This season’s unbeaten run of cross country races established by Selemon Barega and Ruth Jebet ended on the same day as Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei and Agnes Tirop earned victory at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Cross Country Permit race in Santiponce, near the Spanish city of Seville.
The fifth leg of this season’s series saw another front-running effort from the 21-year-old Cheptegei such as he produced at last year’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships in his native Kampala before running out of gas and dropping to 30th place.
The 21-year-old who finished second to Mo Farah in last summer's IAAF World Championships 10,000m final made no such misjudgement here, saving enough energy to move away from his closest rival, fellow Ugandan Jacob Kiplimo, after negotiating the final bend.
With his 30min 54sec clocking for the 11.1 kilometres course, Cheptegei joined the illustrious list of Cross de Itálica winners which includes Geoffrey Kamworor, Kenenisa Bekele, Paul Tergat and Cheptegei’s compatriot Moses Kipsiro, the 2008 and 2009 winner.
Barega, who had celebrated his 18th birthday on the eve of the race, drifted out of contention with around 800 metres to go, but held on for third place in 31:01, narrowly ahead of his fast-finishing fellow Ethiopian, Abadi Hadis, who was credited with the same time.
Kiplimo, who had followed Barega home in the two previous series races on the Spanish leg at Venta de Baños and Elgoibar, claimed another second position in a time of 30:55.
"I wasn’t sure if I would win today because I last competed in mid-November," said Cheptegei, who fell just three seconds short of the world 15km best on that occasion.
"I really didn’t know how I was going to feel in my opening cross-country race of the season, but luckily I felt strong and managed to succeed."
With just seven minutes on the clock in the women’s 8.265km race, Jebet - Bahrain’s Olympic champion and world record holder for the 3,000m steeplechase - took command of the race.
Within a couple of minutes the only rivals still in touch were the Kenyan trio of Tirop, the 22-year-old world 10,000m bronze medallist and 2015 world cross country champion, Lilian Rengeruk and world 5,000m champion Hellen Obiri.
Five-and-a-half kilometres into the race Tirop accelerated into the lead, followed only by Obiri while – much to the surprise of the spectators – Jebet gradually lost ground and was left with no chances of winning before the closing two-kilometre lap.
Fully aware of Obiri’s track credentials – which include a 3:57.05 1500m personal best and the 2012 world indoor 3,000m title - Tirop pushed hard on the closing lap and moved clear with a kilometre-and-a-half remaining before winning in 25:51.
Behind her Rengeruk won her personal battle with Jebet and then found enough energy to pass a tiring Obiri 20 metres from the tape, taking second place in 26:01, with Obiri two seconds behind her.
Jebet had to settle for fourth place in 25.12.
"Today’s win makes me very satisfied after my second places in San Giorgio Su Legnano and Elgoibar earlier this month," said an elated Tirop.
"After this European cross-country tour, I’ll now head back home to prepare the Commonwealth Games where I plan to contest the 5,000m."