Top British internationals Andy Vernon and Frank Tickner will be challenging the usual collection of classy African athletes who will be racing once more at Greenmount in the Antrim Borough Council sponsored £30,000 IAAF International cross country event on January 12.
Yeovil's 29 year old Tickner was the only athlete in last year's race who managed to break into the African domination which resulted in Kenya and Ethiopia occupying 7 of the top 8 places. A determined Tickner refused to be overawed by the opposition and struggled through the driving wind and rain to finish 5th in what he later described as his best run ever.This time round he will be aiming for a similar result in his first major race of the season.
Vernon (26), of Aldershot, finished a commendable 13th in last month's European Championships in Budapest which ensured him a silver medal as part of the the GB team which just lost out to Spain. Vernon who was ranked in last year's top three in GB over 5,000 and 10,000 metres recently finished 2nd in the European trials race in Liverpool.
Both athletes will do well to hold back the Kenyan challenge which this year is led by 26 year old Bernard Rotich who finished a superb 3rd in last year's event after challenging team colleague Mike Kigen who went on to record his 3rd consecutive victory. Rotich, who is a 2hrs 10 mins marathon runner, recorded useful runner-up spots in last year's Bristol Half Marathon and Swansea 10k.
However, the similar class of these African athletes makes an individual winner hard to predict. Rotich will certainly face fierce competition from former Commenwealth Games 10,000 metres bronze medallist Joseph Birech. The Kenyan was 6th last year and beat Rotich in last July's London 10k. He later won the Glasgow Half Marathon.
Also taking the start line is Kenya's 20 year old David Bett who took the World 5,000 metres title in 2010 in Canada. He has a classy personal best of 13 mins 6 secs. He will be joined by marathon specialist Julius Maisei who has a PB of 2.08.13 and finished 2nd in the Hong Kong Marathon a year ago.
In the women's event, the opposition to defending Greenmount title holder and double European champion Fionnualla Britton of Dublin is still to be finalised.