Last year in Amman, Linet Masai lost the World Cross Country individual title to team-mate Florence Kiplagat on the uphill finish to the Bisharat Golf Club.
This year, the 20-year-old Masai faces an uphill battle of a different nature if she is to keep the individual title in Kenyan hands at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz. Leading the Ethiopian team will be three-time champion Tirunesh Dibaba, who won in Edinburgh in 2008 but did not run in Amman.
Kenya and Ethiopia should again contend for the individual and team honours in Bydgoszcz. Strong as each nation is in depth, Masai and Dibaba should be the standard-bearers for their respective teams.
Each has an impressive set of numbers on her side. Before missing last year, Dibaba’s record over the previous four years at the world cross-country went first in 2005, first in 2006, second in 2007 and first in 2008. In 2005, during the 10-year period in which the short race was also on the programme, the Ethiopian star won the double.
At 20, Masai’s record is not as long, but it is nonetheless impressive. Third in 2008 behind Dibaba and Mestawet Tufa; second last year. Were it not for Dibaba, there would be a certain mathematical inevitability about her chances this time. Masai also inherited Dibaba’s World track title at 10,000 metres in Berlin last year.
Masai has been in imposing cross-country form this season, with wins in Soria last November and the Cross Italica in Seville in January. She also won her own national title in Nairobi last month, somewhat surprisingly her first major domestic victory. Her convincing win by some 20 seconds over Lineth Chepkurui came despite losing a shoe at the half-way point of the race.
Kidane and Melkamu also in the mix
In looking for others who might challenge for individual honours, it is hard to go beyond the Kenyan and Ethiopian squads. Chepkurui was fourth in Amman last year as Kenya won the team title handily. Margaret Wangare and Emily Muge finished close behind her in the selection race.
On the Ethiopian side, Werknesh Kidane, the 2003 long-course champion, returns after two year’s maternity leave. It is hard to assess her form, she finished some way behind Meselech Melkamu and Mamitu Daska in the Ethiopian trial, but as a former winner she must be respected.
Melkamu, too, has her claims. Three times she has been a bronze medallist and she also took the silver medal behind Masai in the Berlin 10,000m.
Looking beyond East Africa, Benita Willis is the only other former winner (long-course 2004, running as Benita Johnson) in the race. She won the Australian selection trial but her domestic form on the track has been patchy. As a proven cross-country runner, she demands respect.
Shalane Flanagan of the USA was a bronze medallist in the Beijing Olympic 10,000 metres and a clear winner of the US title. Other than that, however, her cross-country form is not outstanding, with a best at world level of 14th in the now-defunct short race in 2004.
It's not all about African runners
Hayley Yelling of Great Britain won the European title in Dublin late last year. Ana Dulce Felix won Portugal’s trial at the Almond Blossom Race on 7 March.
With Dibaba, Kidane and Melkamu, Ethiopia will make a strong bid to regain the team title lost to Kenya in Amman last year. The result could well come down to the fourth finisher.
The bronze medal appears up for grabs. Portugal took third last time, and its four scoring members in Amman - Felix, Sara Moreira, Ana Dias and Analia Rosa - all return to Bydgoszcz. Australia was third in Edinburgh and again will be headed by Willis. But marathoner Lisa Weightman, a top-20 finisher in Edinburgh and Amman - is not running this time and the team has also been hit by the withdrawal of in-form Nikki Chapple through injury. Lara Tamsett, Eloise Wellings and Anna Thompson still provide strong back-up.
Flanagan heads a strong US team and Yelling will be backed up by the consistent Freya Murray and Stephanie Twell as she seeks to lead Britain to its first senior women’s medal since Brussels in 2004. Japan, Spain and Morocco are never far away, the latter returning five of the team which finished sixth on count-back last year.
With rain and mud predicted for the championships, how well runners handle the conditions could be the x-factor in deciding individual and team results.
Two-time winner Genzebe Dibaba, younger sister of Tirunesh, will be looking for a unique hat-trick of junior wins in Bydgoszcz. She faces last year’s runner-up, Mercy Cherono of Kenya, along with her Kenyan team-mate Nelly Chebet (fifth in Amman).
Dibaba ran the senior women’s race at the Ethiopian trial and pulled out with an injury, but presumably her form is better than that. In her absence, little-known Afera Godfay beat World Youth 3000m bronze medallist Genet Yalew and Emebet Anteneh, seventh in the junior race in Amman.
Chebet and her team-mate Purity Cherotich Rionoripo are the reigning World youth champions at 1500 and 3000 metres, respectively, while Mercy Cherono already has a Bydgoszcz gold medal to her name, having won the 3000 at the 2008 World junior titles.
Japan and Great Britain have fought for the minor medal in the past two editions of the World Cross Country and both boast strong squads again.
The Japanese are again headed by Nanaka Izawa, who won the selection trial race. Izawa finished 17th in Amman last year, with her team-mates packing in close behind.
Emelia Gorecka, who was too young to represent Britain at last year’s European cross-country championships, won the trial for Bydgoszcz. Thanks to a 16th birthday in between, Gorecka can represent this time.
She will be joined by a strong team, including Hannah Walker and Annabel Gummow who finished second and third respectively in the trials.
Len Johnson for the IAAF