Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Friendly Runners: Samuel Njuguna

So I was sitting in the Athletics Kenya waiting room when a young man struck up a conversation with me.  Now normally I'd be my usual, introverted self and promptly snuff out the conversation, but since I have this blog to think about, I put on a smile and chatted him up.

Turns out he is an aspiring marathon runner who only has 2 full marathons under his belt.  His first was a 2:25 effort in the 2004 Nairobi Marathon and his latest was a 3rd place finish in last year's Barbados Marathon.

He is training for this year's edition of the Barbados marathon where he is aiming to win the whole thing.  Apparently last year, he was in 2nd place with a few miles to go when he received poor directions and went the wrong way!  By the time he got back on track, he was in 3rd place and had to settle for that at the finish line.

Furthermore, he had sorted out his visas just a couple days before the race and arrived in Barbados the day before.  Let's hope things work more smoothly for him this time around.

But the title of this post was "Friendly Runners..." which has been my general impression with the runners I've met so far.  So many of them are looking for the right opportunity to prove their talent and hard work so they seem to be willing to share their stories.

Njuguna informed me that many of them train on the outskirts of Nairobi and I hope to visit them there next week.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Samson Kikwei Tuiyange- A Long Road to Victory

Although Kenya is known for producing large quantities of young running talent, there are also a few old guys and gals coming up through the ranks.  Paul Tergat (39) ain't no spring chicken and fellow marathoners Catherine Ndereba (36) and Tegla Loroupe (35) are also closing in on the 40 year mark.  Yet all are still competitive on the international marathon scene.

The recent Nairobi Marathon winner, Samson Kikwei Tuiyange (34), hopes to join their ranks.

As is typical of all Nairobi Marathon winners, Samuel came from near obscurity to win this highly competitive race in a course record 2:10:30 last Sunday.  Cosmas Musyoka (3rd, 2:13:10) was leading for most of the race until Tuiyange and eventual runner-up Gitia Baaru (2:11:01) passed him around the 30km (18M)  mark.  Tuiyange then went solo from the 40km (24.4M) point and cruised to the finish line US$20,000 richer.

Setbacks and Recovery

Back in 2004 he was showing some promise having finished 31st in the Nairobi Marathon then running a 2:15 in China.  He was training under an expereienced manager and things were looking up.

But an achilles injury in 2005 put him out of serious competition for about 3 years.  3 YEARS!  That's not what you want to happen when your hoping to start an elite distance running career and you're in your thirtys!

But (apparently) Samuel kept at it and after completing a half-marathon in Eldoret (major town in Kenya) he felt he wasa getting in shape.

The rest is history.

But now all eyes will be on him to see if he can duplicate his performance in another marathon in the next few months.  I'll let the media interest in him die down and then try and get an interview with him.  Of course he's probably busy building a new house with his well-deserved earnings, but I can always shoot him a few questions while I hammer in a few nails.  After all, I may not be able to help him build a career at this stage in his life, but I can do my small part to help build his house.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Day at the Nairobi Marathon

6:35am: Leave the house so that I make it to the starting line before the races kick off at 7am. I was tempted to sleep in a bit since a lot of events run on “African time” which means they don’t always start precisely on schedule, but I decide to err on the side of caution.

6:55am: After a half-hearted attempt to walk (only about 2 miles), I instead opt for a bus that cuts a mile off my commute. The starting area is full of runners warming up although I can’t say I recognize anyone. My efforts to meet up with a coach I know is fruitless since the music blaring from strategically placed loudspeakers disorients me.

7:15am: The half marathon kicks off and it ain’t pretty! There’s so much pushing and jostling behind the starting line that the security guards form a human fence to hold back the surging crowd.

Unfortunately, the security guards remain there when the starting gun goes off! It was almost comical as one security guard was sprinting for his life to get ahead of the runners so that he could get off the course and out of danger!

7:25am: The full marathon gets off and running. Same chaos at the starting line as the half. But we hope that the top runners get off to a clear start although a few runners fall to the ground but luckily avoid being stampeded.

