Don't blame Zersenay Tadese if he prefers the taste of gold over silver or bronze. He's risen up in the athletics world and can afford to be picky over which one he appreciates over another.
Tadese, the returning IAAF World Cross Country gold medalist from Eritrea, earned his stripes under oppressive and life-threatening conditions in Mombassa, Kenya last March.
Tadese, now 26, took the Kenyan heat and humidity by the neck and fired up his own storm on the course, breaking Kenenisa Bekele's stride and spirit along the way to win his first world championship and ending Bekele's stronghold at the top at five-consecutive wins.
The two powerful men who both possess an amazing supply of strength, will-power and determination, will be back at it again on Sunday, facing off together over the long course race in Edinburgh's Holyrood Park in the 36th edition of this early-season fitness test during the Olympic year.
Bekele, who is attempting to win a sixth title and break a tie he holds with two legends - John Ngugi and Paul Tergat, both of Kenya, is focussing on a one-off race this time around after winning 10 gold medals in the past 12 men's events contested over both the long- and short-course events.
Bekele was on target last season to make a serious late-race bid to break away from the field - which was collectively suffering from exhaustion and severe heat loss, but was unable to shake off Tadese, who crept up to Bekele and would not be intimidated by the 24-year-old Ethiopian multiple world record-holder.
Bekele made a hard move to shake his rival, who had never before defeated him on the fields, but paid a heavy price in the race and was forced to abandon his plans to repeat as champion and to continue on with regular training for two months following that endeavour.
Tadese, on the other hand, had an opportunity to shake off the field at his calling and dictate a race pace from up front which punished any pursuers not already within an armshot of him.
The reward? A golden opportunity he would never forget.
Tadese was no slouch on the cross country course prior to winning last year's world championships, nor was he a lightweight on the track.
Having won the 2006 World 20km championships, Tadese also brought 12.59,27 and 26.37,25 personal bests also set in 2006 to keep his focus up with Bekele and to block out the heat - something he had been working on at his training base in Spain.
Both men are looking forward to tomorrow for different reasons.
Bekele, who has raced sparingly this season - recording a world-record in the 2-mile indoors in Birmingham (8.04,35) and a 12km cross country victory on this very Edinburgh course in January, is attempting to regain the crown which eluded him last year and set himself as the overwhelming favourite to win the Olympic 10.000m crown in August in Beijing.
A victory over his rivals would mean that Bekele's forced withdrawal last year was due solely to the elements, and not to being outdone by his rivals.
A loss, on the other hand, would keep Bekele on his competitors' radars and make him even more vulnerable to defeat than he was when he had to dig down deep in Osaka's 10.000m final at last summer's IAAF World Track & Field Championships.
Tadese, whose season has been derailed by two losses in three cross country competitions - including a tick in the ledger against Bekele in Edinburgh, is out to run his own race and compete his best against the entire field, not just Bekele.
"It’s not a matter of fearing anyone," he told the IAAF on Saturday. "I just run my own race."
A race is what the fans lining up the course in rainy conditions will get from two fresh athletes who both know the feeling of victory and the pursuit of near perfection as they tread over water holes, through the mud and push their bodies to their limits for about 34 minutes of time.
Tadese lost a close one to Bekele on 12-January, with the steely Ethiopian stating afterward that it was a very important victory for him. The race was contested over a 9,3km layout on this very site.
Bekele, the world record-holder at 5.000m and 10.000m, looks to be a favourite in a race up to 12km, or the distance contested at the World Championships.
Tadese, on the other hand, has virtually snuck up on the world, having run 58.59 over the half-marathon distance to win last year's IAAF Half Marathon World Championships in October and set a national record in the process. His 10.000m ability may now be faster than the listed 26.37,25 he was able to set in finishing second to Kenyan Micah Kogo in Bruxelles.
The combination of improved track times and excellent road times may hold a slight advantage for Tadese over a longer distance, but Bekele, who has continually demonstrated excellent sprint speed at the end of long track races, may yet pull one out against anyone in the field who is near with only a surge and a kick the only thing separating the victor from the finish line.
At any rate, the vibes are hot, the athletes are cool, and the fans hope the weather warms as the senior men and women as well as the junior division athletes embark on a mission which should last each participant a lifetime.
This is a first-of-a-kind for many of the junior athletes, who are 19-years-old and younger, and is meant as a stepping stone for them to make their way to the senior ranks.
Bekele was 9th in the 1999 junior division in Belfast, and came back to win the 2001 junior title in Ooestende.
The Kenyan men's senior team will have five athletes who are making their senior debut.
IAAF World Cross Country Championships
Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland
13.00: Women's Junior Race. Start List.
13.30: Men's Junior Race. Start List.
14.05: Women's Senior Race. Start List.
14.45: Men's Senior Race. Start List.
Zersenay Tadese's Cross Country and Road Racing Merits:
- 1st IAAF World Road Running Championships 1 f 56:01 Debrecen 08/10/2006
- 2nd IAAF World Road Running Championships 1 f 58:59 Udine 14/10/2007
- 12th IAAF World Half Marathon Championships 7 f 1:01:26 Vilamoura 04/10/2003
- 11th IAAF World Half Marathon Championships 21 f 1:03:05 Bruxelles 05/05/2002
- 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 35:50 Mombasa 24/03/2007
- 34th IAAF World Cross Country Championships 4 f 35:47 Fukuoka 02/04/2006
- 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships 2 f 35:20 St Etienne - St Galmier 20/03/2005
- 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships 6 f 36:37 Bruxelles 21/03/2004
- 31st IAAF World Cross Country Championships 9 f 37:10 Lausanne 30/03/2003
- 30th IAAF/Sport Ireland World Cross Country Championships 30 f 36:37 Dublin 24/03/2002
- IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 25:04 Oostende 25/03/2001
- 27th IAAF World Cross Country Championships 9 f 26:27 Belfast 28/03/1999
- 34th IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 10:54 Fukuoka 01/04/2006
- 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 11:33 St Etienne - St Galmier 19/03/2005
- 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 11:31 Bruxelles 20/03/2004
- 31st IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 11:01 Lausanne 29/03/2003
- 30th IAAF/Sport Ireland World Cross Country Championships 1 f 12:11 Dublin 23/03/2002
- IAAF World Cross Country Championships 2 f 12:42 Oostende 24/03/2001
- 34th IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 35:40 Fukuoka 02/04/2006
- 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 35:06 St Etienne - St Galmier 20/03/2005
- 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 35:52 Bruxelles 21/03/2004
- 31st IAAF World Cross Country Championships 1 f 35:56 Lausanne 30/03/2003
- 30th IAAF/Sport Ireland World Cross Country Championships 1 f 34:52 Dublin 24/03/2002
Stats courtesy of IAAF
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