Imane Merga of Ethiopia crosses the finish line to win the men's senior race in Punta Umbria (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Atapuerca, Spain

Merga and Masai aiming to reign again in Atapuerca

9 November 2012 - The 9th ‘Cross Internacional de Atapuerca’ will mark the beginning of the IAAF Cross Country Permit Series 2012/13 on Sunday (11), the first of three Spanish legs scheduled for this season.

While facing an increasingly tough economic slowdown, the organisers (Diputación de Burgos) have nonetheless brought together a star-studded line-up including Ethiopia’s reigning World Cross Country champion Imane Merga and Kenya’s current World silver medallist Linet Masai. In addition to those accolades, both Merga and Masai will contest their respective events as the defending champions on Sunday.

On a curious note, Merga and Masai have had similar results over the last couple of years on the track as they bagged the World 10,000m bronze medals in Daegu 2011 but failed to compete at the London Olympics last summer.

Merga leads mighty African squad

The 24-year-old Merga arrived at the Bilbao airport on Thursday and confidently declared: “I’m here to win as I did last year.” His last appearance came at the Bupa Great North Run in South Shields on 16 September where he clocked a Half Marathon PB of 59:56 for third.

Merga should find stiff opposition from his fellow Ethiopian Dejen Gebremeskel, the newly-minted Olympic 5000m silver medallist. The 22-year-old ran an impressive 12:46.81 career best last summer prior to his runner-up place in London to add Olympic silver to the World bronze he managed in Daegu the previous season.

The Kenyan contingent includes Emanuel Bett, holder of a 10,000m PB and 2012 world leading mark of 26:51.16 to take a brilliant win at the Van Damme Memorial in Brussels while Vincent Chepkok, who placed second on that occasion in 26:51.68, will complete the whole podium from the last World Cross Country Championships alongside Merga and Teklemariam Medhin. Watch out too for 2010 World Junior 5000m silver medallist John Kipkoech and Clement Langat, the 2010 World Junior Cross Country silver medallist in Bydgoszcz, the venue of next World Championships in March.

The Spanish-based Eritrean team is also powerful thanks to the presence of Medhin, the reigning World Cross Country silver medallist, Kidane Tadese and Amanuel Mesel. The 23-year-old Medhin was victorious in Atapuerca two years and will try to once again take the top spot on Sunday. Uganda’s 2009 World Junior XC bronze medallist Moses Kibet completes a solid African line-up.

Powerful European armada on show

Sunday’s 9807m event will also act as a first stepping-stone for athletes targeting the European Cross Country Championships to be held in Budapest on 9 December. The field comprises the in-form pair of Italy’s European 10,000m silver medallist Daniele Meucci and Spain’s Ayad Lamdassem. The latter finished second in the Porstmouth 10 miles to set a NR of 46:44 while the Italian came fourth on that occasion barely six seconds behind the Moroccan-born Lamdassem. Other notable Spanish entrants include Sergio Sánchez, Javier Guerra and Juan Carlos Higuero while Portugal’s reigning European Cross Country bronze medallist José Rocha will also be in contention.

Masai, the undisputed star – Women’s race

Kenyan ace Linet Masai will kick off Sunday’s 7839m women’s contest as the overwhelming favourite given her successful Cross Country background in recent years which include three silver medals in a row at the World Championships and a full set of convincing wins on the main Cross Country permits held on Spanish soil such as, Llodio and Seville (twice each), Alcobendas, Amorebieta and Atapuerca.

The long-legged Kenyan will be accompanied by Priscah Jepleting, a 32-year-old former (2006) World Cross Country (short race) silver medallist and the 2010 World Junior 3000m champion Mercy Cherono.

As it has become a tradition in women’s distance running, another fierce Kenyan-Ethiopian battle for podium places is on the cards again as the ‘green T-shirt girls’ contingent is led by Belaynesh Oljira and Ayalew Hiwot. They both performed consistently at last summer’s London Olympics with fifth places in their respective events, the 10,000m for Oljira and the 3000m Steeplechase for Hiwot. Their respective career bests are impressive 30:26.70 and 9:09.61 performances respectively, but reportedly Oljira is slightly injured and her presence is doubtful as of late Thursday evening.

The European response to the African quintet should come from Italy’s Nadia Ejjafini, fresh from a fourth place at the Porstmouth 10 miles with a 53:55 clocking under her belt while Spain’s Alessandra Aguilar came sixth there, two seconds behind Ejjafini. Reigning European Cross Country champion Fiounnala Britton of Ireland and Portugal’s European 5000m bronze medallist Sara Moreira will also be in action looking for a top-five position.

In addition to Aguilar, the Spanish armada is also strong and includes former (2009) World 3000m Steeplechase champion Marta Domínguez, 2010 European 1500m champion Nuria Fernández and 3000m Steeplechase specialist (PB of 9:35.77 at the London Olympics) Diana Martín.

Weather forecasters predict a partly cloudy day on Sunday with a 30 percent chance of rain likely with chilly temperatures ranging from 6ºC and 8ºC by race time.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF