Atapuerca (Burgos), Spain – The IAAF Cross Country Permit Series 2012/13 got underway today with a magnificent spectacle at the 9th ‘Cross Internacional de Atapuerca’ which witnessed respective victories of the reigning World Cross Country champion Imane Merga of Ethiopia and his compatriot Ayalew Hiwot – 5th at the London Olympics in the 3000m steeplechase – on the women’s side on a cold (5ºC) and windy day with gusts of up to 30km/h.
While Merga outsprinted the Kenyan pair of Emmanuel Bett and Vincent Chepkok in the closing 300 metres to grab a two-second victory, Hiwot took advantage of the current World silver medallist Linet Masai’s fall inside the final kilometre to capture a still convincing win over the Kenyan ace.
Conservative Merga singes scorching final
The 9.807km men’s race opened quite slowly, the best hint being no less than 40 athletes comprising the extremely large heading group by the 3000m point which was covered in 9:02 with Italy’s reigning European 10,000m silver medallist Daniele Meucci making most of the early pace closely followed by a plethora of Africans comfortably running at his shoulder.
It was Uganda’s Moses Kibet who injected some brisker rhythm just before mid-race (14:56 for the 5000m point) and his change of speed quickly reduced the leading pack to nine units, Spain’s current European silver medallist Ayad Lamdassem being the only non-African among them as Meucci just could not live with that kind of pace.
The second half of the contest saw the dominance of this season’s World 10,000m leader (26:51.16) in the guise of Kenyan Bett but his compatriot Chepkok and Merga were trailing in his wake easily. By the 7000m section Eritrea’s Kidane Tadese began to lose ground and so eight men remained with winning chances, the Kenyan trio of Bett, Chepkok and John Kipkoech, the Eritrean pair of 2010 World silver medallist Teklemariam Medhin and Amanuel Mesel, Merga, Lamdassem and Kibet.
Bett’s relentless pace (23:28 for the 8000m) paid dividends and the closing kilometre became a four-horse battle as only Chepkok, Merga and Medhin managed to cover Bett’s display of front running although a desperate 2:48 penultimate 1000m proved not to be enough to leave any of his chasers behind.
The decisive movement was made by Imane Merga some 300m from the tape when the Ethiopian star found another gear to built a shy but enough margin over Bett and Chepkok, who overtook his young compatriot over the closing 100m to secure the runner-up place while Bett held off the challenge of the 2010 winner Medhin to complete the podium.
Among the non-African born athletes, Spain’s former (2008) World indoor 1500m bronze medallist Juan Carlos Higuero was fastest marginally ahead of Meucci to secure a top-ten berth some 46 seconds adrift the winner.
A joyful Merga, who now holds a perfect card of three wins out of three performances on Spanish soil – the 2011 World title in Punta Umbría 2011 plus two wins in Atapuerca – commented, “Honestly, it has been a very tough win as mainly Bett but also Chepkok and Medhin make things very difficult. Anyway, I was always confident of my final sprint, so I decided to wait and see throughout the race and fortunately it paid off.”
After his successful cross country season kick-off, Merga now plans to return to his native Ethiopia.
Women’s race – Ayalew impresses
An annoying flu, a fall some 600m to the tape and –above all- an impressive run by Ethiopia’s Ayalew proved to be too many barriers for Kenyan Linet Masai’s aim of retaining her top place from last year here in Atapuerca.
The 7839km race witnessed a comfortable pace in the early two kilometres; by then the large leading group was compounded – in addition to Masai and Ayalew – by Kenya’s Priscah Cherono, Portugal’s Sara Moreira, Italy’s Nadia Ejjafini, Ireland’s Fiounnala Britton and a powerful and surprise British triumvirate in the guise of Jessica Coulson, Hanna Walker and Ava Hutchinson.
Ayalew and Masai began to force the rhythm in the third kilometre and they soon opened a sizable margin over their pursuers. Despite not sharing nationality, the two leaders took turns for the pacing duties several times to keep their pace as hot as possible. At the halfway point, it was the reigning European champion Britton who topped the chasing group some 15 seconds behind Masai and Ayalew.
The leaders reached the 5000m point in a brisk pace for a cross country race – 16:15 – despite having to negotiate some artificial barriers throughout the circuit while Britton, Coulson and Moreira had managed to leave behind Ejjafini, Walker and Hutchinson in the fight for the minor place on the podium.
The big crowd assembled was already dreaming of a thrilling sprint between Masai and Ayalew when the long-legged Kenyan fell when negotiating one of the barriers, losing any chance of winning ahead of Ayalew, a renowned 3000m steeplechase athlete. Masai stood up not especially quick, looked back to check how close the third placed was travelling and kept on running but Ayalew had by then built a 50m margin to secure her win.
At the tape, the Ethiopian rising star clocked 25:01 while Masai was 18 seconds in arrears. The big news came when Coulson easily got rid off Britton and Moreira over the closing lap to take third in what was arguably the best ever performance on any surface for the 22-year-old unheralded Briton.
An ecstatic Ayalew declared: “Masai and I have had a fierce battler but unfortunately she fell at the end; otherwise, it would have been quite tough to beat a cross country star like her.”
As for Masai, she said: “I’m really impressed because of the huge amount of competitors throughout the day (over 4000 athletes including the children contests). I’m sorry for the spectators as my fall prevented them to witness a beautiful sprint but I’m happy with my run, anyway.”
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF
Men (9807m) –
1. Imane Merga (Ethiopia) 28:05
2. Vincent Chepkok (Kenya) 28:07
3. Emmanuel Bet (Kenya) 28:09
4. Teklemariam Medhin (Eritrea) 28:10
5. John Kipkoech (Kenya) 28:23
6. Moses Kibet (Uganda) 28:24
7. Amanuel Mesel (Eritrea) 28:28
8. Ayad Lamdassem (Spain) 28:35
9. Kidane Tadese (Eritrea) 28:42
10. Juan Carlos Higuero (Spain) 28:51
Women (7839m) –
1. Hiwot Ayalew (Ethiopia) 25:01
2. Linet Masai (Kenya) 25:19
3. Jessica Coulson (Great Britain) 25:42
4. Fionnuala Britton (Ireland) 25:48
5. Sara Moreira (Portugal) 25:51
6. Nadia Ejjafini (Italy) 25:57
7. Hanna Walker (Great Britain) 26:03
8. Prisca Cherono (Kenya) 26:23
9. Ava Hutchinson () 26:28
10. Diana Martín (Spain) 26:31