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Tergat runs into the History Books

Steven Downes for the IAAF

Belfast, Sunday March 28 – Paul Tergat laid claim to being possibly the greatest cross-country runner in history here in Belfast today when he won the IAAF senior men's title for an unprecedented fifth consecutive time, and so led the Kenya to their 14th successive team gold medals.

After the 29-year-old Kenyan businessman and Air Force corporal received his gold medal from IAAF President Dr Primo Nebiolo accompanied by the British Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, he described his latest achievement as "the toughest yet, but the best".

Tergat completed the 12-kilometre course in 38min 28sec, four seconds ahead of 20-year-old team mate Patrick Ivuti, who set much of the pace, while Paulo Guerra claimed Europe's first individual medal in this race for a decade with a brave run to place third in 38:46, helping his Portuguese team to bronze behind Kenya and Ethiopia.

By this sixth and final event of the weekend's racing, and after the heavy overnight and morning rain - what the Irish call "nice, soft weather" - the Barnett Demesne course was in parts a quagmire, causing even some of the world's most accomplished and experienced cross-country runners to slip and slide across the course, out of control. On one section of the course, where the runners turned to run along the contours of a steep slope, several found themselves careering helplessly into the route fencing.

But not Tergat. The champion always looked composed and elegant, hugging the inside line on the heaviest of the muddy stretches, as if the course markings were a hand rail with which to steady himself.

The early stages of the race did not require any definite burst of pace or change of speed. This was an attritional race, as challenger after challenger got stuck in the mud and dropped off the back of the lead pack. For a field of such a high calibre, the surprise was that so many top-class runners should drift off the back of the leading pack so quickly.

Within 3km, the leading pack comprised just five Kenyans, plus the former European cross-country champion from the host nation, Jon Brown. Before the race, Brown had outlined his ambition as making the top 10, with the hope that rain might help slow down the spring-heeled Africans so that he might have an improved chance.

Both Brown's wishes were granted - he would eventually place eighth - but by 5km (reached by the leaders - Ivuti, Tergat and Joshua Chelanga - in 15:37), the standard-bearer of European hopes was Guerra, accompanied by Evans Ruto and Paul Koech, the IAAF half-marathon champion.

Guerra, as much as Brown, relished the conditions. "I woke up and thought, 'What a lovely morning!' I love running in this weather, with the wind, the rain, the cold and the mud. I prefer it, it's my favourite type of course."

Guerra, European cross-country champion in 1994 and 1995, chased after the medals, but even from a relatively early stage never managed to close to less than seven seconds of the leading duo, although Chelanga succumbed to his relentless pursuit by the 8km point.

Behind these leading four, Ruto and Koech had become long detached, and another little knot of runners - Brown, Belgium's African-born Mohammed Mourhit and Habte Jifar of Ethiopia - were a futher 30sec adrift.

That this was a true test of cross-country running was illustrated by Tergat's split time at the 10km marker, 31min 41sec, nearly five minutes slower than the former world record-holder can run for 10,000 metres on the track.

Not that Tergat ever looked concerned. Apart from the occasional glance at his wristwatch or over his shoulder to check on Guerra's progress, the champion was content to follow his young team mate's footsteps until, with the finish almost in view, he launched his decisive move, galloping down the home straight and swiftly opening a gap of 30 metres by the line.

"The conditions were incredible," said Tergat, who now has a collection of 12 World Cross Country gold medals, team and individual. "I didn't want to go too fast too early. I just wanted to see how things worked out. When I saw Patrick was with me, I let him take the pace. I felt in control, I wasn't worried. I just had to concentrate on not making any mistakes.

"It was so tough today, and I am so pleased to win because I didn't expect it this time, especially when I saw the conditions."

Indeed, even allowing for differences in terrain and marginal differences in race distance between venues, Tergat's winning time tells a story of the severity of the Belfast course. This was the slowest winning performance since 1989, when the IAAF World Cross Country Championships were staged on a similar quagmire in Stavanger, Norway.

There, the previous Kenyan giant of cross-country, John Ngugi, won his fourth world title (he would win his fifth in 1992) ahead of Britain's Tim Hutchings, who until Guerra's performance here had remained the last European individual medallist in the senior men's long race.

As Jon Brown said, "This is what cross-country is supposed to be about. The top guys still came out on top."