Capping an unprecedented display of team dominance, Irene Chepet Cheptai led a mighty Kenyan women’s squad to the first-ever top-six sweep at a World Cross Country Championships.
Cheptai, who arrived in the Ugandan capital undefeated this cross country season, broke from teammates Alice Aprot and Lilian Kasait Rengeruk in the final kilometre to reach the line in 31:57 over the 10k course, four seconds clear of Aprot, and 52 second before the first woman not wearing a Kenyan team kit.
In between, Rengeruk, steeplechase specialist Hyvin Kyeng, Agnes Tirop and Olympic 1500m champion Faith Kipyegon all in turn paraded across the line, living up admirably to their ‘team to beat’ billing.
“We cooperated together and helped each other,” said Cheptai, who turned in top-ten finishes at the last two editions of these championships. “But it was a very tough race, not easy.”
Perhaps, but tougher still for anyone trying to muscle their way into the Kenyan juggernaut.
When the team compositions were finally announced earlier in the week, it was clear that it would take a Herculean effort by long-time rival Ethiopia to defend their women’s team title from Guiyang 2015 when they stopped a Kenyan team gold streak at four. But few would have ventured to predict that an historical one-through-six finish was in the making.
But it didn’t come as a complete shock, at least not to Aprot, the African cross country and 10,000m champion.
“We just planned to run at the front and push, and if we did that we hoped to finish one, two, three.”
Aprot was half right.
With the mercury rising to 26 C at start time and precious little shade to shelter the runners from the sun, the race began on the conservative side over the first lap, with just five seconds separating a group of 25 over the first 10-kilometre loop.
The Kenyan sextet got to work over the next circuit which reduced the lead pack to a group of eight with Aprot, Rengeruk and Cheptai confidently guiding the pack. Sebere Teferi of Ethiopia, the runner-up two years ago, was also there, along with Bahrain’s Olympic steeplechase champion Ruth Jebet and the other three Kenyans: Kipyegon, reigning World cross champion Agnes Tirop and Kiyeng.
A lap later, the podium sweep was all but secure, with Aprot, Rengeruk and Cheptai taking up the pacing duties, and Kipyegon, less than a second back, playing the rear guard ahead of Teferi who was the last non-Kenyan left standing between a Kenyan perfect 15-point tally and an unprecedented top-six sweep.
Aprot, Cheptai and Rengeruk entered the final lap with a 14-second lead. Behind them, Kiyeng moved into fourth while Kipyegon, another six seconds back, kept her in her sights. Tirop meanwhile, who struggled and fell off the pace midway through the third lap, rebounded to pass Teferi and bring up the rear guard.
There was no stopping Cheptai after she made her move in the waning minutes over what is her favourite distance. The smile was instant.
“Yes, I was very, very happy,” she said.
Aprot was next in 32:01 with Rengeruk coming home in bronze position ten seconds later.
Kiyeng and Tirop were next running nearly stride-for-stride to finish fourth and fifth in 32:32. Kipyegon, who had never seriously contested a race this long, was sixth in 32:49, holding off Jebet’s late race charge by less than a second.
Belaynesh Oljira was the first Ethiopian in eighth overall in 32:53, with Bahrain’s Rose Chelimo and Ethiopia’s Teberi rounding out the top-ten.
For Kenya it was their 12th senior women’s team title and fifth out of the last six editions. For Ethiopia, the distant runners-up with 45 points, their fifth team silver in the last six editions.
Bahrain, led by Jebet and Chelimo, were third with 59 points. Uganda showed well, tallying 68 points for fourth, well ahead of fifth-placed USA who scored 90.