Reynold Cheruiyot and Dan Kibet
More than a decade has passed since a Kenyan athlete won the U20 men’s title, but there’s a good chance that drought could end at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships Bathurst 23.
The 2019 edition was the first World Cross since 1984 in which a Kenyan athlete didn’t make it on to the U20 men’s podium, and Kenya didn’t achieve a top-two finish in the team standings, so this year’s squad – led by Ishmael Kirui and Reynold Kipkorir Cheruiyot – will want to ensure the same doesn’t happen again.
Kirui was a convincing winner of Kenya’s trial race in December last year. Although he turned 18 just earlier this month, he has already represented Kenya on the senior stage, placing sixth over 5000m at the African Championships last year. He set PBs of 7:52.74 for 3000m and 13:26.98 for 5000m last year, both at altitude in Nairobi.
This will be his first race outside of his home continent, and possibly his first cross-country race at sea level, but he will be somewhat accustomed to running in the kind of heat that is forecast for race day.
Cheruiyot, who finished four seconds behind Kirui in Kenya’s trial race, has already displayed remarkable range – a trait which often goes hand-in-hand with being a good cross-country runner. Last year he won the world U20 1500m title in Cali, having set a PB of 3:34.02 over the distance one month prior, the fastest time in the world last year by an U20 athlete. He also clocked PBs of 7:38.83 for 3000m and 28:36 for 10km on the roads, showing he has remarkable endurance as well as great foot speed.
The Kenyan team also includes Dennis Kipkirui and Daniel Kinyanjui, both of whom have international racing experience.
Ethiopia – winners of the past two team titles, and three of the past four U20 men’s titles – will be tough to beat.
Bereket Zeleke won the U20 men’s race at the prestigious Jan Meda Cross Country last month, which doubled as Ethiopia’s trial event for Bathurst. Boki Diriba finished a close second on that occasion, as Zeleke avenged his defeat from the Ethiopian U20 Championships on the track in 2022. Diribi has already produced some impressive performances at home and abroad; he clocked 28:32.8 for 10,000m at altitude in Hawassa, Ethiopia, and later in 2022 he finished third at the New Delhi Half Marathon in 1:00:34.
The unheralded Abel Bekele was only two seconds behind Diriba at the Jan Meda Cross Country. Bereket Nega was further back in sixth, but he has proven his form in a range of overseas races.
Uganda is the only nation to have consistently broken up the Kenya-Ethiopia hegemony in recent editions of the World Cross, and in Kenneth Kiprop they have a genuine medal contender.
Kiprop was an impressive winner of Uganda’s trial race, which was meant to have been held over 8km, but due to the athletes’ speed in the race, officials were confused over how much distance had been covered and so instructed the athletes to complete an extra lap. They ended up covering 10km and Kiprop won by almost a minute in 29:29 – faster than the winning time in the senior men’s race.
Silas Rotich finished one place short of the podium at last year’s World Mountain Running Championships, so he will be determined to return to Uganda with a medal of some form. Dan Kibet, a world U20 finalist over 3000m in 2021 and 2022, is another one to watch.
The US team is led by national U20 cross-country champion Emilio (aka ‘Leo’) Young, who in 2022 ran the fastest mile by an U18 athlete, 4:00.77. Sam Mills and Luke Birdseye, who finished fourth and fifth respectively at the European Cross and formed part of Britain’s gold-medal-winning team, are also in the field. Australia’s Logan Janetski and Archie Noakes, meanwhile, will be flying the flag for the host nation.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics