A Letsrun.com Exclusive: A Training Week with Coach Canova
There are all sorts of genius in this world. We may define it in different ways, like Mensa with IQ scores or Howard Gardner’s Frames of the Mind, but there’s no question that exceptional individuals can be found in every walk of life, and when we encounter them we take pause. Perhaps this was best describe by Matt Damon in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting”,
Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn't paint you a picture, I probably can't hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can't play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that... I could always just play.
After spending this past week in Kenya observing workouts orchestrated by Renato Canova, I can tell you that the man can just Coach.
Mr. Canova is a genius, and his passion is Track and Field. His background in Athletics began as a child living in Turin, Italy, where he took an unique approach to becoming a student of the sport. Rather than specializing in one discipline, Mr. Canova embraced them all, successfully competing in every single event offered by the track and field catalog. How often does a hammer-thrower also attempt a marathon? Not surprisingly, his speciality became the decathlon. His personal best in the the event was 5,966 points, an achievement that nearly qualified him for the Italian national team in the early sixties. Renato always dreamed of representing his country in international competition, and probably would have made that jump were it not for a peculiar conflict of interests. Just as he was peaking as a decathlete, Mr. Canova was also discovering that he had a gift for coaching. By the end of the decade, five national-calibre athletes called him “Coach”, which prompted the Italian Athletic Federation to force him to abandon his quest as a decathlete. At that time it was against the rules for an athlete attempting to join the national team to also be one of its coaches. The prohibition was a devastating blow for the young Canova, but if history is any indicator, it also allowed him to fulfill a far greater purpose.
Today, Coach Canova has made endurance running his area of expertise and Iten, Kenya his home. He arrived in the heartland of distance running back in 1998, and has since built a legacy as one of the world’s greatest middle and long distance running coaches. His athletes have ranged from steeple-chase world record holder Saaeed Saheen, 2:03 marathoner Moses Mosop, and woman’s half-marathon world record holder Florence Kiplagat. He is directly responsible for coaching 42 athletes to world championship medals, and has even served as the national team coach for Italy, Qatar and China. In many ways, Coach Canova has reshaped the global system of athletics, and at the sprightly age of 71, will continue to do so.
Over the past week, Coach Canova was gracious enough to allow me to accompany him and his team and observe three distinct track workouts with three of the world’s best athletes in their respective disciplines. The first workout was with world record holder Florence Kiplagat, who is preparing to compete at the upcoming London Marathon. The second workout allowed me to witness Olympic Bronze medalist Thomas Longosiwa and his build-up for the Shanghai Diamond league meeting. Last, but certainly not least, I joined Jairus Birech and company for an absolutely tremendous steeple-chase workout at Lornah Kiplagat’s newly built tartan-surface track in Iten. All three athletes looked exceptional during these training sessions, and allowed me to understand the unique relationship between the world’s best athletes and one of the world’s greatest coaches:
Florence Kiplagat and her 17k Training Session:
The first workout that I witnessed was with the Woman’s Half-Marathon World record holder Florence Kiplagat. Coach Canova explained to me beforehand that she was not in the same form as last year, largely because of an injury, a strange stress reaction, that had interrupted her training this past winter. However, Florence has been quick to recover, as demonstrated February 14th in Barcelona, where she destroyed the field and clocked a 1 hour, 9 minute and 19 second winning time. 1:09 is a far cry from 1:05, but both Florence and Renato are optimistic that her world record shape is within reach. Assuming the unthinkable does not happen and Kenya participates at this year’s Olympics, Florence has her heart set on representing the nation in the marathon. With the Virgin London Marathon fast approaching, this workout was another stepping stone for getting her that much closer to Rio.
The chosen place of the workout was Moi University’s track facility, about an hour drive from Iten. Coach Canova usually makes his athletes workout at Kamariny stadium in Iten, but for this effort he wanted to make certain that the track was clear for Florence. Kamariny can sometimes swell to over 200 athletes during the cooler morning hours, and with 17,000 meters of work ahead of her, Renato thought it best to find a more private location.
We left Iten at 6:00AM, before the sun had risen. Inside Renato’s all-white Nissan mini-van were Florence, the pacemakers Ezekiel and Issac, myself, and Coach Canova. I have to admit that it was impressive watching the 71-year old Coach navigate the terrible Kenyan roads and traffic flawlessly and quickly while driving a stick-shift van. There is no question that the man is Italian.
We arrived at the gates of Moi University around 7AM, gave the guards our passports (standard procedure for visitors) and parked the van by the finishing line of Moi’s dirt track oval. Only one other runner was using the facility when we arrived, granting Renato his wish for a near-private training session.