7:35am: I recognize and confront former Marathon World Champion Douglas Wakiihuri (also got silver at the Olympics and won the London and NY marathons). He's a musician as well as an accomplished runner and let me take this picture of him. I hope to get an interview with him in the next few weeks as he's still incredibly active in the Kenyan running scene.

8:17am: The first runner crosses the line in the half marathon. Peter Kurui (only 18 years old) finishes the 21 km in 1:02:23 about 11 seconds in front of Kiplagat who placed 2nd.

8:25am: Catherine Tuwei takes the women’s race in 1:11:07. She’s more than a minute ahead of her nearest competitor.

9:18am: A new course record is set with Samson Kikwei Tuiyange collecting $20k with his 2:10:30 victory in the Nairobi Marathon. This is almost a 5 minute improvement over the old course record but it should be noted that the course has been changed from previous editions. The picture below is of the winner 100m before the finish:

10:34am: I’m still unable to find my friend so I decide to take the long walk back to my house and daydream about running a sub 2:30 in next year’s marathon (Editors note: author has never run anything close to a marathon and should dream about finishing one first before mentioning sub-anything).

11:02am: My legs surprisingly tired from the 2 mile walk, I take my morning tea (this is Kenya!) and plan on stepping up my mileage for next week.

The Good and Bad of the Nairobi Marathon

I just got back from the 2008 edition of the Nairobi Marathon and just wanted to post some initial thoughts.  

New Course Record (Good)

The winner (I'll have to track down the name later- it was hard to hear over the PA) set a new course record of 2:10:30-something.  This was partly due to a new course which we can assume is faster since the old course record from last year was in the 2:15's.

No Timer at Finish Line (Bad)

Unbelievably, there was no indication of the time anywhere at the start or finish line!  

Crazy Starting

To have survived the start at the half and full marathon you should have packed a taser.  It was akin to a stampede and this has to change in next year's edition.

I'll follow up with a more coherent analysis tomorrow.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sell an Animal, Win the Marathon!

Tommorrow is the Nairobi Marathon and I do plan on being course-side for this, the largest race in Kenya.

Now as in every sporting event, people enjoy trying to figure out who will be the winner.  The Nairobi Marathon is one of the more difficult races to predict since nobody has been a repeat winner since its inception.  That is likely due to the wealth of running talent in Kenya and that this race is one which any Tom, Dick and Harry (or Kiprono, Biwott and Chepchirir) can travel to and compete in.

Therefore we have heard many top Kenyan marathon runners comment that thus race is more competitive than many international marathons in Europe and elsewhere.

But I think I know who's going to win the men's marathon this year.

See, last year's women's winner had to sell some goats and chickens to raise the bus fare and registration fee to compete.  Having parted with some precious livestock, she proceeded to beat the field and collect the top prize.

So going on that trend, I predict the men's winner will have had to do the same thing.  And lo and behold, the other day I read of a promising runner from West Pokot who has sold his cow for about $100 which he'll use for transport to Nairobi and race registration.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!

Unfortunately, I forgot the name of the runner and I'm too busy (lazy) to dig up the paper.  But you heard it here first!

I'll Be There

I'm waking up early and will watch the start, midpoint and finish of the races.  I'll get some photos and post them here later in the day.

My friends from Gikuyu Running Club have fielded 9 runners in the full and half marathon so I'll be interested to see how they do.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Nairobi Marathon: Apply a Little Socialism?

The Nairobi Marathon is just 4 days away. That means hundreds of pretty darn good local runners are packing their bags and starting to book their bus tickets into the capital city of Nairobi.

If the last few days are anything to go by, the weather on race day might be wet and cool although I haven’t looked at any meteorological reports – just my usually incorrect weather guessing.

But apart from the conditions on race day, the runners this year will be eyeing a really, really big cash prize for the winner of both the men’s and women’s marathon. $20,000 goes to the winner while 2nd gets $9,000 and 3rd pockets $5.000. If you compare this to the average income of a Kenyan (about $400) then it's quite a windfall.

So that got me thinking that it might be more appropriate to spread the generous purse across more runners than just the top 10 (10th gets $130). If you assume that the winner will be Kenyan, than even a top prize of $10,000 would attract the same group of local runners that are being attracted to the race now.

So if I were in charge (which I most definitely am not-even in my own house!) I would award the cash as follows:

1st- $10000
2nd- $7500
3rd- $5000
4th- $3000
5th- $2000
6th- $1500
7th- $1200
8th- $1000
9th- $900
10-19th - $500
20-30th - $200

I feel that a wider disbursement would give a much needed boost to some of these runners that are still developing and are probably finishing outside of the medals. If you read my profile on Margaret Njuguna (Oct 18 blog), then you’ll see that she earned about $1,000 over 7 months of running in SE Asia. So if she’s given an opportunity to earn something close to that right here at home, I think a lot of good will have been done for the sport in Kenya.

And after talking with a few people about this, I can say with confidence that at least 1 person agrees with me!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kenyans in SE Asia: Margaret Njuguna

I had an interesting conversation the othere day with one of the Gikuyu Running Club members, Margaret Njuguna. One of the most experienced runners in the group, Margaret, 39, had just returned from an 8 month stay in SE Asia where she was competing in Marathons and half marathons.

She had been invited to participate in some of the major races in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore so she and a few other Kenyan runners packed their bags and flew out.

Climate Change!

Margaret found it difficult to train over in SE Asia because it was too hot. Too hot?! Kenya’s in Africa and isn’t Africa supposed to be hot? Well Kenyan runners train (and often grow up) in high altitude areas that are generally on the cool side. Plenty of sun- but still cool. So they tend to be just as adverse to hot and humid environments as their European counterparts are. Remember Bekele’s DNF at last years World X/C Championships? Remember his complaint?

So Margaret would have to start training at around 4am so that she could get her workout in before it became too hot. This also meant that she was not really following the proper training regime and she would lose fitness over the course of her stay.

Slower Times

Although she ran a 2:52 full and a 1:20 half, she complained that the climate and the courses were not conducive to fast times. Apparently the streets aren’t cleared of traffic as thoroughly as in other places so runners have to compete with motorcycles, cars and the exhaust that they produce.

The courses are also not optimized for speed so plenty of hills, turns and poor direction markings.

Again, the humidity! Sammy Wanjiru and the rest of the Olympic marathon runners triumphed over the early Beijing heat, but running 26 miles in muggy 80 degree weather is not a recipe for a personal best.

Too Many Kenyans

I asked Margaret about the number of Kenyans competing in these races in Asia and her answer surprised me. She said that at the marathons, she would see more than 30 Kenyan men lining up! That’s quite a high number and it brings up a slew of issues that I’ll try and explore in future posts. But it in one respect it shows how much running talent is in Kenya and also how difficult it is to make a living out of this sport as an athlete.

Luckily for Margaret, she was only joined by 4 or 5 other Kenyan women in many of these races. She was able to win many of her races or come in 2nd or 3rd.

Money, Money, Money

That’s why she spent 8 months away from her family of 5 children to stay in a foreign, unfamiliar land. Money. Unfortunately she didn’t bring a lot of it back with her.

The paydays for many of these races isn’t very much and after deducting the plane ticket and all other expenses, she returned home with $2000 or so.   And $1000 of that is earmarked for her airfare back so that she can race there in November.  That’s not a whole lot for 8 months work!

But there are very few races here in Kenya that offer much in the way of prize money and also the competition in the local races is nothing to be scoffed at. Races in the US and Europe again attract a very high caliber of runners and are difficult to enter unless specifically invited.

Currently Margaret is working to get back into racing shape and then she’ll return to Asia in November. It’s not an easy life but it’s one that she’s chosen as a runner. 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Scouting Report: Gikuyu Running Club, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

With the workout done, we slowly walk up the hill to where the rooms are and I talk abit with one of the runners, Samuel Waweru.

Turns out he hated running in school! He only started running when he watched the Commonwealth Games on TV and thought that there was nothing special that these runners were doing. The next day he went for a mile run and felt a “burning in [my] lungs” but was not deterred. He continued to train from his home in Nairobi but one day he was attacked while running and so decided to join this camp.

