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.
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.
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.
The schedule calls for a track session tomorrow, so this morning’s workout will be a Kenyan champion’s version of easy. As it turns out, easy means 14 miles at 7700 feet altitude at 6:00 per mile pace average, meaning the slow first miles are bookended by a much more rapid last few. Easy perhaps for men like Kipsang, E. Mutai, and Abel Kirui, but of the 120 or so athletes who began at 6:15 this morning, only the three Olympians and another intrepid three are together as they complete their run.
Toby Tanser’s well-regarded book Train Hard, Race Easy, points to one of the qualities that has separated Kenyan athletes from all others of the world. But as Coach Canova says, “It is a good title, yes, but not a complete title. A better way to look at it is “Train Well, Race Easy”. Sometimes training hard is not the correct answer.”
In the final few hundred meters back to the Trophy Shop and Kingdom Hall, the small Jehovah’s Witness church where the run began, Abel Kirui on the left and Emmanuel Mutai on the right engage in a small final sprint, perhaps an unwitting display of the pure joy that running in this cool, crisp air among kindred spirits can release.
Later today, an even more relaxed 45 minute run will complete their first day of Olympic preparation in Iten as their highly tuned bodies sharpen against one another as they await their call to history in London. One feels fortunate to have been able to witness this expression of running at its most sublime.