•Saturday's National Cross Country Championships at Ngong Racecourse, Nairobi brought together the who-is-who in the sport
•The championships lived up to their pre-event billing as a titanic battle
•Fans shouted themselves hoarse as athletes ran like 'mad' across the muddy terrain in pursuit of glory
For almost two decades, Kenya has ruled cross country races with an iron grip.
It began with John Ngugi's win at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Colombier, Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1986.
Since then, the country boasts an amazing 49 team titles and 27 individuals crowns out of the available 68 titles in each category.
With this background knowledge, Saturday's National Cross Country Championships at the Ngong Racecourse, Nairobi was bound to attract worldwide attention from fans, coaches, managers, other athletics federations and athletes.
The event brought together the who-is-who in the sport as Athletics Kenya used the competition to select Team Kenya to the Africa Cross Country Championships in Lome, Togo on March 7.
The event was billed as a titanic battle by many stakeholders, including AK president Jack Tuwei as athletes jostled for position in the seven categories including Under 18 — boys and girls, Under 20 men and women and senior men and women and mixed relays.
"My assessment of the cross country series, alongside my colleagues, is that the standards of the competition are so high. So I expect a very heated competition this weekend as the athletes battle to secure tickets to Togo," Tuwei said in the build-up to the event.
His prediction came true as the championships lived up to their pre-event billing.
The event might as well been renamed 'World Cross Country Championships' with the level of anticipation and organisation.
Fans, who thronged the venue in their hundreds, were oblivious to the chilly weather as all their attention was focused on the unfolding drama on the muddy-wet course.
The fireworks generated by the intense competition on the course served to raise up the temperatures as fans shouted themselves hoarse in support of their preferred athletes.
At the end of the day, even renowned movie director and scriptwriter Spike Lee would not have conjured up such an intriguing script considering how the events unfolded on the muddy terrain.
The sight of Sheila Chelangat — the defending women's cross country champion — and her closest competitor Daisy Cherotich collapsing at the finish line is a picture worthy of immortalisation in Kenya's sporting history books.
Afterwards, she was in no doubt that race is the toughest she has ever run in her life.
"The race was tough because of the many obstacles on the course. I don't know how to put it but I can say the muddy pool was the toughest part. Every time I reached that part of the course, I found myself struggling a lot," she said.
Regardless, Chelangat successfully defended the title she won last year by clocking 34:55.5 to finish ahead of Cherotich, who timed 35:00.9 and Margaret Ngoiri (35:02.1).
This was only topped by Rodgers Kwemoi flipping the script in the senior men's 10km race when he beat pre-race favourite Kibiwott Kandie to the finish line.
The much-hyped battle between world half marathon record holder Kandie and his predecessor, Geoffrey Kamworor and Central's Bedan Karoki did not materialise as the latter two dropped out mid-race.
Credit to Kandie though for turning on the nitro-burners in the last 100m after losing the lead to Kwemoi albeit the latter held on for a surprise win.
All these events — Chelangat collapsing and Kwemoi usurping the pre-race favourites — are evidence of the hunger for glory that was burning within them.
Most athletes have been out of competitive action for a long time as the coronavirus pandemic halted most sporting activities last year.
"This pandemic affected many athletes who were in great form last year and were hoping to compete in many races, which were later cancelled. However, we remain hopeful about this year. Things will be better," Kwemoi said.
Many sporting activities in the country have occurred behind closed doors without the thrill of the fans.
This has many times virtually reduced these activities to training sessions.
However, Saturday's event was a breath of fresh air and a timely reminder of the impact of various stakeholders in the sporting industries.
It was a carnival mood amplified by the presence of traditional dancers, who kept the crowd entertained through their traditional songs and perfectly-executed dance routines.
The Kenya Prisons Service band —draped in their immaculate green uniforms — added to the carnival atmosphere with their rendition of popular Kenyan tunes.
Besides the course were various fans — of different colours, creed and status — who were dressed colourfully and waving the flags of their respective teams.
For the neutrals, there were an array of teams to support, even if for a day.
Former Inspector General — and current CAS for Tourism — Joseph Boinett captured the dilemma facing the neutrals when choosing which side to support.
"When I came here, I didn't know which team to support. I was torn between North Rift and South Rift. I am also a retired police officer so part of my heart also supported NPS. However, at the end, my support was for Team Kenya because at the end of the day, we are all Kenyans," he said.
The unsung heroes
With the Covid-19 dragon yet to be completely slain, nothing was left to chance as all the Ministry of Health guidelines were strictly adhered.
AK's event stewards were on hand with facemasks to provide to anyone in need whereas sanitisation booths were stationed at every point.
Security was tight as Police, National Youth Service officers and private security guards worked closely to ensure everything went smoothly with minimal hitches.
As the event neared its end, it was time for winners to savour the fruits of their labour as they were called to the podium and awarded accordingly.
For junior athletes yet to hit the international stage, stepping onto the brightly-coloured podium was a preview of the good tidings awaiting them should they maintain (or improve) on their performances.
"Everyone is a winner. We came here as Coast region but we are leaving as the Kenyan team. It was a beautiful event and we are happy to have been part of it," Taita Taveta First Lady Stella Samboja said.
There is no time to rest though as the selected athletes report to camp at the Kigari Teachers' Training College on Wednesday in readiness for the battle in Lome.
Nonetheless, Tuwei is impressed by the show at Ngong Racecourse and believes this is only a precursor of the things to come.
"As soon as we finish with cross country, we will immediately shift our focus to the World Relay Series. This is going to be a very busy year for us as athletics stakeholders. I encourage all fans to continue showing up and spurring on our athletes to victory."
5km U18 Girls
- Mercy Chepkemoi (17:15.3)
- Marion Jepngetich (17:24.8)
- Jane Ghati (17:32.5)
- Iscar Chelangat (17:34.8)
- Judy Kemunto (17:40.5)
- Sheila Chepkirui (17:48.9)
6km U18 Boys
- Ismael Kurui (18:39.2)
- Lobeki Erigon (18:43.8)
- Charles Rotich (18:49.1)
- Mathew Kipkoech (18:56.7)
- Denis Kipkurui (18:59.8)
- Kipchumba Kemboi (19:03.8)
6km U20 Women
- Purity Chepkurui (20:50.2)
- Jackline Jepkoech (21:16.7)
- Feliciana Kanda (21:25.1)
- Grace Loibach(21:37.3)
- Esther Wambuib (21:41.7)
- Zena Jeptoo (21:51.4)
8km U20 Men
- Gideon Rono (24:43.6)
- Benson Kiplangat (24:57.3)
- Emanuel Maru (25:24.2)
- Domongole Fredrick (25:28.7)
- Rueben Mosin (25:29.2)
- Etiang Kamar (25:30.5)
10km Senior Women
- Sheila Chelagat Police (34:55.5)
- Daisy Cherotich (35:00.9)
- Ruth Chepngetich (35:02.1)
- Agnes Chebet (35:07.7)
- Everlyne Chirchir (35:10.0)
- Hyvin Kiyeng (35:41.1)
10km Senior Men
- Rodgers Kwemoi (31:03.3)
- Kibiwott Kandie (31:05.5)
- Edwin Bett (31:10.9)
- Nicholas Kimeli (31:12.4)
- Phenus Kipleting (31:14.6)
- aniel Mateiko (31:20.2)