Back in the common room, the day’s lunch was almost ready. A typical Kenyan meal – ugali (corn meal) and sukuma wiki (collard greens)! I’ve been eating this stuff for the past 12 years but I can’t remember when I was served it in such large quantities!  

The ugali was served in a huge plastic basin and I tried to show the before and after pictures of our ugali consumption:

With our stomach’s full, we started talking abit. The biggest complaint these athletes had was about the hardships they endure while training. Money, or lack of it, is the biggest difficulty. New running shoes cost about $70 although they usually buy used shoes at less than half that. Still it’s a lot of money for most of them.

Coach Pius has a tough job in trying to keep the runners and the camp together. Much of his time is spent calling relatives of the runners to solicit for money for food, transport to races and other essentials. Not many parents see the benefit of having their son or daughter training for races that might not earn them any money so Coach Pius has a tough sell most of the time.

I left the camp having a better understanding of what these athletes are struggling with and the amount of talent that is never realized due to the lack of opportunities for runners here. It’s really a sink-or-swim situation whereby if you cannot start winning money in the first year or so of serious training, there’s a good chance you’ll have to give up and do something more economically beneficial.

I’ll share some more thoughts in another post. I also hope to visit more training camps, especially the ones in the Rift Valley that harbour the elite runners. But I feel I’m off to a good start so far!

Scouting Report: Gikuyu Running Club, Part 1

Yesterday I visited a small running club or “camp” that’s located just a few kilometers from Nairobi in a place called Gikuyu. Organised by Coach Pius Ndung’u, this camp provides a training environment for some of the talented runners in the area.

I first visited where the runners sleep and eat and generally hang out. It became obvious that they are operating on a shoestring budget if even that. They rent 3 rooms- 1 bedroom for the ladies, 1 for the men and a common room for cooking, eating and everything else. But these rooms should not be mistaken for a suite at the Four Seasons. Each room rents for $6/month and is as Spartan as it gets- a door, 4 iron sheet walls and a concrete floor. Training is what’s important to these runners, not luxury.

At any one time, the camp accommodates roughly 20 athletes although today 12 show up for the mid-morning workout. They go for the morning run around 6am and obviously that is just too early for me to be around for.

But I was able to be there for their 10am speed work session (pushed back to 11am since they had to make me a cup of tea first). We walked about a kilometer to Kanjeru “Stadium”. I used quotes for “Stadium” because, well…judge for yourself whether it qualifies:

They start off with 5 warm-up laps around the 500 meter loop.  

The coach tells me that the camp has had greater success in producing successful women runners as witnessed by two of the runners here, Margaret Njuguna and Hannah Mbugua, who have both run in Asia in marathons and half marathons. In fact both of them returned to Kenya just a few weeks ago, having been in SE Asia the past 6 months.

Today’s workout is 1x1000, 2x800, 3x400 and 3x200 with minimal recovery in between. Keeping in mind that all of the runners are training for the half and full marathon, they do not go very hard during this workout. 

Continued in Part 2.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Upcoming Scouting Report: Gikuyu Running Club

Can someone remind me to bring my sun block next time?

I just got back from a day with the Gikuyu Running Club and I'm afraid more red in my skin pigment than I'm comfortable with.

But apart from that small oversight, the day was a success with me getting to talk to some of the runners and their coach at this small camp just a few kilometers outside of Nairobi.

I took some pictures which I'll upload tomorrow as well as writing a bit more about my day with them. 

Monday, October 13, 2008

Kenya takes World Half Team Title

Darn those Ethiopians!  Err, I mean- Congratulations!

Zersenay Tadese took honors with a brisk, championship record 59:56 to become the first triple winner in the men's event.  Kenyan Patrick Makau Musyoki (1:01.54) came in second for the second year in a row but helped Kenya take the men's overall team title.  Ahmad Hassan Abdullah (formerly Albert Chepkirui) took third for Qatar.

You're probably bored of results by now so I'll leave the rest of the story to:

Whole story

Results: Kenyans Sweep Men's Chicago Marathon

Kenyan Evans Cheruiyot took the Chicago Marathon in a time of 2:06:25.  It's only his second marathon and he's 2 for 2 with his win at Milan last December.

