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).
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…