For the second time running, Joshua Cheptegei finished the senior men’s race at the World Cross-Country Championships not knowing where he was.
Two years ago, at his home championship in Kampala, Cheptegei looked all over the winner when he had dashed to a 60-metre lead at the start of the final lap. But his apparently decisive move came too soon. Half-way around the final lap he was in trouble. Soon after that he literally did not know where he was.
Today in Aarhus was atonement day, as Cheptegei dashed clear of precocious teammate Jacob Kiplimo and defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor to take the world title by 25 metres in 31:40 over the 10,240m course. Again he did not know where he was, because he has never been a senior world champion before. Now, he had arrived at a long-held goal.
It got better and better for Cheptegei. With Kiplimo second, Thomas Ayeko seventh and Joseph Ayeko tenth, Uganda wrapped up the teams race as well. That was another first, the first time Uganda has taken either a senior or junior gold medal. At senior level, the previous best was bronze medals in Mombasa in 2007 and Kampala last time.
Despite his burn-out, it was Cheptegei’s 30th place finish which clinched the team bronze medal. He contributed, even while out on his feet. Some of that grit no doubt helped over the twisting, turning, climbing and swooping Aarhus course.
As with all races on the day, the steep climb and headlong descent of the roof of the Moesgaard Museum played a major role in dictating the manner in which the senior men’s race was run and in determining how it finished. Cheptegei did not always look the strongest on the roof, but he was when it counted most on the final lap.
The steep, uphill start turned normal world cross-country protocol on its head. The charge off the line in the men’s race looked familiar, but the first lap was by some way the slowest 2km split of the race, which then got quicker and quicker by the lap.
Ugandan vests were always prominent in the lead pack, even when it numbered up to 30 in the early stages. Uganda started with four in the top 10 and finished the same way.
Almost from the outset, however, it was Kiplimo who was the aggressor. He pushed the pace up the roof in the second lap and soon after they entered the third lap he had pulled Cheptegei, Kamworor and Eritrea’s Aron Kifle clear.
While Rhonex Kipruto and Selemon Barega had tried to bridge that gap, by the half-way mark of the race it was clear there were only four who could win. Into the fourth lap, that was down to three as Kifle dropped off, but the Eritrean athlete was still well clear of the chasers and held that place all the way to the line, improving one position on his Kampala race.
Kamworor had raced conservatively, always shadowing every move but rarely leading himself. As the leaders entered the fourth lap, however, he appeared to be trying to assert his authority.
As the leaders took the climb up the roof for the second-last time, however, Kiplimo forged a break and it looked as if he might become the youngest-ever winner of the senior race (and the only one still eligible to have run the U20 championship). This was no surprise, given a formline which has seen him go undefeated in nine races since July last year, including seven major cross-country victories.
By accident or design, however, this proved to be the opening feint of a classic one-two punch. Kamworor chased hard on the uphill start of the final lap and on the following downhill he had closed the gap. Unfortunately for him, he had pulled Cheptegei up with him.
Cheptegei and Kiplimo dashed clear with Kamworor dropping back first five metres, then 10. As the gap continued to grow he clearly could not win a third straight world cross-country title.
Kiplimo’s last card would prove to be the climb up the roof. He had been stronger than Cheptegei on each of the previous four laps, but this time it was his more experienced teammate who broke clear. It was a five metre lead at the top of the climb and 10 by the time they had completed the turn and commenced the downhill.
Cheptegei was not to be beaten this time. A former winner of the world U20 10,000m title, his record at senior level has brought two Olympic top-8 finished (at 5000 and 10,000 at Rio 2016) and a second to Mo Farah in the 10,000 at the London world championships.
Kiplimo, who could have defended his U20 title here, finished second in 31:44. His time is surely coming. Kamworor was third in 31:55, with Kifle fourth and Barega the first Ethiopian finisher in fifth place.
Uganda took the teams gold medal from Kenya and Ethiopia, the cherry on the top of a truly delightful cake. No-one deserved a slice of it more than Joshua Cheptegei.