Semenya, Coburn join XC regulars at world championships

Caster Semenya has won Olympic and world titles on the track over 800 meters but can’t run that distance competitively now so she’s taking on cross-country at a world championships course more synonymous with an iconic Australian auto race.

Emma Coburn has won a world title and an Olympic bronze medal in the steeplechase and, while she’s still pursuing that event, she’s taking on a new challenge with inspiration from her mother, Annie, who died last month in the U.S.

Semenya and Coburn will be participating in the mixed relay event at the World Cross-Country Championships on Saturday in Bathurst, a town three hours’ drive west of Sydney which is the annual home of Australia’s premier 1,000-kilometer touring car race, and where the winner is called the King of the Mountain.

The mixed team race involves women and men each running a 2-kilometer loop in a relay, passing a wristband at the exchange zone. Semenya competed in the 4-kilometer event at the South African cross-country championships last September in preparation. Coburn is competing for the U.S. team on invitation.

The mixed relay will involve 15 teams and kick off the program in the afternoon, when the temperature is forecast to reach 35 Celsius (95 Fahrenheit)), two hours before the women’s 10-kilometer race. The men’s 10K race, featuring all three medalists from the last championship at Aarhus, Denmark in 2019, will conclude the event.

Joshua Cheptegei will be aiming to defend his title against fellow Ugandan Jacob Kiplimo, a silver medalist in Aarhus, and two-time champion Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya. Cheptegei has the world records in the 5,000- and 10,000-meters, is the world champion in the 10,000 and cross-country and the Olympic champion at 5,000.

World half-marathon silver medalist Kibiwott Kandie and Diamond League champion Nicholas Kipkorir wll join Kamworor on the Kenya team. Olympic 10,000-meter champion Selemon Barega and Berihu Aregawi will be running for Ethiopia.

“It’s going to be a mind blower and something that will stay in our hearts and minds for a long time,” Cheptegei said of the quality of the competition and the degree of difficulty of the course.

Kamworor, who won cross-country world titles in 2015 and ’17 during a five-year period in which he also won three half-marathon world championships, said cross-country “is in my DNA.”

Letesenbet Gidey will be aiming for her first senior individual world cross-country title in the women’s race after two years in which she’s set world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 on the track and won Olympic and world championships inside the stadium.

She was part of the Ethiopian women’s team that won the team title four years ago and will again be vying with Kenya for dominance in the event.

The mixed event will be the first to take on the circuit which has an uphill start and undulating sections with classic Australian names like Boomerang and Billabong

Coburn said she was still aiming to be competing in the steeplechase at the track worlds in Budapest later this year, but the cross-country event gave her “an opportunity to challenge my mind and body.”

“This distance I think is really fun,” she said, “and the muscular strength in my legs will be beneficial on some of the technically challenging parts of the race, like the mud pit!”

Coburn said her mother’s wish was for her to be strong and to keep running, which is why she agreed to run at the cross-country worlds.

“I hope I can make her proud and I know that just competing and doing it is a big first step in continuing on with my career without her here,” she said. “Tomorrow will be a special day.”

It’s another chance to compete on the world stage for the 32-year-old Semenya, too.

Semenya didn’t progress through the heats in the 5,000 meters at the track world championships in Oregon last July, placing 13th in the 12 1/2—lap race run in blistering heat.

It wasn’t an unexpected result for the South African who is barred from her best event, the 800, because of rules that would require she take hormone-reducing drugs to enter races between 400 meters and one mile.

Semenya lost an appeal of a World Athletics regulation that made women with certain intersex conditions ineligible for those races and she hasn’t competed in a major 800-meter race since 2019.


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