Previews05 Jan 2024

Chebet and Aregawi form part of formidable field in Elgoibar


Beatrice Chebet wins at the 18th Cross Internacional de Atapuerca (© Ricardo Ordonez)

Kenya's Beatrice Chebet and Ethiopia's Berihu Aregawi will be the marquee athletes at the Cross Internacional Juan Muguerza – the 10th World Athletics Cross Country Tour Gold meeting of the season – in the Spanish town of Elgoibar on Sunday (7). 

Both distance stars proved that they are in top form on the roads last Sunday as Chebet set a world 5km record in Barcelona thanks to a 14:13 performance while Aregawi captured a commanding 10km win in Madrid timed at 27:15.

The women's 7.62km contest pits world cross country champion Chebet against her fellow Kenyan Edinah Jebitok. The 23-year-old Chebet made her debut in Elgoibar four years ago when, still 19, she finished as runner-up, only beaten by Hellen Obiri. 

The world 5000m bronze medallist returned to Elgoibar in 2022 as the pre-race favourite but had to settle for second again behind Jebitok, so Chebet will be eager to take revenge on this occasion. 

Sunday's race will mark Chebet’s third appearance this season following her convincing wins in Atapuerca (29 October) and Barcelona (31 December).

As for Jebitok, who finished eighth at the World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst, she is enjoying a fantastic cross country campaign as the 22-year-old kicked off her season with a third spot in Atapuerca prior to a winning streak of four races in San Sebastian (5 November), Seville (12), Eldoret (2 December) and Venta de Banos (17). 

Another top Kenyan will be in contention as 20-year-old Grace Nawowuna is also in the line-up. The fourth-place finisher in Bathurst, who is holder of a remarkable 29:47.42 10,000m performance, should improve on her outing in Eldoret last month, when she could not go beyond seventh place, more than one minute adrift of Jebitok.

Ethiopia's Asmarech Anley will have the tough task of preventing a Kenyan sweep of the podium. The 18-year-old showed fine form over 10km last weekend in Madrid by taking second place thanks to a 30:31 clocking and should be a dangerous outsider on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Spanish trio of European cross country eighth-place finisher Irene Sanchez-Escribano, Olympic 3000m steeplechase finalist Carolina Robles and Isabel Barreiro will be aiming for strong performances alongside the British duo of Lauren McNeil and Sarah Astin.

Aregawi-Kwizera showdown

The men's 9.7km contest also boasts a mouth-watering field topped by Ethiopia's world cross country silver medallist Aregawi, fresh from a commanding win at the San Silvestre Vallecana last Sunday ahead of Spain's world 5000m silver medallist Mo Katir.

After three successful appearances on the roads, the world 5km record-holder will compete in cross country on Spanish soil for the first time. 

His toughest opponent should be last year's World Athletics Cross Country Tour winner Rodrigue Kwizera of Burundi. The 24-year-old Spain-based athlete took eighth place at the World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst and was seventh over 10,000m at the World Championships in Budapest. Sunday will mark his fifth outing this cross country season, with two third places (Atapuerca and Seville) and another couple of victories (Soria and Alcobendas) under his belt.

Competing on the day of his 28th birthday, Soufiane El Bakkali should also be a factor on Sunday. The Moroccan has won the last three major gold medals in his specialist 3000m steeplechase as he triumphed at the Tokyo Olympics plus the Oregon and Budapest World Championships. 

El Bakkali enjoyed an unbeaten season of five wins in steeplechase finals last year, capped by his world title and his impressive lifetime best of 7:56.68 set in Rabat. Despite not being a renowned cross country specialist, the Moroccan star will try to get a podium place but Kenya's world U20 cross country champion Ishmael Kipkurui will also be on show and should be a fierce rival.

The local contingent includes the in-form Aaron Las Heras, who came third at the San Silvestre Vallecana thanks to a 27:52 clocking. The US-based Spaniard will try to improve on his fifth place last year but he will take on Adel Mechaal, third on that occasion, and Morocco's Abderrahmane Afendi, fourth last year. 

In addition to the elite events, there will be strong U20 races with representatives from Great Britain, Belgium, France and Portugal in the fight for the Mamo Wolde prize, an award created in 2003 in memory of Ethiopia’s legendary Olympic marathon champion. He is fondly remembered in Elgoibar after winning four times in the 1960s.

Weather forecasters predict a rainy and cold race day, with temperatures ranging between 6-8 °C at the time of the event.

Emeterio Valiente for World Athletics