Joshua Cheptegei wins the senior men's race at the IAAF/Mikkeller World Cross Country Championships Aarhus 2019 (© Getty Images)
Winning the world cross-country title meant a lot to Joshua Cheptegei. It was redemption for his melt-down at home in Kampala two years ago. It was Uganda’s first senior win at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. And he led his team to a gold medal which was another first.
But Cheptegei had barely crossed the finish line in Aarhus before he was talking about new goals. Perhaps that should read ‘revealing his next goals’, because the 22-year-old from Uganda’s Kapchorwa district gives every indication of setting his goals long-term.
Not only would Cheptegei like to be the man to succeed Mo Farah as world champion at 10,000m this year, he aims to replicate Farah’s longevity.
“My ambition is to dominate the track for the next five or six years,” Cheptegei says. Then he will consider a move to the marathon. For now, though, track distances, cross country and the half marathon are his – rather generous – limits.
Farah, for his part, has mused recently that he might reconsider his decision to leave track running behind. Maybe that was just Mo being Mo, but you get the impression Cheptegei would not be fazed at the prospect. He would probably cherish the chance to cement his takeover by racing against, and defeating, the reigning king.
That is all for the future, albeit the near future, and whatever Farah does is outside Cheptegei’s, or anyone else’s, control.
Victory over the never-flat course around, up and over Aarhus’s Moesgaard Museum was no easy matter. Cheptegei faced defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya, not to mention Jacob Kiplimo, his precocious Ugandan teammate, winner of the U20 race two years earlier and still eligible to defend that title.
Kiplimo came into Aarhus on a nine-month, nine-race winning streak which included seven major cross-country wins this season.
Two other youngsters capable of making a memorable junior-to-senior transition were Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega, who lit up the IAAF Diamond League final last year with his 12:43.02 for 5000m, and Kenya’s Rhonex Kipruto, the world U20 10,000m champion.
These young contenders were feeling indestructible, as young contenders do, while the ‘older’ Cheptegei was feeling vulnerable. He had lingering knee problems, an injury suffered when he walked into a door at his home, and in December was involved in a car accident when another driver ran into him.
Although escaping serious injury, Cheptegei was left with some lingering effects. “My lower back had a lot of pain,” he explains. It also knocked his confidence around. “It had a lot of effects; I was not in my best shape.”
Fortunately, Cheptegei’s condition started to improve as his World Cross appointment drew nearer. Elsewhere he has credited the “magicians” who restored him to fitness and his usual confidence levels.
That just left the little matter of a tough field and the tough course. Aarhus was always uphill or down, never flat, and the two-kilometre loop was defined by the 125-metre climb up the sloping museum roof and the headlong descent. The roof’s presence dictated how the contenders set up their race, and how they handled the climb determined where they would finish. The run-in from the roof to the finish was no more than 200-300 metres.
Cheptegei was always in the leading group in which Kiplimo – “I’m a front-runner, I don’t like being behind,” he said post-race – was the aggressor for most of the race before Kamworor began to assert himself in the fourth of five laps.
Cheptegei came into the race carrying a cold. “Flu and a cough the past few days,” he described it. The heavier burden was his burn-out in Kampala last time. It was always the first question he was asked, he said, and a motivating factor coming into Aarhus.
“(This win) is so special to me, having lost in 2017.” At the post-race medallists’ media conference Cheptegei had said that he believed no one wanted the win more than he did.
Asked later how it felt having a compatriot being in such commanding form as Kiplimo, Cheptegei said he thought it helped him.
“It takes the pressure from me.”
When he and Kiplimo moved away from Kamworor mid-way through the last lap, Cheptegei said he remained confident.
“I knew a Ugandan athlete would win,” he said. “The question was, which one it would be. I felt strong, but I knew there was still work to be done.”
Through four laps, Cheptegei had never been fastest, nor looked strongest up the roof. As he and Kiplimo approached it for the final time, running pretty much side by side, it appeared certain that the stronger man there would prevail. This time it was Cheptegei: the opponents of the present and ghosts of the recent past were routed.
For the first time, Joshua Cheptegei is a senior world champion. For the first time, Uganda is the strongest senior men’s team, capping a period of 10 years during which the yellow singlets have been increasingly prominent at world level.
There’s more to come from Cheptegei, and if the performance of Kiplimo and the other three teams here (junior women fourth, junior men second, senior women third) is any guide, plenty more to come from Uganda, too.
Len Johnson for the IAAF