Everybody loves a barrier to break, or even write about. Ten seconds for 100 metres, the four minute mile, the eight minute steeplechase, etc, etc. Their pursuit has consumed kilos of calories and acres of newsprint. In the world of marathon running the barrier is, of course, two hours!
But nobody is going to run a sub-two hour marathon anytime soon. And that’s Haile Gebrselassie telling you that. Repeatedly. Give it around twenty years, maybe forty, says the Great One, who broke the most recent barrier with his 2:03:59 in Berlin just over a year ago.
But it is only a matter of time. For Geb is only the figurehead on the prow of a crowded vessel that is getting faster and faster. This year’s acceleration alone has seen ten of the fastest times in history, the most recent addition to the world top 20 being Gilbert Kirwa of Kenya, who won the Commerzbank Frankfurt Marathon - IAAF Gold Label Road Race - in 2:06:14, equal 17th fastest time ever.
Of that top twenty, 13 are Kenyan. And with the three Ethiopians, led by Geb, that makes 80% from East Africa.
Over ten years ago, I made a television documentary, Race For Kenya, on the various aspects of the wholesale emergence of Kenyans onto the distance running scene.
One of the people I interviewed for the programme was Amby Burfoot, on his first visit to Kenya. Amby is a former Boston Marathon winner, a Runners World editor, and one of the most thoughtful contributors to ongoing debate in our sport. To paraphrase Amby, he said that he didn’t see the Kenyan onslaught on the record books diminishing, if anything, it would get more intense.
Of course, he was right. Where there were dozens a decade ago, there are now hundreds of excellent Kenyan runners, dominating road races around the world. Suffice to look back at this weekend’s marathon results. Apart from one Ethiopian victory (and of course, they are altitude-born and trained East Africans too), all the other races, a half dozen or more international marathons (and one in Nairobi) were won by Kenyans, men and women.
The same happened in Frankfurt with Kirwa’s victory. And it’s not just the winners. Seven of the top ten men in Frankfurt were Kenyan, and two were Ethiopian. And the lone European, Guenther Weidlinger used the opportunity to break the Austrian national marathon record by close to two minutes. In the women’s race in Frankfurt, the top two were Kenyan, and four of the top eight.
Group training is the only possible response
One of the leading coaches of Kenyans, Dieter Hogen was in Frankfurt, and in a pre-race chat, he outlined a scenario remarkably similar to the one that Amby Burfoot had described a decade earlier.
Hogen, a German and former husband/coach to Utta Pippig, now divides his time between Boulder, Colorado and Eldoret/Iten in Kenya. He says, “The only way to have any sort of response to the East Africans is group training, like the Americans have been doing. There are not a huge amount of training camps in Kenya, but there are huge amounts of athletes in these camps, as many as 200. And youngsters will think, there are two or three champions here, who I can learn from."
“And Kenyans have a different attitude to time. They can afford to set aside two to three years, to develop their talent. And it’s very cheap to live in Kenya."
“Everybody knows someone, a friend or family member who’s a good runner, and has earned money. So youngsters think, if they can do it, so can I."
“And it’s not going to end. This dominance will just increase. There are a lot of unemployed people, and no other major sports to distract them”.
Kirwa was afraid of the marathon distance
Frankfurt winner Kirwa is a perfect example. A Nandi, the tribe (and area) made famous by Kipchoge Keino 40 years ago, Kirwa didn’t run at school, “apart from sports day,” but four years ago, aged 20 and with no job to speak of, a Ugandan friend, Nicholas Kiprono (the tribes are often the same across borders) asked him to come training with him.
That was in 2005, but it wasn’t until another training partner, Jason Mbote asked his manager if he could bring Kirwa to the Seoul Marathon, in Korea 2008, to act as pacemaker that he had his first trip outside the country, and his first competitive run.
“He paced to 33 kilometres, and he was excellent, very strong,” says manager, Gerard van de Veen. “I signed a contract with him immediately”.
Their stories diverge here a little, Van de Veen says Kirwa asked him to fix up a marathon for him, the runner says he had to be persuaded. “I was afraid of the distance, but Gerard got Jason to talk to me and persuade me. I ran Vienna (last April), and it was good, apart from the heat. Because it was a race for beginners, and everybody there was the same.”
It paid off handsomely Kirwa won in 2.08.21, and was able to buy a plot of land, back in Eldoret, ie Running Town, Kenya, where his farmer father had moved the family a dozen years ago.
Monday morning’s picture (with women’s winner Agnes Kiprop) with the bull in front of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange indicates the latest chapter in the Kirwa story.
Close to 100,000 euros from his course record the previous day will go even further. “I can start building a house now, and help my family”. Four sisters and three brother, by the way.
“I think I can do 2:04”
“He is a very quiet guy, but very sensible, and he knows very well what he wants,” says van de Veen. I asked him Saturday, what’s your plan? He says, ‘I want to run a PB (personal best),’ so I said anything else? He looked at me and said, ‘I want to win’. Just two things, but he did them both”.
“I would like to run in a championship for Kenya, but there are so many good runners,” says Kirwa. “I want to run one of the big marathons next. Six months is a good period between marathons, anything more than that destroys the muscles.
Six months means next April, when there is London and Boston. I’ll go to Kenya in two weeks,” says van de Veen, “and we’ll decide”.
And as for the subject which started this tale, “I think I can do 2:04,” said Kirwa.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF
‘Race for Kenya’ - details of DVD on www.globerunner.org