Boston, MA. – How’s the weather going to be? Will my foot hold up? Have I done enough long runs? The questions before a marathon add up like the string of long miles that stretch off into the gathering distance. And if you think those pre-race ponderables are numerous, just wait till the starter’s command sets you to the course itself.
In the face of such a devilish test one’s intentions become paramount. For as trained and resilient as the body may be, it is always the muscle, blood and bone that will be first to succumb when the questions mount faster than their answers, and wits grow short in their hour of greatest need.
“People who’ve dabbled in sports psychology say, ‘Well, the kid who’s the better performer, they think differently’,” says sports psychologist Dr. Stan Beecham in an article in Forbes Magazine speaking of the ‘secrets to a powerful mindset’.
But the reality, according to Dr. Beecham, is not that they think differently, it’s that they don’t think at all.
“It’s the absence of thought that defines sporting excellence, the absence of cognition, the absence of emotion. That really is the advantage.”
Thinking along those lines, scientists have long sought to tease out the secret components that have defined the sustained excellence of Kenyan long-distance running. They have pointed to a diverse set of factors like an active outdoor lifestyle at high altitude, hero worship, and the lure of financial rewards. Others put great stock in the uniquely suitable body type of Kenyan runners, less mass for their height, longer legs, shorter torsos, and more slender limbs. But it would be unwise to dismiss the role of their operating system (OS).
“They are stubborn,” says Ikaika Sports’ director Davor Savija who represents two of this year’s Boston Marathon contenders from Kenya, Wilson Chebet and Joyce Chepkirui. “Kenyans are very practical people. They have the ability to be forgetful, the ability to switch off, the ability to be wild, the ability to be irresponsible. It’s what makes them great racers. They don’t over analyze, don’t study their opponents, they don’t over-think.”
Four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers once said, “sometimes you have to go a little crazy (to win).” That is one of the Kenyan runners biggest assets, a full belief in the possible, no matter what the past might suggest. Yet it is this stubborn streak that tends to limit their careers, too.
While the rolling red-clay roads and high, altitude thinned air along the Great Rift Valley make the Central Highlands of Kenya a training Eden, there are drawbacks, as well.
“No gyms, no massage, no physiotherapy,” lists Davor whose latest find Joyciline Jepkosgei broke the half-marathon world record in Prague April 1st with a 64;52 clocking. But it wasn’t a smooth road to her breakthrough.
“Her hips used to rock a lot in her running action, ” explained Davor, “which put pressure on her hamstrings. And that persisted throughout all of last season. What finally resolved it was gym work and physiotherapy in September and October.
“Training can still be improved, but she is still afraid of using weights,” he continued, “because she thinks she will get hurt. But that’s because she isn’t using proper form. Yet isn’t open to learning.”
In 2012 I travelled to Kenya to road test a new technology that examined the component elements of an athlete’s stride, ground contact time, foot roll, stride length, etc. We put the sensors on the shoes of Patrick Makau who held the world record in the marathon at the time.
Patrick had just begun having some soft tissue issues around one of his knees, but through the use of the new technology could identify the imbalances and asymmetries that led to his condition. Problem was he couldn’t be convinced to keep using the gear that might show which drills and exercises he could do that might re-balance his stride and relieve him of his problem.
Again for this year’s Boston Marathon Patrick was forced to withdraw with, you guessed it, those same soft tissue problems.
“The reason we lose so many athletes is because there isn’t proper physio,” Davor again. “We finally began working with a guy out of Eldoret who comes to Iten, too. He is the physio to David Rudisha (800m Olympic champion and world record holder), and Eliud Kipchoge (2016 Olympic Marathon champion).
“We set up group classes on Wednesdays working core, hips, torso, and shoulders. We are slowly beginning to create a culture, but there is still a long way to go.”
To which the rest of the distance running world says, thank God!
“We are never going to out-talent the East Africans,” said 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi’s coach Bob Larsen several years ago, meaning American athletes would have to draw on their advanced science and modern facilities to pull back the gap that had opened since the East African running revolution first came to these shores with winning intent in the 1980s.
Tomorrow morning the stubborn, but free running Kenyans, along with their Ethiopian neighbors, and a strong group of ready Americans will have a go at the 121st Boston Marathon. Nobody knows for certain what lies ahead, only that there will be a warmish tailwind, the test will be stern, and the questions seemingly endless along the long road home from Hopkinton to Boston.