KENYAN OLYMPIC TRIALS 2012

Nairobi, Kenya – While it will take the USA the better part of ten days to select their complete Olympic track and field team, the Kenyans essentially do it in one three-hour stretch.  Today, at Nyayo Stadium in overcast Nairobi, Athletics Kenya staged eight events to select what promises to be a medal-hauling machine at the London Games.   Considering the results, they may have to charter a separate carrier to bring back the hardware.  By afternoon’s end the fastest times ever run at altitude were achieved in three events, the men’s and women’s 800 meters, and the men’s 5000.

David Rudisha – King of the 800m

Billed as “the race the world was waiting to see”, the men’s 800 meters closed the show in high style, and lived up to its hype.  After 2010 African, 2011 World, and now prohibitive 2012 Olympic champion David Rudisha galloped to the fastest 800 meters ever run at altitude (1:42:12, besting his own 1:42.3 from the 2010 African Championships, also here at Nyayo Stadium) even his coach, a man who has seen a lot of talent in his day, was left a little breathless.

“And he had to move from lane three,” said Brother Colm O’Connell after his pupil’s A+ performance.  “He’s not used to running out of lane three.  But he can handle any situation.”

We may be used to seeing Rudisha tuck in behind his personal pacer Sammy Tangui on the Samsung Diamond League tour, or Matt Scherer recently at the Adidas GP in New York City, but today the world record holder moved easily to the front, passing 400 meters under 50-seconds, then closed in sub-:51 to mark his fitness for the August Games in London.

Behind came 19 year-old Anthony Chemut in a PR 1:43.96 (better than his 1:44.73 in Eugene June 2nd), and another newcomer Timothy Kimut in 1:45.19. The results mark the changing of the guard here in Kenya for the two lap race.

There were a total of eight races contested at these Trials, men’s and women’s 800, 1500, 3000m steeplechase, and 5000m.  The marathon and 10,000m teams had already been decided, and the remainder of the Olympic schedule, sprints and field events, don’t contain enough Kenyan quality to warrant a Trials.  Yet one wonders how that might ever change if there isn’t a platform offered to contest the sprints and field events at the Olympic Trials level.

Notwithstanding, it was a tidy meet held in front of a boisterous crowd of 12,000 or so spectators including some of Kenya’s greatest past champions.  Besides Olympic Committee chairman Kipchoge Keino, other luminaries on hand included Paul Tergat, Moses Tanui, Douglas Wakihuri, Paul Ereng, and Noah Ngeny.  After an entertaining pre-show put on by a cast of colonial-era jesters, the meet got underway at 10:30 a.m. Continue reading

MEET AT THE CORNER SHOP – FARTLEK INTO MAASAI LAND

The Corner Shop in Ngong

Ngong, Kenya – The town of Ngong awakens early, well before the sun, as many of its 57,000 residents must commute into Nairobi for work. And with major road reconstruction along Langata Road into the capital advancing at a snail’s pace this summer – workers are replacing the porous roadbed of black cotton soil for the more compact sub-structure of red clay – the morning commute will be more congested than ever through the next several months.

A bustling little town, Ngong is the training home to a number of Kenya’s top distance runners, including marathon world record holder Patrick Makau.  Today, we have scheduled to meet Makau and his group at 6:10 a.m. at the Corner Shop, a small convenience store just a few hundred meters down from Ngong Center.

Pauline Kariuki, owner of the Corner Shop

Owned by Pauline Kariuki who, like many such proprietors, lives behind her place of business, the Corner Shop is little more than a hole-in-the-wall selling cigarettes, gum, candy, and other light fare and dry goods.  But though tiny, it holds an elevated position as one of the running world’s most unlikely landmarks, serving as the gathering point for the area runners who congregate there each morning for their training.

Situated at an altitude of 1961 meters, 6471 feet, Ngong is lower in altitude than the towns of Eldoret and Iten, some 300+ kilometers to the northwest.  But, as 2:07 marathoner Wilfred Kibet Kigen informed me as he waited for his 10 mates to arrive, Ngong is very good for training because it offers the advantage of both high altitude training around Ngong, and lower altitude training down into Maasai land which allows higher quality speed work than at the higher altitudes to the northwest.

