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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…