After climbing out of the car, Florence and her male pacemakers set their belongings down on the dilapidated wooden bench marking the start line. The three athletes had brought their spikes, as well as gel-packets and protein shakes for refueling during and after the workout. Florence and her pacing team then began a short warm-up around the facility. The sun was low in the eastern sky and there was a slight chill to the air; perfect conditions for a distance workout. Coach Canova seemed energized by the brisk morning and used the warm-up as an opportunity to explain to me the workout.
Pulling out a printed paper with the training schedule, he explained “Normally we would have done 20K worth of work, but she is not quite where she was last year. So today it is 17,000 meter worth of training. 2x3000 meters in 9:50 each, followed by 3X2000 meters in 6:28 each. Then she will do 5x1000 meters in 3:08 each. However, we will include variation to simulate the surges of pace that happen within the marathon.”
When I asked about rest, Renato responded, “Three minutes for the 3k and 2k repetitions, and two minutes for the 1k repetitions.” It was going to be a tough day for Florence.
After about 15 minutes of light jogging, Florence and her workout team returned to the wooden bench and started preparing for the workout. They stripped down out of their heavy track suits, and began their strides in racing tops and compression shorts. Both men were wearing Adidas gear, while Florence was decked out head-to-toe in Nike racing apparel.
Coach Canova called them together and explained the workout, handing the print-out to Florence. Taking out his stop-watch, Renato stood in what would be lane three and ordered the runners to take their mark. “9:50 for the first 3k, ok, 78 pace!”
The group lined up, Issac in the lead, followed by Florence and then Ezekiel. Hands on the watches, the line of athletes slowly inched up to the starting line and then took off together around curve. Coach Canova started his watch once they passed the Wooden bench, and the workout was underway.
Florence looked strong throughout the training session. Her stride was powerful and matched the frequency of both men that took turns pacing her throughout the morning. Her times for each repetition are below:
1st rep - 3k = 9:47
2nd - 2k = 6:23
3rd - 3k = 9:46
4th - 2k = 6:26
5th - 1k = 3:07
6th - 2k = 6:26
7th - 1k = 3:05
8th - 1k = 3:09
9th - 1k = 3:09
10th - 1k = 3:07
After the workout, Coach Canova seemed pleased by the effort. “This is Florence’s best workout of the season, her growth has been very quick. It shows that she will be ready for London.”
Florence, on the other hand, seemed slightly disappointed, “It was very difficult. I am not where I was last year. But today gave me hope, and I know I will be ready by the time of London [Marathon]”
I can’t imagine being disappointed after running 17,000 meters at 2:14 marathon pace (at 7,000 feet of altitude), but I suppose that’s why Florence is the World Record holder and I’m not. She is a competitor, and her fierce focus following the workout leads me to believe that she will be a force to be reckoned with on April 24th.
A telling moment happened as we were collecting our belongings and preparing to return to Iten. The lone athlete that was using the track when we arrived walked up and started talking to Coach Canova. The athlete’s name was Paul, a young man, maybe early 20’s, dressed in a stained, blue tee-shirt with old running shorts and a ratty pair of trainers. His outfit told me that he was unsigned, and watching his running form earlier clearly showed that he was an amateur. He was explaining to Coach Canova how he was an 800-meter runner, and that he wanted to become a professional. I half-expected Renato to simply ignore him, after all, he was already busy coaching the world’s best runners. But to my surprise, Coach Canova was more than gracious to the young man. He spent at least 10 minutes asking him questions about his training and recent performances. He then took the time to explain how he should train for the 800-meters, and even encouraged him to move up to the 1500-meter race. When Paul (who had a average PR of 1:56, I later came to discover) asked if he could join Renato’s training group, the elderly coach did not laugh or belittle him, but kindly explained to him how he was not yet ready for that level of training. Instead, he took his number and said that he would follow his results at the local races this upcoming season.
I was shocked by Coach Canova’s patience and willingness to encourage Paul. When I asked him why he gave the kid the time of day, he simply replied with a wry smile, “Because you never know what the future holds.”
Thomas Longosiwa and why “you never chase away a champion”
Later that afternoon, I drove down to Kamariny track with Renato to watch his second workout of the day. This training session featured his elite 5,000 meter group, lead by Olympic Bronze medalist and 12:49 man, Thomas Longosiwa.
The drive from Kerio View to Kamariny’s dirt track is very short, only about 2.5 kilometers down a rocky, uneven, red clay road. When we arrived at the stadium, his 5,000 meter group was just finishing their warm-up. On the finishing straight, the men were being given instructions by Coach Canova’s assistant, John Litei. John was an athlete of Canova’s back in the mid-2000’s, when he was a talented long-sprinter and middle distance runner (he has PR’s of 1:44.87 in the 800m and 45.1 in the 400m). His highest finish in global competition came at the 2006 Commonwealth games, where he earned a bronze medal in the 800 meter race. Unfortunately, a nagging injury crippled John’s career, so he took up coaching instead. He is well-liked by all of Canova’s athletes, and is eager to learn from his iconic mentor.
I set up my camera just inside the first turn, and watched as both John and Renato gave the group their instructions for the day. The pack of athletes numbered about 8 men, all dressed in brightly colored singlets sporting the logo’s of Adidas and Nike. Thomas was wearing a bight yellow Adidas racing top with black Adidas shorts. Next to him stood 13:04 and 59:55 man, Vincent Yator, dressed in a purple Nike tee. After getting their instructions, the athletes took off down the finishing stretch to get in their last few strides before starting what was sure to be a tortuous body of work.
After giving their instructions, Renato and John walked over and once again allowed me to glance over the training schedule for the day. The 5-kilometer group had a similar workout as Florence, just faster and with less volume. Renato wanted the men to start with a 3,000 meter repetition in 8:55, then 2 times 2000 meters at the same pace, followed by 5 times 1,000 meters in 2:53. The rest would be 3 minutes after the 3k rep, and then 2 minutes thereafter. The total volume for the day was 12 kilometers.
I asked Coach if the workout would include pace variations, but he just shook his head, “For 5,000 meters, variation of pace is not as important as the marathon. I want these men to get into a rhythm for this workout.”
Pointing to Thomas and Vincent, Coach Canova claimed, “These are the two strongest in the group today. Ronald [Kwemoi] is in Japan, so these two should lead for most of the workout* [Editors note, last article I mentioned that Coach Canova thought Kwemoi could break the 800 or 1500 meter record. That was incorrect. Coach Canova believes that Ronald has the ability and focus to break the 1500 or 5,000 meter record. He was quick to correct me at this workout].
Sure enough, Thomas and Vincent went to the front to start the first repetition, and stayed there throughout the workout. Their finishing times for each repetition are as follows:
1st Rep - 3k = 8:42
2nd - 2k = 5:47
3rd - 2k = 5:45
4th - 1k = 2:51
5th - 1k = 2:50
6th - 1k = 2:47
7th - 1k = 2:48
8th - 1k = 2:46
Thomas looked fantastic throughout the workout. His stride was powerful and yet efficient, never showing any signs of fatigue. At one point during the 1,000 meter repeats, Renato turned to me and said, “He’s aggressive in training, no?”. Aggressive is the proper word to describe Longosiwa. His last rep was especially fun to watch, for the pace was slow for the first 600 meters, until Thomas surged to the front to finish in the fastest time of the day. Vincent was not far behind, and helped Thomas throughout the session by alternating the pacing duties. The hot temperatures (80-degrees Fahrenheit), high altitude, and difficult running surface of Kamariny (lane one is simply a rut in the ground that severely handicaps your stride) made this workout even more impressive than the paces suggest.
But the unsung hero of the day’s workout was neither Thomas or Vincent, but a surprise visitor. As the training session unfolded, the Canova group gradually strung out, until only Thomas, Vincent and a young man wearing an all gray racing outfit remained in the lead. He looked strong, matching Thomas and Vincent stride for stride. I was curious why Renato did not mention him before. But when I asked him for the young man’s name, he just shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know, I have never seen him until today.” I must have looked incredulous because assistant Coach John chimed in, “He is Vincent’s friend. Vincent runs with him on his easy days and noticed that he was a strong athlete. He invited him to the workout today.”
I explained to both coaches that it would be extremely rare in the United States for even a University team to allow a stranger, a “walk-on”, into their practice… let alone a world class training group like Renato’s. When I said this, both Coach’s just laughed, as if it was ridiculous.
“We welcome runners like him.” said Coach John, “Why would we chase away a champion? He may go on to win a Gold medal, and then what? He will say ‘You chased me away’”. Coach Canova chuckled in agreement, saying “Many coaches do not understand what they are doing in the U.S.” Let that be a lesson to all you college coaches who deny walk-ons from joining your roster. You may be chasing away the future of your program.