Since he was not selected to represent Kenya at the London Olympics, marathon world record holder Patrick Makau’s attention has turned to the fall marathon season. And though no final choice of cities has yet been made, he most likely will not be defending his Berlin title from 2011 where he set his 2:03:38 world mark last September.

As the sun peaks through the low-hanging clouds, Patrick is joined by 2:10 marathoner Eric Nzioki, who, like Makau hails from Machakos; Albanus Kioko, a 63-minute half-marathoner from Kangundo; and junior runner Boniface Kitla, also of Kangundo.

Throughout today’s run, Makau will be wearing a pair of Pegasus Sports Performance sensors on his shoe laces, and an android cell phone tucked in a belt pouch strapped to the small of his back. With this equipment, we will record and transmit data monitoring Patrick’s cadence, rear kick dynamic, ground contact time, and pronation during the course of his 1:30 workout, which will include the warm up and cool down phases. Continue reading

POOR WEATHER FORECAST FOR KENYAN OLYMPIC TRIALS

Out of Africa

Ngong, Kenya – With fewer electronic pursuits available in rural Africa, time is spent more in the age-old give and take of robust conversation, where, whether the topic is sports, politics, or society at large, the time is filled in spirited debate.

Today, having flown back to Nairobi last night from a rainy and chilly Eldoret, we began this morning at breakfast wondering about the ominous forecast for this Saturday’s Kenyan Olympic Trials at Nyayo Stadium downtown.

Right now the sun remains well blanketed by a deep layer of clouds while temperatures remain down right frigid (for Kenya, mind you. This isn’t Enterprise Falls in January by any stretch).   The long-range forecast for Saturday’s Trials call for temps between 14-16C with overcast skies and perhaps as much as 8mm of rain – check for the Fahrenheit and inches equivalency at your leisure, makes for an instructive and interactive blog reading experience.

Vivian Cheruiyot all smiles after 10,000m win

With such weather conditions, any athlete with a slight injury could face unexpected problems.  One such athlete that comes to mind is Vivian Cheruiyot who won the Kenyan women’s 10,000-meter Trials last Friday at Kasarani Stadium. Saturday she hopes to double in the 5000.  Last week Vivian complained of a small ankle injury, but then closed the final 400 meters of the 10,000m in 60-flat to secure her position on the team.

Such vagaries of weather and Trials’ timing are the wildcards which cannot be forecast.  Since the Kenyan Trials’ system calls for two automatic qualifiers and the third position added by selection, one would assume, all things being equal, that the 2011 double World Champion would have a foot up even if the weather produced a result below par. Hopefully, the sun will emerge and let the true talent decide the selection.

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Another topic which necessitated a second pot of coffee this morning at the Margarita Hotel was the question of whether time being pushed too much these days in the marathon at the risk of great competition?

There are only so many men capable of running 2:03 or 2:04 in the marathon.  That much we know.  On top of, it now requires a pacer capable of breaking the world record at 30K just to put those few men in position to assault such times over the entire 42.2k distance.

In 2011, Peter Kirui paced both Patrick Makau’s 2:03:38 at Berlin, and one month later, Wilson Kipsang’s 2:03:42 in Frankfurt.  Only because he dropped out in Berlin was Kirui not rewarded with the 30K world road record.  He, in fact, led Makau past the mark in Berlin, then continued to the finish in Frankfurt after pulling Kipsang through 30k in near-world record splits.

At the same time, men who are capable of attempting a marathon world record do not relish the challenge of another top guy in the same race.  It requires a completely different mindset to attempt a world record as opposed to racing for a victory. That Patrick Makau managed both last fall in Berlin against former record holder Haile Gebrselassie is the exception, not the rule. Continue reading

INTO THIN AIR – KAMARINY STADIUM

Striding Out at Kamariny Stadium

Iten, Kenya – To understand the fullness of Kenyan athletics excellence come to Kamariny Stadium in the slow season after the provisional and national championships have been contested.  Here on a sleepy Tuesday morning you will find 80-plus athletes in dust-covered flight hard along the edge of the soaring Kerio Valley preparing for futures both certain and not.

