Athletics: Kipchoge the pretender takes on king Tergat

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The Independent Online

Eliud Kipchoge could not contain his excitement yesterday as he inspected the course for the 8.7km (5.4 miles) feature race in the Great North Cross-Country meeting in Newcastle this afternoon. "It is my first time here in England," Kipchoge said. "It is also my first race against Paul Tergat."

Exhibition Park, on the north-east fringe of Newcastle city centre, was built to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. It is hardly the likeliest of settings for the first competitive meeting between the long-established king of Kenyan distance running and the emerging young pretender. The organisers of the annual New Year cross-country event on Tyneside are grateful, nevertheless. And so is Kipchoge.

"I'm feeling very proud to be running against Paul," he said. "Paul is a legend in our country. I was afraid that maybe he would retire before I could run against him. Even if I lose, I am happy that I have been welcomed here to run against him. In future, my dream is to be a star like him."

Two months past his 19th birthday, Kipchoge is already shining brightly in the global athletics firmament. On the final day of the World Championships in the Stade de France last August, he caused a stunning upset in winning the 5,000 metres title.

With the spotlight trained on Hicham El Guerrouj, the winner of the 1500m final, and Kenenisa Bekele, the winner of the 10,000m, Kipchoge sprinted between them both to take the gold. As an 18-year-old junior, he had become a senior world champion. For the second time in three months, he had also run 12min 52sec - substantially quicker than the 5,000m world records set in the 1980s by Dave Moorcroft and Said Aouita.

It was as a cross-country runner that Kipchoge first made his mark, outsprinting Boniface Kiprop, of Uganda, to win the world junior title in Lausanne in March last year. Tergat has won the world senior cross-country title five times and has also won two Olympic and two World Championship silver medals behind Haile Gebrselassie at 10,000m on the track. The elder Kenyan's biggest claim to all-time greatness, though, came in Berlin last September. At the age of 34, he became the first man to break the 2hr 5min barrier in the marathon, clocking 2hr 4min 55sec.

Tergat returned to cross-country action in Brussels last month, winning the Iris Lotto Crosscup event. After this afternoon's race in Newcastle, he plans to run in the Reebok Cross Challenge meeting in Belfast a week today, but he stressed yesterday that a challenge for a sixth world cross-country title in Brussels in March was "only a slim possibility".

"The priority for me is to prepare for the London Marathon in April," he said, "and then to get ready for the Olympic marathon in August." It is a marathon double that Paula Radcliffe has ruled out in 2004. She has her eyes focused exclusively on the road from Marathon to Athens.