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.
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.
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.
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.
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.