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.