Geoffrey Kamworor winning the Senior Mens race at the IAAF World XC Championships in 2015.
On Sunday March 26th, Uganda hosts the 41st IAAF World Cross Country Championships at the Kololo Independence Grounds in the capital city of Kampala. It is the first time that Uganda has hosted an IAAF World Championships event, and the fifth time that an African country has hosted the Cross Country Championships.
While it’s true that LetsRun is on site and providing solid coverage for the event, I suspect that most running fans in the United States simply haven’t been paying much attention to these Championships. Unlike most of the world, the U.S. considers cross country to be a Fall sport, beginning in the heat of summer and ending in the chill of late November or early December. By late March, U.S. high school and college distance runners have wrapped up Indoor Track and have begun Outdoor Track practices. Post-collegiate and recreational runners are looking forward to road races and Spring marathons. It’s just hard to make room in the brain for more cross country.
Nevertheless, I’d encourage any running fan to pay attention to what’s happening in Kampala. The World Championships come around only once every two years, and all the races happen within a few hours of each other. It’s the most concentrated exhibition of distance running talent in the world, and it’s happening this Sunday.
If you’re still not intrigued, here are five story lines that I find particularly compelling heading into the 2017 Championships.
Kenya vs. Ethiopia
Like Yankees vs. Red Sox if those baseball teams were countries. Kenya vs. Ethiopia at the World Cross Country Championships is surely the greatest team rivalry in distance running. The modern XC rivalry began with the rise of African runners in the world ranks in the 1980s. From 1981 to 1985, Team Ethiopia won five straight senior men’s races. From 1986 to 2003 — 18 straight years — Team Kenya finished atop the podium. Ethiopia has won the last two world titles, the most recent a 20-20 score in 2015 that was broken by the higher finish of their fourth runner. No other country has won since England in 1980.
On the women’s side, since 1995 Kenya and Ethiopia have traded places at the top, with Ethiopia holding a slight overall edge based on a stretch of dominance where they won seven straight titles. Team Ethiopia also eked out a 17-19 victory in the 2015 race. The last team OTHER than Kenya or Ethiopia to finish as high as second? The United States in 2002, led by Deena Drossin’s individual silver.
On the junior side, the dominance is even more evident. Over the last 26 Under-20 men’s races, in 23 of them Kenya fished first and Ethiopia 2nd. In two of them, Ethiopia won and Kenya finished, and in 2007, Kenya won and Eritrea slipped by Ethiopia to take silver. In the Under-20 women’s races, since 1998 Kenya and Ethiopia have taken the top two places every year but one (2007), where again, Eritrea took silver behind Kenya and in front of Ethiopia.
But can the host country contend for Gold?
These championships are a really big deal for Uganda, and their teams and individuals will be unbelievably motivated to get on the podium. Do they have any chance?
Uganda’s senior men’s team is very strong, led by Joshua Cheptegei (who finished in 6th in Rio in the 10K, one place and two seconds behind Galen Rupp). Cheptegei should definitely be considered a contender for the win. The team also includes Timothy Toroitich, who has won two international cross country races this winter, and former Olympic and World Marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich.
What about the Americans?
Leonard Korir, who last month won the U.S. Cross Country Championships, say that he thinks the U.S. can win gold. Gotta love his confidence, but is he being realistic?
Well, it might be worth noting that the top four finishers at the U.S. Championships were born in Kenya and now train together. In addition to Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir, Sam Chelanga, and Stanley Kebenei, the team includes Trevor Dunbar and Scott Fauble.
It’s a very different team than the one that in 2013 pulled off the “Miracle on Dirt” in Bydgoszcz, Poland (yes, I had to look up the spelling). In that race, Ben True and Chris Derrick, among others, were outstanding in the mud and snow, and improbably earned the silver medal, relegating the Kenyan royalty to bronze. Sunday’s race will not be run on snow, and will also take place at roughly 1100 meters altitude, so things will be very different, but this year’s American men’s team looks very good, and doesn’t lack for confidence.
With no disrespect to the American women, the team doesn’t look capable of contending with the Kenyas and Ethiopias of the world. The team includes Elaina Balouris, Aliphine Chepkerker Bolton, Stephanie Bruce, Sarah Pagano, Emily Pritt, and Natosha Rogers.
My gut feeling is that if they can duplicate or exceed their fifth-place finish from two years ago, it would be a tremendous performance.
Can Geoffrey Kamworor defend his title?
No individual champion has repeated since Kenenisa Bekele in 2006, but Geoffrey Kamworor has an excellent chance to accomplish the feat.
Kamworor won in 2015, and seemed to establish himself as the runner most likely to challenge Mo Farah at 10,000m on the track. At that year’s world championships in Beijing, he came close, but in the end had to settle for silver behind the British runner.
Then in March 2016, Kamworor beat Farah and the rest of the world to win the World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff, running what was arguably the most impressive 13.1 mile race in history. His time of 59:10 was plenty fast, but two factors made the race seem almost super-human. First, he ran that time after falling at the start and having to sprint like mad through a sea of runners to rejoin the leaders; second, he ran the final miles in very poor conditions with, at times, sheets of cold rain slanting down, driven by the strong cross winds. He beat Farah in that race by over 40 seconds.
In the Rio Olympic 10000m final, Kamworor wasn’t a factor at all and ended up in 11th. He hasn’t raced much since, but seems confident after a third-place finish in the Kenya national championships a month ago.
If you haven’t already done so, I recommend you watch the highlights from the 2015 Mens Senior race and notice how Kamworor sprints ALL OUT for the first 400 meters or so. It’s literally breathtaking, but then he settles down and after loping through the middle of the race, destroys the rest of the field.
I know I’ve neglected the women’s race. It’s worth noting that Kenya looks especially strong, as they aim to take back the title that Ethiopia won in 2015. Like Kamworor, Kenya’s Agnes Tirop is seeking to defend her 2015 individual title, and if she does so, will be the first woman to win back-to-back since Tirunesh Dibaba in 2006.
The Mixed Relay
From 1998 to 2006, the World Championships included a 4K “short course,” race in addition to the semi-standard long distance races for the senior runners. Although that idea didn’t last long, it seems the IAAF continues to look for ways to fill out the program. This year’s innovation is a 4 x 2K mixed relay (two men, two women, in any order, to be determined shortly before race). I dunno. It seems like kind of a novelty event, rather than a championship event, but I’ll be happy to take that back if it produces exciting races.
Based on the quality of some of the runners on the mixed teams, maybe it will be something special, after all. Ethiopia, for example, will have 1500m world champion and record holder Genzebe Dibaba on one of the legs. (And in case you were wondering, Dibaba is no stranger to World Cross Country having twice won the junior race at the IAAF World Championships).
The Americans will have Rio 5000m silver medalist Paul Chelimo on their mixed relay team, along with Cory Leslie, Eleanor Fulton, and Marisa Howard. I don’t think they’ll have the speed to take on Kenya and Ethiopia, but it’s a brand new format, so who knows how it will play out?
So that’s my preview, informed by background from Letsrun, the IAAF, Wikipedia, and Elsewhere. If it whets your interest, and diverts you from thinking about that spring marathon in a month, here are some links to where you can read even more:
IAAF home for World Cross Country Championships
U.S. Champ Leonard Korir says the American Men can win gold
Media guide: Kampala 2017 Facts and Figures (PDF)