World 1500m silver medallist Timothy Cheruiyot and double European cross-country champion Fionnuala McCormack are among the world-class field set to take part in the 41st Antrim International Cross Country, an IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting, on Saturday (6).
Greenmount’s College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise campus hosts the event on the same day as the IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in San Giorgio su Legnano, Italy.
The senior men’s 8km event, which will be the final race of the day at 2:20pm local time, will provide a tough challenge for Cheruiyot, whose last race came when the Kenyan won the IAAF Diamond League 1500m title in Zurich at the end of August.
The Kenyan 1500m champion will be aiming to improve on his Antrim performance from 2016 when he finished a close third to Aweke Ayalew and Thomas Ayeko.
World steeplechase silver medallist and Olympic fourth-place finisher Soufiane El Bakkali proved himself to be a formidable competitor throughout 2017 and the Moroccan is expected to challenge Cheruiyot in Antrim.
Britain’s 2014 European 10,000m silver medallist Andy Vernon will be competing in Antrim for the fifth time, having finished second in 2010 and third last year.
Jeroen D'Hoet returned to action on 31 December with a third-place finish in Soest, having missed most of 2017. The Belgian, who won the European junior cross-country title in 2009, will be competing in Antrim for the first time.
Belgium’s 2013 European under-23 1500m champion Pieter Jan Hannes, Britain's Andrew Douglas, who had top-10 finishes at the World and European Mountain Running Championships in 2017, and Ireland's Hugh Armstrong are also set to compete.
McCormack leads a strong field for the women’s 5.4km race. The 33-year-old has made six previous appearances in Antrim and has never finished outside of the top four. She won the race in 2012 and 2013, both wins coming just weeks after her victories at the 2011 and 2012 European Cross Country Championships respectively.
Bahrain's world U20 5000m bronze medallist Bontu Edao Rebitu achieved podium finished in her first three cross-country races of 2017 and the 20-year-old will be hoping for a similarly successful start to her 2018 season.
Laura Graham will be aiming for a strong performance on home soil after a memorable 2017. The Northern Irish athlete won both the Dublin and Belfast Marathons, becoming the first domestic winner of the latter since 1999.
Since 2015 the race has been dominated by African athletes, with the past three editions being won by Kenya’s Caroline Kipkirui, Alice Aprot and Ethiopia’s Birtukan Fente.
A regular participant in Antrim, 2014 European cross-country champion Gemma Steel has withdrawn from the event. Steel, who finished second in 2012, is instead focusing on her preparations for the Doha Marathon on 12 January.
As well as being part of the IAAF Cross Country Permit circuit, the Antrim International Cross Counry is part of the UK Athletics Cross Challenge Series and this year will also incorporate the Celtic Cross Country International with teams from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland and Ulster all competing.
There will also be a full programme of supporting races from primary schools age upwards for both boys and girls.
Cóilín Duffy for the IAAF