Japhet Korir may be one of the favourites to win Sunday’s TCS World 10K Bangalore, but he is thoroughly embarrassed when this is put to him.

“No, that’s not true,” he smiles in protest, head bowed. “I will try my best. There are so many in this race.”

Talk of Korir as a leading contender is not exaggerated. In March, the 19-year-old became the youngest World Cross Country champion ever, eclipsing his childhood idol Kenenisa Bekele’s record by 17 days. “I hadn’t expected to win in Poland, but I had done a lot of training. I wanted to make my country proud.”

That the Kenyan did, staying with the frontrunners during the middle third before breaking away 2km from the end. “At the 9km mark, I felt very strong. There were only three people with me. So I felt I had a chance.

“After 10km, I pushed and suddenly after one corner there was no one with me.”

In victory, Korir — already one of the youngest in the field — outdid established runners like Uganda’s Moses Kipsiro and the defending champion Imane Merga. Reputations, though, never worry him, he says.

“I don’t feel that anyone is bigger. It depends on how well you have prepared. From the moment a race starts to the finish line, everyone is equal. So I’m not scared.”

That strong streak of confidence also shines through Korir’s other answers. Before revealing his admiration for Bekele as a child, he hastens to clarify that there can be idolising now.

“There were heroes at a younger age, yes. But now that I’m also a competitor on this level, we’re all equals. I cannot look at them any other way.”

Korir is a Kalenjin — the much-hailed ‘running tribe’ — from the Rift Valley province, Kenya’s running heartland. He took up the sport in 2008, inspired by an uncle, David Rotich, with unfulfilled dreams of his own.

“He said if I trained well, I could run for my country — something he never got a chance to do.”

In the aftermath of the World Cross Country success, Korir won the 5,000m at the IAAF World Challenge in Melbourne — a race he also aims to run at the World Championships in Moscow — before victory in the Wurzburg Residenzlauf 10km run in Germany.

That latest triumph came in a time of 27.52, one hundredth of a second outside the World 10K Bangalore course record. Yet, Korir holds no illusions of superiority.

“There will be are lots of good runners out there,” he says. “I have to work hard. There’s no saying who will win.”

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