In Pursuit Of Excellence

 

As an athletics enthusiast I have marvelled over the years at the prodigious talents of the Kenyan athletes. Their continuous treadmill of talent, which for the past 40 years has had a defining impact on the world of athletics.

 

In 1999 the World Cross Country Championships were hosted very successfully in Belfast. The competition was fierce, the weather atrocious and the course as demanding as they come. (Im quite sure Dermot would concur on all three accounts!) Before the championships it was muttered whether the Kenyans would not be as dominant as in previous years with such poor weather conditions. All said and done, although he remarked that the course was the toughest yet Paul Tergat, wearing only his Kenyan singlet, in the cold, emerged victorious for the 5th time in succession. The man from the Ngong hills outside Nairobi was an inspiring and imposing figure as he passed through the line with a triumphant fist.

 

That weekend the Kenyan runners made it look so easy and it was from that moment that I specifically had a deep interest and respect in their athletics.

 

To give you a brief appreciation of the standard in depth of Kenyan athletics compare the gulf between Britain and Kenya with the following statistics.

As of the end of July 2006 the leading time by a British athlete was compared with that of the Kenyans. It was interesting to note at the time of research how many had surpassed the British best performance. You will find that their depth of talent is outstanding.

 

Event British best No. to have surpassed the time

3,000m 7.45 14

3,000schase 8.28 17

5,000m 13.09 16

10,000m 28.32 36

marathon 64.05 56 (at least!)

Marathon 2.14 103

 

Accurate as of July 2006

 

In 2007 the World Cross Country Championships will be held in Mombassa and I can only envisage a powerful display of endurance running. Unable to attend due to work commitments I decided that this summer I would explore the hot bed of world distance running and visit KENYA.

 

Before departing I approached George Bests sister Barbara McNarry and enquired about the possibility of distributing football jerseys from the George Best Foundation to children most in need. (www.georgebest.com). Barbara and husband Norman were very interested in my travel plans and gave me the support and backing from the foundation.

 

It was indeed fitting that I departed from the George Best City Airport on my way firstly to London Heathrow then onward to Nairobi. Having travelled to Vietnam, Thailand and Peru in the past few years I was not a stranger to arriving in a strange place. Although this time there were no backpackers, more specifically very, very few white people! There is not too much to do in Nairobi though I did visit the, athletics stadium (though closed for refurbishments!) giraffe park, the Karen Blixen Museum and also the Nairobi National Park.

 

I had only been in the hotel a matter of hours when I spotted Paul Kosgei, a former World half-marathon champion with a personal best of 59.07. We chatted and he mentioned about competing in the World Cross Country in Belfast in 99. He was ever so friendly and this cemented the hunch that I had regarding the friendliness of the Kenyan people. He had been training with Paul Tergat earlier that morning; they did a two-hour run over the notorious Ngong hills. I also met Noah Ngeny the 1999 World Championship silver medallist and the 2000 Olympic Games 1500m champion. After having stayed in Nairobi for a few days it was time to leave and head towards my main destination which was Eldoret. I ended up travelling with Ngeny as he had been working in Nairobi over the weekend. Together we boarded the local transportation vehicles called Matatu, cramped 12 seater buses. These can be extremely unreliable due to the diabolical state of the roads in some areas. Although this was the wet season there wasnt much sign of rain, however extensive rain would surely have made parts of the road almost impassable.

We stopped half way at a place called Nakuru where we both enjoyed something to eat and drink. We both welcomed the stop as although we had only been in the bus for three hours the bumping and jolting due to the potholes was something else.

 

The view along the way was so unique with all the different villages and people walking, sleeping, and chatting outside their limited homes or shops. What was so noticeable were the hordes of children all immaculate in their school uniforms with school bags returning from school, possibly a few miles away. I certainly did not notice too many over weight children either!

 

We were met by Ngenys wife and taken to their house on the outskirts of Eldoret. Naturally being an Olympic champion he is able to reside in a nice area of town with world-class neighbours all around. Legends such as Moses Kiptanui, Daniel Komen, Benjamin Limo, Said Saaeed Shaheen (formerly Stephen Cherono) and Moses Tanui- what neighbours!

 

I now know the Mecca for running Eldoret like the back of my hand. There is this notion that you find runners everywhere, its not really the case, besides you have to be in the right place at the right time to see them.. It is quite a small but very busy and dusty commercial town in the Rift Valley Province. It is the 5th largest town in Kenya and is named after the Masai word for stony river because of the bed of the nearby Sosiani River. Yes, there are runners around but many train very early in the morning (5 or 6 am) to avoid the sun. Running at this time isnt too difficult for them, as those that have lived in the rural areas will rise naturally with the sun. If the morning run is not completed this will leave a huge void in their days training. The early morning run enables the runners to have a certain calm, a quietness, time to themselves, as there are few distractions around. The climate in the morning is conducive for running as there is less dust in the air. You have to remember that Eldoret has an altitude of around 7000ft above sea level and even in the wet season the athletes are disciplined to train while it is cool. I did meet a few runners on the street such as Sammy Mutai (3.33 1500m/3.50 miler) he was interested to know where I was from and it was bizarre saying to him that I had watched him compete in Bangor in the North Down International Games. He no longer does any running of any nature as he is a farmer first and foremost and his success in athletics has enabled him to prosper in this arena. Im sure I walked past many a previous great but the nature of Kenyan athletics means that often they have a short but intensively successful career and then its back to the farm, in many cases their bigger farm! After all, you dont want to be staring at everyone, though I suppose many were staring enough at me!

 

I visited the KipChoge Keino Book and Sports shop not exactly like JJB or anything akin to that but after all its Eldoret and you just cant go into a shop and buy the latest styles. To be honest there were only about 5 pairs of spikes/shoes for sale, however there were plenty of second hand ones in the local market as well as clothes. Although with the supreme natural talent of Kenyan runners it can be argued how beneficial shoes are to some of these athletes. In 1983 at a meeting in Berlin 19 year old Kipkoech Cheruiyot made his debut over the mile. He recorded a time of 3:53.94, indeed a fantastic time all those years ago but even more remarkable in light of the fact that this was his first time competing out of Kenya and he was running barefoot! Absolutely outstanding!

 

I visited the World famous St. Patricks High school located in a small town called Iten. The altitude here is around 8000ft above sea level and it is certainly a very conducive environment to producing world-beaters. This is a 560 strong boys school, which is not specifically an athletics school, but it has turned out to be the best in the world for producing athletes. There is a very real Irish connection at the school. For Brother Colm OConnell his story reads like a fairytale. He arrived around 30 years ago to take up a teaching post initially on a two-year agreement, and never returned! He is now the countrys most successful coach! Equipped with very limited athletics acumen, through commitment and sheer motivation he has garnered all the necessary tools, to nurture talent from the lush training grounds around the school, to unveiling it to the world audiences in the arenas of Zurich, Oslo and Brussels. As a lasting testament to former successful pupils trees are planted in the heart of the school with accompanying plaques outlining their accomplishments. Pupils such as Mike Boit- 1972 Olympic bronze 800m, Peter Rono- 1988 Olympic Gold 1500, Wilson Kipketer- Triple World Champion 800m, Olympic Silver 800m and the World Record Holder, Wilson Boit Kipketer- 1997 World Champion, 2nd in the Olympic Games, Matthew Birir- 1992 Olympic Champion 3,000m steeplechase, William Chirchir- 1998 World Junior Champion, Isaac Songok- 2005 World Cross Country 3rd place, Augustine Choge- 2005 World junior cross country champion. Japhet Kimutai- 1997 World Junior record holder 800m, Kipkoech Cheruiyot 1983 World junior record holder at 1500m. and many others are old boys! What an array of talent from one school.

 


St. Malachys, Belfast are the current World Record holders for the 4x1500m at schools level, they would need to hope St. Patricks never tackle the distance! In addition, their 4x400m record is 3:06! I had the privilege of meeting up with Bro. Colm at his house which is adjacent to the school. He is no longer working at the school where he was the Principal from 1986 to 1993but now works part-time at Tambach, the local teaching college. He has to split his time carefully with his coaching duties and his work. Aside from coaching a number of pupils at the school he specifically coaches two of the emerging talents in world athletics: Isaac Songok and Augustine Choge. These are two names which are now at the helm of world distance running and cross-country. We discussed athletics and about his coaching methods, philosophies and all along I found him very friendly, engaging, relaxed and of course extremely knowledgeable. Behind his house is the accommodation where his two fantastic talents live in very plain, basic conditions. A world away from the glamour of the Grand Prix race locations, but ideal for honing their talents to producing world-class performances! I entered the schools huge dinner hall that had 70 tables and the lunch meal was already prepared and ready for the hungry pupils; it was a combination of maize and beans- pure carbohydrate! At the rear of the hall was a collection of photos and plaques honouring the successes of past pupils. What an incredible alumni! If this specifically was an athletics school the achievements would be remarkable but the fact that it is an ordinary school makes their achievements all the more overwhelming.

 

Due to races on the Europe circuit I did not meet any famous runners at the school though I did meet Mercy Kosgei who was 3rd in the junior race at the 2006 World Cross Country Championships. She was outside her accommodation washing her clothes after an interval session. Remember the name, because in Kenya you never know!

 


In and around Eldoret there are a number of training camps for example the Kipchoge Keino, the Global Sports, the Lorna Kiplagat. I instead visited the Pace Sports Management camp at Kaptagat, around 15 km outside Eldoret. Once off the main Eldoret road to enter the camp you walk down a well-beaten, rutty and bumpy track all the while your route being lined with beautiful trees and vegetation. After about a one kilometre walk you arrive at the camp gates and soon the series of small bungalow type buildings are in view. It is a very serene place, a nirvana of tranquillity. The altitude is high, the air is fresh, there is peace and quiet in abundance, with fantastic running terrain all around; what more could you ask for? I was immediately given a very friendly reception by one of the coaches, Sammy Rono. We enjoyed a delicious plate of rice and potatoes for lunch before our walk around the facilities. He pointed out the main living quarters that can house up to 40 athletes at any one time and the television room and accompanying kitchen facilities. We walked around the camp and I just thought that the location was so well chosen. No distractions available and to a certain extent cut off from the outside world for a period of time in order for the athletes to focus fully on their training and tasks in hand. At the rear of the camp behind the main house is an area, which has a series of fixed hurdles, made of branches arranged in an oval type shape. This is used as a form of endurance training, and certainly it doesnt take much to envisage how energy sapping it would be after 15- 20 minutes of high intensity running with the hurdles continually disrupting your rhythm. There is also a well trodden hill path, in which the athletes sprint up with a tyre attached to them for their resistance training.

 

Again due to the races on the circuit the majority of fit runners where away competing though I did meet Moses Arusei (2.11 for the marathon), Francis Kipketer (2.10 for the marathon) David Koech (2.16 for the marathon) and 18 year old Joseph Ebuya (4th in the 2006 World Junior cross country and this year has already recorded 12:58 for 5000m). Joseph (was not on the circuit as he was competing the following week in the Kenyan trials for the World Juniors- which he proceeded to win) had just finished a track session that morning 10x400 with 1 min recovery on a sandy, gravel type track with an average of 58.1- not bad hey!! Actually earlier that morning I met another 18 year old who was returning from training after having done 10x1000m with a 2 min recovery in around 2.43-2.48. This at altitude too! I left the camp realising that the Kenya athletes give themselves the best opportunity to perform. They have the ideal environment to compliment their mental fortitude and physical capabilities.

