Kenyan successfully defends senior men’s title as Ugandan leader suffers last lap collapse

With half a mile to go in the senior men’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Joshua Cheptegai from the host nation Uganda looked a sure-fire winner. Roared home by the partisan crowd in the Kololo Independence Grounds, the 20-year-old held a sizeable lead and looked a dead cert for victory as defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor chased seemingly in vain.

Incredibly, it would have been Uganda’s second gold of the day following the success of Jacob Kiplimo in the under-20 men’s race. But the celebrations for Cheptegai proved premature as he suddenly ran out of gas and dramatically lost his lead.

Showing no mercy, Kamworor pounced to claim his second world cross senior men’s victory two years after taking the title in Guiyang. Such was his exhaustion, Cheptegai was unable to muster even the slightest of challenges as Kamworor flew past him and the Ugandan began treading water, eventually struggling across the line in 30th place – more than a minute-and-a-half behind Kamworor.

Still, despite the disappointment it was a fantastic day for the host nation as they staged a colourful event full of atmosphere thanks to the enthusiastic crowds that surrounded the largely flat, grassy course amid warm temperatures in the low 80s.

Also, Cheptegai’s determination to finish ensured the Ugandan senior men’s squad won team bronze in a tight contest behind Kenya and winners Ethiopia.

Uganda’s history of competing in the World Cross Country Championships dates back little over 20 years, after all. The first time they entered athletes was in 1996 and on that occasion their first athlete in the men’s race was a lowly 102nd.

Yet this weekend they took junior men’s gold and Cheptegai bold effort in the senior men’s race won admirers around the distance running world.

The main plaudits went to Kamworor, though, as the Kenyan showed the kind of stamina that has produced a marathon PB of 2:06:12 and the speed endurance that earned him world 10,000m silver behind Mo Farah in 2015 to take the title once again.

Twelve seconds behind, the runner-up was another Kenyan, Leonard Bartoson, as Abadi Hadis of Ethiopia took bronze. Yet few could take their eyes off the painful sight of Cheptegai as the Ugandan, who had surged hard to earn his lead halfway through the race, tip-toed his way to the finish in eerie silence after the earlier raucous cheers.

At a championships where African countries outnumbered the nations from the rest of the world, the leading non-Africans in the men’s race were Sam Chelanga of the United States in 11th and Patrick Tiernan of Australia in 12th. Chelanga was born in Kenya and his brother, Joshua, was fourth in the 1999 World Cross, while Tiernan is a maths student at Villanova University where he is coached by Irish miling legend Marcus O’Sullivan.

Earlier the venue had burst into life when Kiplimo took gold for the hosts in the under-20 men’s race. The 16-year-old burst away from his Ethiopian and Kenyan rivals with a lap to go to win by three seconds from Amdework Walelegn of Ethiopia with Richard Yator Kimunyan of Kenya nine seconds further back.

Jacob-Kiplimo-U20-men-kampala-by-Mark-Shearman

Cheered on by the home crowd, Kiplimo was roared to victory as he flew around the final lap. Only 16, he was born just after the Sydney Olympics and was the youngest athlete for Uganda at the Rio Olympics last year, where he ran in the 5000m heats.

His 10,000m PB of 27:26, though, marked him out as a serious contender for the 7858m junior race and he took Uganda’s first-ever gold medal at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

His only disappointment was that Uganda narrowly failed to make the team podium as Ethiopia took the honours from Kenya and Eritrea.

Sam Stevens was the leading Briton home in 43rd ahead of his team-mates Scott Beattie in 47th, Jonathan Shields in 60th, Hugo Milner in 69th, Luke Prior in 80th and Ben Davies in 87th as GB’s under-20 men finished 10th in the team stakes.

First non-African under-20 man was Kazuya Nishiyama of Japan in 27th with Mario Garcia of Spain the top European in 31st.

» A report of the women’s senior and under-20 races can be found here

» See the March 30 issue of Athletics Weekly magazine for full coverage from Kampala