Kenenisa Bekele with a last gasp sprint for the line thwarted the efforts of Saif Saaeed Shaheen to win the VisitScotland Great Edinburgh Cross Country title today. Bekele who has never lost a cross country race as a senior athlete and in the process has won four successive world long and short course title, underwent the biggest-ever test in his already illustrious career.
But the 23-year-old Ethiopian looking really vulnerable after the Kenyan-born Qatarian put his foot firmly on the gas pedal with a kilometre of the 9.2K distance remaining, kept ice cool. The professionalism and confidence which has seen him on the track win Olympic and World 5000m gold medals and set World 5000m and 10000m records, shone through in a nervewracking finish to the race.
Bekele breathing hard and tiring, drew himself onto the shoulders of the world 3000m steeplechase champion and record holder before powering away from Shaheeen, himself renowned for his own fast finish. "Yes it hurt, it was a hard race and he made me work with everything I had for the win," said Bekele last beaten in a cross country race when still a junior.
That was five years ago by Haile Gebrselassie, his fellow countryman who he will - and probably very quickly - inevitably succeed as the world's greatest-ever distance runner. Today he survived by just six seconds in a time of 26:08 ahead of Shaheen who in fairness produced one of the greatest-ever cross performances of his career with Zersenay Tadesse third.
Tadesse of Eritrea who made the race the thriller it was with his quick pacemaking until losing contact on the final circuit, clocked 26:18 and then joined in amazing scenes on the finishing line. Ethiopia and Eritrea back on their shared North African border may be almost on a war footing. But today large groups of supporters united together.
They joyously waved flags and linked hands together in celebrations never seen at an IAAF permit meeting, after the finish to one of the world's best-ever cross country confrontations. Indeed Tadesse might have finished third, but he was carried off the course aloft by the seething fans.
The Ethiopian's earlier unleashed Gelete Burka another phenomenal performer against a world class women's field. The latest talent from the running mad African nation, showed her superiority, scoring a satisfying win over the testing 6K kilometres course.
Last year's IAAF World junior cross country champion again showed her vast potential when finishing ahead of Isabella Ochichi the Olympic 5000 metres silver medallist and fellow Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba. Burka executing a superfast turn of pace in the final kilometre, flew away from the Kenyan runner-up, Dibaba last year's champion already a spent force, struggling in third place well behind the pair.
In fairness, Dibaba at 20, a year older than her fellow winning countrywoman, had spent the night at Heathrow airport after missing her connecting flight from Addis Ababa to Edinburgh. The delay in clearing immigration saw her and her elder sister Ejagayehu the Olympic 10000m silver medallist spend the night in London, before an early morning red eye departure for north of the border.
But one suspects Dibaba who scored stunning World cross country long and short course wins last March then a magnificent 5000m and 1000m track double in the summer, knew Burka would be a real threat. Even if she had arrived for the meeting on schedule, the likelihood is she would have fallen to the sword of Burka, who shocked her to win last summer's Ethiopian 5000 metres title.
That victory ahead of the world's current greatest distance runner, came just a fortnight after Burka thrashed Olympic 5000m gold medallist Meseret Defar over 3000m distance. Certainly Burka with a class victory on the international circuit in Spain under her belt just prior to Christmas, wasn't surprised by her 11-seconds winning margin. "That was easy, very easy and I always thought I could win," she said, barely out of breath after despatching Ochichi and Dibaba to positions of also-rans in a time of 19 minutes 1 second.
"Now I want a couple of more races and get ready for the World Cross," added Burka, where as a senior she will add more strength to the Ethiopian side in Fukuoka at the beginning of April. Nick McCormick the defending champion took a trip in his four kilometres race but quickly recovered to assert his authority and score a a narrow victory.
The Morpeth Harrier coached by Lindsay Dunn who guided the career of his fellow Geordie, Brendan Foster quickly recovered from the fall after Chris Warburton caught his heel after 800 metres. McCormick who emerged as challenger to Michael East as the country's 1500m man last year, then proceeded to lead from start to finish.
But it was a close affair a healthy winning margin he enjoyed last January ahead of Mike Skinner, on this occasion reduced to a mere second. McCormick produced a time of 12:16 ahead of his Blackheath rival, who just held off Barnabas Bene, Hungary's two-times European junior cross country champion, who was given the same time.