London is next stop for Kenya six-star show queen Cheptai
It resembled a scene torn up straight from the Team Kenya training camp in Kigari, Embu when the senior women 10km squad took to the Kololo Independence Grounds course in Kampala for the 42nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Uganda.
The race featured 102 starters and 96 finishers but it took only 2km for the six Kenyans to leave the rest of the world in their slipstream and by the time they were done motoring around the picturesque course, a first ever 1-6 result in the history of the competition was crowned.
“I thought I had prepared well and trained properly for the race but in the end, the Kenyans were in a class of their own,” Kenyan born American hope, Aliphine Chepkerer Tuliamuk who finished 15th (33:43) offered in glowing tribute to her former compatriots at the mixed zone.
As the Kenyan girls turned a world event into an internal competition for the medals, the crowd at Kololo looked on in pin drop silence, with Uganda President, General Yoweri Kaguta Museveni who was the chief guest tapping his hand on a side table next to his seat in acknowledgement.
“There is no need for us to make any noise because this race is all about the Kenyans,” a volunteer at the Kampala 2017 World Cross wistfully explained the hushed atmosphere that descended at the venue.
On the right side of the main stand majority of the sizeable travelling Kenyan supporters waved their flags with glee, finally finding their voice after seeing Jacob Kiplimo almost bring the structure down when he won the men Under 20 title for Uganda minutes before.
IAAF President, Lord Sebastian Coe later described the jaw-dropping performance ‘breathtaking’ and he even gate crashed an interview Athletics Kenya boss Lt. Gen (Rtd) Jackson Tuwei was having with Citizen TV to offer his congratulations as the red, green and black revered runners once again topped the World Cross, bagging their 83rd overall title.
-Cheptai finds finish-
African 10000m champion, Alice Aprot Nawowuna towed the field through the splits, taking the runners through the first four laps in 5:58, 12:25, 18:53 and 25:27 at the bell but in the final decisive moments of the showdown, it was Irene Chebet Cheptai who found the legs with the Midas touch to seal the title in 31:57.
For her endeavour, Aprot who is a sister to the 2010 World Cross senior men winner, Joseph Ebuya added silver to the family’s collection in 32:01 as Lilian Kasait Rengeruk rounded the podium in 32:11.
Behind the individual medallists, steeplechase world champion, Hyvin Kiyeng (32:32) came fourth to complete the perfect 10 team score ahead of outgoing World Cross titleholder Agnes Tirop (32:32) and Olympic 1500m winner, Faith Chepng’etich (32:49) who rounded the unprecedented top six sweep for runners from the same nation at the World Cross.
“In fact, it was a Kenya 1-7,” assistant coach Francis Kamau remarked in a nod to seventh finisher, Bahraini Olympic 3000m steeplechase champion and record holder Ruth Jebet who declared for the Gulf State in 2013.
This was the only team title the dominant Kenyans won at Kololo and to put the feat into perspective, perfect team scores had only be achieved on 11 occasions previously, the (discontinued) men’s short course races of 1998 and 2000, the Under 20 men competitions of 2000, 2005, 2007 and 2010 and the Under 20 women editions of 1993, 2004, 2006 and 2010.
On each of those, apart from 2004 (with four to score) Kenyan runners placed first, second, third and fourth and until Sunday, the best example of domination was the 1988 edition where the senior men led by cross legend and five-time champion, John Ngugi came home 1-2-3-4-6-7-8-9.
Immediately after crossing the line for her first senior global title, Cheptai went down on her knees and bowed down in deep prayer as jubilant Team Kenya officials and some of the fans breached the finishing funnel protocol to dance in delight at the chaotic World Cross where order was often thrown out of the window.
Once she was done paying homage to the Almighty, Cheptai grabbed a flag and begun to savour the crowning moment so far in a career that seemed to be heading sideways at 25 as she added the world title to the national crown she won on February 18 in Nairobi.
Victory in Kampala finally erased the bitterness of losing gold at the Under 20 race of the 2008 World Cross in Bydgoszcz, Poland where she lost the crown to Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba in a sprint finish.
Incidentally, Genzebe, the latest forceful scion of the Dibaba family, was led to the altar in the anchor leg of the inaugural 4X2000m mixed relay by Beatrice Chepkoech for a taste of de javu.
“I feel great, I did not think I would win, I wanted a medal but winning my first world title has made me so happy. I knew we had a strong team but I have been working on the finishing and above all, I’m thankful we won all the medals.
“We knew we had trained well but it was difficult since the weather was hot and the course was tough,” Cheptai said after collecting herself from the heap of exhaustion when she faced the media.
“My focus now turns to the World Championships in London where I hope this performance will inspire me to win a medal there as well,” the newly minted senior women champion stated.
Aprot, a fourth finisher at the Rio Olympics in 10,000m and a senior women winner at the same grounds when Uganda hosted the Africa Cross in 2014 could barely disguise her disappointment for missing out on the world title.
“I went out hard because I knew I do not have the sprint for the finish but in the end, Irene was strong. I’m glad I won silver here but I will go back home and train harder for the 10,000m at the World Championships.
“We had planned to run as a team and take charge of the race from the start and it worked so well,” the Durban 2016 African Championships winner expressed.
“Winning bronze at the World Cross is so great,” Kasait remarked.
Moments before, an American junior athlete had come to the Kenyan team area at the competitor’s tent to ask her for her jersey in exchange to the blue US strip. Initially, the Kenyans thought she was asking whether anyone in the team was interested in running for the US before they realised she was an appreciative relic hunter.
Ethiopia won team silver with a score of 45 with Bahrain taking the bronze in 58 for the only medal they won in Kampala.
-Mutwiri Mutuota is reporting from Kampala, Uganda.