Imane Merga of Ethiopia crosses the finish line to win the men's senior race in Punta Umbria (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Punta Umbría, Spain

The season’s not over for Merga – Punta Umbría 2011

The IAAF World Cross Country Championships traditionally heralds the climax, and the end of the cross country season, but Ethiopia’s 2011 senior men’s champion Imana Merga cannot relax and hang up his spikes just yet.

He still has one more race, the Cross Alà Dei Sardi in the eponymous Sardinian town next Sunday, where he is hoping to do better than his modest fifth place of last year.

Sardinia the last stop

“I was committed to running there even before I ran the World Cross Country Championships,” said Merga, smiling broadly after his victory in the Spanish resort of Punta Umbría.

“I guess it will be good for the organisers that I will be going there as the World champion but after that I will go home to Ethiopia, relax a bit and then start training for the summer.”

“I have not established my programme for the summer but the possibility of doubling over 5000m and 10,000m at the World Championships this summer is there for me.

“Perhaps I will have one race at the end of April and then I will start running in the Diamond League again,” added Merga, who won the Diamond Race for the 5000m last summer despite only two victories, in Rome and Oslo, in Samsung Diamond League meetings.

He, and his manager Gianni Demadonna, are currently looking around for fast 10,000m races so that he can establish his credentials for Daegu.

For a runner of his pedigree, his personal best of 27:15.94, which was set when he finished fourth at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, must surely be in danger.

Ambitions over 25 laps

Merga has not run over 25 laps of the track since his outing in the German capital nearly two years ago but looking at the people he left trailing in his wake in Punta Umbría, running well under the 27-minute barrier is surely not very far away.

In Punta Umbría, and despite the flat terrain it is worth remembering that this was a cross country race with obstacles and uneven ground, he passed the 10km point in 28:21 and still had one more 2km lap to the finish.

“It doesn’t seem like there are many good 10,000m races anywhere in the world where I can test myself but I do not have a qualifying time for Daegu at the moment and the Ethiopian 10,000m team will be selected by who has run the fastest time,” he added, emphasising the importance of finding an appropriate race sometime.

The 22 year-old Merga, who hails from the Oromia region which has produced many of Ethiopia’s top runners during the last two decades, is also the youngest winner of the World Cross Country Championships senior men’s title since his compatriot Kenenisa Bekele won at the age of 21 in 2004.

Apart from phenomenal Bekele, who was the senior men’s champion three times before the age of 22 as well as doing the double in the now defunct short course race every year from 2002 to 2004, the only other male champion younger than Merga in the last 30 years was another Ethiopian, Bekele Debele, in 1983.

Talented teenager

Consequently, it has been a relatively short sprint to the top for Merga, who has had to negotiate only one major hurdle.

After getting silver medals over 5000m and 10000m at a regional competition when he was 16, he was recruited by the Defence club and moved from his native town of Tulu Boro to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

The more advanced training methods and conditions of the metropolitan club clearly suited Merga as he was selected to go to the 2007 World Cross Country Championships in neighbouring Kenya, where he finished seventh in the junior race and was the first Ethiopian home as his country took the bronze medals in the team race.

Later that year, he finished third in the 10,000m at the African Junior Championships in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, being beaten by Kenya’s Matthew Kisorio and his compatriot Hunengaw Mesfin.

In a sense, he gained revenge for that defeat as on Sunday in Spain, both men finishing well behind him with Kisorio fourth and Mesdin eighth.

However, his progress was temporarily affected when his mother died the following winter and he withdrew from the Ethiopian team going to the 2008 IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

“It was a very bad time for me; my grief was so deep and I abandoned my training,” remembered Merga. He shortly afterwards also lost his father as well.

However, since the summer of 2009, he has been able to put the painful loss of his parents behind him, and he has gone from strength-to-strength, as was evident in Punta Umbría.

Phil Minshull for the IAAF