(21 Dec. 2018) Today, in this season to be jolly, we wish a happy 74th birthday to famed Italian Coach Renato Canova, who has prepared many a great runner for what were the athletic performances of their lives.
In the summer of 2012, while sipping tea at the Kerio View Hotel in Iten, Kenya, I asked Coach Canova if he were put in charge of the U.S. distance program what changes he would make to maximize performance against the Kenyan runners who have dominated the sport for so long.
“First thing, the U.S. is better than Europe,” said the white-haired Italian as we looked out over the sweep of the adjoining Rift Valley. “Their 5 and 10-kilometer base is already moving. When you start getting sub-27 minute 10K, and many, many 27:10, 27:20 – 27:20 is enough to run a marathon in 2:05.
“But for many years there was the mentality in Europe and the USA to go for very high quality (training), but to reduce the volume. So we had a pyramid that was very, very high, but the base was very, very narrow. And it could not produce any results. So you need to increase the base while maintaining the same difference in the parameters (top to bottom). Then the pyramid becomes higher because the base has become higher, not because you have made the top higher.
“Also, the mentality of the younger generation is that of a short-cut. Nobody has the idea to work for a long time to create what I call the aerobic house. Many years ago it was not necessary to create this aerobic base in official training, because athletes had in their natural lives the way of playing four or five hours a day since the age of 3, 4, 5 years old. Maybe not like Kenya where they walk 5-10 kilometers to school, but a way of living outside. With this life, it was possible to achieve a big result in a very short period of time, because they had a good aerobic base and the mind already adapted to the idea of fatigue.
“When you know fatigue and appreciate fatigue, you want every time to do something more. And afterward, you feel satisfaction, because you feel some ability to acquire something new. Today, the young generation doesn’t have a taste for fatigue, because when we speak about the quality of life today, the translation is we want to cancel every idea of fatigue. We want to have machines working for us. That is the evolution.”
When I first traveled to Kenya in 1998, two-time Boston Marathon champion Moses Tanui recalled how he once walked 60 kilometers to attend a track meet at age 10! That’s how big a fan of the sport he was. He didn’t think about where he would sleep, or how he would eat. He would deal with those bridges when he came to them. Ten years old!
Even back in 1998 Tanui was considering the future of Kenyan running and wondering whether the success he achieved would eventually rob his own children of the lifestyle to succeed. They didn’t walk to school like he had. They took a bus. Would modernity do to Kenya what the rest of the running world couldn’t, slow them down? 20 years on the answer is, not yet, as Kenyan excellence retains its place atop the world’s running rankings.
As the lure of running continues to stretch to the farthest corners of the globe – Big Boom going on in China right now – the evolution of the marathon from athletic competition to a health-oriented exercise used to offset the modalities of a sedentary modern life will continue to define its growth. At the same time, there has been a lot of speculation these past two years about the sub-2 hour marathon, the understanding being that it is inevitable following Eliud Kipchoge‘s near miss in Nike’s Breaking2 Project in Italy in May 2017, followed in September of 2018 by his new official world record 2:01:39 at the Berlin Marathon. In this sense, we can see how running, like society at large, is splitting into distinct polarized camps.
But as the population of children playing freely for hours continues to diminish in this world of fear and factionalism, as E-sports draw more kids in the developed world indoors to a sedentary pleasure, one wonders if the bright light of excellence we see exhibited in the current marathon statistics reflects the continuing brilliance of expansion or the final white light of a dying star?
Somehow the human drive exemplified by the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius will survive no matter how advanced societies may become, though the flavor of fatigue will remain an acquired taste relished by a relative few.
Happy birthday, Coach. Merry Christmas to all.