Ever since the inaugural edition in 1999 when they topped the medals table, Kenya has been a dominant force at the IAAF World U18 Championships.
It is the material fairytales are made of: exactly one year to the day after taking the IAAF World Half Marathon title in Cardiff, Geoffrey Kamworor defended his cross country crown from 2015 in 28:24 at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017. His back-to-back wins mean he is the first senior man in 11 years to successfully defend his cross country title.
For most of the race, however, it looked as if it would be someone else making history for another reason. Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei, the posterboy of the championships, was looking to bring home his country’s first senior men’s title.
Kamworor led a pack of about 30 athletes through the first of five 2km laps in 5:12, with his teammate Vincent Kipsang Rono leading through 4km in 11:02. Kamworor, Cheptegei, Kenyan cross country champion Leonard Barsoton and some ten more runners on his heels.
Going into the third lap, Cheptegei made his move and with a strong kick developed a solid lead over Kamworor and the rest of the pack. The next four kilometers had the crowd in ecstasy as Uganda’s second victory of the day looked to be looming after Jacob Kiplimo had secured gold in the men’s U20 race an hour earlier. Between kilometres four and six he produced a 5:45 lap and picked up even more speed when recording a 5:34 fourth lap, to lead through 8km in 22:21.
But with just one lap between Cheptegei and a historic gold for the host nation, his reckless speed combined with the hot and humid conditions began to show. The 11-second lead the Ugandan had held over Kamworor entering the final lap was reduced to about seven with just 1km to go. Meanwhile, Kamworor gained confidence from his rival’s suffering and swiftly closed the gap.
Under the moans of the crowd and the delighted cheers from the ‘Kenyan cheering squad’, as Kamworor described later, the reigning champion flew past Cheptegei to secure his second world cross country title.
His compatriot Barsoton came through strongly in second (28:36) with Ethiopia’s Abadi Hadis in third (28:43).
Also Read: WXC: Cheptai Leads Top 6 Sweep for Kenya
“I was confident of retaining my title,” Kamworor said after the race.
“When the Ugandan broke away, I kept my cool and ran my race. I knew he would get tired. His pace was too high and it would have been amazing if he had maintained it to the end.”
With about 500m to go, Cheptegei’s legs almost fully gave way. Courageously and cheered on by the crowd, he pulled himself over the line in 30th, which proved vital in the team rankings.
He was the fourth scoring Ugandan behind Timothy Toroitich, Abdallah Kibet Mande and Stephen Kiprotich, which meant the host nation went home with a team bronze, just 3 points ahead of Eritrea. Ethiopia secured team gold by just one point over Kenya.
A few positions further down the field, USA’s Samuel Chelanga (11th) and Australian reigning NCAA cross country champion Patrick Tiernan (13th) were the two non-African finishers in the top 20 - IAAF
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Capping an unprecedented display of team dominance, Irene Chepet Cheptai led a mighty Kenyan women’s squad to the first-ever top-six sweep at a World Cross Country Championships.
Cheptai, who arrived in the Ugandan capital undefeated this cross country season, broke from teammates Alice Aprot and Lilian Kasait Rengeruk in the final kilometre to reach the line in 31:57 over the 10k course, four seconds clear of Aprot, and 52 second before the first woman not wearing a Kenyan team kit.
In between, Rengeruk, steeplechase specialist Hyvin Kyeng, Agnes Tirop and Olympic 1500m champion Faith Kipyegon all in turn paraded across the line, living up admirably to their ‘team to beat’ billing.
“We cooperated together and helped each other,” said Cheptai, who turned in top-ten finishes at the last two editions of these championships. "But it was a very tough race, not easy."
Perhaps, but tougher still for anyone trying to muscle their way into the Kenyan juggernaut.
When the team compositions were finally announced earlier in the week, it was clear that it would take a Herculean effort by long-time rival Ethiopia to defend their women’s team title from Guiyang 2015 when they stopped a Kenyan team gold streak at four. But few would have ventured to predict that an historical one-through-six finish was in the making.
But it didn’t come as a complete shock, at least not to Aprot, the African cross country and 10,000m champion.
“We just planned to run at the front and push, and if we did that we hoped to finish one, two, three.”
Aprot was half right.
With the mercury rising to 26 C at start time and precious little shade to shelter the runners from the sun, the race began on the conservative side over the first lap, with just five seconds separating a group of 25 over the first 10-kilometre loop.
The Kenyan sextet got to work over the next circuit which reduced the lead pack to a group of eight with Aprot, Rengeruk and Cheptai confidently guiding the pack. Sebere Teferi of Ethiopia, the runner-up two years ago, was also there, along with Bahrain's Olympic steeplechase champion Ruth Jebet and the other three Kenyans: Kipyegon, reigning World cross champion Agnes Tirop and Kiyeng.
A lap later, the podium sweep was all but secure, with Aprot, Rengeruk and Cheptai taking up the pacing duties, and Kipyegon, less than a second back, playing the rear guard ahead of Teferi who was the last non-Kenyan left standing between a Kenyan perfect 15-point tally and an unprecedented top-six sweep.
Aprot, Cheptai and Rengeruk entered the final lap with a 14-second lead. Behind them, Kiyeng moved into fourth while Kipyegon, another six seconds back, kept her in her sights. Tirop meanwhile, who struggled and fell off the pace midway through the third lap, rebounded to pass Teferi and bring up the rear guard.
There was no stopping Cheptai after she made her move in the waning minutes over what is her favourite distance. The smile was instant.
"Yes, I was very, very happy," she said.
Aprot was next in 32:01 with Rengeruk coming home in bronze position ten seconds later.
Kiyeng and Tirop were next running nearly stride-for-stride to finish fourth and fifth in 32:32. Kipyegon, who had never seriously contested a race this long, was sixth in 32:49, holding off Jebet's late race charge by less than a second.
Belaynesh Oljira was the first Ethiopian in eighth overall in 32:53, with Bahrain's Rose Chelimo and Ethiopia's Teberi rounding out the top-ten.
For Kenya it was their 12th senior women’s team title and fifth out of the last six editions. For Ethiopia, the distant runners-up with 45 points, their fifth team silver in the last six editions.
Bahrain, led by Jebet and Chelimo, were third with 59 points. Uganda showed well, tallying 68 points for fourth, well ahead of fifth-placed USA who scored 90 - IAAF
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