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.

Bill Shea Configuring Pegasus Sensors

Pegasus CEO Bill Shea has come to Kenya to field test his company’s innovative wireless sensor technology in the harshest of conditions with the world’s best runners.  The information gleaned in Ngong, Iten, and Eldoret will not only assist the athletes who utilize the technology in fine-tuning their training, but will help Shea and his staff of engineers back at UCLA to better modify and refine the sensor design and internal software as the system is readied for the market.

The Maasai land spills out from the western slopes of the Ngong Hills where nomadic Maasai villages have developed through many hundreds of years. The word “Ngong” is a Maasai word meaning “knuckles”, representing the four ridges of the Ngong Hills arrayed above the plain, and today, accented at their peaks with long tendrils of clouds.

The area below, through which the rocky dirt Masai Land Road meanders, is a flat plain of scrub bushes, rocks, and airy Acacia trees.  Small shambas, farms, can be seen rising off some distance from the road, and occasional clumps of cows vie for right-of-way with the runners. And though the red-clay surface is as uneven as a mother’s justice, the heaves and hollows, swales and ruts of the rough hewn road contributes to the foot and ankle strength which extend up the leg to lend power and feel to a Kenyan runner’s stride, especially when he or she races atop smooth macadam in competition.

After an 18-minute, two-mile warm up during which his cadence held steady at a modest 83- 84 strides per minute, and his very symmetrical ground contact time averaged 0.24 seconds per foot strike, Makau and his three training partners began their fartlek session as children, now late for school, and local Maasai farmers watched from the side of the road with various degrees of interest.

In Maasai Land

At 7:48 a.m. the mood turned serious as the speed session got under way.  With his cadence ramping up during the early speed phase to 90-91 strides per minute, Makau and his team went one minute on, one minute off for 45 straight minutes.  As the speed play extended, Makau’s effort seemed visually unchanging, and his ground contact time metric confirmed the symmetry of his buttery stride.

“Though he does show a consistent asymmetry in his right foot pronation over the left,” remarked Bill Shea as he analyzed the data arriving in real-time on his laptop computer in the backseat of our dust-covered SUV.

But what was also apparent was that Makau’s Kamba tribe body is much different than that of his Kalenjin tribe rivals like Wilson Kipsang, the 2012 London Marathon champion.  Of the 42 tribes in Kenya, perhaps five represent the running talent of the nation. And of those five  the Kalenjin have long been considered the cream of the crop with their longer, thinner legs, and narrower hips making for a more aerodynamic cleaving of the air.

Makau’s Kamba-built gait rides atop a sturdier base, broader across the shoulders and hips, almost resembling a 400-meter power runner rather than the long, lean marathoner we associate with Kenyan athletes.

Speed phase, Makau in red

In the latter stages of the workout, Patrick’s cadence built to 105 strides per minute as the road tilted slightly downward on the return leg.  His ground contact time was the lowest that the Pegasus sensors had recorded to date, with his feet glancing off the ground in the merest 0.12 seconds per footstrike through the speed phases, then settling back to a relaxed 0.24 seconds in recovery.

On the final few speed phases, both Bonfice Kitla, the junior runner wearing the white singlet, and Albanus Kioko in black fell off as 2:10 marathoner Eric Njioki was the only one capable of matching Makau’s marathon pace. After 45 minutes of fartlek, the three men cooled down for another 20 minutes before settling alongside a large road-side boulder to stretch their muscles and talk of races and workouts to come.

There will be many more sessions here along the Masai Land Road, and Patrick Makau will now be able to monitor and adjust his progress using the latest sensor technology available.  It must be daunting to his competitors to know that the world’s fastest marathoner is now combining his talent and drive with the cuttting-edge advances of science to mold what promises to be a brave new world, here in the shadows of where man took his first strides to conquer the planet so many millennia ago.

Stretching out

END

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7 thoughts on “MEET AT THE CORNER SHOP – FARTLEK INTO MAASAI LAND

  1. I am enjoying your series on Kenya. What a fascinating place. I was there last summer-although it was not running related. Are they using the data to tweak the strides of these athletes or just testing out the technology. Will the tweaks be workout related (form breaks due to fatigue) or actually trying to alter their form (might not turn out too well)?

    • Jim,

      Initially this is a beta test of the equipment in the harshest of road conditions with the very best athletes. But the runners and their coaches will receive all the data that is collected, and be able to identify and understand where the imbalances may be in their stride mechanics.

      This data will inform their decisions on drills, workouts, and therapies which might address those imbalances, so that their fitness is better utilized to generate speed without crossing the line into over-use injury.

      For athletes of this caliber, small things can have big consequences. Realize that just a 1% difference over the course of a marathon equates to 2:00. So it is critical that these athletes be as precise as possible as they strive for success.

      One half of the equation is to get as fit as possible, Avoiding injuries is a big part of that quest. The second half of the equation is to transfer that fitness into forward motion as efficiently as possible. The Pegasus sensor technology can be an invaluable tool to achieve both halves of their goals, while making their structure a better implement of their fitness.

      Make sense?

  2. Hi Toni
    Great series from you; glad to see you gallivanting around Kenya. Just a little on the ‘sensors’ idea. I think one of the clear advantages of Kenyan running, per se, is Not over thinking the most organic sport; running. A quick example; when I ran with a group in Ngong after the run we went home and that was that. If ‘Billy’ had a bad run he did not think or analyse the fact. to have a bad run is to also recognize that you had a good run on another day. Fast forward to me running with a group in NYC. Now “American Billy’ has a bad training run. “Do you think I am over training? Maybe iron?” American Billy goes home, two hours later he has got 15 diagnoses from google.

    I could go on writing for hours on this.. instead; Enjoy Kenya!

    • Toby,

      Sorry we didn’t have a chance to meet up while I was in Kenya. You are doing such great work with Shoes4 Africa. Anyway, I couldn’t agree more with you about the Kenyan “feeling” for their training. We in America do tend to over-intellectualize way too much, rather than going on how we feel. Bill Rodgers was a great proponent of calling workouts off if he didn’t “feel it” that day.

      At the same time, in speaking with both coaches and athletes in Kenya there is a realization that the area that will lend itself to further reductions in time is less likely to be bio-energetic – it’s hard to get these folks more fit – but in the area of bio-mechanics.

      A one or two centimeter discrepancy in stride or rotation over the 26,000 strides of a marathon or the 100s of thousands of strides in training, if properly identified, adjusted and balanced, could make the difference between getting to the start line healthy and not getting there at all. Or, in racing, it could represent the difference between first and fifth place. That’s how narrow the margins are these days, and how close to the edge the runners are pushing their limits.

      We had Patrick Makau come over to the hotel after his fartlek session along Maasai Land Road to go over his stride metrics. He knows if he can learn something from this data, he can utilize it to his advantage without losing the inherent feel for the task he already has. In that sense, he would be reinforcing his innate sensibility, or perhaps breaking an unnecessary habit. In any case, I do think this technology will be adapted both in Kenya and around the world. Then, if successful, maybe it can assist in the work you are doing. As always, great to hear from you, and be well.

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