David Mandago (2:07:37) and Timothy Chergat (2:11:39) took second and third respectively.

Mandago was leading Cheruiyot by several meters at the later stages of the race but Evans pulled ahead and finished more than a minute in front.

Eindhoven Marathon

Kenyans took the men's and women's title in Eindhoven with Geoffrey Mutai (2:07:50) and Lydia Kurgat (2:33:39) crossing the finish line first.

Mutai's was a course record as well as a big, big PR.  His previous best was 2:12:36!  Perhaps Eindhoven is a fast course?

Rediscover Nandi 10K, Upcoming World Half Marathon Champs

A local 10k was held on Saturday in Kapsabet, the heart of long distance country.

It was sponsored by Safaricom, the major mobile provider, and it was looked at as a tune-up race for those preparing for the upcoming Nairobi Marathon.

That it may have been for several runners, but the winner, Matthew Koech, was using it to improve his speed for the upcoming New Delhi Half Marathon next month.

Koech won in 29:10 with Francis Kosgei following in 29:18 and Nixon Kiprono third in 29:22.

Koech has a 3rd place finish at the France Half Marathon and a 4th in the Luxembourg half.

These local races are usually highly competitive and great places to spot upcoming talent.  Plus the winner's of this race wonUS$ 300 and a cow!

World Half Marathon Championships Coming Up

Patrick Musyoki is heading the Kenyan team and is pegged as having a good chance at defeating Zerseney Tadese, last year’s winner.

Musyoki came in second last year in a time of 59:02 although Kenya took the overall team title. He’s been running some impressive road races this season so we await to see how he performs in Rio.

Well I better go so that I catch the Kenya-Guinea soccer match in a few minutes!

Friday, October 10, 2008

When is Enough, Enough?

More than a month has passed since the Olympics closed up shop in Beijing, but if you’re in Kenya you might think the closing ceremony was yesterday. 

The Kenyan government as well as corporations and anybody else that can afford a PA system and some sodas have been honoring the Kenyan Olympians with parades, awards and a variety of “homecoming” ceremonies.

About every other day, the evening news shows another motorcade of 20+ cars parading around some Rift Valley town with some gold medalists in tow.

Kenyan runners have never received this much attention from their homeland…ever.

But abundance of this celebration has prompted some people to question whether we have gone a bit overboard?

Well, have we?

The answer, in my opinion, is yes and no. (For those who are groaning and accusing me of being chicken for not choosing one side, hear me out)

No way- we have the right to celebrate!

Kenyan athletes performed better than they ever have at the Olympics. In track & field, Kenya was ranked as the third best country. Kenya won the men’s marathon gold for the first time in history as well as taking the men’s 800, steeplechase and the women’s 800 and 1500. Silver and bronze medals were also there in plenty.

Quite a performance.

In the very recent past, Kenya has disappointed in the World Championships and the 2004 Olympics so this proved to us that those poor performances were just hiccups in the continuing reign of Kenyan runners.

Also remember that Kenya is still recovering from the terrible violence that threatened its stability earlier this year.

So when the runners came back, Kenyans were all too willing to fete them and congratulate them for lifting the Kenyan flag high on the international stage.

And for a country that has been accused for ignoring it’s athletes and their accomplishments, going overboard in honoring them is better than than neglecting them.

The celebrations are too much – we have problems to deal with!

The violence that I mentioned earlier had the effect of rendering tens of thousands of people homeless in their own country. A new vocabulary has even entered the Kenyan consciousness and that is the word “IDP”, meaning internally displaced person. How euphemistic!

But 9 months after the violence hit Kenya, we still have thousands of families living in white refugee tents. They are unable and unwilling to return to where they were driven from their homes. And ‘driven’ is another euphemism. Gangs of (mostly) young men burned their houses, beat people and even killed hundreds.

The hardest hit areas of this violence were also many of the areas where Kenya’s best runners come from.

