Linet Masai en route to victory at the Kenyan World XC trials in Nairobi (Stafford Ondego (The Standard)) © Copyright

Masai should keep her friends close – but not too close! - Punta Umbria Women's Race Preview

At some stage of the senior women’s race at Punta Umbria 2011, you’d fancy Linet Masai will have to start thinking about who her real friends are.

Second in each of the past two years, both times beaten by a Kenyan team-mate who has tagged along as Masai has destroyed the rest of the competition then sprinted past with barely a ‘thank you’, Masai knows she has to beat her friends, as much as her rivals, if she is to claim the title.

Masai wants the World Cross Country title to add to her 10,000 metres gold from the Berlin 2009 World championships. Make no mistake about that.

“I believe I was denied my gold medals in Amman (2008) and Poland (2009) and I’m still bitter about it. It is my hope the disappointment will be erased in Spain,” Masai said after winning the Kenyan selection trial.

Team-mates Florence Kiplagat (Amman) and Emily Chebet (Bydgoszcz) denied Masai at the last and this year’s nemesis may already be lurking in the shadows in the form of World champion at 5000 metres, Vivian Cheriuyot.

Cheruiyot - main opponent?

Cheruiyot won the junior World-Cross Country crown in Vilamoura in 2000, but also has unfulfilled ambitions in the senior race.

“I have never won a (senior) World Cross Country medal in my career and this year, I decided to go for it. I have fulfilled my first objective of making the team and now, it is to focus for victory at the training camp,” Cheruiyot said after finishing second to Masai in the trial.

The pair have raced three times this year, the trials’ win giving Masai a 2-1 edge. She won in the BUPA Great Edinburgh race and Nairobi, Cheruiyot took the honours in Seville’s Cross Italica in between.

If these two outstanding athletes are looking for inspirational models, Ingrid Kristiansen and Lynn Jennings are two they could consider.

Norway’s Kristiansen is one of the finest all-round female distance runners in history. A World champion at 10,000 metres in 1987, a World road champion in 1988 and a marathon World record setter in 1985. Yet she did not win her one and only World Cross Country title until her ninth try in Auckland in 1988.

Jennings did not take quite as long to break through, but the American had finished second, fourth, fourth and sixth in consecutive years before breaking through to win in Aix-les-Bains in 1990, the first of three wins on the trot.

Melkamu leads Ethiopian squad

Others, of course, will not be prepared to concede the race to the two Kenyan track World champions. Ethiopia’s Meselech Melkamu has a great record in the race and, with three-time long-course champion Tirunesh Dibaba not in the team this year, comes as unequivocally her nation’s top hope.

As a five-time bronze medallist (four in the long-course race), Melkamu would also love to see her name on the gold medal.

There is a Dibaba in the Ethiopian entries – two-time junior champion Genzebe, the younger sister of Ejegayehu and Tirunesh – is named in her first senior squad.

Other individuals who should do well include Shalane Flanagan (USA), 12th last year, Bahrain’s Maryam Jamal, ninth in Amman and winner of the IAAF permit race in Diekirch last month, while Spain’s veteran Nuria Fernandez, European champion at 1500 last year and fourth in Berlin, will lead the home country’s team.

Kenya (2009-10) and Ethiopia (2006-08) have won the last five team titles between them and 1-2 since 2006. The past five bronze medals, however, have gone to five different nations – Japan, Morocco, Australia, Portugal and USA. The loss of 2004 individual champion Benita Willis hits Australia’s hopes hard but, unless Spain or Britain can pull off an upset, the minor medal should be fought out between the other four again.

The US, with its top three scorers in Flanagan, Molly Huddle and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet back will be hard to beat. Spain was fourth in 2009, but tenth last year. How much can home support lift them.

Junior race

Kenya dominated both junior races in Bydgoszcz, finishing 1-2-3-4 in each. In reality, it is hard to see the junior women being challenged this time.

The trial was won in convincing fashion by Janeth Kisa and Kenya also has last year’s second (Purity Rionoripo) and fourth (Faith Kipyegon) back. Ethiopia has last year’s top two finishers – Genet Yalew (fifth) and Emebet Anteneh (sixth) – back, but Kenya still looks to have the edge.

Uganda took a break-through bronze medal last year ahead of Japan, Great Britain and the US. The bronze medal battle will be tight again this time.

As in the senior race, though, the junior competition should effectively split into two events – Kenya v Ethiopia for the win, the rest battling it out for third.

Len Johnson for the IAAF