“You should see it in February,” says Serbian-based agent Zane Branson.  “There will be several hundred runners on the track at the same time. You won’t find a 10 meter gap between any of the groups, and it’s hard just trying to cross the track.”

London Olympian Moses Masai

Today, men like Moses Masai, runner-up in the Kenyan 10,000 meter Olympic Trials held in Eugene, Oregon on June 4th and women like Joyce Chepkirui, runner-up in the women’s 10,000 Trials last Friday in Nairobi build momentum for London.  Also we find 2012 Boston Marathon champion Sharon Cherop fine tuning her speed for this weekend’s BAA road 10K under the watchful eye of coach Gabriele Nicola.

But it isn’t just the stars who sharpen their edges in the bright light of day at Kamariny.  Set in the small town of Iten, 40 kilometers outside Eldoret in the rigorous Central Highlands of Kenya, Kamariny Stadium welcomes the likes of 17 year-old (he claims – could be over 20) Felix Ngila of Machakos, Kenya , a member of the Kamba tribe, same as former three-time Boston Marathon champion Cosmas Ndeti.  When I approached, Ngila had just finished his set of 400-meter repeats with hopes of yet discovering that magical next step into opportunity’s lap. Continue reading

ON THE ROAD TO LONDON: THE CATTLE DIP LOOP

Iten, Kenya – When we pulled up to the small ramshackle clump of buildings where today’s run would begin shortly after 6:00 a.m., the first dusty blue trace of the new day was beginning to limn the horizon to the east.  Inside our Landcruiser we ferried the three-man Kenyan Olympic marathon team who was beginning their journey to London for their August 12th date with destiny: two-time World Marathon champion Abel Kirui, 2011 London Marathon champion Emmanuel Mutai, and 2012 London winner Wilson Kipsang.  The three, along with the women’s Olympic team of Mary Keitany, Edna Kiplagat, and Priscah Jeptoo had taken up residence at the nearby Keiro View Hotel just yesterday for the final training cycle leading to London.

Gathering for Morning Run

As we spilled out of our vehicle, dozens of athletes were already massed by the side of the lumpy dirt road awaiting their heroes’ arrival.  Nearby a cock’s crow rose on the soft morning breeze.  Temperatures were chilly enough for jackets and tights and no less than long-sleeve shirts for the 22 kilometer Cattle Dip Loop, as the athletes call this traditional route around Iten, Kenya, the town dubbed “Home of Champions”.

Today’s run would also serve as a field test for a new wireless sensor technology developed at the UCLA Wireless Health Institute that holds the promise of re-ordering the level of sophistication that athletes and coaches can bring to their training.  Small accelerometers worn on the laces of each shoe would monitor, record and transmit the stride characteristics of Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang throughout their run.  With this information in hand they and their coaches will be better able to analyze the small asymmetries in ground contact time, back-kick dynamic, pronation and supination during the varied runs in their training regimen.

Lacing up Pegasus Sensors

As Pegasus Sports Performance CEO Bill Shea, an interventional radiologist by training, outfitted Wilson and Abel with the sensors and the small cell phone which they will wear to transmit the signal to the internet and onto our computers, another group of athletes came coursing by at flank speed, already fully into their morning’s training.

“On any given day 600 athletes will be in training in Iten,” said famed Italian coach Renato Canova, who lives in Iten eight months of the year to monitor his stable of athletes.  It is out of this culture of running that the great champions of Kenya have emerged since legendary Kip Keino first put Kenya’s Central Highlands on the map with his Olympic 1500 and steeplechase victories at the 1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich Olympics.

