Geoffrey Mutai crosses the line for victory in the men's 12km race at 2011 Kenya Police Interdivisional Cross Country Championships (Ignatius Kemboi) © Copyright

Mutai, Mesfin or Medhin? - Punta Umbria Men’s Races Preview

The 2011 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbría, Spain, will definitely see a new name crowned as the senior men’s champion as no previous winner will be on the start line.

In the absence of any former champions, there is no clear-cut favourite but Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai and Ethiopia’s Hunegaw Mesfin have showed that they are in good form by winning their respective national trials last month.

Is this marathon man Mutai’s moment?

Mutai was a hugely impressive winner at the Kenyan National Cross Country Championships in Nairobi on February 19, crossing the line 45 seconds ahead of his rivals.

The 29-year-old policeman was a late starter at serious running, only coming to attention as a competitor four years ago, but he has since made up quickly for lost time.

He is best known as a marathon runner rather than a cross country exponent, despite his success this winter.

Mutai won the Eindhoven Marathon in 2008 and 2009 in the excellent times of 2:07:50 and 2:07:01 before moving to an even higher level 11 months ago when he returned to The Netherlands and finished second at the Rotterdam Marathon in 2:04:55, the sixth fastest time ever.

For good measure, he also came second in the Berlin Marathon last September in 2:05:10.

There is no doubting Mutai’s talent but two questions that have to be asked prior to his arrival in Punta Umbría are: will 12km be too short for him and will his lack of international cross country exposure also count against him?

The IAAF World Cross Country Championships are an occasion where experience is certainly an asset and Mutai has never before competed at the event.

The last time a runner making his debut at the Championships triumphed in the senior men’s race was Mutai’s fellow Kenyan John Ngugi back in 1986.

Mesfin carries Ethiopia’s hopes

Mesfin, 22, was almost as dominating a winner of the Ethiopian trails in Addis Ababa on February 20, winning by 13 seconds and his margin of victory could have been as much as doubled had he not eased off in the final kilometre and waved to the crowd in the home straight as the line approached, while those behind him battled hard for the remaining places on the podium.

After finishing 10th in Amman in 2009 and then 19th in Bydgoszcz last year, Mesfin appears to have improved this winter and it would be a big surprise if there wasn’t a single figure beside his name in the results this time around.

“I hope we will change the World Cross Country result which was dominated by the Kenyans last year," said Mesfin after his victory in the Ethiopian capital, making no secret of the fact that he and his team-mates are looking for revenge following Kenya’s unprecedented clean sweep of all eight titles – the four individual gold medals and four team crowns – in 2010.

There is no Joseph Ebuya in the Kenya team this year. After winning four of his six cross country races this winter prior to the Kenya trails, the 2010 senior men’s champion suffered stomach problems during his race and failed to finish in Nairobi, with the team selectors then deciding to leave him at home.

However, the two men who were alongside Ebuya on the podium in Bydgoszcz, Eritrean silver medallist Teklemariam Medhin and Uganda’s bronze medallist Moses Kipsiro are in their respective teams, and will be looking to again challenge their East African rivals for the medals.

Medhin showed good form before the New Year, winning three out of four top-class races in Spain and Portugal, but was less impressive when he could only finish 11th at the famous Cross Internacional de Italica near Sevilla, an IAAF World Cross Country Permit Meeting, on January 16, his last competitive outing.

He has since been putting in the miles and sharpening up at home in the last two months but, before he returned to Eritrea, he had the chance to visit the Punta Umbría course as a guest of the local organisers.

"I want to win the World Championship in Spain; it would be fantastic as I spend some time here based in Madrid. This is a fast circuit with perfect grass. It's a good course to run fast,” said Mehdin.

Kipsiro suffers knee worries

In addition to his third place last year, Kipsiro took the silver medal in 2009 and so is obviously motivated to complete his full set with a gold medal.

