Hailu Mekonnen wins the World Junior title in 1999 (© Getty Images)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia There were few major surprises in this year’s Ethiopian National Cross Country Championships at the weekend, 1 & 2 March.
With the absence of last year’s double World gold medallist Kenenisa Bekele due to illness, reigning World Junior Cross Country Champion Gebregziabher Gebremariam took full advantage to win the 12km Senior Men’s race on Sunday. In the men’s short 4km course race, Hailu Mekonnen won on Saturday, while last year’s Great Ethiopian Run winner Werknesh Kidane looked invincible in the women’s 8km race.
Cool, windy conditions at the Jan Meda racecourse made the venue a perfect setting for cross country running on Saturday, as the action kicked off with the 6km Junior Women race. Race favourite Tirunesh Dibaba looked to be on her way to a win, until little-known Meselech Mekamu came from nowhere to take first place in 20:30:46, with Dibaba finishing less than a second behind. Sintayehu Ejigayehu came in a close third.
The second race of the day brought together Ethiopia’s finest senior women cross country runners for the 8kms. The star-studded field included the likes of Werknesh Kidane, Eyerusalem Kumar, Merima Denboba, Meseret Defar, and Aisha Gigi, and the race didn’t disappoint.
The race begun at a slow tempo with the athletes cautious to see who would emerge at the front of the pack. But at the end of the first lap (3km-mark), a leading pack of about six had pulled away from the rest with the un-fancied Aisha Gigi in front, closely followed by Kidane and Denboba.
By the end of the last lap, Gigi was still in the lead, but was quickly ebbing under pressure from the rest of the field. With 800m to go, Kidane produced a magnificent finishing kick leaving the rest of the pack behind and crossed the line in 27:02:82. Denboba beat Kumar to take second place in 27:12:36. Early race leader Gigi had to be content with fourth place.
The main attraction of the day, however, was the Senior 4km men’s race, and it was Hailu Mekonnen who returned to winning ways. He won the race in 11:36:64. Little-known Dema Woyesa and Abiyot Endale came in second and third respectively.
Afterwards, Mekonnen said that he was delighted with the win and said his injury nightmares were behind him. “The win showed me that I have hope for the future,” he said. “I had less than a week to prepare for this race after Birmingham (Indoor GP on 21 Feb) and I am satisfied with the outcome.”
Mekonnen also indicated that he might run both the long and short course races in Lausanne in a month’s time. “With the help of God and if I am in good in health, I will go for the double.”
On Sunday, the action kicked off with the 8km Junior Men. The race was won by Tesema Abshiro of the Banks Club in 23:29.62, with Solomon Molla and Endale Eshete finishing second and third respectively.
In the Women’s 4km race, Kidane sought to make it a double with another win but she was denied by 19-year old Tirunesh Dibaba, who crossed the finishing line in 13:16.54. Kidane came in a close second in 13:17:87 with Eyerusalem Kumar finishing third.
The last event was the eagerly awaited senior Men’s 12km Race, which featured reigning World Junior Cross Country Champion Gebregziabher Gebremariam, World 10,000m silver medallist Assefa Mezgebu, and Sileshi Sihin.
Mekonnen like Kidane in the women’s races was also going for a double triumph having won the 4km race the previous day.
To complete what was a star-studded field, Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop, Junior Bronze medallist in last year’s World Cross Country Championships was also taking part.
Two-time Olympic and four-time World 10,000m champion Haile Gebreselassie acted as the starter for the race, a contest which proved to be a battle of nerves. The athletes managed to stay close together until the halfway point at which time a pack of 10 runners broke away. This group was lead by Gebremariam.
With two laps to go (8km-mark), Kiprop took a surprise lead, but he was quickly caught by his Ethiopian adversaries, and it seemed clear that sooner or later the Ugandan would become a victim of the Ethiopian’s favourite game of cardiovascular poker.
It turned out to be later because Kiprop never gave up, and at the bell he was heading the leading pack. But as the field came to the home straight with 800m to go, the Ethiopians broke away with Gebremariam, Sihin, and Dejene Birhanu battling it out for top spot.
However, Gebremariam was not to be denied a well deserved victory and he crossed the finish line ahead of Sihin in 35:32.10. Birhanu came in third ahead of Mekonnen, with Mezgebu finishing 8th. And after doing well against the Ethiopians, Uganda’s Kiprop had to be content with a 7th place finish.
After the race, Gebremariam said that he was satisfied with winning and was full of praise for his teammates for tactically manipulating Kiprop. “Our tactics were very strong and I expect them to be stronger in Lausanne,” he said. “He [Kiprop] is a very good Athlete. Not many foreigners come here and produce such a performance.”
National Team Coach Dr. Woldemeskel Kostre on his part underlined that the event will serve as a selection for the team in Lausanne, but in a possible pointer to the fate of Kenenisa Bekele, he confirmed other proven runners could also be included as well.
“Athletes who were absent from this event will have to go through a procedure by which their capabilities will be taken into consideration,” he said. “If we find that to be satisfactory, then I think they have a chance to be included.”
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF
20th Ethiopian National Cross Country Championships Official Results
12km Senior Men
Gebregziabher Gebremariam 35:32.10
Sileshi Sihin 35:32.72
Dejene Birhanu 35:33.36
Haylu Mekonnen 35:35:68
Yebeltal Admassu 35:36:59
Ketema Negussie 35:38.69
Boniface Kiprop 35:51.33
4km Senior Women
Tirnuesh Dibaba 13:16.54
Workinesh Kidane 13:17.87
Eyerusalem Kumar 13:19.53
Bizunesh Bekele 13:21.11
Merima Denboba 13:25.26
Ejigayehu Dibaba 13:28.13
Dure Tune 13:32.45
8km Junior Men
Tessema Abshiro 23:29.62
Solomon Molla 23:33.22
Endale Eshete 23:39.20
4km Senior Men
Haylu Mekonnen 11:36.64
Dema Woyesa 11:39.11
Abiyot Endale 11:40.80
6km Junior Women
Meselech Melkamu 20:30:46
Tirnuesh Dibaba 20:31.42
Sintayehu Ejigu 22:35.20
8km Senior Women
Workinesh Kidane 27:02.82
Merima Denboba 27:12.36
Eyerusalem Kumar 27:18.74