Athletics: Radcliffe and Brown delve into Durham mud

DURHAM'S ANNUAL cross-country race is assured a captive audience when it starts this morning. The course for the IAAF World Cross Challenge event is overlooked by Durham Jail. If any of the 1,200 inmates are allowed to take a peek, they - along with viewers of BBC Grandstand - are likely to witness two highly competitive races in which home hopes will rest with Paula Radcliffe and Jon Brown.

Radcliffe, who won her first senior title when she became European cross- country champion last month, faces a field which includes the 1996 world cross-country champion, Geta Wami of Ethiopia, Annemari Sandell of Finland, runner-up in this year's European race, and Joyce Chepchumba of Kenya, the 1997 London Marathon champion.

The 25-year-old Bedford runner has spent a fortnight at her new apartment in the high altitude training environment of Font Romeu while recovering from a cold. "I took things a little easier than usual in training," she said. Presumably that meant cutting down to around 100 miles a week.

Suitably restored, she will take to the mud seeking her third victory in the event, although she is not taking anything for granted. "It's going to be a very tough race," she said, adding that Chepchumba, who edged Liz McColgan out of a second London title after a compelling final sprint down The Mall, could be the one to watch out for.

Wami has already proven herself at the highest level, and if Radcliffe had been even faintly forgetful of her ability the memories will have been restored after their race in Brussels a week after Radcliffe won her title, when Wami won and the British runner was a distant fourth.

Another Ethiopian runner appears likely to prove the main obstacle to Brown winning a third consecutive Durham race - the world junior 5,000 metres champion, Million Wolde.

The 19-year-old appears to have been presciently named; in his home country he is being described as the man most likely to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious - and very rich - compatriot, Haile Gebrselassie.

Richard Nerurkar, preparing himself for the London Marathon, will also provide a challenge to Brown, along with the former Olympic 10,000 metres champion, Khalid Skah and Kenya's Thomas Nyariki, fourth in the last world championships.

Brown flew back to Britain on Monday from his home base in Vancouver to prepare himself for what will be his first race since he broke Eamonn Martin's 10-year-old British 10,000m record at the Brussels grand prix. "It normally takes me four days to recover from jet lag, so I should be okay," said Brown, who is talking in terms of a top-three place in his first competitive outing in four months.

The 1996 European cross-country champion has also confirmed he would be available this year to contest the world cross-country championships in Belfast at the end of March. "If selected," Brown added.

As usual, the Durham event will contain a middle distance event, which this year will feature European indoor 3,000m champion, John Mayock.

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