Just like the senior men’s race two years ago, which produced more than its fair share of surprises, the event at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Guiyang 2015 is shaping up to be more than just a straight-forward contest between Ethiopia and Kenya.
In 2013, nobody considered that teenager Japhet Korir – who only squeezed on to the Kenyan team after finishing sixth at the Trials – would figure in the chase for medals, let alone win the individual title from defending champion Imane Merga from Ethiopia.
The Kenyan team in Bydgoszcz was admittedly one of their weaker teams in recent years but it still came as an enormous surprise when the USA – who hadn’t won a team medal since 2001 – pipped the Kenyans for the team silver medal behind Ethiopia, whose winning score of 38 was one of the highest in recent history.
One difference in Guiyang will be the conditions. While freezing temperatures and snow greeted the runners in Bydgoszcz, warm and showery conditions are forecast on Saturday.
Responsibility for retaining the men’s senior title is set to fall on the shoulders of Bedan Karoki and Geoffrey Kamworor, first and second respectively in oppressive conditions at the Kenyan Cross Country Championships last month.
Karoki was one of the in-form runners in 2014 but in a fallow championship year, the Japan-based Kenyan didn’t leave as much of a mark as he might have done. Among other accolades, Karoki won the Kenyan cross-country title, went unbeaten on the roads, and set PBs over 5000m and 10,000m.
But having retained his domestic cross-country title this winter, the stage is set for Karoki, who hails from the same region in Kenya as five-time winner John Ngugi, to challenge for his first international title on Saturday.
Karoki, who finished fifth over 10,000m at the 2012 Olympics, is making his World Cross debut in Guiyang but for Kamworor, his international career began in earnest when he front-ran to the junior title four years ago.
Since then, Kamworor has mainly excelled over longer distances, but the strongman of the Kenyan team will be in contention to add this title over 12km to his world half-marathon crown from last year.
The third leading contender is another Japan-based runner, Leonard Barsoton. He won silver in the junior race two years ago, and won the African senior title the following year.
Despite finishing a lowly 48th at the Kenyan Championships, 2013 champion Korir was still invited to the pre-championships training camp in Kigari by dint of his status as reigning champion.
Although he failed to make the final cut and was not part of the team of six that were named to local media as the men who would defend Kenya's honour on Saturday, he was still included in the Guiyang squad as a reserve.
World 5000m silver medallist Hagos Gebrhiwet and last year’s top-ranked 5000m runner Muktar Edris are the best-known names on the Ethiopian roster but the renowned track exponents, who won gold and bronze in the junior race two years ago, might not be in their best form.
At the Ethiopian Cross Country Championships seven weeks ago, they only finished fourth and sixth respectively in a race won by 2:06:17 marathon runner Tamirat Tola.
Gebrhiwet’s form is difficult to gauge, as he has only raced once since the track season, although Edris did rebound a fortnight later with a win at the famous Cinque Mulini race.
Atsedu Tsegay, who broke Haile Gebrselassie’s Ethiopian half marathon record three years ago with 58:47, is also on the team.
The hosts of the 2017 World Cross Country Championships are taking the dress rehearsal seriously with all of their top runners including Moses Kipsiro and Timothy Toroitich, fourth and fifth two years ago, named on the Ugandan team.
However, world mountain-running champion Phillip Kipyeko, who has just moved into the senior ranks, upset Kipsiro at the Ugandan Cross Country Championships last month and looks primed to surprise on a much bigger stage this weekend.
Geoffrey Kusuro only finished third in that race but showed great strength with a 59:43 half marathon on the point-to-point Rome-Ostia course.
Despite the absence of former champion Zersenay Tadese, the Eritreans will be sending a strong team including reigning bronze medallist Teklemariam Medhin, 2013 seventh-place finisher Goitom Kifle and domestic champion Abrar Osman.
Chris Derrick helped the United States to the team silver medal in Bydgoszcz, and the 24-year-old is in better form – and perhaps better prepared – than he was in 2013 when he finished 10th.
Derrick has won both of his cross-country races this winter, including the US Championships by 30 seconds in Boulder, staged in not too dissimilar conditions to Guiyang.
European cross-country champion Polat Kemboi Arikan from Turkey leads his continent’s prospects along with renowned cross-country exponent Hassan Chahdi from France, who recently posted a 1:01:38 half marathon debut in Paris.
Steven Mills for the IAAF