(17-Feb) -- Since facing each other in a 10-K road race in Bengaluru, India in May of 2014, Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya and Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda have been fierce, yet friendly, rivals. The two Africans --who work with separate coaches and training groups, although they share the same management team-- have faced each other on a total of nine occasions during their careers, according to the statistics service Tilastopaja Oy, and Kamworor has come out ahead six times. However, in the five World or Olympic championship events where they have met, Cheptegei, 26, has a 3-2 edge over Kamworor, 30.
But there is no event where these two athletes hunger for victory more than the World Athletics Cross Country Championships where they will face each other on Saturday in Bathurst, Australia. In the last three editions of these championships --in 2015, 2017 and 2019-- Kamworor has won twice and finished third once. The only man to beat him was Cheptegei, who in Aarhus, Denmark nearly four years ago won the gold medal 15 seconds ahead of Kamworor, who got the bronze behind Cheptegei's Ugandan teammate, Jacob Kiplimo. All three men are set to compete in Bathurst.
PHOTO: Geoffrey Kamworor speaking at the pre-race press conference for the 2023 World Athletics Cross Country Championships (photo by Karen Mitchell for Race Results Weekly)
"Cross country... is in my DNA," said Kamworor at a press conference on Friday in Bathurst where temperatures are expected to hit 33C/91F on Saturday. "It was the first title I won. The first major global title I won was from the cross country back in 2011 (when he won the under-20 title). That medal really motivated me so much to love the cross country. That's why I always love the cross country."
Kamworor is a runner for all surfaces and distances. He has won three World Athletics Half-Marathon Championships titles, and has twice won the TCS New York City Marathon (in 2017 and 2019). Although he's been running marathons since 2012, he still feels a strong pull to cross country which most top marathoners have abandoned. Unlike most athletes running in April's TCS London Marathon, Kamworor has incorporated cross country training into his marathon training program.
"This cross country is part of my preparation," Kamworor told reporters. "I found it part of my preparation towards the marathon because I'll be running in London Marathon. This is part of training, it's part of my endurance training, my strength training. So, as I have said, I love running in cross country. I'm passionate about running in cross country because it was my (first) major global title I won. It's something that inspired me so much that it gave me a morale in every championship event that I'm taking on that I want to go for it."
Cheptegei, who is also an accomplished road runner, is the world's #1 athlete in the 10,000m. He won the world titles in 2019 and 2022, and the silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. As much as those medals mean to him, it's World Cross that Cheptegei feels the strongest about.
PHOTO: Joshua Cheptegei speaking at the pre-race press conference for the 2023 World Athletics Cross Country Championships (photo by Karen Mitchell for Race Results Weekly)
"Cross country is very important," said Cheptegei, sitting on Kamworor's right. "It feels exciting to see that the people who shared the podium in Denmark are here back again. It's a fantastic course. I know it's going to be... a mind-blower, something that will actually stay in our hearts and our minds for a long time. I'm actually looking forward to a great event."
Before winning in Aarhus, Cheptegei suffered a demoralizing defeat to Kamworor at the 2017 championships in Kampala, Uganda. Running in front of the home crowd, Cheptegei stormed to the lead at the end of the third, 2-km circuit of the 10-kilometer race and built up a 12-second margin. But he blew up with a lap and a half to go. Kamworor passed him to get the gold medal, and Cheptegei faded to 30th place, an experience which impacted him profoundly. When he came to Aarhus he was in his best shape and very motivated. Winning there for him was particularly sweet.
"If there was anyone who really wanted this gold medal it was me," Cheptegei told reporters after the race in Aarhus. "I really lost to my colleague Geoffrey Kamworor in Kampala, and if there was anybody who really wanted this gold medal it was me. I think I have lived to expectations."
Cheptegei is feeling similarly motivated for Saturday's race. Looking relaxed today, he spoke again today of his 2017 experience in Kampala.
"Sometimes in life you have to accept what life throws you on the way," Cheptegei said. "You have to accept, and the best thing you can do is you have to learn from what is actually happening in your life, and you have to take the positivity. That is how you can gather your pieces of self together and be able to come back strongly."
Of course, with the depth of competition in Bathurst there is no guarantee that either Cheptegei or Kamworor will even win a medal. The Ethiopian team is especially strong, featuring Berihu Aregawi (fourth in the 2021 Olympic 10,000m), Selemon Barega (the 2021 Olympic 10,000m champion), and Tadese Worku (the 2021 world junior 3000m champion). The Kenyan squad has 2020 World Athletics Half-Marathon Championships silver medalist Kibiwott Kandie and 2022 African Championships 5000m silver medalist Daniel Simiyu Ebenyo.
Of course, Uganda's Jacob Kiplimo could move up from the silver medal position in 2019. Indeed, he is the reigning world half-marathon champion.
PHOTO: Geoffrey Kamworor, Joshua Cheptegei and Jacob Kiplimo battle for the win at the 2019 World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
But for Cheptegei and Kamworor the chance to race each other is truly something to be savored. Kamworor probably feels it more strongly as this may be his last race at World Cross, at least at the top of his powers.
"To me I'm honored and excited to compete again in cross country after the pandemic from 2019 to now, and of course after battling some challenges and injuries," said Kamworor, who is the father of triplets. "Actually, in 2019 I was looking forward to retaining the title, and unfortunately the course was tough and there were strong men, like Joshua, who won that time. At that time, I thought it was my last time to compete at (World) Cross Country. But, whenever I tried to shift my focus to the road I found myself thinking again of cross country. As I've said, it's something that's in my DNA. I promised myself that I wanted to win as many medals as possible."