As the run gets under way, the pace is easy and controlled.  Some 120 athletes, 40 from Wilson Kipsang’s training group, fill the narrow red-clay roads, making passing difficult for the few motor vehicles up and out at this hour. Continue reading

VIVIAN CHERUIYOT WINS KENYAN OLYMPIC 10,000 TRIAL

Trials Champion Vivian Cheruiyot

Nairobi, Kenya – The Kenyan “Pocket Rocket” Vivian Cheruiyot burned through a measured final lap today at Kasarani Stadium to claim the Kenyan National 10,000 meter title (32:24.51) over a determined Joyce Chepkirui (32:24.71) and third-placer Sally Kipyego (32:26.82).  The times were modest, but as Vivian said afterwards, “this race was for position, not time.”  True enough, the three will now represent their country in London’s Olympic Games, as this was the lone Olympic Trials race of the two-day national championships.

In a race that featured an Olympic final caliber collection of talent, the pace dawdled over the initial two-thirds of the 25 laps, taking the 15-person lead pack nearly 17minutes to a pass half-way. Finally, with seven laps remaining and a pack of nine still in contention, 2009 World Champion Linet Masai took the reins before stepping off the track with 3 ½ laps remaining (no evident cause was seen or given).

After Masai pulled off on the backstretch, road race star Joyce Chepkirui stepped into the driver’s seat with double world champion Vivian Cheruiyot tucking closely in behind followed by 2011 Berlin Marathon champion Florence Kiplagat, Sally Kipyego the former Texas Tech Red Raider, and Priscah Jeplateng, fourth in the Daegu World Champs.

For the next two laps the positions held as the small but boisterous crowd scattered along the lower sections of the massive Kasarani Stadium implored their favorites.  When the bell clanged, the tiny tempest that is Vivian Cheruiyot burst to the lead with Chepkirui in her slipstream holding fast.  Kipyego gave ground grudgingly while Florence Kiplagat, the Kenyan national record holder at 30:11, and Priscah Jeplateng began seeing their Olympic dreams fade from view.  Kiplagat had come in off a close second place to Ethiopian Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon on June 4. Perhaps that 30:24 effort had its effect in Nairobi today.

Vivian Cheruiyot admitted that she had been suffering with a slight ankle irritation before the race, and aggravated it a little during the competition.  However, she also confirmed her intentions of attempting to duplicate her Daegu World Championships double in London. Directly after the meet she took off for a physio session, but when it was time for the gas, the throttle never stalled. Continue reading

AGENT BRANSON STANDS UP FOR CLIENT MAKAU IN OLYMPIC SELECTION CONTROVERSY

Nairobi, Kenya-The announcement naming 2011 London Marathon champion Emmanuel Mutai to replace 2011 Chicago Marathon champion Moses Mosop (tendon injury) on the 2012 Kenyan Olympic Marathon team by Athletics Kenya president Isaiah Kiplagat at a press conference on Tuesday has opened a controversy. During the press conference, Mr. Kiplagat asserted that the reason neither 2011 Boston and New York City Marathon champion Geoffrey Mutai or 2011 Berlin Marathon champion Patrick Makau were considered as replacements was because neither of their agents had submitted training and fitness reports following their drop outs at the Boston and London Marathons.

I arrived in Nairobi on Wednesday night, and spoke directly with Makau’s agent Zane Branson.

“When the announcement was made on Monday that a replacement would be named on Tuesday, Makau was expecting good news,” said Branson.  “But what Mr. Kiplagat said on Tuesday is simply not true. After London (where Makau dropped out), I came straight to the hotel from the finish.  At 4:30 p.m. I was in Makau’s room. We received a call, and it was AK treasurer, Mr. Kinyua, Mr. Kiplagat’s brother-in-law. He came up.  I explained to him the situation why Patrick dropped out. Then I left them together. He knew.  I also spoke with Ibrahim Hussein, AK assistant secretary, there and Mr. Okeyo, too (AK general secretary).”

“I am defending my client, not because he wasn’t named to the team but because Kiplagat made knowingly false statements yesterday (Tuesday) in his press conference. Patrick remains firm around three around pivot points: Continue reading