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 construction along the Langata Road into the capital advancing at a snail’s pace this summer – workers are replacing the porous roadbed of black cotton soil with the more compact sub-structure of red clay – the morning commute is and will be even more congested through the next several months.
Ngong is a bustling town near the Ngong Hills, 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 tiny convenience store just a few hundred meters down from Ngong Center.
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 says as he awaits his 10 mates, “Ngong is very good for training because it offers the advantage of both high altitude near Ngong itself, and lower altitude training down into Maasai Land which allows higher quality speed work than at the higher altitudes to the northwest.”
As the sun peers through the low-hanging clouds, Patrick Makau is joined by 2:10 marathoner Eric Nzioki, 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 shoelaces, and an android cell phone tucked in a belt pouch strapped to the small of his back. With this equipment he will record and transmit data points which will monitor his stride cadence, rear kick height, ground contact time, and foot pronation, each an important metric in judging the overall efficiency of an athlete’s stride. Pegasus sensors will sample at 100 measurements per second on each of three sensor axes, allowing us to obtain 600 data points per second. Thus we are able to see and analyze very detailed foot motion during contact and toe-off, for example.
Makau will test the equipment over a one hour, thirty minute workout, including a concentrated speed session. Pegasus CEO Bill Shea will simultaneously watch a real-time computer read-out of the data from the backseat of a trailing Land Cruiser while a UCLA engineer monitors the same data at his lab in Los Angeles, California 9,700 miles away while talking with Bill via Skype. Welcome to the future.
Maasai land spills out from the west side slopes of the Ngong Hills where nomadic Maasai villages have been developed through many hundreds of years. The area is a flat plain of scrub bushes, rocks, and airy Acacia trees. And though the red-clay surface of the road is as uneven as a mother’s justice, the rough road contributes to the foot and ankle strength which extend up the kinetic chain to lend power and feel to a Kenyan runner’s stride when he/she races atop smooth well-paved roads in competition.
At 7:48 a.m. the mood turned serious as the 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.
“He does show a consistent asymmetry in his right foot pronation over the left,” said Pegasus CEO Bill Shea as he analyzed the data arriving in real-time on his laptop computer in the backseat of our SUV.
What was also apparent was that Makau’s Kamba tribe body is more solid than that of his Kalenjin rivals like Wilson Kipsang, the 2012 London Marathon champion. The Kalenjin are built with their longer, thinner legs, and narrower hips which means there is less mass to carry utilizing less energy to swing through the stride cycle. Over long distance this characteristic has been shown to be one of the Kalenjin runners most evident biomechanical advantages.
Makau’s cruises with a 5’8″, 135 pounds chasis. He is still slight by world standards, yet has a sturdier base, broader across the shoulders, almost resembling a 400-meter power runner rather than the long, lean marathoner we associate with Kenyan runners. In the latter stages of the workout, Patrick’s cadence rose to 105 strides per minute as the road tilted slightly downward on the return leg. And his ground contact time was the lowest that the Pegasus sensors had recorded to date, with a nifty .12 second brushstroke on the speed phase, climbing back to a relaxed .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 speed the three men cooled down for another 20 minutes before settling alongside a road-side boulder to stretch their muscles and talk of races to come.
There will be many more sessions here along the Masai Land Road, and Patrick Makau will now be able to monitor his progress using the latest sensor technology available.
“The key question in training,” said Terrence Mahon, former head coach at Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, California, “is how much quality work can you do with your athlete before you begin to break him or her down? In the past that has always been a matter of judgement between coach and athlete. But with the Pegasus technology you can identify exactly when the athlete begins to lose form and make subtle, unseen compensations which is how injuries often begin. The Pegasus sensors can tell you when it’s time to stop during the workout before those compensations are made and injury surfaces.”
The more Makau uses the Pegasus Performance kit during his training, the more data he will accumulate, and thus, will be able to compare over time. With that data in hand he and his team will be better able to adjust his training and conditioning regime to make what is already one of the world’s best strides even that much more efficient. According to coaches, this is where the advancements in performance will have to come from, because today’s athletes are just about as fit as they can get using modern training methods. So it’s not more power that will create tomorrow’s champions, but a more efficient application of that power.
It must represent a daunting challenge for his competitors to know that the world’s fastest marathoner is now combining his talent and drive with the advances of modern science to engineer what promises to be a brave new world here where man took his first steps out to conquer the rest of the planet.