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Posted: January 13, 2007

Athletics: Bekele Dominates, Burka Defends In Edinburgh

From David Monti

© 2006 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

By Bob Ramsak

EDINBURGH -- Kenenisa Bekele made two things perfectly clear after his 2007 debut at today’s Great Edinburgh International Cross Country: that he clearly remains the world’s finest cross country runner, and that any world title won in his absence would be a hollow one indeed.

Running in muddy conditions and against brutal, piercing winds at the Scottish capital’s sprawling Holyrood Park, the 24-year-old broke from --and ultimately humbled-- the finest field yet assembled this season just 18 minutes into the 9.3 km race en route to a dominating 10 second victory.

“I knew it was going to be a strong race, so I prepared really well,” said Bekele, whose victory was his 26th straight, a streak he began in Newcastle, England, on Dec 29, 2001.

Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge was the bravest from the outset, choosing to forge the lead against the strong winds, with Bekele, world road running champion Zersenay Tadesse of Eritrea, Tanzanian Fabiano Joseph, Ethiopian Gebre Gebremariam, American Dathan Ritzenhein and Canada’s two-time NCAA champion Simon Bairu giving chase. As Kipchoge forged on, Bairu was the first to drop back some ten minutes into the race, with Ritzenhein falling off the pace six minutes later when Tadesse injected a brief surge to move into the lead.

But Bekele was clearly undeterred. Instead of following the Eritrean and Kipchoge, he simply switched gears, took the lead, and built an insurmountable lead by the 19th minute before crossing the line in 28:14. Tadesse was next to produce his best showing in his third appearance here, while Kipchoge, struggling over the final 1300m lap, held on for third, well back in 28:51, just a second ahead of Joseph.

After such a dominant display, Bekele was once again fielding questions about whether he might reconsider his decision to skip the upcoming World Cross Country Championships and an attempt for a record sixth straight, and 11th senior overall, title. After all, he was reminded, he has changed his mind after such unequivocal proclamations before.

“Maybe if there will be something special in the race, a new challenge” he said, “I might change my mind.” He didn’t elaborate on what that something special would have to be.

Other factors may come into play as well. According to Jos Hermens of Global Sports Management, the firm that represents Bekele, the Ethiopian federation is not yet aware of Bekele’s intentions, and some pressure could be expected.

In his first race since his marathon debut at November’s ING New York City Marathon, American Dathan Ritzenhein finished sixth in 29:02, two seconds behind Ethiopian Gebre Gebremariam.

“It wasn’t disappointing,” said Ritzenhein, who was fourth in this race last year. “It was a definite rust buster. I wish I would have had that extra gear though.” He estimated the wind speed, which he described as “amazing,” at 30 to 40 miles per hour.

Running a more conservative race in the dismal conditions, Ethiopian Gelete Burka made her decisive move from a three-woman pack with about 600 meters remaining en route to solid nine second victory to defend her Edinburgh title.

“The wind was so strong,” said Burka, who last year followed up her Edinburgh win with a victory in the short course race at the World Cross Country Championships. “These were the worst conditions I have ever run in.”

Australians Benita Johnson and Anna Thompson took turns leading a large 10 woman pack for more than half of the 6.7 km race until the former, the 2004 world champion, upped the tempo some 16 minutes into the race, quickly thinning the list of contenders. Burka and compatriot Meselech Melkamu along with Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot remained in touch, until the Ethiopian pair pushed ahead about a minute later.

Running confidently as Melkamu began to struggle, the 20-year-old Burka bided her time until making her move to cross the line unchallenged in 23:25. Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot regrouped from a 25-meter deficit and outsprinted Johnson over the final 20 meters to finish second in 23:34, with Melkamu fourth.

Much of the local attention was on the men’s four kilometer contest, a rematch between Briton Mo Farah and Sergey Lebid of Ukraine, the six-time European champion whom Farah dethroned in San Giorgio su Legnano, Italy, last month.

While Farah decided to set the tempo, Lebid remained on his shoulder throughout, at the ready to strike. With just under 200 meters to go he did, to claim a decisive win in 12:20, one second ahead of Farah.

“He was on my shoulder the whole way,” said Farah, who was on a plane bound for his winter training base in South Africa less than four hours after the race. “And he was better on the day.”

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