The triumphs of two-time IAAF World Cross Country Championships junior women’s champion Faith Kipyegon and Japan-based Bedan Karoki provided headlines at the IAAF Permit/KCB Athletics Kenya National Cross Country meeting in Nairobi on Saturday (15).
Kipyegon, in her first race as a senior on home soil having turned 20 last month, handed reigning world cross-country champion Emily Chebet a crushing defeat on the final lap at the last IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting of the winter, in a gripping three-way battle that also involved the impressive Kenya Prisons runner Peris Chepchirchir.
Chepchirchir took the lead in the third kilometre and, as the field continued to thin out behind them, Kipyegon and Chebet kept her company as good athletes such as world 5000m silver medallist Mercy Cherono (who eventually finished 10th) kept falling off the pace.
It was anybody’s race between the leading trio as they came to the last 600 metres but, deploying the devastating kick that carried her to a variety of accolades in the junior ranks, Kipyegon crossed the line after 8km of running in 26:10 with Chepchirchir two seconds further back and Chebet two seconds in arrears.
"At the beginning of the race, I was very tense since it was the first time I was facing seniors at the Nationals. However, I realised there was nothing to fear and when I felt my body was strong, I went for it," said Kipyegon.
"I respect my seniors a lot but when the chance to win came, I could not let it go. I’m so happy and winning here has made me stronger because I do not want to be among those juniors who find it hard to turn to seniors," she added.
"Today, it simply did not come together for me. I felt bad out there," said Chebet.
"I was not expecting this today but my mission is to go to (the African Cross Country Championships next month) in Uganda and fight for the gold there since nothing gives me greater joy than winning for my country,” added Kipyegon.
Barsoton also makes a big impression
Another junior who impressed 12 months ago in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz and who made an impact on a senior race in Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens was Leonard Barsoton,
Barsoton, the world junior cross-country silver medallist, and Karoki edged away from their rivals just after halfway in the 12km race before the latter put 10 seconds between himself and his teenage challenger, who does not turn 20 until later in the year, in the final 600m. Karoki crossed the line in 34:55.
"I lost my title last year and since I’m going for the half marathon world record preferably in Lisbon, I wanted it back here to give me motivation. I also want to do well at the Commonwealth Games," said Karoki.
"Leonard made the race hard for me but it is the kind of challenge I need and coming through it gives me hope I can achieve my goals. For now, I do not want to go to Uganda, not because Africa competitions are small but due to the fact I had earlier plans,” said Karoki.
"I gave everything I could but at the end of the day, I lost to the better runner on the field but that performance gives me great spirit to fight on as a senior," commented Barsoton, now sporting Kenya Police colours after a stint in Japan last year.
Philip Kiprono led the rest of the field across the line in third place with 35:07 as Cornelius Kangogo (35:13) and Solomon Kirwa (35:18) came home ahead of last year’s surprise winner, Philemon Rono (35:20), who rounded off the top six.
Reigning world cross-country champion Japhet Korir was listed to start but did not race while the 2010 world cross-country champion, Joseph Ebuya, dropped out after four of the six laps.
Junior favourites fulfil role
There were no surprises in the junior races with favourites Agnes Tirop and Moses Mukono respectively winning the 6km and 8km races
Tirop was simply irresistible, pushing hard from two kilometres to take her sixth consecutive victory this winter, stopping the clock in 19:21.
Lilian Kasait came home a yawning 15 seconds in arrears for second place in 19:36 with Nancy Nzisa one second further back in third.
"I came here confident I could fit in her (Kipyegon, who won the junior race in 2013) shoes since I had not lost in the five races I ran this season. I’m now looking at winning gold in Kampala since Faith beat me in Johannesburg (at the 2012 African Cross Country Championships) and at the World Cross last year," said Tirop.
It was not so straightforward for Mukono, who had Emmanuel Bett breathing down his neck before prevailing with a turn of acceleration 500m from the tape to win in 23:04 and come home two seconds clear of Bett. Andrew Loret was a distant third in 23:16.
"I came here to prove I could win the Nationals and after failing to do well at the World Cross last year (where he finished 11th). It was my first time there and the winter conditions affected me but there’s no winter in Kampala,” joked Mukono.
"I’m not promising gold but I know I will do well before targeting my last World Juniors in USA since I again, did not do well in Barcelona," added Mukono, who also finished eighth over 5000m at the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships.
The first six in each race, with the exception of senior men’s winner Karoki, will form the Kenyan teams travelling to the Ugandan capital Kampala to contest the African Cross Country Championships on 16 March.