Imane Merga edges out Muktar Edris at the Cross Internacional de Atapuerca (© Organisers)
The 11th ‘Cross Internacional de Atapuerca’ marked the opening leg of this winter’s IAAF Cross Country Permit series which will reach the pinnacle with the IAAF World Cross Country Championships next March and saw victories from the Ethiopian duo Imane Merga and Belaynesh Oljira on Sunday 16.
Right from the gun, the men’s race – held in cold conditions as the thermometer barely reached 7 degrees Celsius, and with strong winds – turned into a two-man battle between Merga and his compatriot Muktar Edris.
Edris immediately started with a brisk pace which was only followed by Merga, while Eritrea’s Teklemariam Medhin and Uganda’s Timothy Toroitich had already lost 15 metres to the Ethiopians at the one kilometre point, despite taking turns trying not to lose ground.
Wearing identical orange vests, Edris and Merga looked in impressive form but it was always Edris who made the pace while the former world champion Merga ran comfortably just behind him, copying his tactics from the past three editions in Atapuerca where he had taken narrow sprint finish wins.
The opening two 2000m laps were covered in 5:28 and then 5:30 but shortly afterwards the rhythm slowed down a bit which let Toroitich and Medhin join the leader just before the end of the third lap, completed in 5:44, while Spain’s European cross-country champion Alemayehu Bezabeh ran alone in fifth place some 15 seconds behind.
With 19 minutes on the clock, Toroitich – a creditable fifth at the last World Cross Country Championships – took the lead but the Ethiopian tandem found no problem to live with his pace.
However, the Ugandan’s relentless running still paid dividends as Medhin began to struggle and before seven kilometres the long-legged Eritrean started to struggle.
At the bell – 5:45 for the penultimate loop – Toroitich led from Merga and Edris while Medhin was five seconds adrift.
Edris made a move with about 1300 metres to the finish, and opened up a useful gap as Toroitich started to drift out of the battle for the top slot
Over the last 500 metres, Edris pushed as hard as he could while ‘Mr Atapuerca’ Merga was running on his shoulder. The duel home straight proved to be unforgettable as the two Ethiopians were sprinting virtually together.
Finally, the win went to Merga while Edris briefly believed he had taken the honours and flung up his arms in apparent triumph as he crossed the line but had to settle for second, although he was given the same time as Merga with 27:39.
Toroitich completed a quality podium 15 seconds later.
“I knew Edris was going to be a tough rival and he proved to be so," said Merga after his fourth victory in the race. "I contested today’s race in a better form than in previous years and I was always confident of my sprint finish but Edris pushed me to the end. I thought it was impossible to win by a narrower margin than the previous times but now I know I was wrong."
"It was my debut in Atapuerca, but even so my only target was to win," said Edris. "I tried my best by taking the lead from the beginning but that was not enough."
The first non-African home was Antonio Abadia, who came from a long way back and took a fine fifth place while Kenya’s world cross-country champion Japhet Korir was never a factor and finished a disappointing 18th, some 1:26 behind the winner.
Oljira maintains Ethiopian dominance
In contrast to the men, the 7.9km women’s race opened relatively gently with Spain’s Sonia Bejarano reaching the one kilometre point in the lead while all the favourites were comfortably positioned behind her.
Oljira, who won bronze medals at both the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and in the 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships last year, took command some five minutes into the race but there was still a large leading group of seven at halfway, Spain’s Ethiopian-born Trias Gebre the only non-African among them.
After successive laps of 6:43 and 6:30, two-time Atapuerca winner Hiwot Ayalew went to the front and the group was quickly whittled down to four with only Ayalew, Oljira, Kenya’s world 5000m silver medallist Mercy Cherono and Morocco’s Malika Asahssah remaining in contention after Ayalew covered the third lap in 6:25.
With less than two kilometres remaining, Oljira regained command of the race and her change of speed left first Cherono and then Ayalew behind.
As Oljira carried on to secure her win in style, crossing the line in 25:26, Cherono caught Ayalew some 200 metres out to finish eight seconds adrift of the victor.
A fading Ayalew could not even keep her third place as she was caught by Asahssah in the closing 30 metres.
“I knew Atapuerca as I already had raced here three years ago," said Oljira. "On that occasion, I came second so I was eager to come back to what I think is the best cross-country race in the world and win."
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF
1 Imane Merga (ETH) 27:39
2 Muktar Edris (ETH) 27:39
3 Timothy Toroitich (UGA) 27:54
4 Teklemariam Medhin (ERI) 28:10
5 Antonio Abadía (ESP) 28:21
6 Samuel Tsegay (ERI) 28:23
7 Mohamed Marhum (ESP) 28:23
8 Goitom Kifle (ERI) 28:25
9 Alemayehu Bezabeh (ESP) 28:35
10 Emmanuel Bett (KEN) 28:44
1 Belaynesh Oljira (ETH) 25:26
2 Mercy Cherono (KEN) 25:34
3 Malika Asahssah (MAR) 25:41
4 Hiwot Ayalew (ETH) 25:43
5 Doris Changeywo (KEN) 25:55
6 Trias Gebre (ESP) 26:00
7 Marta Tigabea (ETH) 26:14
8 Diana Martín (ESP) 26:39
9 Lily Partridge (GBR) 26:44
10 Iris Fuentes-Pila (ESP) 26:50