 


As I was staying with Ngenys family for me it was particularly poignant that it was arranged that the football jerseys from the foundation would be distributed at his former school in Eldoret. His wife, daughter and I travelled to Sirikwa Primary where the Vice-Principal Ann Tanui greeted us. The visitors book was signed and we chatted about an array of cultural topics. With all our business finalised we headed outside into the central area where we were surprisingly greeted by the 700 strong school. The teachers were all seated in two rows at the front with myself seated in front. They all started to sing and give praise for our visit. To hear such joyful, uninhabited singing coming from smiling children is an unforgettable memory. I was very much aware of this special occasion as I sat open eyed. Through careful collaboration with the other teachers in the school Ann Tanui, had finalised the list of 50 pupils to receive the jerseys. They were those in most need, boys and girls and a carefully crafted cross section of ages throughout the school. I was invited to speak to the pupils and after explaining who I was I introduced the revered name of George Best. I informed them about the genius that he was and about his sister Barbaras idea of the jersey distribution through the foundation. While I was busy getting all the jerseys out of my bag the 50 names were being called out and they lined up. When all was ready they came forward and each was presented with their special jersey.

 

This was a very humbling experience and I truly felt very privileged to be in a position to help others much, much less fortunate than myself. Furthermore, I felt that in life George brought much joy to people through his wonderful skills and even in death he was still effecting people in a positive way and all the more importantly that it was children. Naturally, this was an experience that I will always cherish and understandably I was made very welcome to return to the school. At the end the children began to sing praises for George Best and myself. It was a fine and rare privilege being associated with the Belfast Genius. Through the Ngeny family I now have a very tangible link with the school and in the near future wish to help equip the schools primitive library.

 


Living with a family enabled me to try all the real Kenyan food. Certainly we are all aware that they eat well but just experiencing it makes it all the more meaningful.

In Kenya it is reputed that 50% of the population live under the poverty line and 75% are involved in the agricultural sector. For many people the diet will be very simple but healthy. For carbohydrate I ate Ugali, (a thick mash out of boiled white corn/maize meal and water). It is rather bland in taste but it certainly is very filling and very good for you. Chapati (looks like an omelette but is prepared only with flour and water) and Viazi (sweet potatoes) and of course rice, pasta and meat. Iron and minerals came in the form of lots of peas, carrots, maize and Sukuma Wiki (a kind of spinach). Full cream milk is very popular at breakfast and at supper (tea time), certainly contrary to the health practitioners here who advocate the semi- skimmed alternative. There was always a plentiful supply of fresh fruit collected from the markets, whether it was in the form of mango, bananas, and pineapples. Another important ingredient to the diet was Chai, otherwise known as tea. They drink copious amounts of it, and it is very sweet and for many people this is the solitary source of sugar in their diet. For sure there was little evidence of junk food, fruit was taken as opposed to chocolate biscuits! Having said that that the old adage of everything in moderation still applies to Kenyans as I did eat a few custard cream type biscuits! I also had the experience of trying the traditional sour milk (mursiik) from a gourd; it was an unforgettable taste, certainly one that I can survive without! The drinking of sour milk is an insignia of a successful warrior.

 

Especially over the past 15-20 years a lot of research has been conducted on why the Kenyan runners are so successful and there are a plethora of valid reasons. There is always the nature vs. nurture debate. Certainly aside from all the known contributing factors such as living at altitude, healthy diet, genetic- birdlike legs- having 12% less flesh resulting in better running economy, optimum body shape, nomadic heritage there is still no substitute for talent, sheer hard work, focus and application. Author Toby Tanser (www.tanser.org) an authority on Kenyan running has got it spot on with his aptly titled book, Train hard win easy:The Kenyan way.

 

I had an enlightening and unforgettable experience in Kenya thanks specifically to the generosity of the Ngeny family. I look forward to watching the very special World Cross Country Championships held in Mombassa in 2007. Sadly only on TV, though with a return to the old format of one race; 9 to run, 6 to score I have no doubt that another exhibition of proud Kenyan excellence will be on display!

 

 

Keith McClure©