Augustine Choge will head to the USA next month among the favourites for the 3000m title at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 but the 29-year-old began his season with modest expectations.
Lining up at the Kenya Police Cross Country Championships in the middle of January, Choge’s goal was simply to place somewhere inside the top 20 that day.
“Remember, I was injured last year with achilles tendon problems,” said Choge, who surpassed all expectations by finishing second to world cross-country champion Geoffrey Kamworor.
Choge missed all of the 2015 summer season so his trepidation before his first race in nearly a year was understandable but, while he was sidelined from action, Choge was at least able to maintain some fitness on the stationary bike before, “easy jogging in October then pushing on through December and building up.”
With a solid opener under his belt, Choge then travelled to Germany for two big 3000m races earlier this month.
He arrived in Europe knowing his training had gone well and he was sharp, although he was unsure whether it would immediately translate into good racing form.
But Choge quickly resolved that internal anxiety with two good wins against high calibre opposition: 7:39.23 in Dusseldorf and 7:43.22 in Karlsruhe, the latter being first stop on the IAAF World Indoor Tour.
“Winning in Dusseldorf gave me a lot of confidence,” said Choge, who beat world indoor champion Caleb Ndiku in both races. “That’s why when I was running in Karlsruhe, I was really feeling better and stronger in the mind and stronger physically.
“The cross country showed me everything was possible and the two wins in Germany were a big plus for me so it really gave me hope to move forward.”
Choge duly avoided any potential uncertainties surrounding selection by claiming a wild card to compete in Portland after topping the standings in his event in the IAAF World Indoor Tour.
He followed his victory in Karlsruhe with a runner-up finish at the Glasgow Indoor Grand Prix in a close contest against Mo Farah.
Choge won’t come up against Farah in Portland with the Briton having said that he will eschew that competition in favour of the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships on home territory in Cardiff the following week but, while wary of who else he might face, he is quietly confident he can deliver next month.
“According to my training, I’m really hopeful that I’ll do something in Portland,” said Choge, who took silver at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul. “I know there will be some great athletes participating there but I have high hopes that I will do well.”
Aiming for another gold, 10 years after his last
Choge turned 29 last month but the Kenyan has spent nearly half of his life on the circuit. He made his first appearance on the international track scene in 2003 and reflects back on the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne with particular fondness.
“It was one of the best competitions I’ve competed in, in terms of the organisation and the crowd – everything was really fantastic and I was really grateful for that day. Every few months or so, I go on to YouTube and watch that race.”
Just how many times over the years has Choge watched back that crowning moment of his career?
“So many times!” he smiled, refraining from offering a figure.
Having won world youth and junior titles, Choge was still a junior when he faced Craig Mottram at the Melbourne Cricket Ground a decade ago but after a difficult baptism in major senior competition at the 2005 World Championships, where he was surprisingly eliminated in the 1500m heats, Choge was far from overawed by the scale of the occasion on that day.
“One of the things our coach used to tell us is once you go into the race, you block out everything, you don’t listen to what people say, don’t be distracted, concentrate on the race; that’s what kept me going,” he said.
Choge’s winning time that day of 12:56.41 remains one of the fastest 5000m times ever run in a championship.
Inspired by the all-time greats
Choge has been a factor at major championships since then but he has also had his share of physical problems. He missed the majority of the 2007 season and was absent for the much of the 2012 and 2015 campaigns as well.
However, Choge cites Eliud Kipchoge as a key figure in keeping his spirits up last year when he was unable to race.
“He is one of my great friends,” said Choge, who used to do some training runs with him before moving to Colm O’Connell’s training camp in 2003.
“When I was low-key with my tendon injury, he encouraged me. He said ‘brother, don’t worry about the injury, just manage it, be patient, don’t push it.’
“One of his pieces of advice was when you are training, do the training. Do not compete or be intimidated by people who sometimes come to training to show off.
Like many Kenyans of that generation, Choge used to run 10km each day to and from primary school – “not a great run, just jogging” – and 16km during secondary school. It was at this point he came across another runner who captured his imagination.
“When I was in school, we used to hear about Haile (Gebrselassie) and he used to be in some of the books," he said. "We hear about him in the championships and everyone was saying: ‘I want to be in the future like Haile'.
“He inspired so many young people. I really appreciate him for what he’s done and what he is doing at the moment. I really like the way he socialises with people. When people become successful, they can isolate themselves from the rest of the group which is not good but he’s always humble.
Despite differing career paths, does Choge regret that he didn’t have the chance to race against one of his great idols?
“Not really!” he replied on the prospect of facing arguably the greatest distance runner in history. “But you never know – in the future we might meet for a jog or a fun race somewhere.”
Steven Mills for the IAAF