Jairus Birech leads from eventual winner Teklemariam Medhin in Seville (© Foto ANOC)
Despite being one of the most famous cross-country races in the world, you have to look hard to find the small Basque town of Elgoibar on a map – it has a population of barely 11,000 – but it will have its profile raised immeasurably when the 72nd edition of the Cross Internacional Juan Muguerza takes place on Sunday (25).
For the first time in its long history, the race is an IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting, one of three Spanish races with such a status on this winter’s calendar.
At the press conference held to release the main names running on Sunday, race director Zigor Díez proudly commented: “To receive this IAAF category has been a privilege and a reward for us. It means our hard work throughout the last 15 years has paid off. Our target is to maintain this status in the future and make history.”
Díez also announced the presence of a high-calibre field, including the winners from last Sunday’s IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in Seville, Eritrea’s Teklemariam Medhin and Kenya’s Emily Chebet.
The men’s 10,796m event is billed as a thrilling showdown between the 25-year-old Medhin and Kenya’s Jairus Birech.
This pair provided a magnificent spectacle under terrific weather conditions in Seville and their fight for the victory in Elgoibar could be the highlight of the weekend.
Medhin, the world cross-country bronze medallist, had a hesitant start to his cross-country season as he placed fourth at the inaugural Permit race in Atapuerca on 16 November.
The following week he finished second, also on Spanish soil, in Soria before returning home to train in altitude for a month before returning to Spain in early January to contest the San Sebastian race, where he ran out a convincing winner ahead of Uganda’s in-form Timothy Toroitich.
After triumphing in Seville, Medhin will be looking for a hat trick of victories in Spain but Birech, the fastest 3000m steeplechaser last year, will obviously try to get avenge last Sunday’s loss.
The stiffest opposition to these theoretical favourites should come from Kenya’s 2011 world cross-country silver medallist Paul Tanui, who was fourth in Seville.
The 24-year-old Tanui won in Elgoibar in 2012 and his knowledge of the circuit should help on Sunday.
Looking for a high place should be Uganda’s world junior 10,000m champion Joshua Cheptegei, Turkey’s European cross-country champion Polat Arikan and Eritrea’s Goitom Kifle.
The European challenge will be headed by Britain’s Adam Hickey, a creditable ninth at last month’s European Cross Country Championships in Samokov, Bulgaria, and the Spanish pair of Javier Guerra and Antonio Abadía.
Chebet and Cheron to do battle again
The women’s 6.624km race features two outstanding Kenyan runners, world cross-country champion Emily Chebet and world 5000m silver medallist Mercy Cherono in what should be a rematch from Seville a week ago.
In Andalusia, Chebet took the spoils and won convincingly from Cherono but the latter suffered a fall early in the second part of the race which clearly affected her.
Chebet, 28, will be making her debut appearance in Elgoibar but Cherono will compete for the third consecutive time following a second place in 2013 and fourth last year.
Keen to break the Kenyan dominance will be Bahrain’s Mimi Belete, who was third in Seville while Portugal’s Sara Moreira and Spain’s European 3000m steeplechase bronze medallist Diana Martín will lead the European contingent.
Moreira had a successful marathon debut in New York last November, when she clocked 2:26:00 for third place and the 29-year-old came second at her national 10km road championships in 32:09 two weeks ago.
Great Britain’s Lily Partridge, 11th in Samokov, and Germany’s Simret Restle could also be in the hunt to be first European home.
As usual, the pre-race atmosphere in Elgoibar will fantastic.
Held for the first time in 1943, this competition has witnessed epic wins by Ethiopia’s Mamo Wolde on four occasions in the 1960s and victories for his compatriot Kenenisa Bekele and Kenya’s Paul Tergat more recently.
Former winner Eamonn Martin from Great Britain commented a few years ago: “This is the most passionate (cross country) crowd I have ever seen. I won here in 1991 and was lucky to return in 2005 as Britain’s team manager.”
Weather forecasters predict a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius and a 50 per cent chance of rain on race day.
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF