Front-running Scot thwarted by fast-finishing American as Mo Farah winds up seventh

Leonard Korir out-sprinted local favourite Callum Hawkins in thrilling style at the end of a pulsating 8km of cross-country racing in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park on Saturday. Such was the ferocity of the pace set by Hawkins for much of the distance, the 2016 winner Garrett Heath finished sixth and Olympic champion Mo Farah wound up seventh as the form book was turned on its head.

The new year is only seven days old but it will be hard to find a more exciting race during the rest of 2017 than the men’s race at the Simplyhealth Great Edinburgh XCountry. Hawkins, who was ninth in the Olympic marathon last year, pushed from the front relentlessly in an attempt to stretch his rivals but a seemingly beaten-looking Korir dug deep in the final 200m to unleash a winning kick.

The Scottish runner enjoyed a louder cheer than anyone else during the pre-race introductions. But the groans from the frustrated and partisan crowds were even louder at the end when Korir ghosted past Hawkins to claim victory.

“I wanted him to win because he’s from here,” smiled Korir, before adding: “But I wanted to win as well!”

Korir, who was 14th in the Olympic 10,000m final last year, continued: “Everyone was cheering for him (Hawkins) but I thought ‘let people cheer more by me giving him some competition’ – and I’m glad I won today.”

With 400m to go, Hawkins had forged a gap of several metres and looked the likely winner. At that point, had Korir given up? “Yes,” he agreed, “I knew I was going to get second. However I said ‘okay, I’m going to be No.2 but I have to fight’. I was struggling but I realised he was struggling as well. It’s cross country and you have to be ready for everything.”

A poll on Twitter before the race saw 44% of voters predicting a Farah victory with 24% plumping for Hawkins, 25% going for three-time winner Heath and 7% for European champion Aras Kaya of Turkey. But it was clear from early in the race that Farah was not his usual self as he floundered in about 21st place before clawing his way through the field up to seventh, while simultaneously falling steadily further behind on the clock to the leader Hawkins. Kaya, meanwhile, also started poorly but moved up eventually to third as Sam Chelanga and Stanley Kebenei of United States were fourth and fifth, just ahead of Heath and Farah.

Such was the quality of the race, Farah was 46 seconds behind the winner while a further half-minute behind Andy Vernon and Dewi Griffiths were the third and fourth Brits home in 12th and 14th.

Yet all eyes were on the mesmeric battle up front between 24-year-old Hawkins and the Kenyan-born Korir. “I couldn’t hear him in the home straight because of the crowd!” said Hawkins, who had mixed feelings on his race. “I’m pleased with how I ran but disappointed to get beaten. I gave it my all.”

He added: “The field was full of world-class runners and there were multiple possible winners.”

Bizarrely, Hawkins became the first Briton to beat Farah in a race since boxer Anthony Joshua out-paced the distance runner to win the 100m at the 2012 edition of Superstars. Farah, though, was not at his best in Edinburgh and Hawkins was quick to acknowledge this, saying he gained little satisfaction from beating an under-par Farah.

Farah was in philosophical mood, explaining: “In the last couple of weeks training hasn’t gone well. I could have pulled out of the race and stayed at home but I was running for my country.”

The newly-knighted athlete added that he had been ill over Christmas but was keen not to make excuses. “Training has not gone as smoothly as I wanted,” he continued. “But I didn’t give up today. I was still fighting at the end.

“Fair credit to Callum. He’s a great athlete and it was a great performance. From the get-go he made it really hard for us.”

The two Britons could find themselves racing each other again on the roads in future as they attack Steve Jones’ long-standing UK marathon record. Korir, meanwhile, says his main aim is the 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships in London.

Elsewhere, Yasemin Can of Turkey won the senior women’s race representing Europe, while Laura Muir anchored Great Britain to 4x1km relay victory.

The junior races were won by Harriet Knowles-Jones of Great Britain and Noah Affolder of the United States. Earlier in the day, inter-district winners included Morag MacLarty and Kris Jones, while more than 3000 runners took part in the SimplyHealth Great Edinburgh Winter Run.

Men’s results (selected)                

1 Leonard Korir USA 24:03
2 Callum Hawkins GBR 24:04
3 Aras Kaya EUR 24:21
4 Sam Chelanga USA 24:23
5 Stanley Kebenei USA 24:39
6 Garrett Heath USA 24:43
7 Mo Farah GBR 24:49
12 Andy Vernon GBR 25:13
14 Dewi Griffiths GBR 25:21

» See the January 12 issue of Athletics Weekly for 11 pages of coverage from Edinburgh