Ever wondered what makes Kenyan runners so great? Here, in an exclusive interview with Ottavio Castellini, Paul Tergat tells the story of an average day which reveals why he is likely to achieve an historic fifth consecutive World Cross Country title in Belfast.
I had no hesitation in immediately agreeing to describe a day in my life, but it took me a long time to reflect on which would be the most interesting day to recount. Would it be the day of my first cross country title in Durham, four days after the birth of my daughter Jeruto?
Or that day in March in Stellenbosch when I regained my title?
Or perhaps a year later in Turin when that great champion Salah Hissou made me suffer right until the last few metres? Maybe it should be Marrakech, or that day in August in Brussels when I broke the world 10,000m record. It could even be a day in April when the climate in Italy is as mild as Kenya and Milan welcomes me so warmly for the Stramilano road race? I really thought hard and remembered the good days that the Lord has offered me in Atlanta, Goteborg and Athens, in Franciacorta (Brescia) and St Moritz, where I train and have come to love almost as much as home.
But after bearing all this in mind, I have opted to tell you about an ordinary day in my life. Because I am an athlete and not a running machine which will just breakdown one day. I am a man.
So I would like to describe an average, normal day. What do you think life is like for a Kenyan who, thanks to his natural ability and especially to rigorous daily training, is able to reach the summit in world class athletics? Believe me, it is certainly not easy. Natural talent is not enough. I have seen young boys in Kenya who believe that they are better just because they come from Eldoret or Iten or Nakuru. They quickly learn that it is not so easy.
To achieve something in sport, as in life, you have to work hard every day. Athletics is particularly unforgiving. In a typical day, athletics has a great significance but it is never the only thing I do. I will explain why. There are two periods in my training: when I train three times a day and when I only train twice! As you can imagine, this effects the rhythm of my day.
In the phase of intensive training, my alarm goes off very early – at 5:30 in the morning. By 6:00 a.m. I am already outside. I have decided to live near Nairobi but outside the city, which I don’t like because I am a country person.
I am originally from Kabarnet, in the Barango district, but for many years I have lived in Ngong, a district made famous in the book and subsequent film - Out of Africa. To arrive at my home, when leaving Nairobi, you have to traverse the district of "Karen", where you will still find the house of that celebrated Danish author Baroness Karen Blixen and where everything – the school, the sport club, the hospital – resemble souvenirs.
Since the beginning of December I have been in my new house, at the top of a hill, in a district called Zambia. It is from here that I leave every morning to train. Every day I change my route. I can’t help that, it is something stronger than me. And the hills of Ngong help me a lot in this respect. I know a dozen different training routes.
Some kilometres from my home there is an air force base where you can find a lot of Kenyan runners. Sometimes they come to run with me, but often I am all alone. This doesn’t bother me. I need to be surrounded by nature and to follow my own nature, to have variety and to never repeat myself.
For my first training session, I run for around 40 minutes. After that, I immediately return home, take a shower, have breakfast and then rest. And while I drink my favourite Kenyan tea the telephone rings.
It’s inevitable. I speak to my associates, my coach, my manager, my family and to journalists. I don’t actually have a lot of time because I need to be ready to leave for my second session at 10:00am. This is the longest work out of the day – around 60 to 70 minutes – and the hardest. In Kenya, at that hour it is hot even for those people who have to walk, so you can imagine what it is like for those who run!
After training I return home to the same routine – shower, tea, rest.
Then it is time for lunch with the family – my wife Monica and my two children Ronald and Jeruto – and often another relative who is visiting. After the meal I have a little time to spend with my kids – to listen to them, play with them. It is a part of my life that is vital. The family is too important to let slip away. Everything I do is for my wife and my children.
Between 5 and 5:30 p.m. I leave for the third and final session of the day which usually lasts around an hour. When that is over I come home for a traditional Kenyan meal which could be ugali (white polenta), cooked vegetables, rice, chicken and lamb. Afterwards, I may watch some television and chat with Monica and the kids before going early to bed.
When I have only two sessions, I won’t get up so early but I will be on the road by 9:00 a.m. Never later, because it is too hot. The second training session will be around 5:00 p.m. and last about an hour.
Remember that earlier I said that my life was not given exclusively to sport? There is one thing that lately has irritated me a lot. And that is those fools who think and write that the Kenyan athletes of today have no soul but only care about money. That they are more interested in their businesses than their training. It is really a nonsense.
I would ask any reasonably intelligent person – wouldn’t you think it was normal for a man to think about his future? If today, we athletes have a chance to win some money, should we refuse and throw that money away? There are some people who think like that and who spread an image of our athletes that I reject and oppose.
Take my example. For some years, I have been a distance runner in demand. People would like me to run everywhere. Yet, contrary to their desires, I carefully select my races, refusing many, and fix my precise objectives, as I have always done. Today the Kenyans are very strong. You only have to look at the world rankings to see how numerous we are. And every race is a battle.
I have been at the highest level since 1992. And always, my biggest objectives have been the World Cross Country Championships, World Championships and Olympic Games. And I also have to peak twice – once in winter for the cross country and again in the summer for the track season. I don’t think there are too many athletes who do that.
My life is not only sport. That is my choice because in a few years I will no longer be an athlete but my life will go on. I have made a decision to invest all I earn here in Kenya, so that my country can progress. It is for this reason that, for some years, I have been directing some business activities.
In this field my friend Moses Tanui is a formidable partner. We have set up an import-export business in Nairobi which demands some of our time. For this reason I often leave Ngong during the week for my office in the big city.
This is something which could allow me to guarantee a standard of living for me and my family. As I have said, the city is not my favourite place, but it is important that I go. I often meet Moses there – he comes from even further away in Eldoret – and we speak to colleagues like Charles Too. We often have meetings with business men from Kenya and other countries.
Moses and I have also embarked on another adventure. We have decided to do something concrete to help athletics in our country by setting up a specialist magazine called "The Athlete". For the moment, this comes out four times a year.
We have invested our own money and have asked nothing of anyone else. This is fascinating too, because it is our baby and we are looking forward to seeing it grow.
This is why, when I go to the city, I also meet up with the young people who contribute to this publication: three young people – Eliud Chisica, Chris Mbaisi and Amani Muholo - who are passionate about sport and journalism.
Just like at a "real" magazine or newspaper, we have editorial conferences to decide on articles, our photo needs and to discuss costs and distribution. It is a magazine about Kenyan athletes for Kenyans by Kenyans. It is the first. Doesn’t that seem like a good thing to you?
And, as well, I am a man of the soil and need to remember my roots. At Kabarnet, my village, you can still find my mother, father and my brothers who are all very proud of me. I return home as much as I can to see them.
I have a farm there, with animals that provide me with much of the food my family consumes. To get to Kabarnet from Nairobi you need a lot of time. Kenya is a big place and the roads ... maybe we won’t mention them.
So here you have a pocket portrait of an average day in my life. My sport: athletics, and my discipline: running, have priority – for now. There are some dreams I have yet to realise and I am working with all my strength to make them come true. I am not yet satisfied with what I have accomplished. With this article I wanted to give you an impression of my life as a whole. In Kenya, there is still a lot to achieve and I would love to do something more for my family and my country.
Have you ever been to Kenya to see our wildlife?
You should try. It is an enriching experience. Consider the magnificent lions. During the night they hunt. The male roars, the female makes the kill and the cubs watch. And then, it is time for the feed. The male lion will not allow any other animal near the carcass but if his cubs approach he will step aside and watch them eat.
I, Paul Kibii Tergat, want always to watch my children eat with the knowledge that I have done everything I could for them.