Stars from Africa shine brightest as Cheruiyot shows class
Athletes from the African continent once more dominated the weekend's high quality IAAF International Cross Country at Greenmount, Antrim, which is now in its 41st year.
Their sheer class was such that the heavy, muddy conditions simply appeared to be no more than a minor inconvenience.
Their biggest challenge, at least in the early race stages, came, as expected, from Ireland's Fionnuala McCormack and Great Britain star Andy Vernon .
The Women's 5.6K event was fast from the gun with McCormack clearly deciding that it might be seventh time lucky in an event which she has won twice before. The 33-year-old forced the pace and led through the first lap with the African challenge in close attendance.
This included Ethiopia's Fotyen Tesfay who was just out of the medals in last year's World Junior Cross Country, Bahrain's Bontu Rebitu and favourite Margaret Kipkemboi of Kenya who was a few metres back.
Shortly afterwards, the Africans were joined by former World Junior 5,000 metres silver medallist Alemitu Hawi, at which stage a critical 10 metres gap was opened on McCormack. From then to the finish the only issue was which African would take the spoils.
In the usual sprint finish, Kipkemboi just took the verdict one second ahead of Tesfay with Rebitu a further three seconds back.
Swansea's Verity Ockenden had the race of her life in fourth spot with McCormack having to settle for sixth behind a distraught Hawi who lost a shoe.
A delighted Kipkemboi, who was the fifth fastest in the World last season over 5,000 metres, said: "The race went really well for me even though I am not used to all this mud. That is my last cross country race this season as I am going home to race in the Kenyan trials for the Commonwealth Games in Australia where I hope to win."
McCormack commented that she decided to have a go early in the race but simply didn't have the pace to stay with the leaders in the closing stages. Best of the local athletes was Armagh's Fionnuala Ross who beat some major names to finish an impressive ninth.
The Men's 8k event featured Kenya's 1,500 metres runner Timothy Cheruiyot and steeplechaser Soufiane Ebakkali of Morroco who are current World silver medallists.
They tucked in behind early leader Andy Vernon along with virtual unknown - Mogos Tuemay of Ethiopia.
Top UK cross country runner Vernon eventually fell back while Cheriuyot and Tuemay fought out a sustained sprint battle in the closing stages.
Cheruiyot, who was third here two years ago, got the verdict by the proverbial whisker in the same time as Tuemay. Ebakkali was third some 20 seconds back, followed by Vernon who celebrated his 31st birthday yesterday.
The Irish contingent was impressive with Hugh Armstrong finishing seventh ahead of Kevin Maunsell (9th) and Mark Hanrahan (10th). Top local finisher was Neil Johnston in 17th place.
Lisburn's James Edgar who will be competing in the Commonwealth Games in the triathlon was a solid 25th.
The Gold Coast Games featured prominently in the meeting as Cheruiyot also announced he wanted to qualify in next month's Kenyan Trials.
Vernon, who is already selected for England in the 10,000 metres, said: "My run here was pretty good as I was up against very worthy opponents.
"I took the lead for a while simply to stay out of trouble over the twisty course. I am now fully recovered from a stress fracture of the femur last summer. While I will take in a couple more cross-country races, my priority is the Gold Coast Games in April."