A storming final leg run from Fantu Worku in the mixed relay at the IAAF/Mikkeller World Cross Country Championships Aarhus 2019 gave Ethiopia the first gold medal of the day.
For the first three legs, Ethiopia and Kenya had been locked in a neck-and-neck battle with Morocco sitting in a distant third place. But everything changed on the final leg.
Steeplechase specialists Conseslus Kipruto of Kenya and Soufiane El Bakkali of Morocco were the standout names on the first leg. But El Bakkali, the world steeplechase silver medallist, couldn’t match his arch rival on the twists, turns and hills on the 2.1km loop and started to lose contact after he first few minutes.
But just at the point when many expected Kipruto to make his move, it was little-known Ethiopian Kebede Endale who forged ahead, charging up the roof of the Moesgaard Museum to open a gap on the world and Olympic steeplechase champion.
Having covered his stage in 6:01, Endale handed over to compatriot Bone Cheluke with a three-second lead over Kenya, who had Jarinter Mawia Mwasya on their second leg.
Cheluke, who ran in the mixed relay in Kampala two years ago, maintained her team’s advantage over Kenya after covering her 2km leg in 6:47. USA’s Shannon Osika, a 4:06.17 1500m runner, overtook Morocco’s second-leg runner, Kaoutar Farkoussi, and briefly joined Cheluke and Mwasya at the front. She was unable to maintain that pace, though, and faded in the closing stages of her leg and handed over in fourth place overall behind Morocco.
World 1500m champion Elijah Manangoi took up the running for Kenya on the third leg, while 2012 world indoor 1500m champion Abdelaati Iguider carried Morocco’s hopes of gaining on Ethiopian leader, 2017 African U18 800m silver medallist Teddese Lemi.
Iguider managed to make up a bit of ground during the first half of his 2km leg, but Lemi and Manangoi still had a comfortable lead. Having expended perhaps a bit too much energy, Iguider then faded slightly towards the end of his stage. Up in front, Lemi maintained Ethiopia’s lead and handed over to 2016 world U20 1500m silver medallist Worku with a two-second advantage over Winfred Mbithe.
As their teammates had done on the first three stages, Worku and Mbithe ran close together for much of the final 2.14km leg. But with 23 minutes on the clock, Worku started to pull ahead to finally create some distance between Ethiopia and Kenya.
Her move was a decisive one and she seemed untroubled by the incline and decline of the Moesgaard Museum. It was a different story for Mbithe, however, who was caught by Morocco’s world and Olympic 1500m finalist Rababe Arafi.
As she turned the bend coming off the roof and negotiated the final turn into the home straight, Worku forged ahead to give Ethiopia the gold in 25:49. Way behind, Arafi was next to cross the finish line in 26:22 with Kenya following in 26:29.
Little more than an hour later, Morocco was disqualified for handing over the timing wristband before the start of the exchange zone. They later filed an appeal against the decision and it was accepted, meaning they held on to their silver medal.
“It was a very hard course, and especially the roof was a challenge,” said Worku. “But I was very happy for the downhill parts, and it was good we had tested the route before the race. After last year's silver medal, we went home to train hard, and we are very proud to claim the gold today.”
USA, clocking 27:01, finished fourth ahead of Uganda (27:35) and Spain (27:47).
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF