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The final stage of a series of races organized by Athletics Kenya took place in Eldoret this past weekend. I had been looking forward to covering this three-day competition all week long, for it was the main topic of conversation around Iten. From the dining tables of Kerio View to the backseat of Matatus, the gossip surrounding these races was palpable, and the talk created by both Iten’s athletes and laypeople gave me a good idea of what to expect Thursday, Friday and Saturday within the hallowed walls of Kipchoge Stadium.
Rumor had it that Olympic Champion Asbel Kiprop was planning to make an appearance, as well as his World Champion compatriots Nicholas Bett and Julius Yego. Earlier in the week, Coach Canova confirmed that his athletes would be competing at a variety of distances, using this track meeting as a final tune-up before departing for international competition next month. Kenya’s “Daily Nation” reported that David Rudisha would be gracing Kipchoge stadium in the 400-meter dash, and coach John Littei also claimed that his fellow tribesman and “other” Masai phenom, World Championship silver medalist Elijah Manangoi, would be making his track debut this weekend. But probably the most significant aspect of this final AK track meeting was its location. There is a reason why Eldoret is referred to as the “City of Champions”, because it is the nearest metropolitan center to the majority of western Kenya’s athletic hotspots. All across these rolling rural hills, thousands of aspiring amateur athletes carve out their destinies each and every day within the punishing ritual of training. They spend countless miles preparing for opportunities like the one afforded by this weekend, and there was no question that the clash between Kenya’s elite and emerging would be a spectacle of olympic proportions.
The only piece of information that remained in doubt right up until the night before the preliminary rounds was the competition program. Much to the annoyance of Coach Canova and Iten’s professional athletes, Athletics Kenya decided to leave the question of scheduling unsettled until the last minute (10PM Wednesday evening to be exact). But that typical Kenyan procrastination did not stop the country's athletes from arriving in droves Thursday morning. Just as in Nakuru, this local meet attracted an assembly of athletic talent rivaled only by Diamond League meetings and Olympic venues. The sheer volume of runners was staggering, as was the fan turnout, and together the athletes and audience made for an exciting three days of racing.
DAY 1: The Thursday Prelims and Why Running Fast > Winning
I was told by both athletes and coaches that it was unlikely Kenya’s elite runners would compete at Saturday’s finals. Three straight days of racing in April, coupled with the fact that victory nets an athlete only 5,000 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $50), gave Kenya’s sponsored men and women little incentive to see the meet to its end. However, Saturday’s loss was Thursday’s gain, for the elite competitors treated the preliminary rounds as if they were a championship unto itself.
The competitions began around 10AM Thursday morning after suffering a two-hour delay on account of Athletics Kenya’s last minute preparations. (In fact, it was Coach Canova that had to unlock Kipchoge stadium earlier that morning, for the AK officials had yet to arrive) The men’s 400-meter hurdles and women’s 5,000 meters race were the unfortunate casualties this disorganization, and had to be rescheduled for the following day. But despite the slow start, the racing began in earnest with the men’s 5,000 meter competition:
There were four heats of the men’s 5k, with each heat forming a field that exceeded 30 competitors. Sprinkled among these miniature road races were some of Kenya’s finest distance athletes. The first heat featured sub 3:30 man, Nixon Kiplimo Chepseba, who won with a lethal kick over the final lap to finish in a time 14 minutes and 29 seconds. The second heat was a less tactical affair and was won by a resurgent Emmanual Kipsang in 13:56. Kipsang had been frequenting Renato’s training sessions over the past few weeks, and despite his good form in practice, it was yet unclear as to whether the man was simply a fine workout member or a serious competitor. His victory over thirty of Kenya’s top runners certainly points to the latter.
The third heat of the 5k was the most entertaining to watch, for it featured a familiar field. Tucked away within the ranks of athletes were two of the world’s best steeplechasers, Jairus Birech and Conselus Kipruto. Standing not too far away from these legends of the chase was a man who hopes to one day join them, European youth champion Mitko Tsenov. The three steeplechasers took their marks amidst the gigantic field of runners, and following the loud “BANG” of the starter’s gun, were swept away by a frenzied pace. The first three laps were each run under 65 seconds, and the field quickly strung out. After about 2k, Mitko had enough of the mad dash and dropped out. One thousand meters later, to my surprise, he was followed by Jairus. I must have looked concerned for Birech, because Coach Canova turned to me and explained, “Jairus is fine. He wanted to use this race as a warm-up for the 1500 meters.” It was a lesson in humility for me, for that meant Jairus just finished his 3000 meter “warm-up” in 8 minutes and 17 seconds… a mere 8 seconds off my PR in the 3k. There is a reason why the man is eyeing the world record in Rome this summer.
Conselus Kipruto went on to win the 5k in 13:47, the fastest time of the day. His victory was sealed by a tremendous kick over the final 150 meters, and his acceleration was so profound that it left his competitors standing still by comparison. This sprint finish made me realize how dangerous Kipruto could be in a tactical steeplechase. Perhaps Ezekiel Kemboi is not the only athlete Jairus and Canova should be worried about?
The morning’s excitement during the men’s 5k was rivaled only by the men’s 1500-meters races that began about an hour later. At 11AM, Coach “warm-up”, the perennial starter for Athletics Kenya, lined up eight heats of about 20 men each. He did not waste any time after getting the men organized, firing off each field of athletes in rapid succession. The first two heats were won in relatively pedestrian times, 3:52 and 3:51 respectively. But with the arrival of the third heat, the racing really started to heat up.
This change was in large part thanks to the World’s most decorated steeplechaser, Ezekiel Kemboi. Sitting in third for the first 1000 meters, Kemboi let the race develop without much drama, as the leaders ran their first lap in 61 and came through 800 meters in 2:02. But with 500 meters to go, Kemboi turned on the jets, breaking away from the field in a matter of seconds. He held a good lead for the entirety of the last lap, until about 10 meters from the finish, where he paused to wave to the crowd and walk across the line, just barely edging out his flailing competitor. The finishing time was 3:47.
Standing next to me during Kemboi’s win was Coach Canova and his star pupil, the GOAT, Saif Shaheen (Renato still calls him by his Kenyan name, Stephen Cherono). They were enjoying and analyzing Ezekiel’s performance, and I overheard Canova remark, “It is not possible to understand the shape from this. He is a showman.” Shaheen, smartly dressed in a red-checkered collared shirt and black dress pants, was more critical, “This is boring to watch. How can these guys run so slow on this track (Kipchoge Stadium sports a mondo surface). They will do the bare minimum to win.” Turning to me he added, “Remember this, it’s better to get last and run 3:46, then win and run 3:47.” No sooner had he finished these words than objections started to cry out in my mind. “It’s April… it’s the prelims… it’s not his race… it doesn’t matter!” But one realization silenced all these voices: Shaheen’s the world-record holder. You don’t run 7:53 without a mentality that’s fearless to a fault.
The 4th heat was won by another member of the Canova clan, Vincent Yator, who looked comfortable as he crossed the line in a time of 3:49. After another heat with a 3:47 winning time, Jairus Birech once again toed the line, looking plenty warmed-up for his 1500 meter effort. He finished with a time of 3:49, good enough for second behind the relatively unknown Hosea Cherongei.
The final two heats proved to be the fastest of the day, lead by Edwin Kiptoo’s 3:43 wire-to-wire spectacle. Thomas Longosiwa was narrowly beaten in the eighth and final heat by 1500 meter specialist and 1:45 man, Timothy Cheryiot. Cheryiot looked incredible in the past AK race in Nakuru, and this win was only a warm-up for what was to come this weekend.
The men’s 800 meter race was the final highlight of the afternoon, and it’s 11 heats featured many of Kenya’s biggest stars. The winners included Silas Kiplagat (1:47 looking relaxed), Elijah Manangoi (1:46), and Renato Canova’s new middle-distance prospect Sammy Kirunga (1:48, walking away from the field). But one runner stole the spotlight, and that was none other than Olympic Gold Medalist Asbel Kiprop. His heat went out fast, with Asbel tucked inside in the fourth position until the bell. Kiprop reached 400 meters in 52 high, where he then proceeded to unfurl his impossibly long stride and unleash a scorching pace for the field to follow. They couldn’t, and all the challengers wilted before reaching 600 meters. As the Olympic Gold medalist cruised down the finishing stretch to certain victory, the Kenyan crowd was thunderous. He crossed the line in a time of 1:45.1, an impressive feat given that he slowed at the tape to stop his own watch (apparently the athletes do not trust the time keepers at AK. I witnessed half of the athletes stopping their watches at the finish to check their times. Some even had the interesting strategy to stop their watch 20 meters from the finish line. I guess there is more than one way to run a PR?)
DAY 2: The Friday Semis and Signs of World Record Change
The Friday races picked up right where Thursday left off, or rather, Athletics Kenya picked up the slack that it had left over from the day before. The heats of the women’s 5,000 meters were called early in the morning hours, and I witnessed three women crack the 16 minute barrier. Sandrafelis Chebet won the first heat in a time of 15:47, while Vivian Chemutai ran 15:54 for a tactical victory. Following the women’s races, an army of AK officials went to work putting the men’s 400 meter hurdles in order. Once finished, World Champion Nicholas Bett made short work of them, winning the first heat in a blistering 49.84. His brother, World Championship Bronze medallist Haron Koech, was not far behind, clocking an equally stunning 50.17 in the second heat. The two men appeared as mirror images of each other, flying over the hurdles in Kenya’s National Team colors. Their form and raw speed were incredible to witness, and leads me to believe that they are the men to beat in Rio this summer.
