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.


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.

Makau Celebrating MarathonWR in Berlin 2011

In fact, it was because Makau and Haile got into a competitive tussle in Berlin around 25K – a tussle that sealed Makau’s victory, but cost him time considering the surging and tacking across the road that preceded his breakaway – that many pundits believe there is at least another 30-seconds still left to be taken out of Makau’s 2:03:38. Geoffrey Mutai will attempt to remove those seconds at Berlin this year.

“Everyone wants fast times these days,” said one pundit at the table.  “Even the small and medium sized marathons that used to be won in 2:10 or 2:11 now want a 2:06 or 2:07, though they only want to pay off like it’s a 2:11.”

That is the consequence of the Kenyan saturation of the market. Guys are having to run faster and faster just to make any money and gain any recognition.   It has reached the point where an athlete is no longer able to run 59:50 in the half-marathon and get any notice if he’s a Kenyan.  Sub-60 minute men seem a dime a dozen, yet there have only been 92 sub-60 minute half-marathoners in world history.

“It might get you a pacer’s job,” said our pundit, “but it’s not good enough on its own to get you a good offer.”

Problem is, with so many organizers demanding fast times, competition has lost some of its cache.  Yet for me there is much less excitement in a time-trial, even a record-producing one, than a balls-out race. You want the times to emerge from the competition, not for the time to be the focus of attention.  A world record ought to be the cherry atop the cake, not the meal itself.

Eyeballs Out at NYC 2005

Who remembers what time Hendrik Ramaala and Paul Tergat ran in New York City 2005 when Ramaala dove across the finish line trying to match Tergat?  Can you recall any of the times in the last several Boston Marathon women’s races when the biggest margin of victory has been six seconds? And you can’t tell me that the 2010 Chicago Marathon epic between Sammy Wanjiru and Tsegay Kebede wasn’t more pulse-pounding than any world record since Khalid Khannouchi’s 2:05:38 in London 2002 when he took on Tergat and the debuting Haile Gebrselassie in what still consider the greatest marathon ever.

For most of us, those battles to the line are what linger in the deep recesses of our imaginations, and fire the dreams of the young.  I still don’t know what times those races finished in, but my heart still quickens at the memories.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.