Capturing the attention of 200 primary school students is a difficult task. Holding their attention can be an impossible chore.
It wasn’t a problem though for cross country legends Lynn Jennings, John Treacy and Paul Tergat this morning during a presentation at the packed auditorium of the Aby Skole school in Aarhus, Denmark. After all, a trio that’s combined to win ten individual world cross country titles between them shouldn’t have much of a problem entertaining a roomful of pre-teens.
For Tergat, whose status in the sport rose to that of legend after winning five successive world cross country titles, all it took was his answer to a young boy who asked him to say something in “African”.
“Say something in Swahili, you mean,” he said, laughing, before offering a loud heartfelt greeting: “Hujambo!”
That’s “hello” in the Kenyan’s native Swahili, a word that would be the refrain for much of the rest of the morning, both at the presentation at the school, and then again later, when Jennings, Treacy, legendary coach Jack Waitz and Carsten Jørgensen, a former world orienteering champion from Denmark, led a five-station cross country training workshop with the students -- again, nearly 200 in all-- at a nearby park.
“Sport,” Tergat said, “brings people together. Even when we don’t speak the same language, our common language is sport.”
Tergat told the students of how important sport has been in his life, especially in his formative years, well before he became one of the most recognised runners on the planet.
“Sport can help you in every way. It helps you focus better in the classroom, which then helps you all through life.”
For Jennings, all it took to win over the crowd was to pass around one of the three successive gold medals she earned from 1990 to 1992. And then sharing what’s driven her passion for running, especially cross country.
“Running is primal,” she said. “Running in nature is the most natural thing you can do. I won many times on the track, but accomplishments at the World Cross Country Championships always meant the most to me.”
Like Tergat, Jennings said running has offered life lessons that extend well beyond sport. So does losing.
“I won many races, but I didn’t win even more. And I learned much more from the races I didn’t win.”
Treacy, whose successful title defence before a home crowd in Limerick led the top of the national news programmes for an entire week, spoke of the camaraderie he believes is inherent to the sport.
"One thing about the sport is that we're all great pals," he said. "Because we all know how hard it is to run cross country and to train hard. So I think that's what brings us all together."
The training tips continued at the nearby Gjellerup Forest Park where the students practiced uphill and downhill running (courtesy of Jennings), Fartlek training (courtesy of Waitz), managing curves and shifting terrain (with Treacy), relay running (Jørgensen) and running for records (with former marathon world record holder Tergat).
As the session wound down, many of the aspiring runners were clearly tired, but a few, perhaps driven by Treacy's earlier parting words, were clearly eager to take on a few more rounds through the forest under the bright early afternoon sun.
"Go out, enjoy it, and set your own goals for yourself," Treacy said. "Not everyone can be a champion but everyone can beat their personal best. So pursue it and enjoy it."
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF