Where Running Transcends Time

Where Running Transcends Time

2016 Aloha Ikaika Sports Test Run Zane Branson Memorial

A race like no other...

A race like no other...

When asked about his adoption and commitment to educate 69 orphaned children, Kipchoge Keino replied, “This life we have is short, so let us leave a mark for people to remember”. It was a profound statement, and one that was rife with many levels of meaning. Although Kip Keino was responding in regards to his philanthropic work, his words recall visions of his past athletic performances. His win over 1500 meters, besting heavy favorite Jim Ryun at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, sent ripples through the sport that reverberate today. Little did Keino know at the time, while crossing the finish line wearing a humble smile and thanking the roaring crowds with a gracious wave, that his three minute and thirty six second effort was the catalyst for a proliferation of dreams, opportunities, and compassion from all corners of the globe.  

It is this collision of human performance, personal inspiration, and charitable purpose that makes track and field such a unique (and human) endeavor. It is one of those few activities that is at once agonizingly individualistic and yet also wonderfully communal; for running is a ubiquitous activity, as common among people as thoughts, and yet we engage in this physical struggle in a myriad of ways. This contrast within athletics no doubt attracts personalities that are similarly complex, and like Kip Keino, their efforts inside the sport often affect far more than just the record books. 

Zane Branson was one such ambassador of athletics, a man that engaged in every facet of the sport. He was a runner, a collegiate athlete, a road racer, a manager, an agent and a coach. But most of all, he was a compassionate guy who understood how important support was for human beings to achieve their dreams (you can read more about Zane via the words of one his close friends HERE). His far-ranging travels brought him to Kenya and his passion for track and field encouraged him to become one of East Africa’s most beloved managers. For over 25 years Zane Branson helped countless Kenyan’s reach the highest thresholds of international athletics, including Patrick Makau, Joyce Chepkirui and Wilson Chebet.

But Zane was also a visionary and he believed that athletics in Kenya could use a healthy dose of camaraderie. The collegiate teams and running clubs that many westerners take for granted are all but absent here in the Rift Valley, and Zane believed that by bringing the more team oriented elements of the sport into Kenya, its talented runners could achieve even greater performances. But more than that, he hoped to establish a greater sense of community among the athletes he managed. Community in training is one thing, but developing that relationship in competitions, in travel to and from international races, and sustaining those relationships through retirement, those are the bonds that are necessary to create solidarity. In time, that solidarity could blossom into a Kenyan athletic community that boasts a structure and federation worthy of its talented individuals.

Like all great ideas, the realization of this dream had modest beginnings. Alongside Carlo Capalbo, Davor Savija, Evgeniia Zhgir, Kip Evans and many others, Zane helped to create the RunCzech Racing, a running club that brought promising Kenyan athletes into a larger team structure. In addition to opening up its members to the possibility of international races, corporate sponsorships, and cultural experiences, RunCzech Racing created an environment for its athletes to develop the camaraderie Zane and his friends hoped to facilitate. This underlying goal made sure that “talent” was only one component of the RunCzech Racing interview process. Personality, teamwork, and cohesion with the group were all factors that determined who would join the club’s ranks. More often than not, the RunCzech Racing athletes themselves made the deciding vote.

In a short time, Zane and his friends, supported by Spencer Nel (adidas International Marketing) had successfully created the first running club to combine the virtues of western team structure together with the brilliance of Kenyan athleticism. It was a revolution; a contrast of running cultures that was in keeping with the spirit of track and field. But like so many visionaries, Zane didn’t stop there. Together with his partners, he helped to establish a one-of-a-kind race in the heart of Western Kenya. An exclusive, invitation only 15-kilometer competition through the lowlands of “Baringo”. The flat, asphalt course (a rarity in western Kenya) meanders past cow ranches and sisal plantations, across the equator line, and concludes its journey just before the homestead of Baringo’s most legendary athlete, Paul Tergat. It was a perfect setting for the RunCzech Racing athletes to run fast, providing the team’s coaches with insight into their runners development as well as establishing a vital “timed effort” for bargaining with race organizers throughout Europe. The race also serves a small scouting role, as the athletes are encouraged to invite friends whom they believe to be strong runners.

The lead pack before a backdrop of Sisal Plantations...

The lead pack before a backdrop of Sisal Plantations...

 But more than anything else, the race was about team building. Zane and co. wanted their athletes to experience what it’s like to compete as a team, while also taking advantage of the lower altitude and flat, paved roads. Therefore the day before race, the RunCzech Racing club travels together in busses, lodges together at nearby hotels and homes, and afterwards celebrates together at an award ceremony. The 15k was still very much like any other Kenyan footrace, especially given the level of competition, but these small details helped to give it the camaraderie that Zane Branson had purposed years before.

Sadly, Zane passed away suddenly last year, robbing the track and field world of one of its luminaries. But his legacy lives on, in the countless lives he touched and in the dreams he realized. The RunCzech Racing club embodies those dreams, and the 15k race through Baringo is a tangible display of Mr. Branson’s wishes. That race now bears his name, and I had the privilege this past weekend to witness the running of the third edition of the bi-annual “Aloha Zane Branson Memorial 15k”. In all my time spent in Kenya, nothing quite compared to how perfectly this event captured the spirit of athletics…

The journey began Friday morning. Kip Evans had organized a car to carry me and three others from the highlands of Iten, down and across the Kerio valley, up through Kabarnet, around Lake Baringo, and finally into the low lands leading towards Nakuru. The three hour car ride went by quickly, and just before dusk we turned off the race course and towards the home of Paul Tergat. 

Gathering outside of Joshua Chelanga's home...

Gathering outside of Joshua Chelanga's home...

But our host that evening was not the legend of Baringo, but one of his neighbors, the equally impressive Joshua Chelanga. Mr. Chelanga was one of the best road runners of the past decade, winning the Rotterdam and Seoul marathons in 2007, finishing second at the Commonwealth games marathon in 2002, and placing third in the Boston Marathon back in 2001. He also was a member of Kenya’s unbeatable World Cross teams of the late nineties, garnering gold medals in both 1997 and 1999. American collegiate athletes may know of his brother, Sammy Chelanga, who won the NCAA Cross Country title in 2009. Running is in the blood of the Chelanga family, and even after retirement, Joshua happily volunteers to his home and time to be near the sport he loves.  

Mr. Chelanga’s hospitality may be the only thing that can rival his running career. That night, he had graciously opened his country home to the staff of RunCzech Racing, their guests and the 55 athletes competing the following morning. He had prepared dinner for his 70-something visitors, and even opened up his guest house for the athletes to spend the night. It was no easy task making such a large group feel comfortable, but Mr. Chelanga did it amiably. 

Coach Dan Ngetich with his pupil...

Coach Dan Ngetich with his pupil...

After parking our car within the towering hedgerows bordering Mr. Chelanga’s property, I mingled with the athletes and coaches in the fading light. Gathered on the lawn that evening were some of running’s greatest prospects, diminutive Kenyans that had been patiently training hard over the years for this moment. All the men were young and excited, and those with the RunCzech Racing team were eagerly talking to the newcomers about the event and what to expect for tomorrow. You could see in their eyes the blissful joy of opportunity, as each man dreamed about how tomorrow’s performance could advance his career and change his life. Among them were also some of the region’s top coaches, including former 800-meter star John Litei and Iten’s up-and-coming amateur coach Dan Ngetich. Edward Yego, a visa coordinator, was in attendance, as well as RunCzech Racing organizer, Evgeniia Zhgir.

I however, spent most of my time chatting with the host, who upon hearing that I was an American began sharing stories about his races throughout the USA. Mr. Chelanga’s tales were extraordinary, from how he came to love apples in New York (he had missed breakfast before the Goodwill Games in NYC, and all that was left was a solitary apple. He ate the apple and then won the race. It later became his good luck food), to how he became a blues fan after winning a 10k road race in New Orleans (missing the world record by a few seconds). I was taken aback by the extent of Joshua’s travel, but he was quick to bring the attention back to the race at hand, “It all started from just one race. That is why I love having everyone here at my home, hopefully one of these guys running tomorrow can go on to experience the things that I have. It’s a blessing!”

Just as the stars began to emerge in the night sky, Joshua announced it was time for supper. The large assembly filed into his home, taking seats among the sofas lining the living room or the plastic chairs surrounding the dinning room table. The space was limited, but we made do, and helped ourselves to ample portions of ugali, potatoes, “sukuma wiki", and sheep intestines; the perfect pre-race meal. After everyone had finished eating, Kip and Eva handed out the race bib numbers to the athletes and explained the schedule for the following day. The race was to go off at 7:30 AM, meaning the the entire group had to be ready to leave by 6:00 sharp. Chai, bread and bananas would be served by Joshua in the early hours just before departure. Kip then described the race course, which would be point-to-point, 15 kilometers total over relatively flat roads. The traffic, which can be deadly in Kenya, would not be a problem as Mr. Chelanga had arranged for a Police escort to clear the road for the competitors.

Coaches, organizers and the guest would follow behind in chase cars and motorbikes, making sure that no athletes are left behind in the case of an emergency. The finishing times, Kip explained, would then be recorded and sent to RunCzech, adidas, several athletics websites and other management teams throughout Kenya. 

“So tomorrow, whether you are number one or number 55, it is very important that you finish the race… because your name is going somewhere. I’m not promising that this means you will be given a chance right away, but at least your name is going somewhere. Last year, the only man who did not finish was the pace maker, so please… no pressure… but do your best to finish the race.” 

Despite Kip’s plea, you could sense the nervous energy building as the 55 athletes in the room started to envision the trial awaiting them tomorrow. The talk about shoe sponsors, managers and prize money suddenly reified the stakes surrounding dawn’s competition. As if on cue, the coaches took turns dishing out motivational speeches to the runners. Joshua shared stories of his past athletic accomplishments and Dan explained the importance of training and preparation and why it would pay off at sunrise. But they were all hammering home the same theme of taking nothing for granted. “Whatever chance you have guys,” Coach Litei insisted, “USE IT, because you never know about tomorrow. People talk about tomorrow, about second chances, but in my experience, that tomorrow may never come. Use the shape you have NOW.”

The athletes listening to speeches and instructions the night before the race...

The athletes listening to speeches and instructions the night before the race...

Sitting on the floor and listening to the speeches, I suddenly realized that my heart was racing. The moment was a powerful dose of deja vu, one that brought me back to my college running days. Despite being half a world away in a culture alien to equatorial Africa, my track and field team would perform the same pre-race ritual. After traveling to the race location and scarfing down a meal together, all of us would pile inside a small hotel room to hear our coaches explain the time table, the strategy and the stakes the night before a big race. The gatherings always conjured the same emotions as well; summoning that uncomfortable mixture of excitement and anxiety deep in your gut, and leave you feeling like a child on christmas eve; eager for the next day to come but unsure of what you may find wrapped beneath the tree, be it presents or just a lump of coal? Looking around at those 55 young Kenyan men; thin black bodies with fire in their eyes, each having to overcome untold hardships just to be sitting there in Joshua Chelanga’s living room, I at once understood how universal a sport running can be. 

With the talks ended, the runners exited the house to their rooms while the coaches and guests made a short drive to a motel adjacent to the racecourse. It would be daybreak soon, and everyone wanted to get some rest before the main event.

Morning came quickly and my group arrived at the starting line just before 6:30AM. All of the athletes were there and beginning their warm-up routines. A few brightly colored packs had taken off jogging down the lone ribbon of highway, while others were still dashing out into the bush to relieve themselves. The social atmosphere of yesterday evening had been replaced by a charged silence, and the quiet focus of the runners caused the coaches (and me) to speak in hushed voices.

Sunrise over Baringo...

Sunrise over Baringo...

After the police escort arrived, a large Toyota Land Cruiser in navy blue livery, the runners took to the starting line and completed their last remaining strides. Just before 7:30AM, Kip Evans called the 55 athletes together for a final word of encouragement, causing the caravan of cars and motorbikes to start their engines in anticipation. These vehicles would be responsible for carrying the coaches and media teams throughout the race, bringing up the rear to take photos and pick up any unlucky competitors.

At Mr. Chelanga’s bidding, the police’s Land Cruiser started down the highway to give the athletes some space. It’s flashing red and blue lights reflected off the neon bright racing tops of the competitors, casting an ominous glow over their faces and the start line. Meanwhile, the runners began to crouch over the small speed bump marking the beginning of the racecourse, jockeying for space along the thin strip of tarmac. The sun was just now peeking out over the hills towards the east and the air still held its chill from the night before, ideal conditions for running a fast time.

The first of fifteen k's...

The first of fifteen k's...

When the police escort reached a quarter mile, Kip gave the command and the race began. 55 lean bodies tore off down the highway in a mad dash, a fearless display in the face of 15 kilometers. The caravan of cars and motorbikes gave chase and over the next 45 minutes we coordinated what felt like a stage in the Tour de France. I was on a motorbike behind Kip, who frequently pulled up alongside the leaders to give them splits and encouragement. 

The leaders set a hellish pace, causing the pack to reach 5 kilometers in 14:13. A few men had begun to drop off, but for the most part, the core group remained intact, with some athletes running along the dirt paths just beside the road to gain a better position.

The police car maintained its 400 meter buffer, making certain that the path was clear for the competition unfolding behind it. Aside from the occasional cattle crossing or careening matatu, the race developed without a hiccup, and the athletes were free to do battle along the 15 kilometer stretch of highway.

The Police Car leads the chase pack...

The Police Car leads the chase pack...

The road dipped slightly around 6k, forcing the athletes to endure a gradual 300 meter climb. Here the pack began to splinter, for the front group, led by Eliud Mwangi, were relentless, pushing the pace every time Kip Evans approached on his motorbike. Mwangi passed 10k in 29:08, followed closely by Josephat Tanui and Abraham Kipyatich. At this point the peloton had all but dissolved into a long line of carnage. The lead group was now whittled down to just 10 men.

Kip (on the motorbike) lighting a fire under the leaders...

Kip (on the motorbike) lighting a fire under the leaders...

At 11k, with the temperature creeping higher over the arid plain, the pace seemed to lull and the group once again bunched up, running five abreast down the road. Up until this point the course record, 43:57 set by Wilfred Kimitei (a 27:54 10k performer, at altitude) in the previous race, had been in jeopardy, thanks to the leaders’ suicidal first 5k. Fearing a lost chance to make history, Kip once again accelerated towards the front runners to have a word, “You can break the record, but you must go NOW!”

It was the spark the competition needed, for Abraham and Josephat shifted gears and powered away from the group. The surge was devastating, breaking the pack apart in mere seconds and leaving the remainder of the group staggering to keep up. 

The race was now down to two men, Kipyatich and Tanui. Abraham continued to set the tempo while Josephat did his best Galen Rupp impression by sitting on his heels. They clipped off each kilometer faster than the previous, but neither seemed to be able to shake the other. Finally, with 500 meters remaining, Josephat kicked and opened a gap up on Abraham, who after leading for the last 5 kilometers, was unable to respond. With victory imminent, Josephat continued to surge, breaking the finishing tape first in 43:59 just missing the course record. Abraham, beaten but proud, finished strong in 44:02 for second position. 

Josephat Kipyatich winning in 43:59...

Josephat Kipyatich winning in 43:59...

Over the next seven minutes the remaining line of competitors stumbled their way over the finishing line, with 12 men breaking the coveted 45 minute barrier, at 1600 meters above sea level! It was a great race, and the smiles on the finishers faces showed it. Kip and Joshua were ecstatic, and even some local matatus pulled over to the roadside to blast upbeat Kalenjin music as the runners stretched and pulled on their warmer clothes.

The bliss that follows every race...

The bliss that follows every race...

As I stalked among the athletes cooling down, snapping pictures as they replenished themselves with the water and food provided by the organizers, I could see the seeds of Zane Branson’s vision beginning to take root. Regardless of position, training camp, or tribe, the athletes appeared as one family. A few stretching in the shade of the acacia trees were belly-laughing together, while others standing by the matatus were eagerly recapping the race. Some of the men were commenting about the crazy start, animated as they acted out the sprint during the first 5k. A few from the lead pack were cracking jokes about Kip Evans and how he never let them take a break, swooping in each time the pace stalled. Even the winner, Josephat, thanked Abraham for pushing the final 5k, saying that he never would have ran that fast without him. Everyone I spoke to hoped to return to the race the following year, and although only a handful of the finishers would receive invites and contracts from RunCzech Racing, adidas or other management teams, I could see that the friendships forged today were not going to fade. From position 1 to 55, a bond had been formed. It was the genesis of a fledgling camaraderie, one that Kip and Davor and the RunCzech Racing team believe can bolster the motivation of these young men as they continue to climb one of the world’s most punishing ladders. Zane Branson intimately knew the struggle and obstacles facing Kenya’s athletes, and it is why he believed in the strength of fellowship and teamwork. Above all else, he wanted to leave a mark on Kenyan athletics that left it stronger than how he found it. IKAIKA SPORTS is the name of the management team founded in Zane’s memory by his colleagues and loved ones, a team dedicated to carrying out his vision for East African athletes. IKAIKA means “strong”, a fitting reminder of how Zane spent over 20 years strengthening the professional race at the Honolulu marathon, and infusing that spirit of “Ohana” and family into every project he touched all over the world. Zane Branson’s life may have been cut short, but there is no doubt that the mark he left behind will be remembered for generations to come…

FN - The Hand that Gives is the Hand that Gets

FN - The Hand that Gives is the Hand that Gets

Pace setter Andrew Rotich leading Asbel Kiprop (Gold)

I woke up in a daze, blurry eyed and dehydrated; the usual morning fare when living at nearly 8,000 feet above sea-level. It was 8AM and the sun was peaking in through the african-print curtains of my room. Outside, I can overhear a familiar voice speaking with Richard Mukche (the camp’s director) about the “training session with Asbel”. I throw on some running clothes and walk out the door, eager to hear what Timothy Limo was talking about.

“Morning Ahhnald Schwarzenegger!” Timo exclaims with broad smile, knowing full well how much the nick-name annoys me. 

“Good Morning Timo, good morning Richard” I shake both of their hands; greetings always involve physical touch in Kenya, “I heard you speaking about working out this morning, is that true?”

“Yeah man, I am working out with Asbel in 30 minutes, down out Lornah’s track”.

Richard seems a little perturbed by the whole idea, and after placing his hand on Timo’s shoulder explains, “You know, an hour ago Timo said he was going down to Chepkoilel to work out with Coach Litei. Now, an hour later, he is going to workout with Kiprop.” Timo starts to grin, clearly enjoying Richard’s lecture, “Timo is double-minded! He can’t decide what training program to follow.”

Suspicious, I ask, “Is Abel’s workout easier than the one Canova drew up?”

“NO WAY MAN!” Timo is adamant, his eyes are opened wide and he’s shaking a finger at both of us, “This workout is going to be FAST. 600’s and 400’s, with very little rest. Most athletes would be scared to attempt this training session. But not me man, no way, I’m chasing Asbel today.”

Richard and I share a quick smirk. It’s always a funny sight when Timo gets riled up. But I do not doubt Timo’s conviction. Any workout with an Olympic Gold medalist is sure to hurt. I ask if it would be OK for me to watch, and both Timo and Richard say yes. In fact, Timo was hoping that I would be there. “You have to take some pictures of me man, I want to put them up on Facebook!” 

I grab a quick breakfast, hard-boiled eggs and chai, and hurry back to my room to pack my camera equipment and notebook. Richard comes by to tell me that Timo and Abel’s group have already started their warm-up jog to the track, which is about three kilometers from the camp. Normally I would be required to sign-in at the gym for a track pass, but Richard assures me not to worry about it. He will call ahead to the gatekeeper to allow me access.

Camera bag in hand, I trudge up the red clay alleyway leading away from the HATC and pause where it connects with Iten’s only paved road to wave down a Matatu. Fortunately for me, the one that stops is not filled to the brim with passengers. 60 seconds and 100 shillings later, I arrive at Lornah Kiplagat’s state-of-the-art tartan track. Built in 2013, this was the first “surfaced” track in Western Kenya, which is surprising given that this region of the world has more claim to a track facility than anywhere else on earth. Before Lornah’s track was constructed, the thousands of athletes that trained around Iten, Kaptagat, Kapsabet and Eldoret would flock to a handful of dirt and grass track ovals littered across the Rift Valley Province. 

Kamarini Stadium the morning after a night of rain...

The most famous of these rudimentary facilities is Kamarini Stadium, a dirt track that was constructed by the British half a century ago in honor of the Queen. Years of tropical weather and neglect have left Kamarini in a sorry-looking state, but the athletes do not seem to mind. The surface is flat (mostly) and is just over 400 meters around, the only two things a Kenyan runner really requires. In fact, most of the athletes prefer training on the dirt surface, even Coach Canova. I have been told that the softer surface “saves the legs”, and the locals seem to have an almost nostalgic attachment to Kamarini. 

But it is now the middle of May, and that means the rainy season is at its peak throughout Kenya. For most of the inhabitants living along the Rift Valley escarpment, this is a celebrated time. The majority of the region’s population are subsistence farmers and the equatorial rains ensure that their crops grow large and that their families are fed through another season. “Rain is a blessing from God” is the reply I often receive from Iten’s farmers whenever I complain about the rain. But I’m not the only person who’s spirits are dampened by the ever-present showers. Iten’s athletes often find their training disrupted by the rains. Each evening, the setting sun seems to give rise to thunderheads, and the torrential downpours harbored within these massive clouds can carry on throughout the long hours of the night. By morning, the dirt roads of Kenya have been reduced to a muddy paste, one that sticks fast to your shoes and transforms even the lightest of trainers into what feels like lead boots after just a few strides. The once endless choices of running loops narrows to two; the all-weather road and the tarmac, and even these can become a problem because of traffic and flooding. But nothing is ruined by the rain more than the dirt tracks. A night of rain causes Kamarini to become a 400 meter mud ring, making speed work an impossibility. At least, that was before Lornah decided to bring a bit of technology into the heart land of Kenyan running.

The rains were heavy last night, which explains why Asbel Kiprop and Company decided to test their fitness on a tartan surface. After paying the Matatu driver, I scamper across the highway, hop the drainage ditch, and walk up to the towering maroon arch spelling out, “Lornah Kiplagat’s Sports Academy”. A large white metal gate bars entry into the facility, and is flanked on either side by walls of corrugated aluminum and chain link fencing. Every time I come to this track I’m amused by the security measures taken to keep the public out, as if the sports academy held something highly valuable and easily stolen. The secret to Kenyan running is not so easily obtained.

A man sized doorway had been cut out of the sheet metal on the right side of the gate, and the Major is already busy unlocking it as I approach. “Major” is the self-ascribed title of the track’s gatekeeper, an elderly Kenyan man who is absolutely in love his job. Over the course of my visits, and through our broken conversations (Major speaks very little English) I learned from Richard that Major once served in the Kenyan Defense Forces, hence the nickname. Major is always excited to see visitors, especially Mzungus. In the off chance that a white person arrives at his gate, he carries a disintegrating map of the world in his pocket which he unfolds with much pomp and circumstance to ask the visitor to point out which country he or she calls home (I pointed to Antarctica, just to tease him). He has a broad smile on his face this morning as he disentangles the metal chain wrapped around the door lock. Flinging the door open, he beckons me inside, repeating “Karibu!” multiple times as I shake his hand.  

While signing into the track’s visitors notebook, the pages of which had been wrinkled by water damage, I ask Major if he has seen Abel’s training group yet?

“No sah, no Asbel. Not here.”

I assume that means that the athletes were still warming up and had not yet arrived at the track. After singing in, I walk out onto the red composite surface and towards the water jump pit, noticing that the location would give me a good angle to take some photos. As I’m setting up my camera’s tripod, a white Lexus SUV arrives at the gate. Major opens the white metal doors to allow the car to pass, and once parked, a tall Kenyan man with a stop-watch in hand emerges from the driver seat. He looks to be in his 50’s, with short graying hair and round, wrinkled face. He is dressed in expensive clothes, (at least by Kenyan standards) and his heavyset figure suggests that he is wealthy. Major greets him excitedly, and after signing into the visitors book, he comes striding out onto the track in my direction.

Looking up from my camera, I call out “Habari” to the man, who cracks an impressed smile at my use of Swahili and replies, “Mzuri sana”. I stand up to shake his hand, switching to english now that I had exhausted all of my Swahili words. From our short conversation I come to discover the man works for Dr. Rossa, and claims to be the coach of Asbel Kiprop. His surname is difficult to understand, but in my notebook I jot down “Litteng”. There is an arrogance in the mannerisms of Coach Litteng, for he rarely looks me in the eyes and always tries to seem disinterested whenever I speak, despite the fact that he initially came up to greet me. As I struggle my way through our awkward conversation, I soon discover the cause for his standoffishness. Coach Litteng has quite the resume. He is currently employed by Dr. Rossa, and has also served as a coach for Paul Tergat over a decade ago, which makes sense given his connection to Rossa (Tergat was one of Rossa’s athletes). He also is the coach of Paul Tanui (Bronze medallist in the 10,000 meter race at last years World Championships), and has been working with Kiprop since 2007.

Coach Litteng before the workout...

“Coach, I have a question. How do you manage to keep an athlete like Asbel at peak fitness for so long? In the US, when I ran for University, I had to ‘peak’ three times each year, but I’ve noticed in Kenya that the athletes are running fast times already in April. How does an athlete like Asbel keep that going all the way to August, for the Olympics?”

The old coach gives me an amused look, and then while turning to walk away flatly states, “PLANNING”. Coach Litteng clearly is not interested in discussing his training. I might have taken this attitude as a slight were it not for the fact that Kenyan officials and authority figures, especially within athletics, have become wary of foreign “journalists”. Although I always try my best to explain that I am a researcher rather than a journalist, the confession does little to bridge the gap in trust between locals trying to mind their own business and Mzungus searching for a story. This mistrust is largely the consequence of German journalist Hajo Seppelt, who uncovered evidence in 2012 of Kenyan doctors administering EPO to athletes, as well as testimony from mid-tier Kenyan athletes claiming that many of the nation’s top athletes are “cheating” via drugs. His follow up documentary, “Doping - Top Secret: The shadowy world of Athletics” aired on August 1st of last year, making claims based on circumstantial evidence that performance enhancing drug use in Kenya is carried out with ease and frequency. Seppelt's documentary and controversial reports have soured both the Kenyan populace and Athletics federation towards foreign reporters, and has made my project that much more difficult to complete.      

Fortunately, Asbel is not as suspicious about my motives as his coach. Just as Coach Litteng was walking away from me and my camera, Asbel and his training crew arrive at the track facility. The group of thirteen athletes each hand Major their passes that had been purchased by Asbel back at the HATC and make their way up to the tartan oval. Timo is with them, sporting a purple Adidas top with a bright yellow Adidas spike in each hand. He was especially proud of those racing spikes. World record holder David Rudisha had called him up a few weeks ago to come to his home, where he gave the spikes to Timo as a gift. It was a kind gesture, but not uncommon throughout the Rift Valley. Kenya’s top athletes are inundated with athletic apparel and shoes by their sponsors, usually Adidas or Nike, and decide that the gear would be better used by their aspiring friends and family members. Most of Kenya’s top athletes have a group that religiously trains along with them; providing pacing, competition, and company from track sessions to long runs. In return, the top athlete provides for the needs of the training group by gifting gear, paying for food, and in some cases introducing up and coming stars to western mangers. I suppose that is why I was not surprised to find almost every member of Abel’s entourage wearing Nike gear. The Olympic Champion is a poster child for the Nike brand, and Asbel clearly had no problems decking out his crew with the latest in Nike fashion.

I snap a few pictures as Kiprop walks over to Coach Litteng, who instantly lightens up upon seeing his star pupil. The two exchange pleasantries and then Coach Litteng takes Asbel by the hand to discuss what I assume will be the training schedule for the day. Meanwhile, Timo and the rest of the group begin a series of plyometric drills along the back stretch of Lornah’s facility. Asbel jogs over a few moments later and joins them as they begin a set of strides. After about ten minutes, the group gathers around the high jump area, stripping down to their compression shorts and racing tops. While walking over to the athletes, I am surprised by how familiar the scene is; these men are world class athletes, but as they prepare to begin an inconceivable physical effort, they easily could be confused with a college cross country team stretching before a set of quarters. The members all coalesce in specific social groups, some laughing, others stoic, and all giving Asbel space as he laces up his new pair of Nike Victory spikes. 

Timo preparing for a tough training session...

I break the ritual to greet the members of the training crew, many of which warmly shake my hand and thank me on attending another workout. Kiprop looks up from his spikes to smile and say, “Welcome, you’re still in Kenya?!” I nod and explain that I will be here for a few more months. Kiprop seems pleased to know that I’ll still be around, and I take advantage of the pause in conversation to ask him the specifics of the training schedule for the day, “We are doing 600’s and 400’s, but with short rest. We will probably do five times 600 and three 400’s afterwards” Just then, 3:30 man James Kiplagat Magut (one of Asbel’s training partners) walks by and adds, “This is going to be tough.”

It was a rare confession. I have never heard a Kenyan admit that a workout would be a challenge beforehand, so I brace myself for what would happen next. After everyone had stripped down and spiked up, the group of thirteen athletes saunters over to the 200 meter start line, with pace setter Andrew Rotich at the head. Five meters from the line, the group hunches forward with hands on their watches and a slight hop in their step. After what seems like a collective sigh, Rotich starts his watch and takes off at a frantic pace with Asbel and company in tow. The first 200 meters is covered in 27 seconds, flying by Coach Litteng as he shouts out splits to the group. After passing 400 meters in 55 mid, Rotich pulls off into lane three, leaving Asbel in the lead with 200 meters to go. Timo is right on pace, leading the peloton past me as I shout out encouragements. Asbel looks incredibly comfortable as he leans through the turn and cruises down the final stretch, unfurling that impossibly long stride to cross the line in a brisk 1:24.

Kiprop in lead...

Ninety seconds later, after the training group had jogged 200 meters to get back to their start line, Rotich begins the second repetition, passing 200-meters in 26 seconds and reaching 400-meters in 54 seconds high. The first signs of fatigued are beginning to show among the chase pack, and although Timo maintains the second position, I can already see his shoulders creeping up and his hands getting high along his torso. It’s a sign of tightness and I realize that Timo is not going to make it through this workout. Andrew Rotich reaches the 400 meter mark in a scorching 55 seconds, and by the time he drops out along the turn, Asbel has already separated from the rest of his training group, reaching Coach Litteng in 1:23 for his second 600 meter rep. 

In the 200 meter jog back to the start line, the fissures of fatigue have already broken a few of the athletes. Timo is no longer jogging, but walking across the infield with his hands over his head, a clear sign of submission. He is not alone either, almost 5 other athletes have either quit entirely or formed a separate group with the luxury of more rest. Asbel’s band of athlete’s is now down to six. 

The pattern of Rotich leading and Asbel closing stays the same for the remainder of the 600’s, except that the gap between Asbel and his training partners continues to grow. The Olympic champion runs 1:26 on the third rep, almost completely alone save for Andrew Rotich, and follows that effort with a 1:24-flat fourth rep. The next closest finisher is Magut, who is nearly 15 meters behind when Asbel crosses the line.

James Magut trying to give chase...

The workout has already decimated the Kiprop crew, which is no small feat given the quality of his training partners. In addition to James Magut, Asbel is being chased by Elijah Kipchichir Kiptoo, Clement Langat, and Hillary Maiyo, all who have 1500 meter PR’s better than 3:36. But by the fifth 600 meter repetition, even Asbel appeared wounded, running 1:38 at the back of the pack. Magut was not joking when he said that this would be tough.

Following the last rep, the group began to shuffle jog around the track, picking up a few of the athletes that had called it quits during the 600’s. Timo however, has had enough and joins me by the steeple pit to watch the rest of the workout. Nine minutes later Asbel and his twelve disciples return to the start line with the Olympic champ at the front. It was the 400 meter portion of the workout, and I turn to Timo to ask how fast Asbel will run these repetitions. “He will easily run under 55 seconds” Timo responds, not batting an eyelid.

Timo’s prediction proved true. Asbel ran each 400 meter interval in 53 seconds, an incredible display of fitness and speed considering that the recovery time was only 3 minutes short. And he might as well have done the last stage of the workout alone, for even Magut failed to keep pace with Kiprop. By the last repetition, Asbel was the only man left on the track. 

Weariness setting in...

The group returned to the high jump area looking like soldiers weary from battle. They all sank to the surface like a sack of potatoes, breathing heavy and staring at their spikes, as if moving to untie them would be too much an effort. Timo and I joined them, and Asbel took a seat next to us. After a few minutes the group started to show some signs of life, raptured by that post-workout joy. 

Turning to Asbel, I ask him the same question I had asked his coach earlier: how he is capable of maintaining this level of sharpness for months at a time.

“It is all in the training”, he patiently explains, “It begins in the fall, when we start our endurance work. You see, cross country in Kenya is not like it is in the US. Here, we use cross country only to get stronger. We do not peak for it.” Timo interrupts in agreement, “yes, its true”, and Asbel continues,

“After months of working on our endurance, we begin working on our sharpness in March. That is why I can race through April, May, and the rest of the summer. It is one cycle.”

To clarify, I ask,”OK, so hypothetically, if you were to try for the world record in Monaco this July, you believe that you can carry that level of fitness all the way through to the Olympics?”

Timo chimes in once again, “Of course he can!” But Asbel just smiles, knowing what I’m hinting at.

“Yes. I train to be able to break the world record, and win the Olympic Gold medal.”

It’s a statement that keeps my mind buzzing well after Asbel and his group have left the track and begun their cool down. Back at the HATC, me and Timo rehash the days events, excited at the prospect of a future world record by our friend this July.

“I told you man, he is going to break the world record this year!” After watching his focus on the track that morning, I don’t doubt it. Looking at Timo’s Adidas spikes, I remember a question I had meant to ask him earlier that morning,

“Timo, you were in Asbel’s training group a few years ago. Did he give you gear like Rudisha does?”

“Yeah man, Asbel is the most generous athlete in Kenya. He gives you everything you need. If you ask him for something, he always helps. Even if you don’t train with him. If you don’t have money to travel to go race, Asbel gives it to you. He understands man.” Timo gives me a solemn look, as if this final point carries some personal importance.

“Understands what, Timo?”

Timo is serious now, “That the hand that gives is the hand that gets. Kiprop remembers what is was like to be like us, to be an athlete trying to make it. He remembers where he came from, how hard it was to make it to the top. He understands the struggle, and he blesses others because of it.” Pointing at me now, “Remember man, the blessing only follows those who bless others.” 

I couldn’t agree more…

FN - Big Fish in an even Bigger Pond

FN - Big Fish in an even Bigger Pond

A Conversation from Kapsabet

Miles of trials, trials of miles...

Kibet stopped the car at the crest of the tarmac road leading us back to the Eden Spring hotel. Our guide, Willy Songok, had received a call from his cousin, Ben, and was eager to have me visit with him, if only for a few minutes. I happily agreed and together we jumped out of the white Nissan van, quickly sprinted across the always treacherous Kenyan thoroughfare, and slowed to a stroll down a pebbled encrusted dirt road. Just before driving away with Coach Thompson, Kibet shouted out to us from across the street, “I will pick you up here in 10 minutes!” He followed this message with a burst of Swahili, to which Willy nodded and continued leading me down the sloping dirt alley into the heart of Kapsabet.

This small western Kenyan town was similar to Iten. Rolling hills carpeted by green vegetation rippled out in every direction. These verdant undulations would gradually fade into the pale blue of the horizon, and even this divide between the heavens and earth would every now and then be confused by large, white clouds that floated both beneath the hill crests and directly above our heads. Standing in stark contrast with this endless natural beauty were the roadside stands and shops. These eye-sore stores were built in an ugly, makeshift fashion, using rotting timber and bark as the walls and corrugated tin as the roofs. The stores were painted when first constructed, but years of neglect and tropical weather had deteriorated the reds and greens and yellows into nothing more than shards of color on an otherwise dull and grayish brown exterior. The shacks resembled the lemonade stands one might find in a post-apocalyptic world, except that here in Kenya, these shops sold fresh produce, second-hand clothing, toiletries, and even cellular phone top-up minutes.   

The homes lining the dirt path we were now walking down looked only marginally better than the aesthetics of the roadside stores. These homes were part of long, one room thick complexes, more like condos than stand alone houses. The rows of condominium complexes were single level, and each followed the curvature of the hill descending or ascending in a staggered manner, like lego bricks trying to form a diagonal line. Their roofs were also made of corrugated tin and aluminum, but newer and not yet rusted. The building themselves were made of concrete, unpainted, with a single window and front door. Nature’s unstoppable encroachment surrounded the condos, leaving only small front lawns that were pierced by numerous wooden poles, used to run clothing lines where the sun was not blocked by acacia trees.

But for all the contrast between the works of nature and the habitation of man, Kapsabet was beautiful, even more so than Iten. Everything seemed more vibrant, more vivid and more alive. It was as if God had chosen to enhance the colors throughout this town, in the same way that one adjusts the saturation of a photograph to the point where the picture verges on the edge of unreal.

Color was not the only thing that saturated Kapsabet; Willy told me that the town was chock full of runners. Marathon runners in particular, and he was quick to remind me that Martin Lel called this place his home. 

“Over that hill” Willy says, pointing east, past the barbed wire fences, blue gum trees and silver corrugated roofing, “is where Stanly Biwott is building his new home. You remember, he finished second in London [Marathon]. Very strong runner. And it is a beautiful home, and right next door to doctor Rosa’s.” As Songok continued to ramble about Biwott’s newly erected estate, my mind turned towards his neighbor. I knew of Dr. Frederico Rossa from talk around Iten. He is one of the world’s greatest agents, an Italian who has represented many of Kenya’s best athletes. When Paul Tergat won the New York City Marathon in 2005 in a thrilling sprint finish, Dr. Rossa was the first person he embraced after crossing the finishing line. Today, his management team has become so prolific, that even Nike provides his athletes with kits that feature a color scheme unique only to the Rossa group. It is a high profile team, one that features many of Kenya’s brightest stars (here is a link to his management page with a complete list of current athletes http://www.athleticsmanagers.com/users/46/69/federico-rosa.html), but in recent years has become rife with scandal. Both Rita Jeptoo and Matthew Kisorio, Kenya’s highest profile drug-cheats, are managed by Rossa. The good doctor claims he knew nothing about the athlete’s wrongdoing, and assumes no responsibility for their actions, but still the whispers linger. Any time I have discussed the Rossa group with Kenyans, the rumors raise the same claim, “his athletes are dirty”. I find the talk troubling, not necessarily because I believe it, but because of dark meaning underlying this discourse. When we live in world that even Kenyans suspect other Kenyans of taking performance enhancing drugs, than it is obvious that the climate of track and field has changed. The cloud of doubt that hangs about every single great athletic performance is so thick, that it completely obfuscates the faith any fan once had at believing in the impossible. The doping talk is pervasive at each level of the sport, and even those willing to ignore the cynicism that follows Kipchoge’s 2:03 in London, or Farah’s dominance in the 5k and 10k, or Bolt’s unstoppable reign as King of the sprints, often find themselves naively clinging to an ideal they know, in their gut, to be dated. It was not always this way, and this pivot in perception is a terrible shame, but naivety and nostalgia are not the answer. I don’t believe that shutting our mouths about performance enhancing drugs will solve any problems, nor do I feel that turning a blind eye to this cheating problem will save the sport. The war with doping needs to be fought, and that fight begins with a healthy dose of skepticism. But the sad reality is that this battle has already laid waste to the spirit of athletics, and when I hear talk about how the cancer of doping has spread even among the “Home of the Champions”, I realize, with a heavy heart, that this sport has contracted a terminal illness. 

Despite Athletic’s sorry state of affairs, the hope that one can achieve a better life through running is still untarnished in Kapsabet. I interrupt Willy, (who is in the midst of pondering how difficult it must be for Biwott to rise each day at six AM and train while sleeping in such a comfortable mansion), to ask, “Willy, are these homes used by the athletes?” motioning to the rows of condominiums on either side of the alley.

“Oh yes! In each row of homes, there may be ten people living inside. Of these ten people, six are athletes. Just look at the clothing lines!” Sure enough, draped across the black wired clotheslines, I could find dozens of running shorts and brightly colored athletic tops drying in the sun. Willy ducked beneath one of the lines as we approached a bend in the dirt road, and beckoned me to follow him. Stepping over an upturned plastic wash bin and across a small grassy patch that may have been a lawn, Willy walked up to a door recessed into the bare concrete wall. After a few knocks the door was opened by a young Kenyan woman with a broad face and beautiful smile. She seemed overjoyed to see Willy, and the two embraced and chatted swiftly in Kalenjin. After the excitement settled, Willy introduced me as, “Andrew, my friend from America!” I learned that the woman’s name was Regina, and she welcomed both Willy and I inside her home.

The small condo was segmented into 4 parts. The first was what could be considered a mud room, although it was only about the size of a broom closet and was stuffed with dirty running shoes, old clothes, mops and other storage items. Following the mud room was a tiny Kitchenette, with a stove top, sink and fridge somehow crammed into the tiny space. The walkway continued adjacent to the kitchenette and opened into the largest room in the home; the living room. It was still no bigger than a child’s bathroom in the US, but Regina had managed to fit two sofa’s and a short table that supported a 32inch flat screen television. The room was decorated with various poster’s and news clippings. Above the sofas hung a poster featuring a white couple embracing one another and smiling, with a cliche message of love printed next to the image. Next to this poster hung a few printed bible verses transcribed on inspiring photographs of sunrises and sandy beaches, a popular combination of visuals and messages that I’ve noticed throughout Kenya. But hanging above the TV was something more unique. 

Lining the wall above the television and the back wall of the room were dozens of news clippings featuring a small, thin Kenyan man running across the roads of Europe. Many of the articles were in French, but pinned next to each news clipping was a race bib number and a competition medal. In the back left corner of the room, just between the Television and sofa, sat a pile of large trophies. They were all elaborate, and large, with elegantly designed handles branching off the large, polished cups. It was glittering assortment of sculpted silvers and golds that were unceremoniously stacked on top of each other, not out of neglect, but because the house simply did not have the space for a proper display. The living room reminded me of my college dorm. My walls were also covered in posters and race bibs and memorabilia, a working collage that served as a billboard, advertising my interests and passions. This living room was no different, except that the athlete who owned it was far more accomplished than I will ever be in running. Printed on the news articles and engraved on the marble bases of the trophies was the name, “Ben Solit Bitok”, Willy’s cousin, and he was busy reclining in one of the loveseats, obviously fatigued from the morning’s training session.   

Despite being tired, he warmly welcomed Willy and I into the room, insisting that we take the available seats. The television was turned to Citizen TV, a Kenyan news station that Kalenjin’s watch religiously, but Ben lowered the volume to talk with us.

Willy and Ben began by speaking in Kalenjin for a few minutes. The language is quick paced, and causes conversations to seem on the edge of argument, but that is rarely the case. Willy and Ben laughed abruptly, after which Willy turns to me and explains in English, rather apologetically, “Some things are just easier to discuss in Kalenjin” Ben cracks a smile at the confession, but Willy continues, “I have told him that you are doing research with National Geographic, and that you would be interested in interviewing him in the future. Ben is a very talented athlete, like many people in our family”

Ben chimes in, “It’s true”, and Wily carries on,

“You see, I was the first person in our family to use athletics to improve my life. When I received a scholarship to go run in the US, I realized how important athletics can be for your future. That is why I told my cousin Ben to run. He had good form, but when I encouraged him, he told me that he hated running.”

Both cousins couldn’t help but laugh, and I smiled thinking about the irony of it all. Ben just grinned and let Willy continue (Willy is an excellent storyteller, his facial features are incredibly expressive, and his voice causes merely funny statements to become hilarious), “So I went off to school thinking that Ben would NEVER become a runner. But after a few years, I returned home and heard from my uncle that Ben had started training.” he then turned to Ben with a playful smirk, “At first, I did not believe him. So I drove out to Kapsabet, and then realized that my cousin had in fact become an athlete!”

Ben seemed honored by Willy’s flattery, and thanked his cousin in Kalenjin for the support over the years. After looking around the room and at Ben’s trophies, it was obvious that Ben had become an accomplished athlete. Very few Kenyans have the financial means to travel over to Europe and race, so I was curious as to level Mr. Solit had reached in the sport, “So Ben, what distance do you race?”

“The marathon” - Ben replied, so softly that I had to strain my hearing to make out the words, (Kenyan’s are usually soft spoken), “I race in Europe, but mostly France. I will sometimes run the half marathon or 10k as a road race, but the marathon is my favorite.”

“What is your best time in the marathon?”

“My best finish is two hours ten, in France”. The quantity of trophies and news clippings suddenly made perfect sense. A 2:10 marathon would once upon a time been good enough to win any world major, and was not too far off the world’s best marathon finishes. It is a time that would currently place Ben in the top 5 marathoners in the USA. But the sport has advanced at a frightening pace since the Bill Rodgers days, and unfortunately for Ben, the depth of marathon talent in Kenya dwarfs that of the US (and the world, for that matter). This striking discrepancy was illustrated by my next question, “So who are you sponsored by?” I expected an athlete of Ben’s calibre, who has been able to travel to and race in Europe, to certainly have some kind of shoe sponsor.

But Ben’s response shocked me, “I am not sponsored” he confessed, with a sheepish smile, “To be sponsored as a Kenyan marathoner, you need to run under 2:08. I have a fine manager who gets me into European road races, but they are smaller races. I hope to one day run 2:07 or better, then I should have a sponsor and entry into the larger races, like Paris or Boston or London.”

Willy smiled in agreement, both men clearly certain that such a time was possible. I, meanwhile, was astonished. If Ben were to better the 2:07 mark in the marathon, it would mean he would have run the third fastest marathon in US history, a time that would eclipse the best marks of Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar, and Dathan Ritzenhiem by a wide margin. And even then, after delivering an athletic performance of historical proportions, there were no guarantees that Ben would gain a sponsorship. All because he is Kenyan. 

Had Ben been born anywhere besides East Africa, his little room would not only have a pile of trophies in the corner, but boxes of Nike, or Adidas, Brooks, ASICS, or Saucony gear stacked to ceiling. His country’s athletic federation would be paying his way to run the streets of Chicago and New York, London and Berlin. His wife would be cooking in a kitchen, not a kitchenette. And he certainly would not be living in relative obscurity as just another athlete in Kapsabet, one of the six of the ten tenants that reside beneath the silver aluminum roofs and behind the blank white concrete walls of each condominium row. Just as there are economies of scale, Ben is an example, and victim, of the same principle, except that in his case the capital is not currency but performance. 

But just before I grew frustrated at the unfairness of it all, a thought occurred to me. Was Ben’s success as a marathoner buoyed by his being Kenyan and living in a culture where 2:10 is average? Was the fact that he had spent the past ten years training every morning at daybreak, up and down the hills of Kapsabet, surrounded by the likes of Stanley Biwott and hundreds of other elite athletes, cause for his profound ability to run 26.2 miles? Or, conversely, had Ben been a Kenyan born in America or Europe, would he still be a 2:10 marathoner? Perhaps not. Maybe he would only have run 2:20 in the marathon, winning just a handful of low-key races, and still be holding out on that sponsorship deal or big-race invitation. The environment may have changed, but his situation in the sport would have remained the same. Maybe living in Kenya is a double edge sword. There is no doubt that the environment brings out your best as an athlete, but it's also "Home of the Champions". Ben was a big fish, in an even bigger pond.

My thought was broken by the ringing of Willy’s phone. It’s Kibet, and that means it’s time to leave. I thank Ben and his wife for their hospitality, Willy gives his cousin and Regina a departing hug, and we both promise to return soon. After crossing the small stretch of lawn and ducking under the wire clotheslines, Songok turns to me with a smirk on his face, so I already know that his next question will feature some mischief, “Do you want to race back to the car?” I raise an eyebrow. Willy has to be 45 years old, and hasn’t competed in at least 20 years. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself, Willy.” 

“My friend, I am Kenyan. Hakuna Matata!” and with that he takes off up the hill towards Kibet’s car. 

Perhaps his cousin’s success in running has rekindled Songok’s competitive spirit. Maybe, for a Kenyan, that spirit never fades. But I didn’t have time to contemplate, I was already losing too much ground…

The Grit, The Giant, and The Gifted

The Grit, The Giant, and The Gifted

Three Spectacular Athletes amidst the Spectacle that is the Police Championships

Nairobi, Kenya

In 1997, the United States Army instituted a program specifically designed to bolster the Olympic dreams of its service men and women. Aptly named the “World Class Athlete Program” (WCAP), it provided a means for elite athletes that have committed their lives to serving their country to do so in a way that transcended their normal soldiering duties. Soldiers that showed elite athletic potential could apply for the WCAP, and if selected, were invited to train and be coached in the Army’s athletic facility in Fort Carson, Colorado. After nearly two decades, this program has been highly successful, sending over 15 soldiers to the Olympic games since its founding. A few of these exceptional soldiers have also been elite runners. Letsrunners’ may recall a piece written by Jonathan Gault last October, “For the Love of Running”, that detailed the incredible journey of Kenyan-born service-man Elkanah Kibet. After running a simply inspired debut marathon in two hours and eleven minutes, Kibet was accepted into the WCAP to chase Olympic dreams as “a warrior and member of a team…” Although Kibet is still working towards punching his Olympic ticket, he is one example of the many servicemen and women that have been able to elevate their physical pursuits thanks to the Military’s commitment to support its soldiers in all endeavors, even Olympic ones.

Over the years, each branch of the American military has created a similar program modeled after the Army’s, most notably the Air Force’s WCAP. But for all of the successes had by America’s world class athlete programs, and I hope that their achievements will only continue to grow, our Service programs could stand to learn a thing or two from one half a world away.

In Kenya, athletes training and competing for the military or other public service forces is old news: 91 years old to be exact. In 1925, a racist colonial named R.G.B. Spicer travelled from Britain to the Rift Valley, and once there became commissioner of the Kenyan Police forces. Spicer may have been an ignorant bigot, but he loved athletics, and he quickly mandated that all of Kenya’s boys in blue participate in track and field. It proved to be one of the only good decisions Spicer would make. Kenya’s Police forces took to athletics well, and soon gained a reputation throughout the region of being the most “sporting”. Not willing to be outdone, the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) followed suit in 1935, going as far as to build a track and field stadium and actively recruit Maasai warriors to join their athletic ranks. This early rivalry between the two service forces would turn fierce in the years to come, and thankfully for track fans, would also produce some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen. Perhaps you have heard of Kipchoge Keino? Well, before beating Jim Ryun in the Mexico City Olympics, he was an active officer in Kenya’s Police Forces. It was a moment that changed history, and is even more incredible given that Kip could only train around 4 times per week because of his policing duties.

As International Athletics has become increasingly more professional, with major cooperate sponsors and huge sums of prize money at stake, so too has Kenya’s Service Forces programs. Today, athletes are recruited into one of three programs: the Police, the KDF, or the more recent Prison force. This trifecta of athletic programs squares off each June at Kenya’s National Championships, and victory is sorely sought after. Winning this championship provides the triumphant branch with more than just bragging rights; it can boost the overall enrollment of the force. Athletics has in many ways become a highly effective marketing tool, especially in Kenya, where it is a lucrative endeavor not just for the Kenyan athletes but for the country’s service branches as well.

Historically, each branch has enjoyed its own time at the top of Kenya’s athletic mountain, but today, that place of honor is held securely by the Police. And their dominance is indisputable. At the World Championships in Beijing last fall, all seven of Kenya’s Gold medals went to a member of its Police Force. Julius Yego, Nicholas Bett, Vivian Cheryiot, Asbel Kiprop, Ezekiel Kemboi, David Rudisha, and Hyvin Jepkemoi have all proudly dawned the Navy Blue Singlets with “POLICE” branded across their chests in plain white lettering. In fact, the Police uniform may be Track and Field’s most difficult singlet to earn. Making this team is akin to making the Olympic final, and as I watched the Police Championships held in Nairobi this past weekend, it certainly felt like a foreshadowing of what’s to come in Rio this August. The depth of talent within this team is borderline unfathomable, but for all of the outstanding officers that competed in Kasarani stadium last week, three athletes delivered performances that still managed to outshine this backdrop of athletic brilliance.

The Legend of Vincent Yator is on the Rise

I arrived at Kasarani Stadium early Thursday morning, after winding my way through Nairobi’s busy thoroughfares and heart stopping traffic. The sky was overcast and the clouds seemed swollen with rain, but that did little to dampen my spirits going into these Police Championships.

Kasarani Stadium...

Kasarani Stadium...

Walking out onto the Stadium’s infield, I spotted John Littei just leaving the coaches’ meeting. Littei, who currently has the honor of serving as Renato Canova’s second in command, is also a Head Coach of the Police “Central” team, one of the 27 districts that compose the national police force. The Central team’s colors are bright red, but Coach John was wearing his classic purple Adidas jacket and white Nike DriFit tee with “Qatar” written in Burgundy letters across the front. Littei was an incredible middle distance runner once upon a time, a Maasai that could run 45 flat in the quarter mile on a dirt track and 1:44 in the half. His bronze medal in the Commonwealth games almost a decade ago was his best finish in international competition, before injury kept him from blossoming into a global sensation like David Rudisha. But today, his passion for coaching is giving young athletes a chance to do what he never could, and I was thankful that John was willing to give me private access to this competition, not to mention a district team to cheer for.

After greeting John, he urged me to head inside, claiming that it would rain very soon. I didn’t even bother to protest. If there is one thing that I have learned while in Kenya, it is that a Maasi doesn’t predict the weather, he KNOWS the weather. Sure enough,the moment that we entered the competitor’s tunnel the rain started coming down in buckets. But despite the equatorial wash out, the Race Officials continued to go about business as usual, calling the first heat of the men’s 5000 meters. Among the seemingly endless small and slender bodies of Kenyans that poured into the tunnel, I spotted Vincent Yator.

Calling the first heat of the men's 5k...

Vincent trains in Canova’s group, and I have had the good fortune of getting to know him personally over the past month. He is an easy going person, with a great sense of humor and is always quick to smile. But that pleasant and tranquil demeanor obscures a fierce competitive fire that simmers just beneath the surface, the blaze of which I’ve only caught glimpses of at Canova’s practices. Last I saw Vincent, he was chasing down 1500 meter runners at Eldoret’s Athletics Kenya Track meeting. Today, he was more in his element. The 5k and 10k are Mr. Yator’s specialties, and I was hoping that he could earn a high finish over these next few days. Dressed in a Purple Nike top and sporting his typical grin, he looked ready to race. Calling out from beyond the mob of distance runners, I shouted “Win it Vince!” He turned and smiled even bigger than usual, confidently throwing me a thumbs-up before darting out of the tunnel into the thick, warm rain.

Coach John at the start of 5k...

Behind a curtain of water, I could see about 35 men nervously waiting along the 5,000 meter start line. Most I failed to recognize, but Coach John was quick to point out a few of the headliners, 

“Two men down from Vincent, in the Orange top, that’s Isiah Koech. The World Youth Champion…” He gave me a quick smirk, as if to say that Isiah’s age was about as accurate as me claiming to be Kenyan, but then continued, “And at the end there, that is Titus Mbishei. 13 minute 5k runner, and sub-27 minutes in the 10k. It will be a good race.” 

It was. The gun sounded and the race was off, with Vincent, Isiah and Titus quickly moving up to the front. These three athletes contrasted sharply with one another’s running styles and builds. Isiah was broad and powerful, with a strong stride that appeared to whip the track with his spiked feet as he propelled himself down the Tartan surface. Titus was long and lithe, with a slight lean that gave him the misleading appearance of being winded. Vincent looked small in comparison to both of his rivals, but far more smooth, and his light, quick strides allowed him to float along the track as a model of efficiency.

The threesome started out running 65 second pace despite the rain, with each of the men swapping pacing duties every couple laps. But by 3k, it was a three man race, and Vincent was up front. The tunnel was electric with excitement, and I was almost pushed out into the rain by the runners behind, as the entire second heat was trying to peer over my shoulders as the action unfolded. 

With 600 meters left to run, Isiah Koech made a powerful surge that left Titus helpless to respond. Vincent, however, was hot on his heels. Their order remained the same at the bell and through the back stretch, but with 150 meters left to run, Vincent sprinted ahead to win convincingly in 13:41. The tunnel erupted with cheering, and I couldn’t help but join them. Coach John seemed calm however, and when I asked him why, he immediately put everything in perspective, “This is only the warm up. The real racing will begin on Saturday in the 10k final”.

Isiah Koech (left) after the 5k semi...

Two days later under sunny skies, the “real race” lined up behind the 10,000 meter start line. This final featured Vincent Yator once again dressed in his purple Nike top, but the competitors had change. In addition to the field of 40+ athletes, St. Patrick’s star Augustine Choge, 26:51-man Emmanuel Bett, marathoner Joseph Kitum, and drug-cheat Matthew Kisorio stood in the way of Yator clinching a national team spot in the 10,000meters. With such a vast array of strengths, from Choge’s 3:29 1500-meter speed to Kisorio’s 58-minute half marathon strength, there was no clear path to victory. This race was sure to be a dog-fight. 

Start of the 10k (Vincent's in purple)...

Like most of the races I have seen in Kenya, the 10k began in a dead sprint, with the top athletes quickly forming up at the front of the massive field. All of the contenders were there, with Kisorio in a green Adidas kit at the lead. They passed through one kilometer in 2:45, well clear of the laboring “pelaton”, but then gradually settled into a more comfortable, 68 second-per-lap pace. Like a metronome, they continued to clip off 68-second laps, the athletes trying their best to feel the others out. Each man seemed to take a turn leading, although I couldn’t tell if it was out of etiquette or a nervous excitement. After 5k the pace began to slow. Vincent, sensing that 72 second pace was too pedestrian for his tastes, took the reigns with 4000 meters remaining, and gradually began to grind his challengers into dust. A 66 second 10th lap proved to be the end of Kisorio, but Vincent was relentless. He maintained 4:20 mile pace over the final 3000 meters, a strategy that proved too much for both Bett and Choge to handle. With only 600 meters to go, it was a two man race. Vincent was shadowed by the tall figure of Joseph Kitum up until the bell, at which point the easy-going Yator unleashed his competitive fire. Vincent launched into a furious final kick, gapping Kitum almost instantly. Once again, the Police forces went wild as Vincent flew down the homestretch to cross the line in 28:15. I clocked his last lap at 60 seconds even.

It was an impressive finish, and a well earned victory. But I was shocked to discover that Vincent wasn’t yet finished. 90 minutes later, the starter lined up 25 men to compete in the final of the 5,000 meters. Standing just inside of Isiah Koech, was the small and purple-clad figure of Vincent Yator. Amazingly, he was going for the toughest double of the meet.

Jogging out to the 5k final...

The gun sounded and the runners took off again at a suicidal pace. The sprint only lasted for around 200 meters, and when the dust settled, Isiah was at the helm. The race then began to unfold without much drama, fluctuating between 67 and 64 second pace. Unlike the 10k, Vincent dropped back into the pack for much of this race, clearly content to let someone else do the work. At around 3k I half expected him to drop out, but with a gap opening up between the chase group and the leaders, he surged ahead and tucked in behind Koech. With only a kilometer remaining, six athletes were still in contention, but no one seemed willing to make the first move. With chopped strides and the men running 4-wide, they labored their way through the next 400 meters in around 69 seconds. But it was calm before the storm. At a lap and a half remaining, the entire front pack started to accelerate, leaving Vincent in the fourth position at the bell. But Yator refused to be dropped, and as the leaders tore down the backstretch amid the roar of their fellow Policemen, Vincent slowly clawed his way back into striking distance. On the final turn, Vincent was right on the leaders shoulders, and I could see that he was ready to make his bid for the win. But just as he started to shift gears, he was nearly knocked over by an elbow delivered by Isiah Koech. Koech surged into the lead, leaving Vincent to gather himself with only 150 meters remaining. Yator was undeterred however, and with each stride he seemed to gain on Isiah down the backstretch. Both men were in a frenzy, with arms beating the the air and teeth clenched as they pulled even over the last 80 meters. But Vincent would not be denied victory. He sprinted by Isiah in the final 15 meters to a time of 13:43. His last 200-meters were covered in 26 seconds… on tired legs.

It was an incredible double given the level of competition at the meet, and the time in between races. When I caught up to Vincent after the race, he was all smiles once again. After asking him about the crazy double, he explained that he had not planned to do both races that day, but a last minute change in the meet schedule forced him to change his mind.  “But I did not struggle today, and if continue like this, I should qualify for the Olympics in the 10,000 meters”. It is a bold prediction, especially since the likes of Geoffrey Kamroror, Paul Tanui, and Bendan Karoki will be ready to challenge next time. But one does not simply win the Police Championships, let alone twice. So it may be wise to remember the name Vincent Yator over the next few months.

Asbel Kiprop is a Giant among Men

The perfect stride...

The perfect stride...

I have mentioned Asbel in every single one of my dispatches from Kenya. If that seems redundant, I apologize, but to ignore his unparalleled ability on the track would be like ignoring Christy Brinkley driving by in red convertible. It’s impossible. And after witnessing the Police Championships this past weekend, it may be just as impossible to beat this man in a 1500 meter footrace.

I first spotted Asbel during the second day of the competitions. His tall and slender figure would seem to be commonplace among the Kenyan athletes, but something about the man makes him appear a giant on the track. Dressed in a teal Nike track suit with gold striping, a person who can’t even spell Asbel would know that this athlete is special. But the Olympic Champion is doing things this April that the Kenyans I've spoken to have not even seen before, and his form is just otherworldly. This became clear during the semi-finals of the men’s 1500 meters.

There were three heats of the 1500 semi at the Police Championships. The first was won by Collins Cheboi, a product of the Canova-Littei training group who has been recovering from a slight pull in one of his calves. Despite the injury speed-bump, Cheboi cruised to victory over a field of roughly 20 men. His easy victory was mirrored in the second heat by Nixon Chepseba, another Canova-Littei athlete. But just as I was beginning to think that these men would pose a serious challenge in the final, the great Asbel Kiprop entered the stadium.

Asbel was dressed in a curious pink colored top, with P.E.U. written on the chest. He was the first athlete I had seen sporting this color scheme, and so I asked Coach Littei what it meant, “The pink is the color of the Presidential Escort Unit. You must be the absolute top to be invited into that group by President Kenyatta.” There is no question that Asbel is the “absolute top” when it comes to running 1500 meters, and his tactics in the third heat made it clear to me and everyone else in the stadium that he knows it too. 

Asbel striding out before the semi-final of the 1500-meters...

It was a quick start, with sound of the starter’s gun sending the 20+ officers/athletes off into a mad dash for the first turn. That is, everyone expect Asbel Kiprop. While the front of the race jostled for position, the Olympic Champion was comfortable to hang back, allotting the entire field five meters before even reaching 200 meters. The leaders must have sensed that Kiprop was nowhere to be found, because they foolishly slowed their pace going into the bell. It was amusing watching this pack of elite athletes run scared for the next two laps, they appeared like a herd of antelope anxiously waiting for a faster predator to strike. But Kiprop remained patient, even at the bell, when the leaders had a good 15 meters on him. On the backstretch, the 3:26 1500 meter man started to pick up steam, effortlessly closing the gap and reaching 200 meters to go in the fourth position. There was still a lot of ground to make up in a short amount of time, with the leaders now in a terrified sprint knowing the inevitable was about to chase them down. At 150 meters to go, Asbel shifted into a gear I’m doubtful any other person on earth has, and seemed to teleport himself next to the struggling leader. They ran stride for stride down the homestretch, and for a moment I thought Asbel was going to allow the other runner to win. Kiprop seemed to relax about 40 meters before the line, giving his opponent a slight lead which caused that caused him to drop his guard. It was poor choice, because Asbel once again catapulted himself past the sorry soul to win in 3:44. The stadium was howling with laughter, and even the race officials couldn’t help but smile. The Olympic Champ was putting on a show, toying with the race with such ease that it was almost unfair. But this is only the semi-final,I told myself, tomorrow would be a different story.

Tomorrow came, but the story was the same. It was just before noon, and the starters called the men’s final for the 1500 meter race. About 20 of Kenya’s best middle distance runners came jogging out of the tunnel, each proudly wearing their team singlet, a multitude of colors representing the various divisions of the police force. The crowd was larger today (but was still dwarfed by the massive stadium), and the hoots and hollers of their fellow officers drew a few smiles from the competitors. Nixon Chepseba and Collins Cheboi, however, wore faces that may as well have been etched in stone. Today was not an exhibition or a game, it was an opportunity to slay a giant. And with credentials such as a 3:29 1500 meter PB and a 3:49 Mile PR, it wasn’t fantasy to believe that Nixon and Collins could deliver a storybook ending that Saturday.

And then came the giant… dressed in pink. Asbel Kiprop pranced out of the tunnel wearing his Presidential Escort Uniform, looking like a man about to enjoy a brisk jog to start his day. The rest of the race was waiting for him, and the starters beckoned him over to the first position on the line. The stadium hushed itself as the starter yelled “On your Mark”, and time seemed to stop during those agonizing seconds between the set and the gun. “Bang” and the final was off, with Nixon and Collins quickly surging to the lead. Asbel once again slipped into last place, but didn’t grant the race as much space as he did in yesterday’s semi. 

Asbel hanging back in the pack during the final...

I had posted up on the outside of the 200-meter turn, and as the field flew by, a large gathering of race officials left their posts to watch the race unfold beside me. They knew that this competition was going to be special, and I assume they were eager to get splits. The first 300 meters was eclipsed in 43 seconds, a decent start but the pace seemed to dawdle around the turn. Then, and to everyone’s surprise, Asbel sprinted to the lead and ratcheted down the pace for the next 200 meters. Collins Cheboi and Nixon Chepseba were close behind, or as close as you can be to Kiprop’s long and loping stride. Kiprop looked unbelievably smooth running down the backstretch, and didn’t show even the slightest sign of effort; a sharp contrast when compared to his competitors who were straining to keep up with the injection of pace. But just as I was beginning to get excited for a truly fast race, Kiprop pulled into lane two and dropped back into last, a tactic that confused the field as much as me.

Collins and Nixon were done playing games however, and decided to make the Olympic champ pay for his willingness to toy with them. They crushed the third lap, running 56-mid, and succeeded in stretching out the field to the breaking point. But their plan did nothing to dissuade Kiprop, and at the bell the Olympic Champ was toeing Nixon and Collins’ shadows. The race was in full flight now, and the crowd was loving it. Coming down the backstretch, Collins Cheboi was giving it everything he had, and the furious pace proved too hot for Nixon who started to fade. But a resurgent Abdegno Chesbe was hanging a tough, and at 200-to-go, both men had about an eight meter lead, and showed no signs of slowing down. 

Unfortunately for Collins and Abdegno, the pink-clad Giant was speeding up. With each impossibly long stride, Asbel gained ground, and as they came out of the final turn, it looked like Cheboi’s and Chesbe’s situation was hopeless. But just as Kiprop was about to pull even with them, he stopped accelerating. Everyone in the stadium, including me, held their breath. “Was he hurt? Did he run out of gas? Had his rivals found another gear?” It was a split-second moment in which the Olympic Champion appeared vulnerable, human even. But it was only a feint. Asbel calmly turned to the grand stands, and in stride managed to smile and wave, only to then, once again, shoot by his rival like a bullet from a gun. He crossed the line in 3:40, looking like he had just finished a warm-up. Chesbe and Cheboi meanwhile, collapsed behind him in second and third place, bewildered by what just happened. 

It bewildered me as well. Watching this race was an entertaining, and yet frightening spectacle. The 1500 Saturday featured a field of high-quality athletes. One could even argue that Collins Cheboi and Nixon Chepseba are world beaters in their own right. But in the final, even these world class elites were made to look like JV athletes racing the state champion at a high school dual meet. If Kiprop can continue to improve on his form for the next 4 months, its hard to imagine any other man, machine, or demigod beating him in Rio.   

The Future of Middle Distance has a name, and it’s Elijah Manang’oi

Elijah winning the 800 meter final at the Police Championships...

Kiprop may very well be unbeatable... but then again, one should never count out a Maasai. After the Thursday prelims, I had the privilege of driving back to the city with World Championship silver medalist Elijah Manang’oi. The 25-year old Maasai (I know that IAAF has his birthday listed as 1993, but 25 is what he told me. In fact, he claimed that we were age-mates, a term used by Kalenjins and Maasai that designates persons born around the same year. Since I’m 25, you can rest assured that Elijah is too) has been sensational this year, cruising to victory in every race he’s entered. Two weeks ago in Eldoret, he negative split his way to a convincing win in the 800 meter semi’s, rocking a USA singlet en route to running 1:46 at 7000 feet of altitude. This weekend, he was again looking to fine-tune his speed with a couple 800-meter efforts. I knew that Elijah had originally been a 400-meter runner in Kenya, and so as we careened down Nairobi’s highways in his black Subaru Forester with Nike Swooshes on the front and back, I asked him how he managed to transition from a long sprinter to miler.

“It only took about two weeks” Elijah replied with a smirk. My doubtful look prompted him to continue, “Seriously! I was always training hard for the 400, and much of that training worked for 1500. My weeks were full of running 40-50 minute runs between my speed-work days. So when my manager encouraged me to move up in distance, it just came easy.” Elijah’s manager is Jukka Harkonen, a Finnish agent that was a dear friend of the young Maasai’s. His respect for the elderly manager was so great, in fact, that above both Nike swooshes read, “Jukka” in an italic font. He named his car after his agent. “I would not be the runner I am today without my manager. When people are good to you, you must be good to them in return.” Still, it was impossible not be to astounded by Elijah’s almost supernatural talent. I have heard of long-sprinters making successful moves to the middle distances before, but to go from a 400 meter runner to the World Silver medallist at 1500m in only a few years, well, that’s almost providential. I guess that’s why I wasn’t surprised to discover the meanings behind his names. “Elijah” is his given Christian name, the name of one of the greatest prophets in the bible, and is supposed to have been able to outrun chariots (1 Kings 18:46). And as for the Maasai word Manang’oi, “It means many things” said Elijah, “but most of all, it means blessed”.

All I can say is that after watching Manang’oi race the half-mile twice over the past weekend, it is obvious that he has a gift. In Friday's semi-final, Elijah absolutely torched his competition, sprinting away over the last 150 meters from a field of Kenya’s finest 800-meter athletes to a time of 1:47. During his race, I was standing at the 200 meter mark, and when I shouted some encouragement to Elijah, he just winked and gave me a thumbs-up before catapulting himself around the turn to win by over a second. After the race he told me, “I was relaxing today, just wait for tomorrow”.  

Elijah just running away with it during the 800 meter semi...

True to his word, the final heat of the men’s 800 meter race was something to behold. It featured a talented cast of characters, including Jeremiah Mutai (1:44 800-meter PB), Timothy Sein (2:17 1k PB) and Job Kinyor (1:43 800 meter PB). But as the competitors emerged from the tunnel that Saturday afternoon, all eyes were fixated on the young Maasai in the pink singlet. Like Kiprop, Elijah was a member of the Presidential Escort Unit, and most likely the youngest athlete to have been invited by President Kenyatta. As he took his strides before the race, it was hard to imagine a better form for running the middle-distances. Elijah had a slender yet muscular body with long limbs that extended his stride to lengths envied by taller athletes. His posture was aggressive as well, with his torso and hips constantly pressing forward in such a way to give one the impression that his whole being was begging to go faster. After being called to his start line in lane 6, he was afforded that opportunity.

The gun fired and the eight racers charged around the turn, staying in their lanes until the break on the backstretch. This final featured a rabbit, and he was making certain that the race was anything but slow. Hitting the 200 meter mark in 23-mid, the competitors were already stung out single-file, with Elijah looking good in the fifth spot. They reached the bell in 49 high, and the rabbit slid out into lane two, his work finished for the day. That’s when Job Kinyor charged to the lead, shadowed closely by Timothy Sein and Mutai. Elijah was still lurking back in fifth place up until the pack hit 250 meters to go. There, Manang’oi launched into his signature kick, teleporting himself up into the lead spot with only 200 meters remaining. The entire police force was in a frenzy, cheering Elijah on to what we all hoped would be a fast time. But right at the start of the final turn, Elijah did something strange. He looked backed at his teammate from the PEU, and pointed at him to come up and run on his shoulder. The fellow PEU athlete obliged, and the two men in Pink singlets cruised down the final turn together, effectively blocking out their competitors from passing.

Elijah putting the team first...

It was an odd show of sportsmanship, but a powerful demonstration of how confident Elijah is in his kick. Coming off the final bend, and with the top two spots safely in the PEU team’s hands, Manang’oi shifted gears and rocketed across the final 90 meters, waving to the crowd and sticking out his tongue in stride as he crossed the line in a world leading 1:44.1. Elijah must have been watching some of Bolt’s highlights from the 2008 Olympic final. 

The show of sportsmanship combined with showmanship was exciting and entertaining, but the potential that Manang’oi has as a middle distance runner is mind boggling. Speaking to Coach Littei after the race, we both agreed the Elijah could have run 1:42 Saturday had he not toyed around over the final 300 meters. That’s scary speed considering that the man is a 1500 meter runner. But it’s not just that Elijah is fast, but that his speed late in a race is incredible, maybe even unparalleled. And at only 25 years old, the sky is the limit for this young Maasai. But can he reach that pantheon-like level by August? “As long as I keep concentrating on the Olympics, who knows?”  

 

Three Days of Racing in the City of Champions

Three Days of Racing in the City of Champions

Also featured on Letsrun.com:

World Champion Nicholas Bett...

World Champion Nicholas Bett...

Eldoret, Kenya: 

The final stage of a series of races organized by Athletics Kenya took place in Eldoret this past weekend. I had been looking forward to covering this three-day competition all week long, for it was the main topic of conversation around Iten. From the dining tables of Kerio View to the backseat of Matatus, the gossip surrounding these races was palpable, and the talk created by both Iten’s athletes and laypeople gave me a good idea of what to expect Thursday, Friday and Saturday within the hallowed walls of Kipchoge Stadium. 

Rumor had it that Olympic Champion Asbel Kiprop was planning to make an appearance, as well as his World Champion compatriots Nicholas Bett and Julius Yego. Earlier in the week, Coach Canova confirmed that his athletes would be competing at a variety of distances, using this track meeting as a final tune-up before departing for international competition next month. Kenya’s “Daily Nation” reported that David Rudisha would be gracing Kipchoge stadium in the 400-meter dash, and coach John Littei also claimed that his fellow tribesman and “other” Masai phenom, World Championship silver medalist Elijah Manangoi, would be making his track debut this weekend. But probably the most significant aspect of this final AK track meeting was its location. There is a reason why Eldoret is referred to as the “City of Champions”, because it is the nearest metropolitan center to the majority of western Kenya’s athletic hotspots. All across these rolling rural hills, thousands of aspiring amateur athletes carve out their destinies each and every day within the punishing ritual of training. They spend countless miles preparing for opportunities like the one afforded by this weekend, and there was no question that the clash between Kenya’s elite and emerging would be a spectacle of olympic proportions. 

The only piece of information that remained in doubt right up until the night before the preliminary rounds was the competition program. Much to the annoyance of Coach Canova and Iten’s professional athletes, Athletics Kenya decided to leave the question of scheduling unsettled until the last minute (10PM Wednesday evening to be exact). But that typical Kenyan procrastination did not stop the country's athletes from arriving in droves Thursday morning. Just as in Nakuru, this local meet attracted an assembly of athletic talent rivaled only by Diamond League meetings and Olympic venues. The sheer volume of runners was staggering, as was the fan turnout, and together the athletes and audience made for an exciting three days of racing. 

DAY 1: The Thursday Prelims and Why Running Fast > Winning

I was told by both athletes and coaches that it was unlikely Kenya’s elite runners would compete at Saturday’s finals. Three straight days of racing in April, coupled with the fact that victory nets an athlete only 5,000 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $50), gave Kenya’s sponsored men and women little incentive to see the meet to its end. However, Saturday’s loss was Thursday’s gain, for the elite competitors treated the preliminary rounds as if they were a championship unto itself.

The competitions began around 10AM Thursday morning after suffering a two-hour delay on account of Athletics Kenya’s last minute preparations. (In fact, it was Coach Canova that had to unlock Kipchoge stadium earlier that morning, for the AK officials had yet to arrive) The men’s 400-meter hurdles and women’s 5,000 meters race were the unfortunate casualties this disorganization, and had to be rescheduled for the following day.  But despite the slow start, the racing began in earnest with the men’s 5,000 meter competition:

A quick start in the men's 5k...

A quick start in the men's 5k...

There were four heats of the men’s 5k, with each heat forming a field that exceeded 30 competitors. Sprinkled among these miniature road races were some of Kenya’s finest distance athletes. The first heat featured sub 3:30 man, Nixon Kiplimo Chepseba, who won with a lethal kick over the final lap to finish in a time 14 minutes and 29 seconds. The second heat was a less tactical affair and was won by a resurgent Emmanual Kipsang in 13:56. Kipsang had been frequenting Renato’s training sessions over the past few weeks, and despite his good form in practice, it was yet unclear as to whether the man was simply a fine workout member or a serious competitor. His victory over thirty of Kenya’s top runners certainly points to the latter.

The third heat of the 5k was the most entertaining to watch, for it featured a familiar field. Tucked away within the ranks of athletes were two of the world’s best steeplechasers, Jairus Birech and Conselus Kipruto. Standing not too far away from these legends of the chase was a man who hopes to one day join them, European youth champion Mitko Tsenov. The three steeplechasers took their marks amidst the gigantic field of runners, and following the loud “BANG” of the starter’s gun, were swept away by a frenzied pace. The first three laps were each run under 65 seconds, and the field quickly strung out. After about 2k, Mitko had enough of the mad dash and dropped out. One thousand meters later, to my surprise, he was followed by Jairus. I must have looked concerned for Birech, because Coach Canova turned to me and explained, “Jairus is fine. He wanted to use this race as a warm-up for the 1500 meters.” It was a lesson in humility for me, for that meant Jairus just finished his 3000 meter “warm-up” in 8 minutes and 17 seconds… a mere 8 seconds off my PR in the 3k. There is a reason why the man is eyeing the world record in Rome this summer. 

Conselus Kipruto went on to win the 5k in 13:47, the fastest time of the day. His victory was sealed by a tremendous kick over the final 150 meters, and his acceleration was so profound that it left his competitors standing still by comparison. This sprint finish made me realize how dangerous Kipruto could be in a tactical steeplechase. Perhaps Ezekiel Kemboi is not the only athlete Jairus and Canova should be worried about?

The morning’s excitement during the men’s 5k was rivaled only by the men’s 1500-meters races that began about an hour later. At 11AM, Coach “warm-up”, the perennial starter for Athletics Kenya, lined up eight heats of about 20 men each. He did not waste any time after getting the men organized, firing off each field of athletes in rapid succession. The first two heats were won in relatively pedestrian times, 3:52 and 3:51 respectively. But with the arrival of the third heat, the racing really started to heat up.

Ezekiel Kemboi waiting to make his move in the men's 1500 meters...

Ezekiel Kemboi waiting to make his move in the men's 1500 meters...

This change was in large part thanks to the World’s most decorated steeplechaser, Ezekiel Kemboi. Sitting in third for the first 1000 meters, Kemboi let the race develop without much drama, as the leaders ran their first lap in 61 and came through 800 meters in 2:02. But with 500 meters to go, Kemboi turned on the jets, breaking away from the field in a matter of seconds. He held a good lead for the entirety of the last lap, until about 10 meters from the finish, where he paused to wave to the crowd and walk across the line, just barely edging out his flailing competitor. The finishing time was 3:47.   

Standing next to me during Kemboi’s win was Coach Canova and his star pupil, the GOAT, Saif Shaheen (Renato still calls him by his Kenyan name, Stephen Cherono). They were enjoying and analyzing Ezekiel’s performance, and I overheard Canova remark, “It is not possible to understand the shape from this. He is a showman.” Shaheen, smartly dressed in a red-checkered collared shirt and black dress pants, was more critical, “This is boring to watch. How can these guys run so slow on this track (Kipchoge Stadium sports a mondo surface). They will do the bare minimum to win.” Turning to me he added, “Remember this, it’s better to get last and run 3:46, then win and run 3:47.” No sooner had he finished these words than objections started to cry out in my mind. “It’s April… it’s the prelims… it’s not his race… it doesn’t matter!” But one realization silenced all these voices: Shaheen’s the world-record holder. You don’t run 7:53 without a mentality that’s fearless to a fault.

Coach Canova with Steeplechase World Record holder Saif Shaheen (right)...

Coach Canova with Steeplechase World Record holder Saif Shaheen (right)...

The 4th heat was won by another member of the Canova clan, Vincent Yator, who looked comfortable as he crossed the line in a time of 3:49. After another heat with a 3:47 winning time, Jairus Birech once again toed the line, looking plenty warmed-up for his 1500 meter effort. He finished with a time of 3:49, good enough for second behind the relatively unknown Hosea Cherongei.

The final two heats proved to be the fastest of the day, lead by Edwin Kiptoo’s 3:43 wire-to-wire spectacle. Thomas Longosiwa was narrowly beaten in the eighth and final heat by 1500 meter specialist and 1:45 man, Timothy Cheryiot. Cheryiot looked incredible in the past AK race in Nakuru, and this win was only a warm-up for what was to come this weekend.

Asbel Kiprop en route to 1:45.1...

Asbel Kiprop en route to 1:45.1...

The men’s 800 meter race was the final highlight of the afternoon, and it’s 11 heats featured many of Kenya’s biggest stars. The winners included Silas Kiplagat (1:47 looking relaxed), Elijah Manangoi (1:46), and Renato Canova’s new middle-distance prospect Sammy Kirunga (1:48, walking away from the field). But one runner stole the spotlight, and that was none other than Olympic Gold Medalist Asbel Kiprop. His heat went out fast, with Asbel tucked inside in the fourth position until the bell. Kiprop reached 400 meters in 52 high, where he then proceeded to unfurl his impossibly long stride and unleash a scorching pace for the field to follow. They couldn’t, and all the challengers wilted before reaching 600 meters. As the Olympic Gold medalist cruised down the finishing stretch to certain victory, the Kenyan crowd was thunderous. He crossed the line in a time of 1:45.1, an impressive feat given that he slowed at the tape to stop his own watch (apparently the athletes do not trust the time keepers at AK. I witnessed half of the athletes stopping their watches at the finish to check their times. Some even had the interesting strategy to stop their watch 20 meters from the finish line. I guess there is more than one way to run a PR?)

DAY 2: The Friday Semis and Signs of World Record Change

The Friday races picked up right where Thursday left off, or rather, Athletics Kenya picked up the slack that it had left over from the day before. The heats of the women’s 5,000 meters were called early in the morning hours, and I witnessed three women crack the 16 minute barrier. Sandrafelis Chebet won the first heat in a time of 15:47, while Vivian Chemutai ran 15:54 for a tactical victory. Following the women’s races, an army of AK officials went to work putting the men’s 400 meter hurdles in order. Once finished, World Champion Nicholas Bett made short work of them, winning the first heat in a blistering 49.84. His brother, World Championship Bronze medallist Haron Koech, was not far behind, clocking an equally stunning 50.17 in the second heat. The two men appeared as mirror images of each other, flying over the hurdles in Kenya’s National Team colors. Their form and raw speed were incredible to witness, and leads me to believe that they are the men to beat in Rio this summer.

The excitement in the stadium continued to grow with the start of the men’s 1500 meter semi-final. The previous eight heats had been narrowed to just two today, featuring qualifiers such as Jairus Birech, Timothy Cheryiot, and Edwin Kiptoo. Much to the crowd’s (and my) disappointment, Thomas Longosiwa and Ezekiel Kemboi had elected to bow out of the semi-finals. Still, their absence did not alter the level of competition. 

Despite gusts of wind, the first heat was won in 3:45 by Cheryiot, thanks to a crushing last 200 meters in 26 seconds flat. The second heat proved to be even more tactical, but Edwin Kiptoo once again found that extra gear to power away to another victory in 3:47. Jairus Birech was a step behind, but despite his 42 second last 300 meters, he could not catch Kiptoo. Coach Canova, however, was unperturbed by the performance of his steeplechaser, “Jairus is training hard, and his motivation is very high. He does not need to race this weekend, but he insisted.” It was clear that Birech had some heavy legs over the last lap, but he still managed a fast time despite his workload.

Following the 1500’s was the women’s 800 meter semi final, or rather, the Eunice Sum show. While the first two heats were won in tight races, Eunice simply destroyed her competitors in the third and final heat of the day, clocking 2:03 after a 58 second first lap into a steady headwind. The next closest finisher was over 10 seconds behind the 2013 World Champion. I was seated next to New Zealand athlete Jake Robertson during Sum’s race, and he couldn’t help but comment on her dominance, “Look at her form. She just looks better than everyone. No girl in Kenya can beat that woman.” One can only wonder if that prophecy extends beyond the borders of East Africa.

Eunice Sum making it look easy...

Eunice Sum making it look easy...

Unsurprisingly, the men’s 800 meter race proved to be the highlight of the day. Sammy Kirunga won his heat convincingly in 1:47 flat, prompting Coach Canova to proclaim, “I think [Sammy] will make the Olympic team this year. He is very strong, very focused.” I do not doubt Coach Canova’s foresight when it comes to track and field, but that predication was made before Elijah Manangoi toed the line. If Manangoi elects to try his luck at the half-mile distance this summer, qualifying for Rio is going to become that much more difficult for every Kenyan half-miler, for Elijah looked incredible in this race. Despite a slow first lap (54 seconds), Manangoi managed to throw down a 52 second last 400, negative splitting his way to 1:46. Almost as amazing as the performance was the fact that Elijah sported a USA singlet for the semi-final. After the race, I asked the World Championship silver medalist about his wearing the red, white and blue. Elijah laughed, and explained that the singlet belonged to, “my friend Leo Manzano". The two apparently traded uniforms with each other last year. I have to admit, that USA kit looks awfully good on the young Masai middle-distance star.

Eljah Manangoi rocking the USA singlet...

Eljah Manangoi rocking the USA singlet...

But once again, the other competitors were only warm-up acts compared to the show delivered by Asbel Kiprop. Stepping onto the track, the stadium suddenly fell into a hushed excitement as the tall, thin silhouette of Asbel Kiprop sauntered over to the start line in lane one. He was flanked by two men who eagerly volunteered as rabbits for the Olympic champion, despite the fact that this heat was a semi-final for Saturday’s competition. But Asbel had already decided that he would not be running Saturday, and the five other men that were continuing on to the next day quietly resigned themselves to the fact that this race was going to be extremely fast.

The starter’s gun fired and the race was off, with Asbel and his mango colored Nike singlet gliding around the first turn at an almost unnatural speed. The two pacesetters hit the bell in 50.7, and from there Asbel was on his own. He reached 600 meters in 1:17, and continued to accelerate all the way through the finish. Crossing the line, my watch read 1:44 flat, the fastest time of the day. It was a spectacular performance in April… in Eldoret… at 7,000 feet of altitude. Leaving the stadium that day, all the talk centered on Asbel and the possibility of a new record in the 1500 meters. I must confess, after watching the lithe figure of Kiprop effortlessly cruise to 1:44 Friday afternoon, sub-3:26 somehow felt like a more tangible reality.

DAY 3: Saturday’s Finals and Revelation

My expectations were low heading into the Saturday Finals. Everyone around town had warned me that many of the professional athletes would have opted out of the competition at this point. It made sense, after all it was April and the international competitions were fast approaching. In less than three weeks, the Diamond League circuit would begin in Doha, signaling the start of a long march towards the Olympics in Rio. But Saturday proved to be anything but an off day for Kenya’s finest athletes, giving the last day of Athletics Kenya’s early season competitions a spectacular sendoff.

World Champion Jarius Yego mid-heave

World Champion Jarius Yego mid-heave

World Champion Javelin thrower Julius Yego wowed the crowd with a few 80-meter bombs throughout the morning. Meanwhile, as Yego performed his best Achilles’ spear-throwing impressions, Vivian Chemutai crushed her competitors in the women’s 5k, winning in a time of 15:32. In the men’s 1500 meter race, Timothy Cheryiot made a statement by winning in an absolutely stunning 3:36. His final 300 meters was covered in 39 seconds, and yet he looked smooth throughout the effort. Kenya already has a staggering amount of depth in this event, but after Saturday’s, it is safe to say that Cheryiot made the talent pool even deeper.

Eunice Sum made good on Jake Robertson’s predication by winning the women’s 800 meters in a time of 2:02. Her form was once again perfect throughout this effort, as Sum seemed to just effortlessly pull away over the last 100 meters from her talented competitors.

Emmanuel Kipsang, welcome to the big leagues...

Emmanuel Kipsang, welcome to the big leagues...

The men’s 5,000 meter final singled the arrival of Emmanuel Kipsang, who broke away from a talented field that included Thomas Longosiwa, Issac Songok, Frederick Kipkosgie, Nixon Chepseba, and Clement Kemboi. The start of this race was fast, with the six-man pack running 4:12 for their first mile. But Kipsang stayed at the front throughout much of the race, forcing his followers to suffer his hellish pace until the attrition proved too much and allowed Emmanuel the luxury of winning with space in a time of 13:43.

The only letdown Saturday came in the men’s 400 meter dash, for it was billed as one of the premier events of the meet. Kenya’s “Daily Nation” had hinted earlier in the week about a potential David Rudisha and Nicholas Bett showdown. But Bett elected to stick to the 400 meter hurdles, and Rudisha unfortunately was a no-show. But one of Brother Colm’s proteges did make an appearance, world junior champion Willy Tarbei. Tarbei is built-like Rudisha, and the Great One’s training partner has a frighteningly similar stride pattern. That is probably why the young Tarbei won convincingly in the 400-meter dash final, cruising to a comfortable victory in 46 seconds.    

But the highlight of this final day of competitions started before the doors of Kipchoge Stadium had even opened, and provided me with a revelation that went beyond just the track oval. I had risen early that morning to meet with Jairus Birech at the nearby Belio training camp. It was a little past 7AM when I arrived at Belio, but Jairus was already awake and toiling away within the concrete walls. Inside the quaint training grounds, the sub-8 minute steeplechaser was busy washing his car with rag and a small plastic bucket filled with rain water. He must have been working on the task for some time, for the car already appeared to be spotless. As we talked, he put the bucket and rag down in favor of a mop, and then began cleaning the tiled floors leading into his tiny, dormitory-sized room. Watching this short and slender Kenyan man carry out mundane chores in the early morning light, you never could have guessed that he was one of the greatest athletes in the history of the world. He seemed too grounded, too at peace with a simple life, to be the same record setting runner global audiences and message-board goers have come to witness and discuss with a sense of awe. But here he was, Jairus Birech, one of Kenya’s most successful and famous athletes, starting his day by wiping away the mud that had built up around his rims and floors from last night’s rain.

Two hours later, my sense of respect for the man, which was already too high to quantify, reached stratospheric levels. I had visited Jairus that morning to ask him some questions about his childhood, so our topic never once ventured into the domain of racing. The nature of our conversation, the morning chores, and the fact that I had already watched him compete in three races over the past two days, made the possibility of him running in the finals simply an absurd thought. It never even crossed my mind to ask him. So you can imagine my surprise while I was standing on the infield of Kipchoge stadium, waiting for the start of the men’s 10,000 meter race, to see Jairus Birech come striding out onto the mondo track in spikes and a purple Nike racing kit.

A crowded start to the men's 10k...

A crowded start to the men's 10k...

The legend only grew from that moment on. As the starter held up his gun, 50+ athletes crouched over the start line awaiting the signal to sprint. The gun fired, and the marathon-sized pack streaked off around the turn at an absolutely terrifying pace. The first lap was covered in 58 seconds, and the 800 meters was eclipsed in under 2 minutes and 4 seconds. By the third lap, the 10k had a line of athletes strung out over 200 meters, with Jairus Birech at the head of this pain train. His only challenger was a tall, skinny Turkana athlete named Peter Imasii. The pace gradually grew more controlled from there, and the two Kenyan’s passed 3k inside 8:20. Jairus continued to clip off 68 second laps, until the 11th, when he moved out into lane two and beckoned Imasii to take the lead. Imasii refused, which led to Jairus angrily pointing back and forth between the Turkana runner and the track ahead. After about 50 meters of dispute, Peter relented, and stayed in the lead for the next 9 laps. At lap 20, Jairus threw in a massive surge that left Imasii unable to respond. Jairus only increase his lead over the final mile, winning the 10k in a time of 28:35. It was the steeplechasers forth race in three days, spanning distances from 1500 to the 10k, and he made this 28 minute effort at 7,000 feet look easy. After watching his final performance of the weekend, and with the memory of him washing his car and scrubbing his floors at dawn still fresh in my mind, my understanding of discipline and focus fundamentally changed. In a span of three days, Jairus effectively revised the way I defined a Champion.  I’m sorry Evan, no offense, but after witnessing these races and workouts and chores… I think I’ve become a Birech fan.   

Jairus leading the 10,000 meter race...

Jairus leading the 10,000 meter race...

FN - Training to be a Natural

FN - Training to be a Natural

David Rudisha, Asbel Kiprop, and Renato Canova at Kamariny Stadium Tuesday Morning

I need to rush through breakfast. It’s Tuesday in Iten, and that means one thing: Track Day. I hurriedly eat my toast and eggs, washing it all down with passion fruit juice and Chai. Pushing the wicker chair backwards, I stoop down for my camera, bid Shady (Shadrack is his full name) a good day, and walk out the dinning hall door heading towards the Olympic Corner crossroads in search for a Piggy-piggy (a small, Chinese made motorbike that has proliferated throughout Western Kenya due to a loop-hole in import-law. Years ago, Kenyan legislature allowed for motorbikes under 250cc’s to be allowed into the country tax-free. Kenyans and the Chinese both took advantage of this tax break, and now you can find these “piggy-piggys” everywhere throughout rural Kenya.)

About 150 meters later, I reach the crossroads and signal one of the piggy-piggy drivers parked by where the Tarmac meets the all-weather road leading towards Kapsebet. Hopping onto the back of the motorbike, I loudly tell the driver “Kamariny!” as our destination. I can never quite determine if the Kenyan Piggy-piggy or Matatu drivers understand me the first time I speak, so I repeat, “Track… athletes… Kamariny” a few more times just to be sure. The driver just says “fine, fine” and slowly descends down the wide, rocky dirt road towards Kamariny. 

It is a short ride, no more than 2.5 kilometers. Upon arriving at the track, I ask the driver, “50 shillings?” To my surprise, he tells me “No, 100 shillings.” I feel like I’m getting ripped off, which, being a Mzungu, is probably the case, but I give him the money all the same. The equivalent of fifty cents is not worth getting upset about.

Turning to face the track, I am greeted by an athletic spectacle. Almost 200 runners are in attendance today, a parade of athletic bodies dressed in bright reds and blues and greens and yellows. As I walk down the embankment onto the dusty and orange track surface, a pack of 25 men streak by in what would be lane one. Each man is long and lean, a perfect build for a distance runner. Their form is exquisite, a mirror image of one-another, flying around the track stadium in an orchestrated harmony of movement. The scene could be considered beautiful, were it not for the agony of training underlying this poetry in motion. The burning lungs, the heavy legs, the building lactate, and the constant screaming of the mind to stop, just slow down, for the love of God sit this next rep out. This internal struggle is so easily mis-recognized by the casual observer. Few can perceive the athlete’s endeavor to persevere the pain, or understand the level of faith needed to focus upon distant goals despite the present and pressing doubts of the mind. This is the ritual of endurance, in its purest and rawest form. Standing and starring at this brutal performance, I’m reminded of a Dawes' line from their song Somewhere Along the Way, “The dream and the circumstance, continued their tortured dance…” Today, for these hundreds of runners, Kamariny is the crucible of that tortured dance.

After the pack of athletes has passed, I quickly scamper across the rut that is lane one and onto the dead grass carpeting the infield. Shoes and clothing are littered across the field, along with random circles of ten to fifteen athletes stretching and socializing. Most of the athletes here today are Kenyan, but I do spot a few European runners testing themselves amidst the Kenyans.

A long-line of runners dressed in German national team gear begins what looks to be 400-meter intervals beneath the wooden bleachers of Kamariny stadium. Not too far behind is a group of Turkish women excitedly discussing something with their middle-aged Coach. On the far corner of the track, where the acacia trees fan out like large umbrellas providing shade for the entire back-turn, I spot a large group of Spanish tourists snapping pictures of every Kenyan that runs by. Standing a little apart from the Spaniards with a stopwatch in hand, wearing once again his white Finland hat and a white “China Athletics” polo, is the legend himself; Coach Canova.

I make my way across the field towards the elderly Italian Coach. He is currently speaking to his assistant coach, John, who was a former athlete of Canova’s. I discovered yesterday that John was once a fantastic 800 meter runner, a 1:46 man who earned himself a podium finish at the Commonwealth games back in 2005. Unfortunately, a muscle injury prevented him from ever returning to that same level of form. His athletic career finished, he took up coaching, and is now the right-hand man to arguably the world’s greatest track coach. Not bad.

I had hoped to see Renato today, and I even wore my letrsun.com shirt in the event that our paths crossed. I hadn’t seen him since watching the World Half-Marathon Championships in the conference room at Kerio View last Saturday, and was a little apprehensive of overstepping my bounds by frequently seeking him out. The last thing that I wanted to be in the eyes of this legend was a nuisance. But as I approach, his greeting dispels any lingering fears I had of bothering him, “Bonjourno Andrew!” He takes one look at my shirt and smiles, clearly happy to see Letsrun and Nat Geo covering his workout for the day. “Good Morning Coach, it is good to see you again” I say, shaking his hand. John, the second in command, also greets me warmly, shaking my hand as well before returning trackside to cheer on a group of female athletes passing the 200-meter mark. 

Renato’s first workout of the day is coming to a close. With so many athletes in Iten, and Tuesday being the preferred track day, he is forced to stagger his various training groups throughout the morning hours or risk too much traffic on the track oval. I have attended the past three Tuesday gatherings (but not with Coach Canova) and discovered that the first athletes begin arriving around 6AM, before the sunrise. The number of runners then gradually increases throughout the day, with the track reaching maximum capacity around 9AM. These first three hours at the Kamariny track are largely composed of unsigned men and women; athletes training hard in hopes of finding a coach, manager, or sponsor. Despite this lack of support, their ranks only seem to swell with each passing week, I assume because the promised opportunity of an athletic career outshines the limited career options throughout Kenya. Still, I have yet to uncover how these men and women support themselves while committing to a life of training.

It is 9:40AM, and Coach Canova is dividing his attention between me and his group of athletes speeding around the track. The women being cheered on by coach John are apparently under his direction, and without me even asking, Renato begins introducing his collection of superstars.

“You see the woman in the red top, that is Janet Kisa. 14:52 in 5,000 meters. And running just behind, is Irene Cheptai. 14:50 in 5,000 meters. Very strong runners, very strong.” Renato’s Italian accent and tendency to speak quickly makes understanding him difficult, but anytime you hear of two women running under 15 minutes in the 5k, no further explanation is necessary. You already know that they are fast. Running behind these two exceptional female athletes are a line of 6 other women. Renato does not mention them, which probably means that they are still developing athletes.  

“When will they race next, Coach?”

“Heh” Canova grunts, staring at his watch as the women pass by, “Yes, yes. Irene Cheptai will race May 1st in the United States. At Stanford, California…” Before I can ask him where Janet will race, both her and Irene come flying by us finishing the rep, “3:07, bene!” shouts Canova, who then stoops down to write the time of the interval in his red notebook.

When I ask Coach what workout the women are doing, he hands me the notebook opened to the training schedule for the day. Looking over the thin, cursive handwriting, I can decipher that the plan is 10 times 1000 meters, broken up into 5 sets with five minutes rest in between each set. Two, 1000-meter repeats make up each set, and the girls only have 2 minutes of rest in between these repetitions. The paces are brutally fast, especially on Kamariny’s dirt track and Iten’s 7300 feet of altitude. The first thousand has a goal pace of 3:10, while the second’s goal is 3:00, and these two paces must be maintained throughout the workout. This variation in pace helps prepare the athletes for surges of pace within competitions, but it also makes the workout significantly more difficult.

Irene, Janet and the rest of the girls have just completed the ninth rep of the workout, and their bodies seem ready to give out. The unnamed group of women are panting rapidly, stumbling over to the shade of the Acacia trees with their heads down and their hands on their hips. Only Irene and Janet look prepared for the last repetition. They are lightly jogging in circles down the backstretch and checking their watches, keen to determine how many precious seconds remain before the final test of the day.

“30 Seconds!” Canova reveals, and I hear a beep as he resets his watch to time the their last 1000 meters.  Canova is now standing directly across the start line, which is marked by a stick with an upside-down water bottle placed over its end. This ridiculous marker contrasts sharply with the quality of the athletes using it as a point of reference.

I am curious as to how hard the women are allowed to run this final kilometer, and turning to Coach ask, “How fast do you expect that they will run for this one?”

“They will push” The old Coach confirms, “Maybe, 2:55. We shall see.”

Irene, Janet, and the dreamers are about 15-meters away from the start line, still lightly jogging in place. After turning around to face us, they suddenly form a line, with Irene at the front, and wordlessly start increasing their pace as they approach Canova. Right before crossing the start line, Irene holds up both arms with her right hand holding her wrist. It’s to signal to Coach to start his watch on her count. In another stride, she brings down both arms in a single motion, and I hear her stopwatch start with a loud “BEEP” as she sprints away around the curve of the track.