So in light of all this, many people were of the opinion that too much time, energy and money were being put into these celebrations while just a few miles away sat these refugees. I guess it can be looked at as a matter of priorities. Resettle a few hundred families and let them continue with their lives, or, hold a big party to recognize the gold medalists for the umpteenth time.

I’m not going any further

If I’m to talk about this issue any more, I’ll have to start a new blog because it delves into issues more political and humanitarian than this Kenyan running blog allows.

But I just wanted to share this dilemma so that you can start to understand the environment that these superstar runners operate in.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

This Year's Nairobi Marathon

It’s interesting, and a bit sad, that Kenya boasts so many elite runners yet has very few international races held within it’s borders. In fact, up until a few years ago there were basically zero races of any substance, save the national trials in track and cross country.

But in 2003, the Nairobi Marathon started resembling something like a real race. With the sponsorship of Standard Chartered Bank, this marathon attracted 7,500 participants and that has grown to over 15,000 expected for this year’s race which will take place on October 26th.

There are two things I really love about this race. First is that it brings out thousands of ordinary Kenyans to run in streets that are normally clogged with cars and buses and pushcarts. They get to experience the liberating (at least for the first few miles) feeling of running in the capital city of Kenya in the normally cool October weather.

The second is that the men and women’s marathon winner tends to be a “nobody”. I use that derogatory term purely for shock value since they obviously have the talent and dedication to take first place in this highly competitive race. But what I meant is that the winner is usually someone that has not been heard of in the elite running circles.

An example is last year’s women’s winner, Chimokil Chilapong. She won the 2007 version in an impressive time of 2:39:09 and beat out Joyce Chepchumba who was a three-time London Marathon winner. But what’s really interesting is that it was her first marathon and she was totally off the running radar. In fact she and her husband had to sell a sheep and a chicken to raise the money for a bus ride to Nairobi to compete in the race!

Although perhaps lacking as colorful a story, many of the other winner’s of the Nairobi Marathon have also come from the shadows to snatch a 1st place finish.

So if you’re running talent also hasn’t been spotted you might want to take a crack at this year’s race. You have a couple of weeks to get over, get acclimatized (we’re at altitude!) and give it a shot.

I’ll be on the course cheering you on!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Kenyan Running and Me

It was probably around my sophomore year in high school when I really started to develop an interest in what Kenyan runners were doing. I was running track and cross-country at the time and I was doing pretty well. Not great, mind you, but pretty well.

So I naturally wanted to find out who else was doing pretty well. Actually I wanted to know who was the best in the world. And the word on the street was that Kenya was the land of world class runners. So to confirm this, me and my friends did some research. The internet wasn’t that big at the time (1992) so we looked to the school library’s back issues of Sports Illustrated to find some gems of Kenyan running lore.

We hit the jackpot with a certain SI issue whereby the writer went to the Rift Valley in Kenya and explored the lives of the runners. I can’t remember the title exactly, something like “Children of the Wind”, but it added to the aura that surrounded the Kenyan runner.

He wrote about how these runners as children ran several miles to school, up and down the steep hills that make up the Rift Valley landscape. He also told of boys as young as 13 purportedly running 1500’s in the low 3:40’s! If that didn’t stir the imagination of a wannabe running star, I don’t know what could!

Fast forward 4 years and I dropped out of university to volunteer and live in Kenya, drawn to that country in no small part because of the running legacy.

Fast forward 12 more years (that’s a total of 16 years for those that don’t want to do the math) and I’ve now decided to pursue my re-kindled passion for running by providing news, commentaries, interviews and a bunch of other stuff about running in Kenya.

I plan on keeping an updated blog which will present and analyze running news coming out of Kenya. In addition I hope to hunt down past, present and future running greats and interview them for this blog. If time allows, I’ll also attend some of the local track and cross-country meets and pass on to you what happens there.

This will be a lot of fun for me but it will be a learning process as well. Although I’ve been involved in media training and production here in Kenya for the last 5 years, I’ve never thought of myself as an active journalist. But that is exactly the role I’ll have to assume if this blog is to be of any value.

So wish me luck and let me know of anything you’re interested in finding out about running in Kenya!