Does winning national cross country title bring bad luck?

By Kimathi Kamau: Sunday, March 10th 2019 at 00:08 GMT +3 | Athletics
Little known Amos Kirui of South Rift celebrates after winning 10 kilometers senior men race during National Cross Country championship in Eldoret on 23/02/2019. [PETER OCHIENG/STANDARD].

Steeplechase specialist Amos Kirui upstaged some of his more established domestic rivals to win the hotly-contested senior 10km men’s race at the Kenyan Cross Country Championships.

At the packed Eldoret Sports Club grounds last Saturday, he led the queue to the 43rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark.

Over the years, reputations and form book have been tossed out of the window in the signature race of any cross country meeting with the Kenyan trials widely acknowledged as second toughest event to only the World Cross.

By winning a stacked race, Kirui, the Japan-based 2016 IAAF World Under 20 steeplechase champion, not only enhanced his growing credentials but his name will feature prominently in any preview of the men’s 10km of the March 30 showdown in Denmark.

Kirui who turned 21 on February 9 did the unthinkable on a dry afternoon when he timed his finish to perfection, motoring away from a field that included two-time senior World Cross champion Geoffrey Kamworor and World U20 10,000m champion Rhonex Kipruto to win comfortably by seven seconds.

“I have been preparing for this race for the last four months. I’m glad to have beaten big athletes like Zakayo (Pingua) and Kamworor.

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With all gaze ahead of Denmark firmly fixed on Kirui, we take a look at what happened to the last five men who left Kenya as senior men champions at the World Cross proper, illustrating why the likes of Kamworor and Kipruto should not be worried about their chances in Denmark.

Leonard Barsoton- 2017

Another Japan-based runner, Leonard Barsoton, just like Kirui caused quite a sensation at the Uhuru Gardens Grounds when he toppled everybody’s favourites, Kamworor and Bedan Karoki among others.

Barsoton, the World Under 20 silver medallist at the 2013 World Cross Country Championships, surprised the field to take his first national title in strong fashion.

At the Lugogo Grounds in Kampala, Kamworor went on to win his second senior and third World Cross individual gold medal when he turned the tables on Barsoton who hang on bravely for silver, with the clocks returning 28:24 against 28:36.

Bedan Karoki-2015

With focus at the time on Japheth Korir, the Bydgoszcz 2013 surprise World Cross titleholder and the star-studded Police team as the show-stopping 12km senior men’s showdown beckoned, it was yet another Japan-based athlete Karoki who achieved rare feat of holding on to the national title.

The defending local champion unleashed a powerful kick to the tape over the last 800m to stop the clock in 35:08.

Karoki prevailed over world half-marathon champion Kamworor (35:19) with 2012 African cross-country titleholder Barsoton (35:28) rounding out the podium.

When Kenya’s team landed in the resort city of Guiyang for the World Cross, it was Kamworor who charged in the closing stages to reverse the finish order when he won his first senior gold in 34:52 with Karoki following suit for the silver in 35:00 in a close finish.

The Kenyan-pair had worked together for most of the 12km to drop all other challengers before turning the finale into an internal competition.

Philemon Rono- 2013

The trials for 2013 World Cross in Poland served up four action-packed races that climaxed with Philemon Rono shocking a loaded field in the senior men’s 12km to become the Kenyan champion.

In a fitting finale to the programme, Police officer Philemon Rono, who has never before donned the national colours, emerged the best from a three-pronged challenge for top honours to defeat a loaded line-up with an accomplished last-lap performance.

From the 8km mark to the bell, Rono, Prisons athlete Timothy Kiptoo and Geoffrey Kirui traded the lead but the diminutive 22 year-old shifted the gears with 600m left to depose his challengers as he arrived at the finish in 35:22.

A bigger upset was to follow at the Myslecinek Park on March 24, 2013 when Japheth Korir, the then 19 year-old produced a race of his life to beat Ethiopian Imane Merga (32:51) and Eritrean Teklemariam Mehdin (32:54) to the biggest medal in 32:45.

Rono, the Kenyan champion could only muster a 36th finish in 34:19.

Geoffrey Mutai- 2011

Marathon star and Police athlete, Geoffrey Mutai shot to favourites list for the 2011 World Cross in Punta Umbria, Spain with a hugely impressive victory at the Kenyan National Cross Country Championships in Nairobi on February 19, 2011 crossing the line 45 seconds ahead of his rivals.

The 29-year-old was a late starter at serious running, only coming to attention as a competitor four years prior, but he had made up quickly for lost time.

There appeared to be little threat when Ethiopian Imane Merga joined six Kenyans to break off from the rest of the field with Ugandan star, Stephen Kiprotich keeping close attention with Mutai poised to attack for the gold.

In the final stretch, Merga surprised the Kenyans with a burst of pace that only Paul Tanui responded to, charging up from sixth but in the end, the ground he had to make just fell short, with the clocks returning 33:50 against 33:52 to relegate the Kenyan to silver.

Mutai ran out of gas in the race to the finish, coming home fifth (34:03) behind countrymen Vincent Chepkok who took bronze in 33:53 and fourth-placed team captain, Matthew Kisorio (33:53).

To this day, one of the regrets of Mutai who famously completed the Boston Marathon course in 2:02:03 a year later, regrets failing to win the 2011 cross title.

Paul Tanui- 2010

The Kenyan trials for the last annual World Cross saw- to no surprise at all- another Japan-based athlete, Paul Tanui roast the field to become the national senior men 12km champion and lead his compatriots to the 39th World Cross in Punta Umbria, Spain.

Tanui, then just 19, went to Bydgoszcz having won the next toughest race in the world – the Kenyan Championships – by the yawning margin of 30.2 seconds.

The progress of Paul Kipngetich Tanui, to give his full name, had been frightening at the time.

He was fourth in the junior race at the 2009 World Cross Amman before transferring to Fukuoka where he has thrived in the Japanese corporate system with fast times on the track and Ekiden circuit.

Of course, victory in the trials is one thing, preserving that form to the championships is another and Tanui’s vastly experienced compatriots knew all about that process.

At the Bydgoszcz World Cross, Kenya Defence Forces talent, Joseph Ebuya, surprised even himself when he delivered the crown in 33:00 to Kenya for the first time since another military man, the great Paul Tergat won the senior 12km title in 1999.

Tanui, who clocked 33:30, could only muster an eighth finish at the same course that ran the World Cross three years later.