Imane Merga winning the 2015 Cross Internacional de Atapuerca (© Organisers)
Five-time champion Imane Merga will return to Atapuerca, Spain, for the 13th 'Cross Internacional de Atapuerca', the first of three Spanish races scheduled for the 2016-17 IAAF Cross Country Permit series which will kick off this Sunday (13).
As in every season since the first edition, the organisers of this event near the northern city of Burgos have assembled a mouth-watering line-up to take on Merga, the 2011 world cross-country champion, including his fellow Ethiopian Muktar Edris, who pushed him to the line a couple of years ago when a photo finish was necessary to decide the race in Merga’s favour.
Merga, 28, will try to bounce back from a below-par outdoor season when he had to settle for season’s bests of 13:06.25 (5000m) and 27:27.33 (10,000m) to miss qualifying for a spot on the Ethiopian Olympic squad. World cross-country bronze medallist Edris managed an Olympic berth in the 5000m. He reached the final and was fourth across the finish line but was later disqualified. Edris’s last appearance came early in October when he took third at a 10km road race in Trento timed at 29:15.
Edris’s former compatriot Aweke Ayalew, who now competes for Bahrain, should also be a factor. He recorded a fine 10th at the last World Championships and won the IAAF permit race in Elgoibar last January. Aweke will also be eager to improve on his third-place finish in last year’s Atapuerca race. He will be in the company of El Hassan El Abbassi, third in Elgoibar last year.
Yet the stiffest opposition for Merga and Edris over the 9km course could come from Timothy Toroitich. The Ugandan cross country specialist couldn’t go do better than 23rd in the Olympic 10,000m final, but he holds a promising progression in Atapuerca, having finished fourth in 2013, third in 2014 and second last year.
Toroitich has succeeded in most of the finest Spanish cross-country races in recent years with resounding wins in Soria, Venta de Baños, Alcobendas and Amorebieta. His fellow Ugandans Moses Kibet, a creditable eighth at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, and Phillip Kipyeko will also be in contention.
Kenyan hopes rest on 2012 Olympic 5000m bronze medallist Thomas Longosiwa and top steeplechaser Jairus Birech, a 7:58.41 athlete who was fourth at the 2015 World Championships.
The large Spanish contingent will comprise the newly-minted European 5000m champion Ilias Fifa and silver medallist Adel Mechaal. The two Moroccan-born stars battled fiercely in Amsterdam earlier this year and will clash again in Atapuerca aiming for a top-five berth. Rising athletes such as European 10,000m bronze medallist Toni Abadía and his training mate Carlos Mayo will also be on show alongside Ayad Lamdassem and Jesus Espana.
They will all be looking for a spot on the Spanish team for the European Cross Country Championships in the Italian city of Chia on 11 December.
World champion Tirop takes on the in-form Aprot
Undoubtedly the marquee athlete in the women’s 8km contest will be Kenya’s world cross-country champion Agnes Jebet Tirop.
Still 21, she became the second youngest woman to grab the world title with her victory in Guiyang. Twice a world junior 5000m bronze medallist (2012 and 2014), Tirop didn’t enjoy a successful 2016 campaign and will try to come back to the limelight over her favourite surface on Sunday.
Yet Tirop will need her finest form to beat compatriot Alice Aprot. The 22-year-old made a major breakthrough in Rio when she clocked a superb 29:53.51 in the 10,000m for a massive career best. More recently Aprot has continued her stellar form with convincing wins at road races in the Dutch cities of Tilburg (10km, 31:34) and Zaandam (10 miles, PB of 51:59).
The Ethiopian response will come from the duo of Belaynesh Oljira and Senbere Teferi. While Oljira is the defending champion having also won the previous year, Teferi is the current world cross-country silver medallist. She is also an accomplished track athlete with a silver medal over 5000m from the 2015 World Championships, and a fifth place showing in Rio. More recently Teferi finished runner-up to Tirunesh Dibaba at the Great South Run last month, clocking 52:51.
Uganda’s Juliet Chekwel well might complete the top five on Sunday while the European challenge should come from Ireland’s 2011 and 2012 European cross-country champion Fionnuala McCormack and Spanish champion Trihas Gebre.
Weather forecasters predict cloudy and slightly rainy conditions with a temperature of 8C by the time of the event.
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF