for January 10, 2026.

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