The big freeze continued in the east end of Edinburgh yesterday. The considerable assets of Kenenisa Bekele were stuck in refrigeration on the snowbound course at the foot of Arthur's Seat as the feature race of the Bupa Great Edinburgh International Cross County meeting unfolded. They were stuck so solid that the great Ethiopian king of middle- distance running was reduced to the humbling role of a mere also-ran.
When a trio of Kenyan runners started to forge ahead midway through the 9km men's race, Bekele was unable to claw back the lost ground. The gaps got bigger and bigger as Joseph Ebuya and Titus Mbishi proceeded to duel for victory, with their better known compatriot Eliud Kipchoge, who beat Bekele when he won the World Championship 5,000 metres title as an 18-year-old in Paris in 2003, an isolated third. Ebuya kicked to victory in 28min 41sec, shaking his head as he crossed the line. The 22-year-old, fourth in last year's World Cross Country Championships, could hardly believe he had claimed the treasured scalp of Bekele.
The Ethiopian favourite finished down in fourth, 36 seconds behind the stunned victor. It was a result that will reverberate around the athletics world. Bekele doesn't do fourth places. He doesn't do thirds or seconds either. The man who achieved the 5,000m-10,000m double at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and at the World Championships in Berlin last summer – and who happens to have 11 world cross country titles in his possession – had not finished behind another runner in a cross country race since he trailed in the wake of his fellow countryman Haile Gebrselassie in a race in Dunkirk back in December 2001.
Bekele was a loser at the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa in 2007 but on that occasion he was beaten by the conditions, wilting under the stifling heat and humidity while leading with half a mile to go and failing to finish. In the aftermath yesterday, he attributed his rare encounter with defeat to the Great British whiteout – not so much to the snow today as to the fact he had not been able to train since he left the 20C heat of Addis Ababa on Wednesday.
"I am not in great shape," Bekele said. "I went to London on Wednesday for some promotional work at the 2012 Olympic Stadium and then I came here. I have missed three days of training because of the snow. In the beginning of the race I was OK but after two laps I knew my body was not right. What can I say? It was not my day."
Indeed it was not. The day before, after jogging around a snow-covered track with some pupils from Tynecastle High School, Bekele had been confident of overcoming both the Arctic conditions and his rivals. After all, he had made light of the snow when the New Year cross country meeting was staged down the road in Newcastle in 2003, emerging a decisive victor. He had also won the 2007 event at Holyrood in a gale-force wind and the 2008 race here on a rutted, icy surface.
Bekele also prevailed in fair conditions when the World Cross Country Championships came to the Edinburgh course in the spring of 2008. So did Tirunesh Dibaba. She won the women's race that day and also emulated Bekele with a golden 5,000m-10,000m double at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Unlike her fellow Ethiopian yesterday, though, the diminutive Dibaba got the better of both the snow and the opposition.
She launched her attack at the start of the last of four laps and – with her beautifully smooth, fluent stride – pulled decisively clear of her pursuers, crossing the line at the end of the 6km race in 21min 37sec, 10 seconds ahead of Vivian Cheruiyot, the Kenyan who won the World Championship 5,000m crown in the absence of the injured Dibaba in Berlin last August. It looked like the Ethiopian had skated to victory, though she begged to differ. "This is the first time I have run in snow," Dibaba said. "It was different for me. My body was not used to it. It was not easy for me."
In the battle of the Brits, Hayley Yelling-Higham, the freshly crowned European cross country champion, edged fourth place in a sprint finish from Steph Twell, the world junior 1500m champion, in a sprint finish. In the British-only men's 4km short course race, the emerging young Teessider Ricky Stevenson sprinted to an impressive victory in 13min 20sec, finishing three seconds clear of Steve Vernon.
Mo Farah, the pre-race favourite, went out fast but finished a weary third. "The conditions were very difficult," the European indoor 3,000m champion said. "Just look at Bekele. Even the great man loses in the snow."