By contrast to those men expected to be his main rivals, Kipsiro has kept a relatively low profile since he won the 5000m and 10,000m double at the Commonwealth Games in October.

This year, his only race so far has been the Ugandan Cross Country Championships in Jinja on February 12, where he won his fourth successive title despite a slight knee problem sustained in the gym at the end of last year.

“I am just praying for good health and hard training ahead of the World Cross Country in Spain. I was not fully fit for the Jinja race because of knee problems,” Kipsiro told local media a few days after the race, although his 32-second winning margin suggested that there was nothing fundamental wrong with his fitness.

All the indications point towards the runners from the four East African countries dominating proceedings but athletes from other countries will want to show they are not there just for fun at the Spanish holiday resort.

European hopes of a place in the top 10 appear to lie with Spain’s Ayad Lamdassem and Portugal’s Yousef El Kalai, with both men originally from Morocco, and the pair were second and third respectively at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships just across the border in the Portuguese town of Albufeira in December.

Bahrain have Ali Hasan Mahboob, the 2009 Asian Games 10,000m champion who also had an excellent run to finish sixth in Bydgoszcz in their team and he could again among the top places.

Team contest favours Kenya

Kenya again look the favourites to take the team title that they have won for the last five years, and 23 out of the last 25 years, with a strong squad that also includes Matthew Kisorio and Vincent Chepkok, who were second and third behind Mutai at the Kenyan trials. The latter was also the second fastest man in the world over 5000m last year.

Paul Tanui and Hosea Macharinyang, eighth and ninth in Bydgoszcz 12 months ago, are also in Kenya’s eight-man squad, with six runners to be declared prior to the race.

Ethiopia were relegated to third place in the team race 12 months ago by neighbours Eritrea, who equalled their best ever result first achieved in 2006, and will be determined to try to challenge Kenya, perhaps even regaining the title they last held in 2005.

Also wearing the familiar green vest will be this winter’s indoor sensation Yenew Alamirew, who ran a 7:27:80 3000m at the IAAF Indoor Permit Meeting in Stuttgart last month, the fastest time in the world this year, and Imane Merga, last year’s Samsung Diamond Race 5000m winner.

Eritrea have Samuel Tsegay and Kiflom Sium in their team again along with Medhin, the pair finishing fifth and 24th last year and being part of their silver medal scoring quartet.

Koech the clear choice among the juniors

The junior men’s races are usually difficult to predict but this time around there is no problem pointing to a favourite: Kenya’s Isaiah Koech.

Koech finished fourth 12 months ago and he is the highest placed runner from Bydgoszcz who will run in Punta Umbría.

However, it is his indoor feats in the last few months which consolidate his status as the one to watch. The 2009 IAAF World Youth Championships 3000m gold medallist ran a 5000m World junior indoor best of 12:53.29 in Düsseldorf on February 11 and followed it up two days later with a 3000m World junior best of 7:37.50 in Gent.

Not surprisingly, he also won at the Kenyan trials with relative ease a week later, although Justin Cheruiyot was only four seconds in arrears and should also be in contention for a medal on the global stage.

Kenya filled the first four places in the junior men’s race in Bydgoszcz for a perfect score and their 12th successive title in the category and it would be no surprise to see them achieve something similar this time around.

Tesfaye Cheru, who won the junior men’s race at the Ethiopian trials, could lead the challenge from the rest of the world. He is no doubt hoping his compatriots will be able to pack well enough, with Ethiopia having got their four scorers in the top 10 home last year, to be able to claim at least another silver medal after having finished second in the team standings for 11 of the last 12 years.

It is also particularly poignant that Spain will stage the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2011, 30 years after it was the host for the first time.

The Hipódromo de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of the Spanish capital Madrid was the venue in 1981, with Spain also staging the Championships in the Basque city of Amorebieta 12 years later, and it was the first time that Ethiopia and Kenya entered the championship - with both countries only sending senior men’s teams - which they have come to dominate.

Phil Minshull for the IAAF