The excitement in the stadium continued to grow with the start of the men’s 1500 meter semi-final. The previous eight heats had been narrowed to just two today, featuring qualifiers such as Jairus Birech, Timothy Cheryiot, and Edwin Kiptoo. Much to the crowd’s (and my) disappointment, Thomas Longosiwa and Ezekiel Kemboi had elected to bow out of the semi-finals. Still, their absence did not alter the level of competition.
Despite gusts of wind, the first heat was won in 3:45 by Cheryiot, thanks to a crushing last 200 meters in 26 seconds flat. The second heat proved to be even more tactical, but Edwin Kiptoo once again found that extra gear to power away to another victory in 3:47. Jairus Birech was a step behind, but despite his 42 second last 300 meters, he could not catch Kiptoo. Coach Canova, however, was unperturbed by the performance of his steeplechaser, “Jairus is training hard, and his motivation is very high. He does not need to race this weekend, but he insisted.” It was clear that Birech had some heavy legs over the last lap, but he still managed a fast time despite his workload.
Following the 1500’s was the women’s 800 meter semi final, or rather, the Eunice Sum show. While the first two heats were won in tight races, Eunice simply destroyed her competitors in the third and final heat of the day, clocking 2:03 after a 58 second first lap into a steady headwind. The next closest finisher was over 10 seconds behind the 2013 World Champion. I was seated next to New Zealand athlete Jake Robertson during Sum’s race, and he couldn’t help but comment on her dominance, “Look at her form. She just looks better than everyone. No girl in Kenya can beat that woman.” One can only wonder if that prophecy extends beyond the borders of East Africa.
Unsurprisingly, the men’s 800 meter race proved to be the highlight of the day. Sammy Kirunga won his heat convincingly in 1:47 flat, prompting Coach Canova to proclaim, “I think [Sammy] will make the Olympic team this year. He is very strong, very focused.” I do not doubt Coach Canova’s foresight when it comes to track and field, but that predication was made before Elijah Manangoi toed the line. If Manangoi elects to try his luck at the half-mile distance this summer, qualifying for Rio is going to become that much more difficult for every Kenyan half-miler, for Elijah looked incredible in this race. Despite a slow first lap (54 seconds), Manangoi managed to throw down a 52 second last 400, negative splitting his way to 1:46. Almost as amazing as the performance was the fact that Elijah sported a USA singlet for the semi-final. After the race, I asked the World Championship silver medalist about his wearing the red, white and blue. Elijah laughed, and explained that the singlet belonged to, “my friend Leo Manzano". The two apparently traded uniforms with each other last year. I have to admit, that USA kit looks awfully good on the young Masai middle-distance star.
But once again, the other competitors were only warm-up acts compared to the show delivered by Asbel Kiprop. Stepping onto the track, the stadium suddenly fell into a hushed excitement as the tall, thin silhouette of Asbel Kiprop sauntered over to the start line in lane one. He was flanked by two men who eagerly volunteered as rabbits for the Olympic champion, despite the fact that this heat was a semi-final for Saturday’s competition. But Asbel had already decided that he would not be running Saturday, and the five other men that were continuing on to the next day quietly resigned themselves to the fact that this race was going to be extremely fast.
The starter’s gun fired and the race was off, with Asbel and his mango colored Nike singlet gliding around the first turn at an almost unnatural speed. The two pacesetters hit the bell in 50.7, and from there Asbel was on his own. He reached 600 meters in 1:17, and continued to accelerate all the way through the finish. Crossing the line, my watch read 1:44 flat, the fastest time of the day. It was a spectacular performance in April… in Eldoret… at 7,000 feet of altitude. Leaving the stadium that day, all the talk centered on Asbel and the possibility of a new record in the 1500 meters. I must confess, after watching the lithe figure of Kiprop effortlessly cruise to 1:44 Friday afternoon, sub-3:26 somehow felt like a more tangible reality.
DAY 3: Saturday’s Finals and Revelation
My expectations were low heading into the Saturday Finals. Everyone around town had warned me that many of the professional athletes would have opted out of the competition at this point. It made sense, after all it was April and the international competitions were fast approaching. In less than three weeks, the Diamond League circuit would begin in Doha, signaling the start of a long march towards the Olympics in Rio. But Saturday proved to be anything but an off day for Kenya’s finest athletes, giving the last day of Athletics Kenya’s early season competitions a spectacular sendoff.
World Champion Javelin thrower Julius Yego wowed the crowd with a few 80-meter bombs throughout the morning. Meanwhile, as Yego performed his best Achilles’ spear-throwing impressions, Vivian Chemutai crushed her competitors in the women’s 5k, winning in a time of 15:32. In the men’s 1500 meter race, Timothy Cheryiot made a statement by winning in an absolutely stunning 3:36. His final 300 meters was covered in 39 seconds, and yet he looked smooth throughout the effort. Kenya already has a staggering amount of depth in this event, but after Saturday’s, it is safe to say that Cheryiot made the talent pool even deeper.
