Patter of tiny feet conquers elements

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The Independent Online
ATHLETICS It had been a largely satisfying afternoon's work for Catherina McKiernan. On what was widely and fondly described as a real cross-country course - required features: mud, rain, snow, a killingly steep hill and more mud - she had beaten her Irish rival, Sonia O'Sullivan, and also held off the bold challenge of Paula Radcliffe, back to top- level racing after 10 months'

absence through injury.

And yet, and yet... there was no ignoring the tiny figure of 18-year-old Rose Cheruiyot, who had pattered over the line half a minute ahead of her. "These Kenyans," McKiernan said with a little Irish grin. "I don't know what to do about them. Tie ropes around them?"

It might work. The only thing that threatened to slow Cherui- yot's progress on Saturday and that of her fellow Kenyan and training partner, Ismail Kirui, the runaway winner of the men's race, was their reluctance to wear long spikes. When the advice of their manager, John Bicourt, prevailed, they proceeded to demonstrate that the world titles - which will be contested over the same ground on March 25 - are highly likely to remain in Kenya's keeping.

The Kenyans' store of cross-country talent appears inexhaustible. Kirui, the world 5,000m champion, was not even chosen for the last world championships; Cheruiyot was only silver medallist in this year's Kenyan championships - the junior championships, that is.

McKiernan, world silver medallist for the past three years, is nevertheless determined to take the one step forward that would free her to reshape her athletics future. The rigours of the Durham course have convinced her that she needs to alter her training.

"To be honest, I don't like the mud," she said. "I need more strength work. More running in this sort of stuff. It's not hard to find at home."

She also intends to fit in a three-week period training at altitude between now and the world championships - probably from mid-February. "Maybe I'll get back with the Kenyans then," she mused. "If I won the world title, then I might take a year off to concentrate on the track. I'm stuck in a bit of a rut - it's like I have to win it before I leave. But there is always someone new"

Radcliffe, in contrast, is not planning a new approach. "We train on places like this," she said. "It was no different from Ampthill Park on a muddy day." She took much comfort from her performance. It was a far cry from her bitter experience last March when she was forced to watch the world championships in Budapest while on crutches. "That was extremely hard," she said."It broke my heart."

Andrew Pearson, who won a sprint finish for second place behind Kirui, shares McKiernan's ambition to train at altitude - but in his case, there are insufficient funds.

Pearson's coach, Richard Hepworth, said his October training at Font Romeu in the Pyrenees had made a significant difference to his performance. "If we could get there again we could be competing with the Kenyans," Hepworth said. A mountainous prospect indeed.