Kenya’s mixed relay secured the nation’s first gold of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017 with an eight-second victory over East African rivals Ethiopia.
Earlier in a press conference Asbel Kiprop thanked the IAAF for introducing the mixed relay to this year’s programme.
“This is what brought me back to cross country,” the three-time world 1500m champion told the press about his long awaited return to the championships after years of abstinence from the event.
On the first leg, all eyes were on the tall Kenyan as he was setting the pace over Ethiopia’s first leg runner Welde Tufa. Team tactics were interesting to watch: Kenya clearly wanted to push the pace from the start, while Ethiopia had placed their two strongest runners on the final two legs.
Kiprop ran impressively and reached the changeover zone at the 2km mark in 5:19. He handed over to Winfried Nzisa Mbithe with a six-second lead over Ethiopa’s Tufa, who passed the wristband to Bone Cheluke.
“I knew I had to deliver this for the team, so I had to run fast,” Kiprop said of his role to lead out the team.
Mbithe, fuelled on by the many Kenyan fans that had travelled to Kampala the day before and who were racing alongside the course to support their athletes, took off like a storm. Ethiopia’s Cheluke went out more conservatively, looking to reel in the Kenyan further down the course. It represented a chance for the Turkish team and third leg runner Meryem Akdag as the European cross country medallist moved up to the Ethiopian’s shoulder and into second.
Over the last 600m, Cheluke’s conservative approach paid off as she moved her team back into silver position. Meanwhile, Mbithe produced a solid 6:07 to the Ethiopian’s 6:16 to extend the lead Kiprop built to 15 seconds overall. Ethiopia, however, still had world indoor 3000m champion Yomif Kejelcha and 1500m world record-holder Genzebe Dibaba to come.
The Ethiopian went out hard to chase down Bernard Kipkorir Koros, closely followed by the Turkish relay in third, but Uganda’s Ronald Musagala, who initially was set to run the host nation’s final leg, surged from fifth towards the top three to the delight of the partial home crowd.
Kejelcha’s long strides saw him slowly close the gap to Koros and away from Turkey and Uganda to leave the two nations battle for bronze. As Beatrice Chepkoech received the wristband from Koros (5:34) with a 12 second lead over Kejelcha (5:22), all eyes turned to Dibaba.
Chepkoech, aware of the threat of Dibaba closing in on her, regularly glanced over her shoulder. Dibaba was working hard to close down the gap between herself and the Kenyan. With 600m to go she was still about 15 metres behind the leader and not even her impressive 5:27 effort was enough to catch Chepkoech in the end. With arms aloft and cheered on by the rest of her team behind the finish line, Chepkoech crossed the line to take the first gold of the day for the Kenyan relay in 22:22, eight seconds clear from Ethiopia.
The battle for bronze went to Turkey in the end (22:37), where Yasmin Can produced a strong 5:29 effort on the last leg. Hosts Uganda finished in fourth (23:03), with Bahrain in fifth.
“It’s good and will remain in history that we won the first mixed relay,” a delighted Kiprop said after the race.