Eunice Sum made good on Jake Robertson’s predication by winning the women’s 800 meters in a time of 2:02. Her form was once again perfect throughout this effort, as Sum seemed to just effortlessly pull away over the last 100 meters from her talented competitors.
The men’s 5,000 meter final singled the arrival of Emmanuel Kipsang, who broke away from a talented field that included Thomas Longosiwa, Issac Songok, Frederick Kipkosgie, Nixon Chepseba, and Clement Kemboi. The start of this race was fast, with the six-man pack running 4:12 for their first mile. But Kipsang stayed at the front throughout much of the race, forcing his followers to suffer his hellish pace until the attrition proved too much and allowed Emmanuel the luxury of winning with space in a time of 13:43.
The only letdown Saturday came in the men’s 400 meter dash, for it was billed as one of the premier events of the meet. Kenya’s “Daily Nation” had hinted earlier in the week about a potential David Rudisha and Nicholas Bett showdown. But Bett elected to stick to the 400 meter hurdles, and Rudisha unfortunately was a no-show. But one of Brother Colm’s proteges did make an appearance, world junior champion Willy Tarbei. Tarbei is built-like Rudisha, and the Great One’s training partner has a frighteningly similar stride pattern. That is probably why the young Tarbei won convincingly in the 400-meter dash final, cruising to a comfortable victory in 46 seconds.
But the highlight of this final day of competitions started before the doors of Kipchoge Stadium had even opened, and provided me with a revelation that went beyond just the track oval. I had risen early that morning to meet with Jairus Birech at the nearby Belio training camp. It was a little past 7AM when I arrived at Belio, but Jairus was already awake and toiling away within the concrete walls. Inside the quaint training grounds, the sub-8 minute steeplechaser was busy washing his car with rag and a small plastic bucket filled with rain water. He must have been working on the task for some time, for the car already appeared to be spotless. As we talked, he put the bucket and rag down in favor of a mop, and then began cleaning the tiled floors leading into his tiny, dormitory-sized room. Watching this short and slender Kenyan man carry out mundane chores in the early morning light, you never could have guessed that he was one of the greatest athletes in the history of the world. He seemed too grounded, too at peace with a simple life, to be the same record setting runner global audiences and message-board goers have come to witness and discuss with a sense of awe. But here he was, Jairus Birech, one of Kenya’s most successful and famous athletes, starting his day by wiping away the mud that had built up around his rims and floors from last night’s rain.
Two hours later, my sense of respect for the man, which was already too high to quantify, reached stratospheric levels. I had visited Jairus that morning to ask him some questions about his childhood, so our topic never once ventured into the domain of racing. The nature of our conversation, the morning chores, and the fact that I had already watched him compete in three races over the past two days, made the possibility of him running in the finals simply an absurd thought. It never even crossed my mind to ask him. So you can imagine my surprise while I was standing on the infield of Kipchoge stadium, waiting for the start of the men’s 10,000 meter race, to see Jairus Birech come striding out onto the mondo track in spikes and a purple Nike racing kit.
The legend only grew from that moment on. As the starter held up his gun, 50+ athletes crouched over the start line awaiting the signal to sprint. The gun fired, and the marathon-sized pack streaked off around the turn at an absolutely terrifying pace. The first lap was covered in 58 seconds, and the 800 meters was eclipsed in under 2 minutes and 4 seconds. By the third lap, the 10k had a line of athletes strung out over 200 meters, with Jairus Birech at the head of this pain train. His only challenger was a tall, skinny Turkana athlete named Peter Imasii. The pace gradually grew more controlled from there, and the two Kenyan’s passed 3k inside 8:20. Jairus continued to clip off 68 second laps, until the 11th, when he moved out into lane two and beckoned Imasii to take the lead. Imasii refused, which led to Jairus angrily pointing back and forth between the Turkana runner and the track ahead. After about 50 meters of dispute, Peter relented, and stayed in the lead for the next 9 laps. At lap 20, Jairus threw in a massive surge that left Imasii unable to respond. Jairus only increase his lead over the final mile, winning the 10k in a time of 28:35. It was the steeplechasers forth race in three days, spanning distances from 1500 to the 10k, and he made this 28 minute effort at 7,000 feet look easy. After watching his final performance of the weekend, and with the memory of him washing his car and scrubbing his floors at dawn still fresh in my mind, my understanding of discipline and focus fundamentally changed. In a span of three days, Jairus effectively revised the way I defined a Champion. I’m sorry Evan, no offense, but after witnessing these races and workouts and chores… I think I’ve become a Birech fan.