Duncan Mackay

After four long years away, the World Cross Country Championships is finally back. Bathurst, a city in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales, and commonly referred to as the "Gold Country" as it was the site of the first gold discovery and where the first gold rush occurred in Australia, will finally get to stage an event it must have feared would never come.

After being postponed twice due to COVID-19, it will become the first Australian city to host a Championships that running geeks like me consider to be the ultimate challenge and the hardest race to win.

If the World Cross Country Championships is really the hardest race, then how good must that make Paul Tergat, the Kenyan who won the marquee long race for five consecutive years between 1995 and 1999?

As the race has been biennial since 2011, it is a record that is unlikely to be ever approached, let alone beaten.

As athletics correspondent of The Guardian, I was privileged to be on site for all five of Tergat’s triumphs at Durham in 1995, Stellenbosch in 1996, Turin in 1997, Marrakesh in 1998 and Belfast in 1999 and forged a friendship with him that has grown stronger over the last quarter-of-a-century.

We both agree that the most memorable of his five victories was his fifth one in Belfast, in a race that took place in driving rain and high winds. 

"It stood out because of the tough conditions at the Barnett Demesne playing fields of Queens University," Tergat said.

"We all battled the muddy course with all its turns and twists, but I was eventually rewarded with another world title to make it five straight senior men’s world cross titles in a row. That was truly special."

Kenya's Paul Tergat won five consecutive World Cross Country Championships, including at Belfast in 1999, which he considers his greatest performance ©Getty Images
Kenya's Paul Tergat won five consecutive World Cross Country Championships, including at Belfast in 1999, which he considers his greatest performance ©Getty Images

Tergat will return to the World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst as an ambassador for the event. The course and conditions the runners will encounter on Saturday (February 18) could hardly be more different to those that Tergat experienced in Northern Ireland's capital 24 years ago.  

The 10 kilometres, all-terrain circuit will be held on the iconic Mount Panorama, a venue synonymous with motor racing. The track itself will not be part of the race, instead, competitors will run five laps of a 2km circuit located up the hill, behind pit lane and the paddock.

"That’s the beauty of cross country - you have to be prepared for anything," Tergat, now the President of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya and a member of the International Olympic Committee, told the Sydney Morning Herald

"It is always unpredictable. It is not like track. You know what to expect with the terrain and the conditions.

"But cross country, sometimes it will be windy, sometimes it will be muddy, sometimes it could be hilly. Sometimes it will extremely hot. It is always different, and that’s what makes cross country unique."

Cross country is the ultimate event because it allows runners from all distances to test themselves, not only against each other, but the conditions.

"To be able to be a great athlete, you have to make sure you participate in cross country," Tergat told the Sydney Morning Herald

"Because when you are in cross-country, you are not just competing against your opponents, you are keeping an eye on the terrain; whether it is up and down, or with a twist, or with mud. So, the concentration is always there.

"The beauty of cross country is you are not just competing against one type of runner. It is the middle-distance runners all the way through to the marathoners, they meet together. It is a very unique sport. It is a very special championship because this is the only place all these athletes will meet. They won’t ever meet on the track."

Paul Tergat, right, enjoyed a long rivalry with Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, left, which culminated in an epic 10,000m at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney ©Getty Images
Paul Tergat, right, enjoyed a long rivalry with Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, left, which culminated in an epic 10,000m at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney ©Getty Images 

Tergat was no slouch on other surfaces either. In 1997, he set a world record for 10,000m with a time of 26min 27.85sec. Then, in 2003, he broke the world record for the marathon when he ran 2 hours 04min 55sec in Berlin.

But, away from the mud and grass, his greatest race was one he did not win. And being back in Australia, it is one that has evoked many memories for Tergat.

The men’s 10,000m at the Sydney 2000 Olympics was a race that anyone fortunate enough to have seen it, will never forget on a night dubbed "Magic Monday" as 112,524 spectators crammed into Stadium Australia to watch Australian Cathy Freeman win the 400m in a race that has become part of the country’s history.

Four years earlier, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie had beaten Tergat, despite the Kenyan throwing in a sub-60 second lap with two kilometres to go.

In Sydney, Tergat tried a tactic that most people thought was mad. Gebrselassie’s greatest strength was his ability to sprint at the end of races, as Tergat could testify having been beaten by him, not only at Atlanta 1996, but also in the last three World Athletics Championships.   

Still Tergat waited until the last 250m of the 25-lap race before he attacked Gebrselassie. As soon as he launched his sprint, most people believed it was doomed. But it was not until the final 20 metres that Gebrselassie drew level with Tergat. 

Not until the final 10 did he gain a wafer-thin gap that he strained to hold until the finish line. The winning margin was 0.09 seconds - the closest of all their titanic battles. It was a narrower margin than the men’s 100m final at the same Games which American Maurice Greene had won by 0.12 seconds.

I remember watching that race from empty press benches in Sydney because the British media corps had gone off to interview Katharine Merry, the Briton who had finished third in Freeman’s 400m. I decided that, what with the massive time difference before I had to file anything and in an era where updating websites every few minutes was still a thing of the future, I was not going to miss a race that I was sure would be one for the ages.

A few minutes later, while Gebrselassie and Tergat were sharing a lap of honour, a colleague came back and asked me: "Did I miss anything?"

I replied, "Only the greatest race in history."

Bathurst is only 120 miles west-northwest of Sydney.

"I have not been back to Sydney since the year 2000, so 23 years down the line I have come back and it is great and even if for one minute, I would like to visit the Olympic Stadium," Tergat told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Now rebranded the Accor Stadium and the athletics track long since ripped up, Tergat was given his opportunity. 

"It is where I lost a gold medal by the width of a vest. I will never forget that," he said during his visit.

Whenever I see Tergat, we share a private joke where I tell him that every time I watch the video, I am convinced that this time he will win.

"I had been competing with Haile for many years," Tergat said. 

"On the track, we were together. He made this world record; I broke this world record. We were always competing for medals on the track. But he didn’t get any medals in the cross country. That is the difference. In cross-country, he competed with me until he gave up."