It only takes a lap before Irene and Janet have separated themselves from the rest of the group. They look strong, with their arms high at their sides, pumping furiously as they launch their spiked feet in front of them with an effortless rhythm, covering meters of track with each stride. Still, you can see the pain and doubt start to creep across their faces, and as they approach us with only a half-lap remaining, Canova yells, “What is in the tank, you need to discover!”

Willed on by their coach, both women ratchet up the pace and launch into their kicks. It’s something to behold; after 9,000 meters of gut-wrenching training both of these athletes are able to search within themselves and find what athletics fans refer to as the “extra gear”. Dashing across the finish line across the field, Renato stops his watch and smiles, “2:50.6” It is a brief look of pleasant surprise, and without another word, Coach Canova writes the time in his notebook and turns to John to order the next workout group be ready to go in 15 minutes. I have to assume that at this point in his career, nothing can stun Renato. He has Coached Olympic medallists, World Champions and World-Record holders. He has seen the stratospheric limits of human performance, and can imagine what most us can barely conceive. For me, witnessing this workout was eye-opening, for Renato, its just another day at the office.

I knew that my friend, Timothy Limo, was scheduled to workout today, but I wasn’t certain what the training plan would entail. Curious as to level of pain Timo would soon be facing, I ask, “Coach, what is the workout for the 800-meter group today?” 

“Yes. You see, they will run ten times 400 meters, but with variation. Variation is important. 14 seconds and 17 seconds. They will run hard for 14 seconds, then float for 17 seconds, and then repeat.” Doing the math in my head, I realize that Timo will have to run 10 by 400 meters in 62 seconds or better… broken up… on a dirt track… at 7,000 feet above sea-level. It’s a tall order.

“How much rest?”

Renato just shrugs, “Maybe three minutes” he pauses... then frowns and appears to juggle an invisible ball with his hands, “ehh, they will probably cut it down during the session.” 

I must have looked incredulous, because Coach Canova continued,

“You see, this workout makes the athletes practice floating. A middle-distance runner must develop elasticity in their stride, cruise control - like a car, and this variation, the 14 seconds followed by 17 seconds, helps to make sure they learn how to float in between. The body learns to absorb lactate while at the same time expend less energy. It forces a runner to develop better biomechanics. It is a technical training session more than anything. But they are still learning. You see, they are not the strongest athletes.”

I have a tough time believing that a pack of runners capable of doing 10 x 400 meters in 62 seconds at altitude are not “strong athletes', and so to clarify what he means I ask, “Do you mean that this group is developing?” Renato just stares at me so I try a different approach, “For example, in America we have baseball. And in baseball, we have the Major Leagues, and beneath that we have the minor leagues. Would these men fall into that “minor league” category.” 

Coach Canova smiles, signaling to me he understands what I’m trying to ask, “Yes, Yes… but very minor indeed. Minor, minor, minor leagues!” He declares, articulating the message by placing his hands lower with each word. I’m still dumbstruck at the possibility of Timo, a 1:46 800-meter performer, only being a single-A level athlete in Kenya. The depth of talent in Kenya is nothing short of astonishing.  

Minor leagues or not, I’m looking forward to watching this workout. I thank Coach Canova and walk over to the shade of the Acacia trees, setting up my camera’s tripod atop one the large grassy hills encompassing Kamariny stadium. At my back, about 100 meters beyond the trees and shrubs, lies the escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley. It provides a breathtaking view of the massive expanse, and in my opinion makes Kamariny one of the world’s most beautiful track and field facilities (despite the stick and the water-bottle distance markers).

Walking home from the training session, with the Rift Valley in the distance...

At the other end of Kamariny I can spot Timo and the minor league crew finishing their pre-workout strides. The group is composed of 10 athletes, 9 Kenyans and one Sudanese athlete named Dey-Dey. Almost all of them are tall and slender, especially Dey-Dey, who must be approaching 6 foot 5. Their strides seem to last an eternity, but their pace is frightening. The group tears around the track in what seems like a couple steps. I can only wonder what Canova’s “major league” group looks like.

A few minutes later the workout begins, and I do my best to capture with my camera the men before and after each repetition. Timo looks smooth, and as the workout progresses it becomes clear that he is the class of the field. With each passing rep, the distance between himself and the pack extends, and I can’t help be feel a slight twinge of pride for my friend. 

To my surprise, Coach Canova ambles up the grassy slope and over towards me and my camera. Our conversation begins again, but the topic remains unchanged. The man can talk about athletics and training for days, and I don’t mind in the least. As I continue to snap pictures of the action happening on the track, Coach Canova lectures me on the philosophy behind coaching and training in a stream-of-consciousness manner, 

“A coach must understand how to organize the reality. Training is not reality, life is reality. Therefore, the training plan must follow the athlete, not the athlete following the training plan. In this way, training is connected to reality, not theory. You can see, when I coach, never do I script training for more than two-weeks. Beyond two weeks, you cannot predict what may happen, no? In Africa, you need to be especially flexible. Bof! sometimes, an athlete may need to travel home for three or four days because of family issues, tribal issues, who knows!? Training must depend on life, life is reality.”

I’m fascinated by this perspective, and it’s meta-physical approach leads me to ask Renato what he thinks about the power of the mind within a sport like athletics,    

“The mentality” He is very animated now, punctuating his words by pointing to his temple, “The mentality is very important, very important. But the first step in training to become an athlete is to NEVER LET YOUR MIND DECIDE. You must do what your body is capable of doing, to let your body decide what is possible. When I coach an athlete, I tell this, “Do not think, just do”. You must be a little wild, no? But in time, your mind begins to relearn what you originally thought was possible. Training is not only for the body, but for the mind. That is how an athlete builds strength, not just in the nervous system or the muscles or bioenergetically, but in the mind.” He then pauses, checking his watch as the 400-meter group begins their final interval, “You see” pointing to some of the stragglers in the group who are falling off the pace before even reaching 100 meters, “strength comes from consistently being able to renounce the threshold of your suffering.

It is a powerful statement by Canova, and left me scrambling to jot down the dialogue in my notebook before the runners completed their last repetition of Coach’s workout. Timo has completely blown away everyone in his training group over this final 400-meters, and as he crosses the line I snap a few quick photos to document the domination. I know he will enjoy seeing these back at the HATC.

The track is beginning to clear out now, but in the wake of this exodus of athletes I suddenly spot two who would certainly qualify for Renato Canova’s Major League ranking. Streaking down the backstretch of the track in a light blue Nike top is none other than Olympic Gold medalist Asbel Kiprop. He is flanked by two paces that I do not recognize, but his form is unmistakable. The world’s fastest miler looks surreal as he sprints around the stadium, and each stride seems to defy physics by its length and turnover. The threesome’s pace is fast, but controlled, and when they finish the 300 meter interval, they appear to take their time, laughing with one another while slowly walking 100 meters before starting again.   

Closer to Canova and I, just fifty meters down the straightaway, appears another titan of athletics, David Rudisha. The 2012 Olympic gold medallist and world record holder over 800-meters is slowly jogging around the outside lanes of Kamariny. He is dressed in a matching black and red Adidas track suit, made out of some new-age material that causes it to shine in the sunlight. In his ears are apple earbuds, and in his right hand an iPod. He is powerfully built, muscular rather than slender, and his form looks more like a sprinter’s than a distance runner’s. There is a striking contrast between Rudisha and the other native Kenyan athletes, and in some ways the world’s greatest half-miler looks more American than Kenyan. He is, after all, the first local athlete I have seen listening to an iPod before his workout.

My trance is broken by Renato, who in a loud voice cries out, “Bonjourno Father!” Turning around, I see an elderly man of short stature walking towards us, dressed in a beige button-down shirt and navy blue slacks. On his head is a large, big brim safari hat, and on his nose wire-framed spectacles which magnify a pair lively blue eyes. His thick Irish accent confirms my suspicions; he is Iten’s iconic coach, Brother Colm.  

Brother Colm O’Connell is a catholic priest stationed at St. Patrick’s secondary school, often toted as the “cradle of Kenya running”. Moving from Cork, Ireland, Brother Colm took over as headmaster of St. Patrick’s during the seventies, and has since perpetrated the unbelievable emergence of athletic talents from the Boarding school’s humble halls. He is responsible for coaching athletes such as Olympic Champion Peter Rono, Ibrahim Hussein, Matthew Birir, and Charles Cheruiyot. More recently, he is the coach of David Rudisha.

“Good morning Renato” He says with a smile, shaking hands with his only peer in the coaching world of athletics. He then turns to face me, clearly wondering who the white kid is talking to Coach Canova. I take his glance as an invitation to say hello,

“Hello Brother Colm, my name is Andrew, it’s an honor to meet you.” I say, sheepishly.

“Pleasure to meet you as well Andrew!” responds the patrician brother, clearly in good spirits this morning. He and Renato start discussing some topic amongst themselves, leaving me with the luxury of watching Kiprop and Rudisha toy around with their track workouts. Rudisha has stripped down out of his track suit, and is now wearing a bright green adidas racing top and grey compression shorts with the company’s hallmark three stripes in yellow. Next to him is a young athlete wearing all gray, and both men seem ready to start their workout for the day.  

Sensing a lull in the coaches' conversation, I try to find out what Brother Colm has planned for his prodigy, “Excuse me brother Colm, but I was wondering what workout you have in mind for David today?”

“Oh, it’s not much of a workout. This is his first session since Australia. Today, he is just connecting with the track.” And as if that was his cue, the Brother says farewell to Renato and I, and walks over to the 200 meter start to discuss the day’s training with his two athletes.

“The young athlete with Rudisha” says Renato, pointing to the man dressed in gray, “That is Willy Kiplimo Tarbei. He is the World Junior champion at 800 meters last year, with a personal best of 1:44 in Nairobi” Canova's look suggests that the kid is a stud, and with a time of 1:44 in the 800-meters, I do not doubt it. His is slightly smaller than Rudisha, and not as muscular, but after the pair launches into their first repetition around the track, Tarbei’s talent is evident. His stride is long and efficient, with markedly fast turnover. His posture is aggressive as well, for as he builds speed he also leans forward with his chest, giving me the impression that he is inching to go faster.

Next to any other runner, Tarbei would have looked impressive. But today he is running next to David Rudisha, and the Olympic Champion’s form is unparalleled. Every stride looks natural and yet disciplined, a perfect harmony of finesse and power. Watching him run evokes the same reaction I get when I see a deer or other animal take off in the wild, in that you are suddenly confronted by a living thing that is so much more athletic than yourself. Simply put, he looks like he was born to run 800 meters.

When I mention this last impression to Coach Canova, he laughs, “I will tell you a story. Years ago, I was with Brother Colm watching the young athletes at St. Patrick’s. They were running drills and such, and the two of us were analyzing their potential. David was one of these boys. When I saw him run, he had this long, long stride, all over the place. Almost like he was bounding” To demonstrate, Renato starts skipping in an exaggerated way along the outside the track. “I told Brother Colm, that one is better off doing triple jump!” He then burst into laughter at the thought of Rudisha being a jumper, “But I have to give credit to Brother Colm, he had an incredible amount of patience with David to turn his form into what you see today.” After a small pause, he then adds, “But we all could see that he was talented, of course.”

I had never given much thought to form before Canova’s story. Witnessing Rudisha sprint around the Kamariny track made me believe that he was the most naturally-gifted runner in the world. But to hear that what I was witnessing, those perfect biomechanics, were actually the result of years of tinkering and patience by some Irish priest (granted, the Father of Kenyan running), sent many of my preconceived notions of talent crashing down like a house of cards. If what Canova tells me is true, it is an incredible lesson in how the finished product rarely reveals its process of production. Rudisha is unquestionably the best to ever run the half-mile. His Gold medal run at the 2012 Olympics, where he led wire-to-wire, breaking the world record in route, without a rabbit, is a performance that may never be achieved again. And yet, this athletic brilliance all may have been a dream were it not for a very specific training and faith instilled and applied to a young Masai boy by a coach who understood this country and its culture. I realized right then and there, at the corner of a dirt track at the edge of the Great Rift Valley, how fragile a thing greatness really is…     

FN - The Trial of Billy the Kid

Billy (in the green) and "Timo" preparing for the trial...

Billy (in the green) and "Timo" preparing for the trial...

I wake up to the sound of my alarm and the cries of roosters beyond my bedroom window. The sun has not yet risen, and my room is still dark as the night. Switching on the bright fluorescent lights, I stagger over to my ever-increasing pile of clothes littering the second bed. After choosing a clean pair of red-running shorts, a long sleeve Ohio State Track and Field tee-shirt, and some recycled socks, I slip into my ASICS trainers and walk out the door into the still cool morning air.

Waiting at the gate to the camp is Billy. Billy is about 20 years old (he doesn’t know the exact day but does know that he turned 20 sometime this month), tall, nearly 6-1 and thin, like many Kalenjin males, with big brown eyes and large teeth. In fact, his teeth are stained along the front, giving him the appearance of being poor. But the reality is that Billy comes from a good family, not wealthy even by Kenyan standards, but well off. Running is in his blood. His mother was a multiple African Games champion in the distance races and even earned herself a Bronze medal at the 1992 Olympic games.

(It should be noted that 1992 was the first year that a married woman was allowed to compete in Athletics for Kenya, this according to Coach Canova [citation forthcoming]. The country was at that time very traditional and patriarchal, so as the top Kenyan women at the 1992 Olympic 5k final, her bronze medal is significant in many ways). 

He is currently balancing working at Lornah’s with training to be a runner, and he agreed to join me on a 15-kilometer (almost 10 miles) run this morning. We greet one another and trudge up the dirt alley towards the tarmac in the growing sunlight with heavy eyes, neither of us eager to start what should be a tortuous seventy minutes.  After we cross the road by the “Welcome to Iten, Home of the Champions” arch and scamper up to the red clay trail, Billy starts his watch and the run begins.

Morning runs in Kenya are always beautiful. Jogging down the hill towards the center of Iten, you are given a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and ever-stretching farmland. This morning is no different, and my spirits are lifted by another spectacular sunrise.

Billy and I reach the bottom of the hill and turn left onto what the local athletes call the “Boston Loop”.  It is an 18-kilometer loop around the farms north-west of Iten, and it is given its name due to its resemblance of the Boston Marathon course: downhill at the start with a gradual climb towards the finish.  I have never run the Boston marathon before, but I am willing to bet that it is easier than this loop. Last time I attempted it I was forced to walk back to camp.

Fortunately, Billy has a slight variation to the Boston Loop in mind, and after about a mile into the course, we turn left onto one of the countless red clay paths leading away from usual 18k route. Iten and the surrounding area is a labyrinth of trails and roads, and I am thankful that Billy is here to guide me home.  But as we continue to turn down new roads, I am filed with an apprehension knowing that my only way back to camp is to keep up with Billy for the entire run. Now, for the first time this morning, I realize that I need to wake up and focus.

The run goes by slowly, driven forward by the harsh metronome of our feet pushing off the rocky soil and our lungs struggling to find oxygen in the thin air. To make the time pass quicker, I decide it would be a good idea to strike up a conversation with Billy. As we run by a group of children on their way to school, dressed in matching Oxford blue sweaters and navy blue shorts, I found my topic.

“Billy, are there specific colors of uniforms the children wear for each school. Or do the colors represent primary or secondary school”

“No, the uniforms are for each school. Some share the same colors. But the children have badges with the name of the school on them.” Billy responds between breathes, his english tinged with the Kenyan tendency to strengthen the sound of the vowels.

“Did you go to school in Iten?” 

“No, I started primary school in Nakuru, but then there was an accident at home and my family moved to Eldoret.”

“What accident” I asked.

“Our house was burned down in a fire...“ 

“That’s more than an accident!” I interrupted,

Billy chuckled to himself, “Yes. That happened at the end of 2005. But then the election violence began around 2006, so we would have needed to leave to a place that was away from the Kikuyu’s. That is why we moved in with my Aunt in Eldoret.”

Billy was referring to Kenya’s Presidential Elections in 2006. This election erupted into violence because cheating had taken place in the voting process. The two nominees each represented a different tribe in Kenya. One was Kalenjin, and the other was Kikuyu, the two largest tribes in Kenya. Each claimed that the other had cheated, and the country was torn-apart by a tribal civil war lasting more than a year. In the end, a solution was settled by forming a new political position [prime minister] and both were given seats of power. The Kikuyu nominee became president, however, and ended up being one of Kenya’s best. Today, people of all tribes hold him in high esteem. But during the peak of the violence, it was dangerous to be a Kalenjin living among Kikuyu’s. Nakuru is deep in Kikuyu territory, so I could understand why his family elected to leave.

“Was your house burnt down by Kikuyu’s?” I naively asked.

“No, it was burnt down accidentally” Billy calmly replied. I didn’t press him for more info on the topic, but instead pivoted to the conversation towards his background in running.

“So you went to primary school in Eldoret?”

“Yes”, affirmed Billy, “And Secondary [high school].”

“Did your mom encourage you to run as young kid?”

If it wasn’t for the hill we were climbing, Billy would have burst out laughing. Instead, he replied through a wide smile, “She is ALWAYS encouraging me to run. Every day. But when I was in primary school, I had a friend to train with. We ran almost everyday together, until form 8. Then he moved to Nakuru and finished his secondary school there. Last year, I saw him again. He was third at Nationals in the 5k, and then ran on the relay team for Kenya. He become a very strong runner”

I didn’t ask, but I assumed Billy meant that his friend competed at Kenya's secondary school nationals. It is a great honor in this country to be fast enough to compete at these national games, but they are a far cry from the true National senior and junior competitions, the winners of which go on to represent Kenya at the Olympics and World Championships.

“So how did your training change after your friend left for Nakuru?”

“I still ran.”

“How many times a week?”

Billy paused to think, “Maybe once a week. On Saturdays. My school had a rugby and football team, but no athletics. So I wasn’t permitted to train during the week.”

I was surprised to hear that a Kenyan “High School” in Eldoret did not have a track team. But I have come to discover that Kenyan secondary schools are extremely competitive and all sports take a back seat to academics. Education is of paramount importance all across Kenya. The adults I have talked to all firmly believe it is the best way for their children to develop a future, and this vicarious attitude is accepted by the children I have witnessed. For example, the family I stayed with in Nairobi sent their boys to the prestigious Swarthmore Secondary School, and during my stay, I was shocked to find Alfred and Andrew, their third and fourth child, waking up at 5AM each day to continue their studies from the night before. This level of discipline was impressive, especially given the fact that both boys were frequently up to 10PM doing homework. I have even discovered that when I explain my grant to Kenyans, my mentioning of going to University in the United States elicits a more impressed response than the fact I acquired a National Geographic grant. Many elders would often introduce me as a, “University student from the United States”. This is probably because University is the end all be all of Kenyan academic life. The high pressure secondary school culture climaxes with a single exam to determine college placement. The KCSE (The Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education) is a nationwide exam that all students must take to enter university. The scores determine not only college placement, but financial-aid as well. Get one “C” on the Exam, and you may not be eligible for university.  Get one “B”, and you may have lost your chance at a scholarship. For rural students with poor parents, no scholarship often means no University. This high stakes examination has a terrible attrition rate and can effectively close the door to furthering one’s education. By simply opening the envelope containing their exam scores, the options of thousands of adolescents across the country are drastically narrowed. It is also why many Kenyan youths elect to start training as athletes after secondary school has ended. Billy fell into this latter category.

“So how did you do on your Exams?”

“The KCSE’s? I got a B’s and C’s” He replied sullenly.

“But you still want to go to University?”

“Yes. My older brother is attending Eldoret University now, but my parents can only afford send one of us at a time”

An earlier conversation about US schools with Billy now begins to make more sense to me, “So that’s why you want to go to school in the US?”

“Yes. That is why I am training now, in hopes to get a scholarship”

The realization that Billy’s family cannot afford to send him to school makes me feel slightly ashamed of myself for a stunt me and Kenyan professional runner Timothy Limo (Timo) pulled about a week ago involving Billy.

At that time, I had barely known Billy. We had interacted only briefly around the camp, and his shyness did not lead to many conversations. But one the day inside HATC’s small wooden Sauna, all that changed. After walking into the Sauna, I took a seat next to Billy, as well as a Singaporean athlete named Rui, and two Parisians Laurent and Nikko. It was comical having people of such different cultures all crammed into a 115-degree confined space, but we made light of it through conversation.  Inevitably, the discussion turned to track and field and our personal best times at various distances. Billy shocked us all when we asked him his PR (Personal Record), “3:40 in the one-thousand five-hundred”, he muttered. The four of us were stunned, 3:40 is the equivalent of a 3:58 mile. That time would place Billy in the top 10-15 runners in the NCAA, and he was only 20-years old. When I asked him where he ran this fantastic time, he claimed it was done in Eldoret. We became even more impressed. Eldoret is at an altitude over 6,000 feet, making his time worth 5-seconds quicker at sea-level. We four foreigners looked at each other in amazement. Sweating with us in that broom-closet of a Sauna, was a young man who very well could become the next Olympic champion. “Would you ever consider running in the US?” I asked, “Yes. I would love to run for an American University” said the future superstar.

