World Cross Preview: How Will Kenya And Ethiopia Divide The Golds?

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hoto: Kirby Lee – USA TODAY Sport

The IAAF World Cross Country Championships are in Kampala, Uganda, beginning with the mixed relay at 7:00 AM Central on Sunday. We preview the senior races below. Here are the IAAF previews of the men’s and women’s junior races.

Women’s Senior Race (10K, 8:55 AM ET Sunday)

How much have Kenya and Ethiopia historically dominated this race? ​Every ​individual gold since 2008, every team gold since 1995.  Ethiopia is the defending team champion, and has 11 titles to Kenya’s eight.

Will a Kenyan or Ethiopian win? Yes, though there is a small chance that the Kenyan-born Bahraini Ruth Jebet wins in an upset. Jebet is not a particularly credentialed cross country runner–according to Tilastopaja, she hasn’t won any of the nine cross country races that she’s competed in since 2013. But Jebet’s transformation in 2016 was so dramatic that you can’t rule her out in any race. While still 19 (she turned 20 in November), Jebet cut 28 seconds from her steeple PB and six seconds from the world record. As she enters her twenties, Jebet will probably only get better at longer distances, and an 8:52 female steeplechaser can’t be counted out from any cross country race.

But probably, one of the six women competing for the Kenyan team will win. More on them right below. If it isn’t a Kenyan or a Bahraini Kenyan, though, it’ll likely be Senbere Teferi. The 21-year-old Ethiopian has been dialed into cross country since the track season ended. After finishing fifth in the Olympic 5K–making her the top finisher from that race entered in this one–Teferi ran a 14:29 5K, a 52:51 ten-mile, then nothing but cross country races since November. She handily beat Jebet in an XC 8.2K in Seville in January, and followed that up with an 11-second win over Jebet in a 6.6K a week later. She also beat Tirop (by four seconds) and Aprot (by ten) in an 8K in Spain in mid-November, though that was four months ago at this point.

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​Will Kenya or Ethiopia win the team race? ​​Let’s go a step further than that–Kenya will win the team race. Their team is incredible. Look at their credentials:

-Agnes Tirop, defending world cross country champion
-Faith Kipyegon, 1500m Olympic champion and 14:31 5K runner.
-Alice Aprot, top finisher (fourth) at the Olympic 10K that’s entered in this race. (Reminder: this is the first year that the race is switching to a 10K.)
-Hyven Kiyeng, steeplechase Olympic silver medalist
-Irene Cheptai and Lilian Rengeruk (2014 3K world junior silver medalist), beat all of those women at the Kenyan champs last month

And 800m Olympic bronze medalist Margaret Wambui is also listed on their roster, though she is likely an alternate. Only six women start the race and those were the top six at the Kenyan trials.

That’s a dream team! No one is beating that.

How will the Americans do? ​They won’t contend for a team medal. If any of them is to contend for an individual medal, it will be Aliphine Tuliamuk, who won the U.S. cross country championships by a whopping 48 seconds. The last American woman to win an individual medal at world cross was Shalane Flanagan in 2011. But we’re sending a fun group over to Uganda! Read all about them.  And watch Stephanie Bruce and Scott Fauble do one of their final workouts before leaving the country for the race:

Men’s Senior Race (10K, 9:55 AM ET Sunday)

How much have Kenya and Ethiopia historically dominated this race? 
Someone from one of those two countries has won every gold since 2008, and all but three since 1992. Those two countries have won every team gold since 1981. Kenya has 24, while Ethiopia has nine–but the last two. The new biennial format means that Kenya hasn’t won since 2011.

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Will a Kenyan or Ethiopian ​win? ​Yes. Geoffrey Kamworor (Kenya) is the defending champion and one of the best long-distance runners in the world. The 24-year-old won half marathon world titles in 2014 and 2016, and was second in the world over 10K behind Mo Farah in 2015. He had a rough end to 2016, though, only racing once between Prefontaine and the end of the year. That race was an 11th-place finish in the Olympic 10K.

If Kamworor isn’t in his late-2015/early-2016 form, then the guy to watch has to be Leonard Barsoton, who won the Kenyan cross country championship on February 18. That isn’t necessarily a good sign–the winner of the Kenyan trials hasn’t been the top Kenyan finisher at world cross in ten years. But it’s clear Barsoton is prioritizing this race. He’s never run insanely fast on the track–his PRs are 13:16 and 27:20–and he doesn’t pursue the lucrative marathons and half marathons that most of his competitors do. Most of his road results are from ekidens in Japan, where he trains and lives.

Barsoton was fifth in China two years ago after finishing third at the Kenyan trials. By definition of beating the rest of the Kenyans, he’s among the favorites. The same is true for Ethiopia’s Getaneh Molla, who won his country’s trials. Even though Molla has won Ethiopian nationals four times–twice in cross, twice in the 5K, per the IAAF–this is his first time wearing the Ethiopian jersey. It could be a coming-out party for Molla on Sunday.

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Will Kenya or Ethiopia win the team race? ​Almost definitely, though Gordon is predicting Bahrain wins. It’s not a trash take, as five of their six entrants–Albert Rop, El-Hassan Elabbassi, Abraham Cheroben, Hassan Chani, and Birhanu Balew–made the Olympics this summer in the 10K and 5K. Chani beat Leonard Korir and Shadrack Kipchirchir in the 10K, and Rop and Balew made the 5K final, where they finished seventh and ninth.

That would break a 36-year Ethiopian/Kenyan duopoly, though, so don’t bet on it. (Also: if you can find betting odds for Sunday’s race, please email me.)

​How will the Americans do? ​Pretty well, probably! Medaling will be hard, but if a team led by Chris Derrick or Ben True could get silver on a great day in 2013, a team led by Leonard Korir and Sam Chelanga can do it this year. It will be a true team out there, as Kenyan-Americans Korir, Chelanga, Shadrack Kipchirchir, and Stanley Kebenei are all training partners in Scott Simmons’s American Distance Project. They’ll be joined by Scott Fauble and Trevor Dunbar in Kampala.​

No American man has medalled in 35 years. But Korir has been one of the best runners in the world this year, outkicking Feyisa Lilesa in Houston and Callum Hawkins in Edinburgh for major wins. If he can hang around the top five for six miles, he has a shot at a medal.

​What has been the best burn in pre-race coverage​? ​That comes from Kenyan newspaper editor Elias Makori, who says that “Kenyans welcome the ‘export’ of stars to countries such as Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey and the US, who have injected some iota of competitiveness outside the Kenya against Ethiopia duel. These are seen as Kenya ‘B’, Kenya ‘C’ sides.”

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