Ethiopia's Hiwot Ayalew leads the senior women's race at the 2011 World Cross Country Champions (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Bydgoszcz, Poland

Ayalew and Muriuki head open senior battle – Bydgoszcz 2013 senior women’s preview

With Kenya’s 2011 gold and silver medallists Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai opting to focus on the summer season, and Ethiopia’s four-time winner and Olympic 10,000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba withdrawing through injury, the senior women’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland this Sunday (24) could be viewed as an open affair.

Despite the lack of big-name entrants, the championship will however continue to host a breeding ground for potential future stars of the global distance running community, and Hiwot Ayalew and Margaret Muriuki are top of the list of gold-medal contenders.

Aspiring to clinch her nation’s first victory since 2008, Ayalew asserted her authority in winning the highly competitive Ethiopian trial last month and is a much-improved athlete compared to the runner who finished 11th in the last global contest in Punta Umbria two years ago.

After clocking an Ethiopian under-23 best of 9:09.61 in the 3000m Steeplechase in Oslo, the 23-year-old finished fifth in the Olympic final in London last summer. She then switched surfaces to take the first leg of the IAAF Cross Country Permit series back in November in Atapuerca, Spain, and looks set to threaten the podium in Poland.

Eager to continue the Kenyan stranglehold of the winners’ trophy, Muriuki was equally impressive in claiming her national trial in Nairobi, which doubled as the penultimate leg of the IAAF Cross Country Permit series.

Turning 27 today (21), she finished sixth at the 2010 World Cross and despite her relatively low profile on the international stage since, Muriuki too could be set to challenge for a medal.

The 2012 African Cross Country Championship runner-up registered a 69:21 Half-marathon best in Lisbon this time last year and is part of a strong Kenyan contingent here.

Her teammate, Emily Chebet, will be aspiring for a return to the medal rostrum as the 2010 champion has been in fine form domestically this winter. Despite only finishing fourth in the Kenyan trial, the 27-year-old will hope to recreate the golden memories from her last visit to the course.

Having failed to qualify for her national squad in 2011, Chebet bounced back to claim the bronze medal at the 2012 African Cross Country Championships and recorded a 30:58 10km PB in Tilburg in September.

Meanwhile, 20-year-old Genet Yalew will be aiming to translate her eye-catching junior form into the fiercer senior ranks. The 2011 junior silver medallist was a runner-up at the Ethiopian trial and clocked a 14:48.43 5000m lifetime best in Rome last spring. She will be hoping to match her fifth-place finish from the last time she competed in Poland, albeit this time in the senior event.

Joining the Ethiopian team and bringing a plethora of experience will be four-time bronze medallist Meselech Melkamu. The third-place finisher at the 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 events, Melkamu will hope to maintain her impressive consistency and reach the podium once again after finishing just outside of the medals in the 2011 edition.

Despite finishing only fourth at the Ethiopian trial, the 27-year-old 2011 World 10,000m fifth-place finisher certainly has the familiarity to cause a medal upset.

Recording a 2:21:01 marathon debut in Frankfurt last autumn, the 2004 junior champion also clocked a useful 68:05 Half-marathon in Ras Al Khamiah last month and is the second-fastest woman in history over 10,000m.

Of those determined to disrupt the familiar East African supremacy, Bahrain’s Shitaye Eshete should feature highly. The 22-year-old finished fifth in the World Indoor 3000m final twelve months ago and backed up her performance with her sixth-place finish in the Olympic 10,000m in London.

Eshete has also finished 11th and 12th respectively at the 2010 and 2011 World Cross and is looking capable of finally advancing into the top ten in Poland.

Two other athletes with high aspirations will be Eritrea’s Nazaret Weldu, following her victory in the IAAF Cross Country Permit in Soria, Spain, back in November and Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton.

Britton, the two-time European cross-country champion, will be making an impressive eighth appearance at the event and looks set to improve on her 16th position from Punta Umbria.

A bronze medallist over 3000m at the recent European Indoor Championships in Gothenburg, the 28-year-old finished 15th in the Olympic 10,000m final last summer but appears to have gained in strength and confidence since, winning the Edinburgh and Antrim stages of the IAAF Cross Country Permit series at the turn of the year.

Nicola Bamford for the IAAF