Jairus Birech, the steeple-chase crew, and a prophetic 1-2
Later that week, Coach Canova once again invited me to witness a hard steeple-chase session he was designing for 7:58 man, Jairus Birech. The workout was to take place at Lornah Kiplagat’s recently built Mondo-surface track, about 4-kilometers from the center of Iten. The track facility is part of a larger vision of Lornah’s, which is to build a sports academy for high-school age girls in Kenya. This academy would combine school and athletics in revolutionary way in Kenya, and the idea has attracted sponsors such as the Virgin London Marathon.
For now, only the track is finished, and Renato and his training group are given exclusive access it its facility. It was 5pm at the time of the training session. The sun was slowly dropping in the western sky, sending long shadows across the track and bringing the temperature down with it. Scattered around what would be the high jump area, were the brave men willing to test themselves against Coach Canova’s imagination. The leader of the group was Jairus, sporting a light blue Nike singlet with gold accents. Spiking up next to him was Clement Kemboi Kimutai, who had run 8:12 in the steeplechase last July. The two “Mzungu’s” joining the fray were Moroccan Brahim Taleb and Bulgarian Mitko Tsenov. Taleb has a PR of 8:07 in the chase from back in 2007, but after a series of injuries has not yet been able to recapture that form. However, Canova has high hopes for the Moroccan, and says that this year, “Is the most focused he has ever been. He has the potential to run 8:05”
Whereas Taleb is in the twilight of his career, Mitko is just getting started. The talented Bulgarian broke his nation’s national record in 2014, and won the European Under-23 steeplechase with a time of 8:20 last year. Canova says he is a great talent, but the 22-year old would need to have the workout of his life to hang with veterans of this calibre.
Opening his red notebook, Renato showed me the schedule for the day: 2 x1600 meter over barriers (no water jump) at 65 seconds per lap. “4:20 pace. Wow… that’s fast” I remarked, and Canova agreed, “You see, Jairus has great strength, but his ability to change gears quickly is not the best. He is similar to the American Evan Jager. That is why at this past world championships neither of them had a great performance. In a tactical race, no one can beat [Ezekiel] Kemboi. He is too efficient at changing gears and has the best kick. That is why we must train for a fast race. It will give Jairus the best chance at winning.”
Turning to face his athletes, Canova announced, “Hurry now, while there is still sunlight! We do 1600 meters over barriers, 65 seconds per lap. Clement you lead the first 800 meter, Jairus you can take over after two laps if the pace slows.”
Finally summoned, the men took their positions on the start line. Clement was in the first position, followed by Mitko, Jairus, and Brahim. Canova stood by the start line with his stopwatch in hand. In unison, the men slowly jogged toward Canova, before taking off right before the line. All four men cleared the first barrier with ease, but Mitko stood apart as the one with the best hurdle form. Their order remained the same until the last lap, at which point Jairus took over, pushing the pace slightly to finish in 4:20 flat. The rest of the group finished in tow, with everyone running under 4:22 for the first repetition.
“Eight minutes rest and then we begin again. Now we shall see who has the endurance” Coach Canova announced, with a grin.
Eight minutes later, the steeplechasers line up again, this time with Mitko at the lead. Once again the pack tears into the first turn, running 65 seconds for the first lap. But like Renato predicted, the workout begins to take its toll on the athletes. Mitko runs the second lap in 67 seconds, prompting Brahim, Jairus and Clement to pass him on the turn. 200 meters later, Mitko has dropped out, leaving only Brahim, Jairus and Clement for the last 600 meters. They hit 1200 meters together in 3:17, but the effort proves too much for Brahim and he too drops out 20 meters later. That left only Birech and Kimutai for the final lap. With 200 to go, Jairus launched into a furious kick that left Clement struggling to keep pace. Birech finished in 4:20-flat once again, thanks to a 63-second last lap. Clement staggered across the line a few seconds later, the only other athlete to survive the day.
It was an incredible effort at altitude, and left me wondering whether Birech was the man to beat in Rio. While he was spiking down, I congratulated him on the day’s work. He thanked me, and as we talked more, I confessed, “You know Jairus, I’m torn. I want to route for you, but being an American, I feel like I have to support Evan Jager.”
Birech just laughed, “That’s ok, me and Evan are friends.” Then, echoing his Coach’s words, he declared, “I will tell you now, we [Jager and Jairus] will go 1-2 at the Olympics this year. Kemboi knows how to run a slow race… we will not let that happen.”
It was a prophetic statement, and as we piled back into Coach Canova’s van and started the short drive back to camp, I was left to wonder which of the two would win Gold...