Imane Merga of Ethiopia crosses the finish line to win the men's senior race in Punta Umbria (© Getty Images)
Imana Merga doesn’t win too many races, in fact he only won two of his 10 outings on the track in 2010 and a handful of road races but he chose the right moment to grab his first victory of this year.
With a turn of speed over the final 200m that he sometimes showed in the Samsung Diamond League 5000m races last summer, Merga shook off his three rivals from Kenya to take the gold medal and a cheque for US$30,000 at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain.
After a relatively relaxed first two laps - the senior men went through the first 2km 14 seconds slower than their junior counterparts - with the main contenders just content to gently test each other, the race started in earnest on the third of six laps with 14 men still in contention in the leading pack.
The Kenyan runners Matthew Kisorio and Paul Tanui started to increase the tempo, clearly aware of the presence and potential danger of their rivals from neighbouring Ethiopia, Merga and the Ethiopian trials winner Hunegnaw Mesfin.
However, despite the perceptible increase in pace, the main group still contained 11 men at the halfway point, with the entire Kenyan squad accompanied by two Ethiopians, two Ugandans and Bahrain’s Ali Hasan Mahboob, who finished sixth in 2010.
The group had only dwindled by one man to 10 at the 8km point but then Mesfin and Merga turned the corner on the football pitch in front of the main stands at the start of the fifth lap and clearly communicated something to each other that signified it was the moment to throw down the gauntlet to the other eight men alongside them.
“That’s where we decided to push hard. We both felt strong,”said a delighted but exhausted Merga after the race.
Ethiopians set the pace
The Ethiopians’ injection of pace had an immediate effect of reducing the leaders to a single file with daylight appearing in several places, although it was a far from decisive effort.
Mesfin soon paid the price for his work at the front and, barely a kilometre later, he started to struggle.
“I was sad that Mesfin started to go back but that was also the moment when I chose to push the pace again. I was also confident at that point that I could win the gold medal,” added the new champion.
Kisorio, Tanui, Kenyan trials winner Geoffrey Mutai and their compatriot Vincent Chepkok all went past the flagging Mesfin, who drifted back to eighth place, and chased after Merga before running alongside him for most of the final lap.
Mutai, one of the world’s top marathon men who has been a revelation in cross country races on home soil this winter, was the first to fold, losing contact 500m from the line but his three colleagues only conceded defeat in the final few metres as they found they had no answer to Merga’s super-fast finish just before he turned into the Polideportivo Antonio Gil Hernández for the sixth and final time.
Merga, who can boast a 5000m best of 12:53.58, became the third Ethiopian winner in four years after the last of Kenenisa Bekele’s six triumphs in 2008 and Gebre Gebremariam’s win in 2009. Merga also notched up his first cross country win in more than 15 months, having last crossed the line first in December 2009.
“Before I used to think of myself as a track runner but this winter I have got to like cross country races more,” said Merga, who perhaps could be gently accused of stating the obvious in the wake of his win.
Team title remains in Kenya
Merga’s only previous World Cross Country Championships appearance, despite his credentials on other surfaces, was as a junior four years ago in Mombasa when he finished seventh.
He crossed the line after 12km of running in 33:50 with Tanui, last year’s gold medal favourite after his performances in Kenya before coming slightly unstuck in Bydgoszcz and finishing eighth, winning the battle for the silver medal and arriving at the finish two seconds in arrears of Merga.
Chepkok, last year’s second fastest man over 5000m, was third in 33:53 while the team gold medal was clinched for Kenya, when Kisorio finished fourth in 33:55.
Kenya’s team triumph means that they have now won for the last six years and 24 out of the last 26 years.
Ethiopia’s scoring quartet all finished in the top 17 for them to regain the silver medal slot after the mild shock of them being usurped by Eritrea 12 months ago, with a total of 38 points while Uganda got back on the senior men’s team programme after a three year absence with the 49 points.
Two other points worth mentioning are that Eritrea’s 2010 silver medallist Teklemariam Medhin finished 14th after being part of the leading pack during the first third of the race while the first European across the line, getting plenty of cheers from the appreciative 20,000-strong crowd was Spain’s Ayad Lamdassem.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF