I like cross country — I don’t necessarily enjoy doing it, but it’s great to watch! The World Cross Country Championships were finally held this weekend in Bathurst, Australia, following a few-year pandemic-induced delay. Since 1973, this meet has been a clash of titans, and this edition was no exception. The battle up front, especially on the men’s side, had all the characters you’d hope and expect to show.
And since we love complaining about broadcasts when they’re terrible, it’d be shameful to not also give praise when they’re excellent. The cameras did a great job covering the race, and the commentary was educated and full of emotion.
Let’s summarize the excitement before giving some minor critiques for the future…
This was the fourth appearance of the event in the World XC program and hopefully it remains and continues to grow. With only 15 teams lining up, there were plenty of gaps along the way, but one great leg could change the entire dynamic of the race. My first MVP would be Jess Hull, who ran the third leg 11 seconds faster than the next best time behind her and solidified the bronze medal for the home team. And on the men’s side, Kyumbe Munguit of Kenya gets a gold star for breaking open the race and leading Kenya to its third title. While based on PRs, he’s only a 3:36 guy matched up against competition with faster track times, this wasn’t on mondo, and that’s the beauty of cross country.
The US junior ladies won a bronze medal for the first time in history, and they should be showered in praise for this accomplishment! On paper, this was probably the squad that represented the very best of American talent. Irene Riggs (12th) is the NXN Champion, Karrie Baloga (13th) won Champs Sports, and Ellie Shea was the top US finisher in 10th despite taking an early spill. It would have taken a miracle to contend with Ethiopia, who won the team title with 15 points and was led by overall winner Senayet Getachew, who ran 68:37 for a half marathon last year at 16 years old, and second-place finisher Medina Eisa, who broke 15 minutes for the 5000m when she was 16.
The last time a team other than Kenya or Ethiopia won this race was in 1981, and that’s because Kenya and Ethiopia weren’t there. This was the first time since 1982 that the American junior men medaled and they had to do it up against the powerhouses. This race sorta played out as a tale of two groups: the entirety of the East African nations’ squads made up the top 15 spots, but the next man through was Leo Young in 16th. The US team packed up nicely and worked their way through the field and that smart running was rewarded. Be on the lookout for Ishmael Kipkurui the next couple of years. Although his track results are at the moment relatively modest (13:26 for 5000m), the long list of junior men who went on to win much bigger things is filled with athletes you’d put on the sport’s Mt. Rushmore.
The Kenyan women won on the heels of Beatrice Chebet, the world championship silver medalist at 5000m. But it almost didn’t go that way, well except for the Kenya team title part… that was inevitable. Ethiopia’s Letsenbet Gidey, the many-time world record holder, had fully separated herself and seemed to be on cruise control when disaster struck. As she slowed on the downhill finish, it wasn’t immediately obvious just how bad of condition she was in until Chebet passed her and she collapsed. Mind you, the official temperature reading was 35 degrees celsius — which I am told is hot. After being helped up by her coach, she crossed the line in fourth, but also received a DQ for that assistance. Only the best runners are able to push themselves so hard that they collapse and that should be worn as a badge of honor. I’d have stopped to walk it in well before that.
Any diehard American patriots reading this, please don’t revoke my citizenship, but Uganda’s XC team might be my favorite pro sports team. In 2019, the Silverbacks pulled off the upset to win their first title in history and my hope was that they could do it again. While Kenya vs. Ethiopia’s rivalry is great, throwing a third team into the mix only makes things more interesting. Sadly it wasn’t meant to be: Kenya won for the first time since 2011, which is a drought almost on par with the Yankees’ current one. But Jacob Kiplimo winning the race and looking comfortable as hell with nine seconds to spare is a nice consolation prize. It had been five months since his last race, but now the stage is set for a record-breaking year.
Okay, some minor suggestions and questions: Why was the race on February 18th? The World Cross Country meet has always been at the end of March, following the indoor season, and that was a sweet spot on the calendar since it didn’t interfere with indoors. Meanwhile, we had multiple national track championships that were initially scheduled to be qualifiers for the World Indoor Championships. Next year’s XC meet in Croatia will be one week earlier, so this issue doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
And while I understand the idea of diversifying meet locations as it is a global sport, wouldn’t it be cool if there was just a rotation of a few great courses in relatively central locations? It’d infuse some additional history and lore into the race, or we can just throw some tires on the ground and call it a day!
(My writing has been delayed this evening as I continue to watch all of the old World XC Championships that have been uploaded to YouTube by World Athletics. One relevant scene to recent events is Lynn Jennings’s victory in 1992. This week Fast Women wrote about the abuse Jennings suffered as an athlete at the hands of her former coach, John Babington.)
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