James Magayi @magayijim
A titanic battle is anticipated at Uhuru Gardens this Saturday when Athletics Kenya (AK) hosts the National Cross Country Championships after federation affiliates and branches announced runners in their team lists.
Africa senior men’s Cross Country gold medalist James Rungaru leads a strong team from central branch while his female counterpart Alice Aprot of Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and Margaret Nyairera of Kenya Prisons also hold batons for their respective teams.
Rungaru clocked 26:34 to win the continental crown two years ago and is in the frame for another shot for the title. He however, faces a stiff test after AK abolished the issue of wild cards for the continental jamboree.
He will thus fight it out with Ronald Kwemoi and fast rising youngster Richard Kimunyan of Central Rift, a Kenya Police squad comprising Emmanuel Bett, Geoffrey Kipsang and Noah Kipkemboi, among others. The first six athletes to cross the line in this 10km race ran five laps measuring 2km will automatically be picked for the Kenya team.
A fierce battle is envisaged the women’s equivalent as track stars and roadrunners lock horns in battle for team Kenya tickets. World 5,000m gold medallist Helen Obiri of KDF highlights the women’s field with notable distance runners like Lucy Kabuu and Visiline Jepkesho staking claim. African Champion Alice Aprot who won in 29:52 must make the cut to earn her title defence right.
Aprot and Jepkesho front a strong Prisons team that also includes Celiphine Chespol, Catherine Syokau and Nancy Nzisa. The Police team comprising Kabuu, 5,000m specialist Margaret Chelimo and Stacy Ndiwa among others are gunning for the national title as well as tickets to Algiers for March’s continental showpiece.
Mixed relay Sandra Chebet and Beatrice Mutai headline South Rift senior women ranks while Emily Chebet will represent Nairobi. The senior women’s race is equally run in five loops of 2km to make 10km after IAAF wrung changes three years ago.
World Champion in 1,500m Elijah Manangoi will potentially go head to head with his brother George in the mixed relay carrying batons for Police and Nairobi branch respectively.
The younger Manangoi blazed to Under 18 gold medal in Nairobi last July, weeks before his elder sibling upset the world by winning the senior crown in London. Olympic bronze medal in 800m Margaret Nyairera will anchor the Prisons team in the mixed relay with season miler Silas Kiplagat and Timothy Cheruiyot also in the squad. Mixed relay is a new introduction into the Cross Country menu.
It involves four athletes drawn from male and female genders in equal numbers with each team member running a two-kilometre loop. Confederation of African Athletics will stage the mixed relay for the first time in Algiers.
Kenya won gold in the event during last year’s world championships. A least 30 athletes will be selected for Team Kenya at the end of Saturday’s trials. Kenya Wildlife Services and the National Youth Service (NYS) have also fielded teams for the event.