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Kenya's top athletes set to defend titles
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Kenya's three defending athletics champions are lined up to defend their titles at the eagerly anticipated IAAF Permit/KCC Kenya National Cross-Country Championships/Trials to be held at Nairobi's Ngong Racecourse on Saturday.

Gideon Ngatuny, Grace Momanyi and Christine Kambua Muyanga, who won the senior men 12km, senior women 8km and junior women 6km races at the same venue last year return in the pursuit of 24 places available in the Kenyan team for the 37th IAAF World Cross Country in Amman that will be decided at the showdown. Levy Matebo, who won the junior men's 8km race, will try his luck in the long race after graduating to the senior ranks this season.

Athletics Kenya (AK) late Wednesday released the official starting list for the four categories where a total of 414 runners will engage in a bruising battle for the 24 slots (six in each race).

Among the breathtaking line-up drawn of the three defending champions, only Kambua has a realistic chance of holding on her crown in the event billed as the toughest in recent years particularly in the men's long race.

Kambua, the Japan based former Kwanthanze Secondary School student who also picked the 3,000m world junior title in Bydgoszcz, Poland last year, will not have it all her way with teammates from the global track event providing key opposition in a race that attracted 71 entrants.

Out to dent her chances for Amman are fellow world junior champions, Mercy Cherono (3,000m) and Nelly Chebet (1,500m) as well as the likes of Sheila Chepkurui, Cynthia Cherop and Lucia Kamene Muia among others.

In the absence of all podium finishers in the men's 8km junior race from last year, world junior 10,000m champion, Josphat Bett is leading the frontrunners for the title.

Titus Mbishei, silver medallist from Bydgoszcz (10,000m), bronze winner from Edinburgh, Lucas Rotich and the third of the Masai family trilogy, Dennis are other potential winners where 100 are registered.

In the senior races, Dennis' older siblings Moses and Linet are strong bets to end Nagatuny's and Momanyi's reign as national cross-country title holders.

In the senior women's race, Linet, who has won five European cross circuit meetings this season and set the world junior 10,000m record at the Beijing Olympics while finishing fourth, looks set to improve on her runner-up position to Momanyi on Saturday.

Other contenders for the national crown include the resurgent Pauline Korikwiang, the 2006 world cross junior champion who has dominated the local scene with three victories in the national cross series.

Potent distance runners such as Lineth Chepkurui, Peninah Arusei, Sylvia Kibet and Florence Kiplagat will be among the 106 runners with a shout on the victory.

However, the men's long race that has attracted 139 competitors is billed to be the showstopper with a world class field of 139 fighting for six places.

World cross silver medallist, Leonard Komon, fifth finisher in Edinburgh, Moses Masai, Eliud Kipchoge (Olympic silver, 5,000m), Edwin Soi (bronze Olympics 5,000m), Moses Mosop (silver Mombasa WC 2007), Patrick Makau (two-time world half silver) and Mangata Ndiwa (junior gold 2006) are some of rank favourites in the classic long race.

Below them, Matebo and the runners he led to the junior men's podium last year, second placed Matthew Kisorio and third finisher Charles Bett are itching to begin life as seniors in the best possible manner.

Edinburgh campaigners who helped Kenya to the team title last year, Mark Kiptoo, Bernard Kipyego and John Thuo in addition to African 5,000m silver medallist, Isaac Songok, Armed Forces champion, Vincent Kiprop (junior silver, 2007), Athens Olympics 10,000m runner, Martin Mathathi are some with realistic chances of making the Kenya team.

AK general secretary, David Okeyo announced the selected Kenyan squad would congregate in Embu, 200km east of Nairobi, for their residential training.

Unlike previous years, newly adopted IAAF rules stipulate that countries will be required to enter six runners with four scoring points for their teams in all categories.

In the senior men's team, this restricts the number of entries by three, hence the anticipated titanic battle.

(Xinhua New Agency February 19, 2009)

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