That affirmation sent me on a collision course with a group of US college recruiters the following day. I had gone to Kerio View (A beautiful restaurant/ hotel owned by a Belgian named Jean-Paul) to hijack their quicker WiFi. While typing up some e-mails, a group of American’s dressed head-to-toe in “University of Missouri Track and Field” gear came walking up the stairs. After spotting my LETSRUN.com tee-shirt (Not-Rupp Certified) we struck up a conversation, and I learned that they were in search of young Kenyan athletes to add to their team roster. “Well, you’re in luck!” I proclaimed, “I know a kid who has run 3:40 at altitude! And he’s just around the corner.” I then proceeded to tell them all about Billy, gave them my e-mail, and sent them off in search of who I was sure would become the next Edward Cheserek.   

Or so I thought. The next day at lunch, Billy’s bubble burst. Rui, Laurent, Nikko and I were finishing our meals while discussing the implications of Billy joining the NCAA. Being track nerds, we were trying to figure-out Billy’s chances of winning the NCAA 1500-meter title in 2017. The Missouri coaches had already e-mailed me about connecting with Billy, and so I was proud of my tangential position to getting this Kenyan talent into the US, and eager to imagine what may come of it. That was when Timo walked by and overheard our excited chatter regarding Billy. His interest peaked, he took a seat and asked what we were talking about. When I told him how I was trying to get Billy recruited for running track in the US, he exploded with laughter, “And how are you going to do that?” 

Confused, I replied, “By showing them his PR in the 1500. He’s run 3:40!?”

Timo was grinning from ear to ear, like a kid who has just discovered some secret that is still a mystery to everyone else in the room, “And where did you hear that Billy ran 3:40 in the 1500?”

I began to suspect the source of Timo’ amusement, “From Billy, he said he ran that time in Eldoret. Back in January. He told me it was recorded and everything?” I explained, sounding less convincing with every word.

“My friend, you remember the races in Nakuru? Bendan Karoki could only manage 3:42. Three-forty-twoooo! And he crushed everyone. Now, do you really think Billy could have run two seconds faster than that, in Eldoret, at a higher altitude?” Timo grins again, satisfied by his impeccable logic. I, on the other hand, am growing embarrassed.

“So you’re telling me he lied?!”

“I am telling you that he did not speak the truth” Timo confirmed.

Rui and the Frenchmen could barely contain their laughter, and I felt like someone at the butt end of a practical joke. It was a crash course in learning how and why Kenyan athletes often embellish their times and ages, usually making both numbers lower than they really are. But there was no point in getting angry, so instead I begrudgingly explained to Timo the embarrassing predicament I now faced with these track coaches from Missouri.

Timo, upon hearing that news, suddenly grew serious, “That is not good. Billy should know better than to lie about track times. Now his lie has made you look like a liar. It is never wise to lie about track times, because you cannot hide from that lie. Eventually, you must run. And when you do, you will get caught. We must make Billy run now.”

Timo’s African proverb was lost on us Mizungu’s, so Rui asked him to clarify what he meant. 

“We will make him race the 1500-meters tomorrow at Lornah’s Track.” Timo was grinning again, “Billy should know, if you are going to start fires… you must be prepared to put them out.”

The time-trial was set for the next day, around 10AM. Billy shocked everyone by agreeing to run it, and now the excitement and predications turned to what time Billy would manage on Lornah Kiplagat’s newly built, mondo surface track. Soured by Billy’s lies, I predict 4:22 as his finishing time (Frank, the Belgian agent who joined me in my trip to Nakuru, and Nikko predict closer to 4-flat)

Timo guided Billy through a quick warm-up routine, and then over to the start line. Meanwhile, I prepared the camera equipment to document Billy’s trial, thereby leaving no doubt regarding the time of this 1500-meter effort. Nikko, Frank and a few other spectators join me by the first turn, and the excitement builds as we wait to send Billy off to what should be sweet vindication.

Timo started the event with a loud, “Go!”, sending Billy sprinting down the straightaway. His running form looked exceptionally smooth, with long, powerful strides that reminded me of Asbel Kiprop. “Maybe he can actually do this?” I thought to myself.

“61” called Timo as Billy finished the first lap. It was a great start, but after ten more meters mortality began to catch up with Billy. His pace visibly slowed, and his once Kiprop-like stride transformed into a labored jog. 

“72, halfway done!” Timo cried, as Billy rounded the turn with a look of agony on his face. Everything we suspected about Billy’s true form was materializing before our eyes, but I can’t help but feel a bit of admiration for him. The kid bravely decided to walk out onto the track and test his form among a group of complete strangers, strangers who he had purposely lied to concerning his running ability. I doubt I could find a young man in America with the courage to face a trial such as this one, and when Billy approached the turn for the final 300 meters, I couldn’t help but shout encouragements.

“Finish strong Billy!”

He did, in a time of 4:23. Timo was smiling as usual, and Nikko and Frank were chuckling about how close I came to predicting the right time. I switched the camera off and walked across the infield to the limp body of Billy hanging over the chain-link fence. I was expecting to find a dejected, embarrassed young man, but instead encountered something entirely different. Billy turned and gave me a hug, clearly exhausted but pleased by his effort. “I will train harder, and soon, I will run 3:40.”

That statement stopped me in my tracks, and completely changed the way I perceived Billy, and many Kenyan runners for that matter. The faith in their ability to grow and improve was so great, that they were not even afraid to speak about times that they have not yet run. In the US, lying about your track PR’s is sacrilege, but at least for Billy, he didn’t see it as lying. He was forecasting, speaking into existence a future that had not yet come to pass. As he stood on that track, sweating and trying to catching his breath after running nearly 40-seconds slower than his alleged “PR”, I couldn’t detect any shame or defeat in his eyes. All I could see was a greater fire, a new-found dedication that caused me to reflect on my own ambitions and determinations. Ironically, walking away from that time-trial left me with a deep feeling of respect towards Billy, equal to the level I felt when leaving that Sauna three days before…  

We made our turn back towards camp, and as the road begins to ascend, the run proportionally increases in difficulty. Our breathing is gradually getting ragged during this steep climb, and our conversation becomes impossible to continue. Between gulps for air, I declare, “We’re going to get you that scholarship Billy”. He did his best to smile, and then put his head down, pumping his arms while pushing into the red clay hillside with renewed vigor. Camp is about 5 kilometers to go, and I could see that Billy intended to make them count…

FN - Observations from an Athletics race in Nakuru

FN - Observations from an Athletics race in Nakuru

I first heard the rumors two days before while sitting in the Iten Club.  Richard and Frank were discussing the competition “Timo” (Timothy Limo, an employee at the camp as well as a member of Renato Canova’s training group) would face in the 800.  My interest peaked, I asked them what race they were talking about. “The one this Friday in Nakuru” Frank replied, “it is going to be crazy!”

Frank, a 13-minute 5k’er from Belgian who aspires to become an athletics agent, beckoned me over to his computer.  On the screen was the IAAF recap of the meet from the year before.  The Headline read, “1400 athletes compete at the Races in Nakuru!”  As we scrolled through the results, our eyes widened.  Over 300 competitors in the 5k, more than 10 heats for the 800, even a ridiculous 1500m where World Champion and Olympic Gold medalist Asbel Kiprop finished 4th.  This meet in Nakuru seemed to be unlike anything either of us had ever experienced. It drew all the great runners in Kenya, and droves of ambitious youngsters eager to dethrone their idols. After scrolling through the results of last year’s meeting, I made the case that this meet was arguably the largest and most talented track race outside of a Diamond League meeting.  Frank laughed in agreement.  And we knew, right then and there, that we needed to find a way into Nakuru.

But that posed a problem. Traveling in Kenya is always difficult.  The roads are bad, the drivers worse, and you never know when an accident or storm or riot may cause transportation to become impossible.  Frank suggested that we take a Matatu, one of Kenya’s famously uncomfortable cabbies.  But Nakuru is a 3-hour plus drive, and that’s before the incessant stops made by public Matatus, so that idea was quickly discarded.  I suggested renting a car for the day, a 10,000 Kenyan shilling expense (or $100 dollars). “But that would mean one of us would have to drive” Frank remarked, and his words may have well been a death sentence.  Kenya uses a British system, so the driver’s seat and the traffic are both on the wrong side of the road.  This, compounded by dangers of the deranged Matatu drivers, the reckless motorbikes (the locals call them Piggy-Piggies), and the clueless cows that often wander straight into oncoming headlights, made us lose our courage.

We had nearly given up on the idea altogether, when Willy Songok came to the rescue. Willy is the manager of “The Kenyan Experience”, a program that helps coordinate lodging, meals, and travel throughout Kenya for adventurous foreigners.  He had overheard Frank and I discussing logistics to Nakuru while relaxing at the Iten Club, and he believed he had a solution to our traveling problem. His group had booked a safari in Nakuru for that Friday, the same day as the race, and Songok assured Frank and I that the second car would have room for us.  The only caveat was that the car was to leave camp by 4AM (Safaris are by necessity early morning expeditions).  Lack of sleep was a small price to pay for attending such a spectacle, so it was settled. Frank and I now had a means of getting to Nakuru, and we both hurried off to bed excited about the races.

4AM came quickly.  I rushed a shower, grabbed my camera bag and notebook, and hurried off to the camp’s gate.  Songok was already there, cleaning out his navy blue Nissan Noah.  My greeting seemed to startle him, but his surprise was quickly replaced with a broad white smile and wide-eyes, “Good Morning Sah, I hope you slept well!” I hadn’t, but quietly nodded in agreement and positioned myself by one of the wooden railings lining the pool area.  One by one more members of the “Kenyan Experience” team arrived, heavy-eyed and silent, all eager to get on the road and back to sleep.  Frank was with them, and in his usual cheery Belgian demeanor exclaimed, “I got no sleep last night!” laughing, “The camp over there,” pointing to the newly erected Elgon Valley Resort, owned and operated by Kenyan athlete Moses Masai, “played music till 2 in the morning! It was so loud, like a rave!”  I would have been miserable in that situation, but Frank acted like it was the funniest thing in the world.  “You heard it, no? They were giving speeches too, one was about a giraffe.  So crazy!”  Thankfully, I packed ear plugs.   

After about a 20 minute wait, the second car arrived at the camp.  It was a Matatu driven by a large, elderly Kalenjin man named Barnabas.   We piled into the hollowed out mini-van and began our three-hour trip to Nakuru.  Bumpy Kenyan roads and the Matatu’s shotty suspension made sleeping difficult, but I managed to doze off for bits and pieces of the trip.  Around 6:30AM Frank woke me up to share some of the Chapati we had packed.  It’s a thin and sweet, tortilla-like bread that is a favorite among Kenyans.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

By that time the sun had started to rise and I was struck by the beauty of the countryside.  It’s easy to forget the paradise Kenya is when you’re strapped inside an aluminum box rattling down a crumbling highway, but like the early morning mists glistening in the dawn, my discomfort evaporated with a glance outside my window. Kenya is unique in that it is an equatorial nation with large tracks of land at high altitude.  This gives rise to all sorts of tropical vegetation specifically adapted for thin air.  The result is an alien landscape of undulating hills and mountains, all blanketed by lush greens and reds.  The soil is a clay that’s blood red when wet from rain, but turns a burnt orange color during the dry season. This results in a striking contrast with the pale green grass and lichens frosting the various mounds and paths to either side of the dirt roads.  Shade is provided by the abundant acacia trees, with canopies that grow out instead of up, giving the tree an odd, umbrella-like shape.  Every now and again the Matatu would pass by a dense cluster of forest composed of funny looking conifers scaling up the mountainsides.  These pines all had thin trunks with pealing red bark and grow so closely to one another that the underbrush is kept in perpetual darkness.  The shadow was so thick that my eyes could only pierce a few feet beyond the first few trees, and as we passed by I couldn’t help but recall Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. The road then crested the hilltop and gave way to a view stretching out to what seemed the whole of Africa. The scene was spectacular, a surreal combination of clouds and mists broken in places by verdant green hills and jagged mountains.  In that moment, with the sun beginning to peak out over the top of Mt. Kenya far off in the East, I felt completely at peace.

That was, until we reached the city’s limits.  Traffic was upon us, and the air turned from a pristine quality to a polluted mess.  It was nearly 7:30AM, and I asked Barnabas to drop Frank and I off at a diner about 2 kilometers from the Track facility.  The races weren’t scheduled to begin until 9, and we thought it best to eat again while we could.  We bid our Safari friends farewell, and walked into the dingy “Canaan Eatery”, praying that the food wouldn’t come back to haunt us.  

The breakfast turned out better than we could have imagined, because seated inside the diner was World-renowned coach Renato Canova. Canova is a 71-year old Italian man who has made coaching the world’s greatest distance runners his life’s work.  Naturally, Kenya is his home, and he has more than fulfilled his purpose.  His current training group consists of 5 sub 3:30 1500-meter runners, at least 3 men who have broken 13 minutes in the 5k, and a handful of 2:04 marathoners. He has helped Kenya rewrite numerous world records over the past decade, and if history is any indicator, he will be responsible for coaching a large percentage of Kenya’s Olympic team in Rio. In short, the man is a legend. 

Coach Canova was busy chatting away with his assistant John and a group of athletes, before turning his gaze to the two “mizungus” gaping at him.  To break the awkward silence, I stammered my way through “Good Morning Coach, how are you?” The 71-year old Italian smiled and waved me over to his table. His skin was tan from a lifetime under the Kenyan sun, and his hair matched his white cycling cap with “FINLAND” written large blue letters across the front.  He wore a baby-blue tee shirt with tan khaki shorts, as well as a posh pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, despite being inside. To be completely honest, he looked more like a tourist than a track coach.

“What brings you to Kenya?” Canova asked with his pronounced Italian accent. I took the opportunity to briefly explain my project, making sure that I mentioned National Geographic and my sponsors.  When he heard that one of them was LetsRun.com, he really lightened up (Renato is a HUGE fan of Letsrun) and began to converse with the two of us in earnest.  I have to assume that Renato’s athletes and coaches are not the best conversationalists, because the man talked our ears off.  Before I knew it, we were discussing the races for the day, the athletes to watch out for (Renato made the bold claim that Ronald Kwemboi, the current world junior record holder at 1500, would quickly eclipse the 3:26.00 senior world record), and even delved into the recent doping crises in Kenya.

This last bit made for some very interesting insights.  Renato was adamant that Kenya’s top athletes were not doping.  “The best are clean.  It is the second-tier athletes that are corruptible.  Think about it, last year a 2:07 PB in the marathon was good for about 45th best in Kenya!  That would be the best mark in nearly every other nation.  WADA is not testing that athlete, they are testing the Asbel’s and the Rudisha’s and the other elite Kenyans.  Since January, my athletes have been subjected to numerous drug tests.  Silas (Kiplagat) has been asked to give blood samples 5-times since February!  The thought that all of Kenya is doping is ridiculous and impossible!”

(I tend to agree with this sentiment.  Unfortunately, most American track and field fans believe that Kenya is some kind of gray-zone within the drug testing world, a place where the rules are easily skirted and regulation difficult. This belief is grounded upon the premise that Kenya is a developing nation. Like so many African countries, Kenya has a history of corruption and a large portion of its population lives in abject poverty.  This reality gives rise to a flawed logic, one that equates the dishonesty and desperation of Kenya’s politics and economy with the attitudes of its running culture and athletes. The truth tells a different story. Doping is perceived as a weakness in Kenya. The Kalenjin tribe, which is responsible for producing over two-thirds of Kenya’s athletes, prides itself on a masculine culture emphasizing bravery and honor.  And these are not simply punch-lines thrown around by old men who have had too many drinks. Even today, the tribe practices a rite of passage involving circumcision.  Every Kalenjin boy of 15 years or older must undergo the process if he hopes to become a man.  Many claim it is the most difficult time of their lives.  The process takes months and subjects the boys to all sorts of hardships, with the final stage of the ritual involving the surgical operation of circumcision. As if being conscious for the operation wasn’t enough, the boys are not even allowed to flinch during the procedure.  If they do, they are labeled a coward for the rest of their lives. The conversations I have had with Kenya’s athletes leads me to believe that they look at those who dope with similar disdain.  “They have lost hope”, says some, “They are cowards” says others. Both athletes and non-athletes share this attitude and all firmly believe that using drugs only distracts from a person’s potential. Coach Canova continued to expand upon this concept in our conversation).

“I do not believe that EPO helps these people [Kenyans].  I do not believe EPO can offer any benefit when compared to an athlete who exemplifies the mentality of a champion.” I was puzzled by this statement by Renato, and asked him to elaborate a little.  He was happy to oblige, “Steroids and other drugs of the like, they are different.  They allow the body to do things no amount of training could do.  But EPO is a shortcut drug, for those not willing to do the hard work but want the same benefits.  I have known good athletes that got worse once they starting using EPO.  It diminishes the mental edge.  The problem with so many western athletes is not that they aren’t talented, it is that they let their minds get in the way of their bodies! The first principal I teach my athletes is remove your mind from the training, and just do what your body can do.  THEN you can become world-class. You need to be a little wild to be the best.  The Kenyans are the best at doing this, and that is why they win”.

I had so many more questions for Coach Canova, but our conversation was cut short by his assistant John. Him and the athletes had finished their Chai and were ready to go. Canova said farewell, and shuffled out of the diner with his team. 

Frank and I, still giddy over meeting one of our heroes, decided that we should follow suit and head over to the track meet.  We scarfed down our breakfast, paid the waitress, and began trekking over to Nakuru stadium, which we were told was about 2 kilometers away.  After dodging our way through the throngs of pedestrians, Piggy-Piggies and Matatus, as well as getting lost once, we finally arrived at the stadium.

Actually, Stadium is a strong word; it looked more like a high school track facility one would find in the Inner Cities or Camden.  Crumbling concrete walls about 6 feet high enclosed the facility, with large, poorly painted advertisements featuring Safaricom and Coca-Cola coating most of the sections.  Crowning the top of this wall were broken shards of glass that had been embedded into the cement, a typical Kenyan security measure and a painful reminder of the nation’s troubles with theft and crime.  Inside the wall was the track; a 400 meter dirt circle with white chalk demarcating the lanes.  All around the infield flew banners with the Red and Green logo of “Athletics Kenya” and its new slogan “Say NO to Doping” in big bold letters underneath.  The frankness of the statement made us both laugh, but I couldn’t help but feel distressed by the current state of the sport. The crisis of doping has pervaded every facet of global athletic culture over the past decade, and Kenya, long held as an example of purity, was now also a victim of its corruption.  

Despite the sorry-looking facilities and evidence of doping, the track was abuzz with activity.  Hundreds of spectators lined the chain-link fence and filled the dilapidated wooden bleaches circling the track oval. Almost everyone was Kenyan, with the exception of a few noticeable “mizungus” walking around the infield. I later learned that these men were sports agents representing “Global”, a dutch athletics agency that handled the majority of Kenya’s stars.  They were scouting the races for new and emerging talent, much to Frank’s chagrin.  Coach Canova was off by the backstretch, chatting with a Moroccan athlete who recently ran 8:07 in the steeplechase and was looking to test his fitness against the Kenyans today.  As I snapped a picture of the meeting, a team of Japanese runners, covered head to toe in the latest ASICS gear and all sporting the stereotypical Asian sunglasses, jogged by. “They are going to get destroyed today” Frank predicted, chuckling at the thought of toeing the line with Kenyans this afternoon.         

Thirty minutes later a crowd of women started to congregate around the back turn of the track. The first event was the women’s 10k, which started at a dawdling pace before a threesome of Kenyan women broke away from the field with about 4k to go.  By the time they finished, they had successfully lapped ever other girl in the race.  The lone European athlete, a pretty Bulgarian girl, dropped out at about 7k.  

The meet seemed to drag on slowly throughout the morning hours.  Events like shot put and long-jump and the dash seemed to only interest the crowd when one of the athletes performed exceptionally badly (One sprinter was so far behind during the 100 meter dash that the entire bleacher section was howling with laughter at the poor kid.  It made me wonder if fear of public embarrassment was another reason why the Kenyans ran so well).  But around noon, the racing and excitement began in earnest.

