At a press conference on Wednesday, elite race manager Zigor Díez announced the names of the athletes in contention at the 77th Cross Internacional Juan Muguerza, the fifth leg of the World Athletics Cross Country Permit series in the Spanish town of Elgoibar on Sunday (12).
The standout athlete on show in the women’s 7.7km race will be world cross country champion Hellen Obiri, who will defend her title. After her emphatic victory last year here, the Kenyan captured the gold medal in Aarhus and then completed the season of her life by retaining her world 5000m title in Doha.
Sunday’s race will mark the 30-year-old’s season opener against fellow Kenyans Beatrice Chebet and Eva Cherono. Chebet is the world U20 cross-country champion and will face senior athletes for the first time at an international cross country event. Following her Aarhus success, Chebet managed a 5000m lifetime best of 14:46:12 in London last year and more recently she clocked a 10km road best of 32:52 in the altitude of Eldoret on 24 November.
Cherono finished eighth in the senior women’s race in Aahrus and has shown fine form this cross-country season as she finished second at the opening Cross Country Permit meeting in Atapuerca before winning in Alcobendas two weeks later.
Bahrain’s 2017 world marathon champion Rose Chelimo, making her fourth appearance this cross-country campaign after placing 15th in Atapuerca and second in Soria and Alcobendas, should also be in contention.
The leading Europeans will be Britain’s Kate Holt, who finished fifth last year and is fresh from a 10km PB of 33:18 in Telford, and Spain’s steeplechase specialist Irene Sánchez-Escribano.
Kifle the man to beat
The 10.8km men’s race is headed by world half marathon bronze medallist Aron Kifle. The 21-year-old Eritrean finished fourth at last year’s World Cross Country Championships, while his most recent outing was a fourth-place finish in Atapuerca in November.
The strong African contingent also includes Kenya’s Richard Yator and Ethiopian duo Milkesa Mengesha and Tadese Worku.
Yator was 13th in Aarhus and boasts career bests of 12:59:44 for 5000m and 27:14:70 for 10,000m. Mengesha and Worku finished first and second respectively in the U20 race in Aarhus and went on to produce strong performances on the track and roads. Mengesha clocked 27:47 for 10km while Worku, who will still be an U20 athlete until the end of 2021, ran 7:43.24 for 3000m.
Olympic 5000m silver medallist Paul Chelimo might also be a factor on Sunday, although he has limited cross-country experience compared to some of the other contenders.
Turkey’s 2016 European cross-country silver medallist Aras Kaya will return to his favourite surface after placing sixth (28:13) at Madrid’s New Year’s eve 10km race where he finished between in-form Spaniards Toni Abadía, third in 27:56, and Fernando Carro, eighth in 28:19. All three will be in action in Elgoibar.
Abadía is having a busy winter campaign as the 29-year-old finished second in Amorebieta last Sunday, 12 seconds ahead of his compatriot and training mate Carlos Mayo, the 2017 European U23 10,000m champion who will also be in contention.
Those three Spaniards will line-up on Sunday alongside the newly-minted European U-23 XC bronze medallist Abdessamad Oukhelfen. Watch out too for Belgium’s Soufiane Bouchikhi, a creditable seventh at the recent European Cross Country Championships, and Britain’s 2019 U20 Elgoibar winner Zakariya Mahamed.
In addition to the elite events, there will be a strong U20 race with representatives from Belgium, France and Great Britain in the fight for the Mamo Wolde prize, an award created in 2003 in memory of Ethiopia’s legendary two-time Olympic marathon champion. He is fondly remembered in Elgoibar after winning in 1963, 1964, 1967 and 1968.
In total, 25 world cross-country champions and 14 Olympic gold medallists have taken part in the contest throughout the years. Such is the quality of the event, even living legends such as Haile Gebrselassie and Linet Masai didn’t manage to win when they competed here.
Weather forecasters predict a sunny day with temperatures ranging between 10-12C at the time of the event.
Emeterio Valiente for World Athletics