Over the loudspeakers, the race officials announced “First call, Men’s 1500 meters”. Now summoned, masses of Kenyan athletes, all sporting the electric colors of Nike and Adidas kits, made there way to the orange dirt track. The officials lined them up by the 1500 meter start line, but the group was so large that the line of bodies extended all the way past the stadium’s back turn, over 100 meter away.  It was an incredible sight, over 200 of the world’s greatest runners standing side by side, some laughing, some stoic, some stretching and twitching to calm the nerves.  The the entire facility fell into a hushed quiet. Nakuru’s thin air seemed electrified.  Frank and I could barely contain our excitement.  

25 brave souls were positioned along the start-line.  Among them was Bendan Karoki, the Eldoret Cross Country champion and recent winner of the “World’s Best 10k” road race in Puerto Rico. We met by chance three weeks ago inside a McDonald’s at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. I remember him looking like a lost kid within that airport, but now he seemed a man among boys.  But I couldn’t help but wonder why a 10k/half-marathon runner would venture into a 1500 meter race.

“BANG…” The pack sprinted down the backstretch and into the first turn. “Look at them go!” shouted Frank, fumbling with his phone to get their 200 meter split.  Moving into the homestretch the race was already starting to get strung out and I clocked them at 44 seconds through the first 300 meters. “This is going to be a fast race, I think” Frank said grinning. It was. The lead pack hit 400 meters in 60 seconds and did not show any signs of slowing.  Running in third with an Orange Nike top was Karoki, looking more a miler than a road-racer. The long line of athletes cruised their way down the backstretch and through the turn without much drama, kicking up a small cloud of orange dust in their wake. At two laps to go you could see Karoki getting impatient, and after reaching 800 meters in 2:01 he made a surge to the front of the pack and took control of the race with 700 meters remaining.

At first I feared Bendan made his move too early, but by the time he reached the homestretch it was clear that Karoki was the class of the field.  As he raced towards the bell lap, the Kenyans were in a frenzy of excitement, and it was impossible not to get swept up in the emotions. Karoki ran like a man possessed, extending his lead over the next 400 meters and crossing the finish line in a comfortable looking 3:42.  His last lap was 57 seconds.  Not too shabby for a man preparing to run the World Half Marathon Championships the following weekend.

Despite another 6 heats of the 1500 meter race, Karoki’s time remained unbeaten.  Timothy Kitum came the closest, but could only manage a 3:43.89 in Heat 3.  Canova’s 8:07 moroccan steeple chaser was humbled in the 5th heat, running 3:50 to just barely earn third place.  The Kenyan’s loved it though, shouting praises for the “Mizungu” who managed to punch his ticket to Saturday’s final.  

The men’s 5k was the next event.  Frank and I realized that it was impossible to sit in the bleachers amidst such an exciting spectacle, and decided to return to the infield to watch the action unfold.  Once again, an army of athletes assembled along the backstretch of the track.  The 5k start-line extended from the 200-meter mark and across the lanes, so we positioned ourselves just inside the first turn. The white chalk line separating lane one from lane two had disappeared completely at this point, ground down into oblivion by hundreds of spike-clad feet.  Next to us stood a bevy of coaches, including Renato Canova and the aptly named Bulgarian coach “Yolo”. They all had their stop watches in-hand, and the festival once again started with a “Bang”

The first heat of the 5k zoomed around the track and had finished in little over 14 minutes.  The second heat had already started to line-up as the last place athlete finished, and I could tell that the Coaches were excited for this next race.  In it was a legendary cast of characters, including Olympic Bronze medallist Thomas Longosiwa, sub-8 minute Steeplechase runners Paul Koech and Jarius Birech, the fast, 3:30 1500-meter runner Nixon Chepseba, and to my surprise, Bendan Karoki, fresh off his win in the 1500-meter race from 45 minutes earlier.  

Coach Canova strode out to the track to whisper some final words of encouragement to Thomas Longosiwa, sporting a baby-blue Nike running top and matching spikes. I found it curious that the other athletes, many of whom had coaches, crowded around the elderly Italian man, as if his words held some secret spell they could use to propel themselves to victory.  One of those eavesdroppers happened to be Bendan Karoki, and it later became clear that whatever Coach Canova said, he had taken it to heart.

After Renato had retuned to his position alongside Frank and I, the men began to fidget for position along the line. The starter walked out into the center of the turn, a squat older man dressed head-to-toe in Kenyan national gear.  He was affectionately called coach, “Warm-up”.

“Warm-up” was laughing with some of the other officials in the middle of the track, clearly enjoying making this field of olympians wait for his command.  The air once again became charged, a side-effect of thousands of people waiting intently for the start of something incredible to happen.  “On your marks!!” Cried Coach Warm-up in his distinct african voice. As he raised his pistol, the 50 competitors slowly leaned forward, toeing the line and jostling for position… “BANG!” Once again, the athletes tore around the track in a blur of color and dust.  The first 200 meters of the 5k went by just as quickly as the 1500’s, but soon the pace settled with the favorites all packed up towards the front.  Longosiwa, Birech, and Chepseba alternated leading during the first 3k, but with about a mile remaining, Bendan Karoki powered to the front and never looked back.  He covered the last 1200 meters of the race in sub-4 minute pace, crossing the finish line in an impressive 13:38.  The next closest competitor was over ten seconds behind.

Frank and I were stunned.  Karoki had just crushed some of the best athletes on the globe, and he did it twice in under an hour. “I think he is the favorite for the World Half Marathon this next weekend, yes?” Frank declared.  Coach Canova turned and nodded in agreement, “He is in the best form of anyone [in kenya] right now.  He is the clear favorite.  Now, if he was my athlete I would not have had him race 1500 and 5k eight days before… but he is still the favorite.”

We stayed and watched the following three heats of the 5k, but nothing came close to the performance delivered by Karoki. I did, however, spot one Kenyan man struggling to keep up with the lead pack in Heat 4. He was clearly in a lot of pain, with his face contorted and his red track singlet drenched in sweat, but that’s not what caught myattention. This man, running easily under sub-15 minute 5k pace had to be at least 60 years old. It was simply astonishing. Unfortunately, when I turned to grab my camera I lost sight of him, and when he didn’t come back around the following lap I had to assume that he dropped out. I didn’t see him for the rest of the meet, but he served as a reminder of what Toby Tanser said regarding Kenyan runners, “They run for as long as they can. Age and results are just numbers to these men and women. If they believe they are runners, that is what they will do until they can do it no more.”

The memory of that old man stayed with me throughout the remainder of the day. Even watching Asbel Kiprop cruise to victory in the 800 meter race could not distract me from the implications of what I witnessed. I can understand why the young Kenyan men and women tried their luck at this athletics carnival. Clearly they had the opportunity of attracting the attention of agents, or coaches, or journalists like myself.  I could even understand why professionals like Kiprop or Karoki would throw their hat in a race without prize money. At least it offered good competition close to home and therefore didn’t interrupt their training. But this old man was different. There was no obvious reason for him to compete, no end-game I could fathom.  Something about his fearlessness to run among men 40 years younger made me wonder if that kind of mentality could help explain how an individual can reach such extraordinary levels of physical performance. Or perhaps it was true what Renato said in the diner that day, that you have to get around your mind and let your body do what it is capable of doing. You have to be a little wild. That also takes a certain level of courage. Perhaps, more than any other factor, it is what makes a person a Kenyan.                                             

The Theory behind the Champion

An update on what to expect:

Karibu Sana!  Welcome to the Enculturated Champion project.  My name is Andrew Arnold, an athlete turned anthropologist, and the principal investigator of this research grant.  Two weeks ago I set off to Iten, Kenya on a six month expedition in search for answers to a question that we have all asked ourselves at one time or another: What makes a person great?

It’s a question that’s not easily answered, especially given how elusive and subjective greatness can be.  We all recognize it when we see it, but even then we disagree about what exactly it is that we’ve seen. When analyzing great men (and women) Aristotle spoke about something loosely translated to “magnificence”, German philosopher Max Weber labelled it “charisma”, but today we simply call it success.  And humanity is enamored by success.  Just look at all the kids wearing Steph Curry jerseys, or Adele’s sold-out world tour, or the million-plus Ted Talk views and you’ll know that people will spend their time and money to experience, honor and learn from individuals who exhibit something “exceptional”.

The nature of that “exception” is a fascinating concept, but the process by which an individual becomes exceptional is the focus of this project.  As an anthropologist, I am inclined to believe that culture plays a pivotal role in forming an exceptional person. But you don’t need an anthropology degree to know that a person cannot become great all on their own steam.  As John Donne so eloquently put it 500 years ago, “no man is an island”, and a good many athletes, billionaires and celebrities (if they have even an ounce of humility) will attest to that fact.

The truth is that our lives are the result of a strange relationship between culture and our choices, a debate that Anthropology frames with the terms “structure” and “agency”.  While it is tempting to pick a side in this classic “nature versus nurture” argument, the reality is that we become individuals because of both poles, through a dialectical interplay of forces within and without ourselves.  People cannot choose their heredity, or their parents, or their place of birth, and so many of our earliest experiences and limitations are already set in stone before we can even think about it.  That is structure.  But as we grow up, our choices become increasingly more important and powerful.  We choose our friends and our studies and our activities and our lovers, and these choices lead to experiences and careers and families.  That is agency.  And while it is clear that these two realties are always occurring and effecting the course of our lives, what is less obvious is the amount of say we have in picking a direction. 

French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu unpacked this ambiguity beautifully when he outlined a “Theory of Practice” and introduced the concept of “habitus”.  Bourdieu’s compatriot, Michel Foucault, took that notion further with his theory regarding “discipline”.  But frankly, I find both of these concepts to be slightly pessimistic.  They help to explain social hierarchies, inequalities, and why people are where they are in society, but they fail to explain how some rare individuals transcend agency and structure’s perpetual tug-of-war.  It seems to me that certain people are able to focus their thoughts and orient their actions over time in such a way that produces a future envied and altogether different from their peers. We see it time and time again; men and women who believe in a distant hope, and because of an unflinching faith are able to sacrifice and persevere to the point where their dream becomes reality.  It’s as if they have the ability to perceive our world through a different lens, so that “structure and agency” instead become “providence and purpose”.  This change in perspective inevitably leads to a change in the patterns of actions, and I call this unique process “ritual”.

You are probably sitting there thinking, “What on earth does all this have to do with Kenyan runners?!”  As a matter of fact, it has everything to do with Kenyan runners.  If you are looking for an example of how individuals transcend the oppressive structures of their lives and use what little agency they have to produce incredible results, look no further than Western Kenya.  This small pocket of East Africa is home to the greatest concentration of athletic talent to be found anywhere in the world. Kenyan runners have won races and rewritten the record books with such frequency and ferocity that they’ve become a stereotype.  Today, regardless if the race is 800 meters or the marathon, most athletes resign themselves to second place upon seeing a Kenyan toe the line… such is level of their dominance.  

And yet the Kenyan domination of distance running has manifested itself against a backdrop of poverty, political corruption, and lack of education. Most of Kenya’s Olympic stars began their journeys as some of the poorest and most neglected members of their society.  Few could read, even fewer had any money, and fewer still had a pair of shoes. Fate dealt them all a hand that should have reduced the Kenyan running phenomenon to a mere fantasy.  But history tells us a different story.

This project will unpack that story and understand these athletes from a perspective that I has never been forwarded before.  Most journalists and track fans come to Western Kenya searching for a “secret” to explain the running success.  Even more tend to think that Kenya’s athletic prowess can be explained away with just a word.  And there are good reasons for why these people think the way they do. Environment, heredity, and global economic disparities clearly have a role in producing this phenomenon.  But as I mentioned earlier, that only gets us halfway to the finish line.  To turn an individual into a champion takes more than just the right setting, it takes a mindset and a process; a faith and a ritual… 

I encourage you to follow this ethnographic research as it unfolds over the course of the next six months.  Since I will be training with these Olympic athletes as they prepare for Rio, my field work should offer you an unprecedented look at the culture and mentality involving the Kenyan athlete.  I will be posting interviews, field notes, photos, and videos (when the internet allows for it!) in an interactive way so that you can make your own impressions of the Kenyan distance running phenomenon.  Below you will find some notations to be on the lookout for:

  • FN - Field Notes: Journal entries outlining my field work, training and experiences in Kenya

  • KDRP - Kenyan Distance Running Phenomena: Conversations and insights from Kenya’s top athletes, coaches and agents     

  • HAC - High Altitude Conversations: Kenya is home to not only the world’s best runners, but is also the preferred training grounds of athletes from all over the globe.  These segments will feature my interactions with these international athletes, and their take on Kenya’s running success.     

An Outline of My Project, beginning March 1st...

All research projects that seek to unpack a phenomenon begin with a question.  My case study began with the question as to why Kenyans are the best distance runners in the world.  Beginning in 1964 with Wilson Kiprugut’s gold medal win for Kenya over the 800 meters distance at the Tokyo Olympics, elite athletes have emerged from this nation of 50 million people with such frequency that both fans of the sport and scientists of a variety of disciplines have begun to wonder how this unprecedented manifestation of athletic prowess is possible. 

Part of the reason that this Kenyan phenomenon draws attention to itself is due to the nature of the sport it operates within.  Athletics, or Track and Field as it is known in North America, is a sport that celebrates measurement, and by consequence, allows for comparison.  Born out of the enlightenment’s obsession with quantification, modern Athletics measures a human being’s physical potential in the controlled environment of a marked course or track oval, contrasting athletic performance against both time and space, as well as other competitors.  The stopwatch or measuring tape transforms every race, every jump and every throw into a tangible performance, one that can be compared to other performances both past and present.  Ask any athlete about their “personal record” and they will quickly respond with a figure that is accurate to the millimeter or the hundredths of a second.  Track and field makes it painfully clear how well an athlete competes, the level of improvement an athlete makes, and obviously which athlete is the best.

In addition to being statistical by nature, Athletics is also a global sport, and represents the largest denomination of the Olympic disciplines.  With over 213 nations now participating in Athletics, it boasts a universality that is unrivaled by other sports or disciplines.  In effect, Athletics would seem to be an equalizing sport, one in which human beings from far flung continents and countries, of different ages and experiences, speaking different languages of different cultures, can each compete on equal footing with nothing more than their god-given bodies and the promise of glory.  And yet, as global and ubiquitous as Athletics has become, a sport of worldwide participation, the elite athletic performances tend to coalesce within specific ethnicities and around certain geographical regions of our planet.

It may seem odd for a sport that celebrates individual achievement to become the exclusive domain of a specific population, but if history is any indicator, it reveals that is exactly what has occurred to distance running over the past 50 years.  Prior to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the world record in the marathon stood at 2 hours and 15 minutes.  Today, that record is owned by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who ran 26.2 miles in a time of 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds.  Kimetto is by no means an outlier either, of the top 10 fastest times ever run in the marathon, eight of these spots are currently held by Kenyans.  In fact Kenyans are responsible for over half of the best times ever run in the Olympic distance events, and since gaining its independence, Kenya has been near the top of the medal table in every International Track and Field competition it has participated in.  This concentration of athletic dominance is unprecedented and begs the question as to what makes Kenyan runners superior to the rest of the world.

Questions that beg for answers are bound to find some explanations, and as of yet I am unsatisfied with the current trend of assumptions.  At best, these assumptions claim that Kenyans have adapted to their high altitude homeland in a way that predisposes them to becoming great runners, an example of “environmental determinism”.  At worst, these assumptions make ignorant claims that reduce the incredible athletic feats and dedication of these Kenyan men and women to nothing more than a random genetic code, as if natural selection decided to produce Olympic gold medals.  My studies and experiences have led me to a different conclusion; one that requires a holistic perspective that takes into account not only biology and geography, but also history, culture and most importantly, practice.

To date, few of the studies on sport have effectively combined the anthropological perspective with practical experience.  Notable exceptions include John Bale’s Kenyan Running and Imagined Olympians and Loic Wacquant’s Body and Soul.  These studies were exceptional in taking sports and their distinct internal cultures and unpacking them in a way that offers insight into our world’s more general social milieus.  These studies have also laid the foundation for understanding sport holistically and as an example of “practice theory”, especially when viewing training as a kind of “habitus".

I have designed my project to be akin to these aforementioned exceptions, with an objective that aims to reveal how the unique training culture of Kenya is not only the primary factor for this nation’s concentration of Olympic caliber athletes, but also a fine example of how training can act as a cultural habitus, one that can act as a nexus between a nation’s identity, a region’s economy, and an individual’s biology.  Practice and training are the keys to success in any sport, but combine these athletic principles with Kenya’s unique environment and economy, as well as its rich history and culture, and the combination yields the most profound emergence of athletic talent seen on this planet.  My background in academics as well as writing a thesis for the Cornell Anthropology department on this subject, coupled with my experience as an elite distance runner, has given me a unique lens to view this athletic phenomenon blossoming atop the sides of the Great Rift Valley. 

I believe that the key to understanding this Kenyan athletic phenomenon begins with understanding what lies at the heart of athletic performance, and that is practice.  My project would take me to the epicenter of Kenya’s training grounds, Iten, where I plan on participating with and observing these athletes and their athletic networks both as an runner and as an academic.  The High Altitude Training Center (HATC), founded by Olympian Lornah Kiplagat, has agreed to assist me in this project, and will serve as a headquarters from which I will gain access into this training culture by running with, interviewing, and studying the various training groups that exist around it.  By contrasting the Kenyan training culture with my own experiences in the elite American running culture, I plan to demonstrate how Kenyan training is unique, and in many ways, superior to its western counterpart.

At its most basic level, understanding Kenyan running involves understanding the runners themselves and the early stages of my project will focus on developing relationships and gathering testimonies from both amateur and professional Kenyan athletes.  I am fortunate that Peter Rono, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist and UN ambassador for Kenyan Sport, and Professor Mike Boit of Kenyatta University, also a former Olympian, have agreed to provide me with numerous contacts and introductions to the Rift Valley Provinces’ top athletes and coaches.  I plan on utilizing these networks as a means of gathering exemplary biographies that can help cast a more defined impression as to how a Kenyan youth grows as a runner, for instance: begins training, finds a training group, gets exposed to a coach or agent or university, earns scholarships, sponsorships and race invitations, and ultimately becomes a professional athlete.  I am also interested in the role that these professional athletes play in perpetuating this cycle of athletic production, for many of the elite Kenyan runners, (even after earning a fortune from international racing), return to their childhood homes after their running careers have ended.

After creating relationships with these runners by participating in their training and culture, the next stage of my project involves studying the systems that support this Kenyan training culture.  Some of these systems are social, such as friendships formed between elite athletes and aspiring youngsters, foreign coaches/agents and local athletes, as well as families that help bolster the dreams of their talented offspring.  Others are more institutional, and include high schools as well as government organizations, like Iten’s famed St. Patrick’s High School or the Rift Valley Province’s police and armed forces.  All of these institutions have produced former Olympic champions and continue to churn out elite athletes with Olympic dreams.  By understanding the history of these institutions and their relationship with Athletics, I hope to connect the personal experiences of these athletes with the more reified systems that support their training and progress in the sport.  This connection can help demonstrate how training and its relationship with the individual athlete acts as a kind of anchoring point that can manifest social systems and structures. 

Taken a step further, this interplay of training culture with governing bodies leads to the final stage of my project, which unpacks the convoluted relationship between bureaucracies and individual athletes.  I plan on interviewing members of Athletics Kenya (AK), the nation’s governing body over the sport, as well statesmen in order to gain a better understanding of the role government plays in shaping the grassroots training culture of the Rift Valley Province.  The timing of my project also helps in understanding the relationship this governing body has with the individual athletes, since I will be able to observe the selection process of the Kenyan Athletic team in Nairobi for the 2016 Olympic games.  I will also be able to witness the celebration that follows these athletes as they return home from Rio, with what I expect to be many pieces of precious metal and a fresh cause for this training culture to gain more converts.

At the conclusion of my project, I hope to have gathered the necessary ethnographic material to make the case that training and practice act as form of ritual, a reification of culture that magnifies culture’s effect on the individual, and has the potential to shape our potential in ways that are equally as powerful as our genomes.  I find this argument to be one of hope, for imbedded in this philosophy is a truth that we all have the ability to accomplish the incredible, it just takes hard work and unflinching belief.  The Kenyans are living proof of this truth, and if my anthropological argument fails to inspire people to run for their dreams, then the story of these Rift Valley alchemists certainly will.