Issac Songok of Kenya completes a comprehensive win over Bekele - Oslo (Getty Images) © Copyright

For Songok, a steady and patient rise

When he began his quest for a piece of the IAAF Golden League Jackpot last June at Oslo’s Bislett Games, Kenenisa Bekele specifically mentioned Kenyan Isaac Songok as a primary adversary as the six-meeting series got underway. A month earlier, the 22-year-old Kenyan defeated a solid field over 3000 metres at the Super Grand Prix in Doha, clocking a then season-pacing 7:28.98. And in early April, Songok had chased Bekele to the finish line in the short course race at the World Cross Country Championships, where he captured a hard-earned silver medal behind the Ethiopian superstar.

Some 200 metres before the finish of the 5000 at Bislett Stadium, Bekele’s fears were realized. Propelled by a blistering kick, the younger Songok confidently jetted past en route to his 12:55.79 upset, showing that he was ready and eager to take on and beat the best in the world.

“I was not under any pressure,” Songok says, “I was just running to improve my performance. I was mentally prepared,” he added, “mentally ready to win the race. And that’s why I beat Bekele.”

His performance in the Norwegian capital was a little shy of his 12:52.29 victory in Rome in 2005, but his dominating display over the World record holder placed him firmly among the world’s finest and most consistent distance runners.

Increased consistency in 2006

Indeed, in his carefully selected 10 races this year, Songok didn’t have a single bad outing. He won two of his four races over 3000m, producing the year’s two quickest performances. His season opener in Doha was his first sub-7:30, and he improved again in late August, running 7:28.72 in Rieti. He finished first, second and third in his three races over 5000m, a near-PB 12:52.39 at Rome’s Golden Gala and his first sub-12:50, a 12:48.66 for second in Zurich’s Weltklasse. Rounding things out, he produced a 3:31.85 in the 1500, finishing fifth against a strong field in Paris.

“We train to run for a long season, and I train to improve in each race,” Songok says, adding that he prefers quality over quantity in his race schedule. “But if I come for the race, I have to run well.”

Running well is nothing new to Songok, who steadily worked his way up the highly competitive Kenyan ranks, beginning as a youngster at home near Kapsabet in the Rift Valley.

“In Kenya, in schools, we have to compete with other schools and I started to represent my school. And that way I got faster. And then I began representing my school in regional, district and national levels.”

Songok said he was familiar with the strong local runners from his area, but in his early teens, he didn’t necessary look at them as heroes. “I wasn’t looking at those guys. I was looking to play. To do something fun. But I was also looking to do for myself in the future.”

Initial success in the 1500m

By 1999, he was the national primary school champion at 5000 –a title he successfully defended the following year—and in 2000 finished third in Kenya’s World Junior Championships trials, when he ran 13:37 running barefoot.

“When I started to run, I ran barefooted,” he remembers, briefly alluding to his modest upbringing. “My parents were unable to buy them for me, but eventually I bought some.”

At those trials, he caught the eye of Brother Colm O’Connell, who suggested he switch to the 1500. He did, and the next year he won the 2001 World Youth title over the metric mile, clocking 3:36.78, a championship record. That competition in Debrecen, Hungary, was his first trip out of Kenya, one he remembers fondly.

“I was happy,” he remembers. “It was my first time to go somewhere and represent my country. And I was the only one from my village and my district.”

Now under the tutelage of the well-known and respected O’Connell, Songok continued a focus on the 1500. Soon after his Debrecen triumph, he gained entry into a handful of meets in Europe, and ended that year with a 3:35.55 best, along with a 4:56.86 World junior record for 2000 metres. He improved to 3:34.20 in 2002 and, at just 19, to 3:31.54 in 2003, a year he won the Kenyan national senior title and finished second at the World Championships Trials, defeating Bernard Lagat among others. In Paris though, his inexperience showed, and after barely advancing from the semis, finished a distant tenth in the final.

He began 2004 with a seventh place finish in the short race at the World Cross Country Championships, before embarking on a difficult early summer high calibre schedule, finishing lower than third only once. He won the brutal Kenyan Olympic trials, and warmed up for Athens with his third place finish in Zurich behind Lagat and Hicham El Guerrouj, lowering his personal best to 3:30.99. But his inexperience in unrabitted races showed again in Athens, although he did reach the final where he finished a distant 12th.

First senior global medal in 2005

 In 2005, his improvement continued. He returned to the World Cross Country Championships, and improved to third in the short course race, earning his first major global medal. On the track, he returned his focus to longer distances and met with some success at first, winning the Kenyan trials for Helsinki. But he couldn’t reproduce that form in the Finnish capital, where he eventually crossed the line 10th in a tactical 5000m final.

Besides his cross country silver and his victory over Bekele, Songok said that his first sub-12:50 in Zurich, was among his chief highlights in 2006.

‘I was happy with the time,” he said of his 12:48.66 which made him the year’s second fastest. “Every year I just want to improve.”

Zurich learning experience

He readily admits that his Zurich race, where he was beaten by Bekele, was hardly the perfect race, but rather one that brought him plenty of ammo for their next meeting. Songok chose to let Bekele control the tempo of some of the mid-race laps –“I didn’t think I could react again in a fast finish,” he said— which the Ethiopian eventually used to his advantage. Shadowing Bekele with 200m to go, it appeared that Songok was prepping for a repeat of his Oslo finish. But instead, his decision to let Bekele dictate the earlier tempo withered what kick he had left. The Ethiopian triumphed in 12:48.25, then the year’s fastest performance.

“If you are not experienced running in the front, then you can’t do the things you want to do. It’s difficult, and you have to gain that experience. But now I learned something there. How to do the timing. How to go. Bekele knows if we are together with 200 or 300 to go, he will not pass me.”

Taking his Zurich lesson to heart, Songok said he will continue to focus on his foot speed so he can better react in unrabitted championship races.

“You have to have a reaction kick in a race, and you have to have a finishing kick,” he says. “The two things that work together. That’s something I put in my mind whenever I train. So in every session I always try to go faster in the last 200 or 300 metres.”

Like many young runners who race regularly on the Grand Prix and Golden League circuit, his racing experiences have been largely limited to paced races, and Songok knows that if he’s going to achieve success in Osaka next summer –“That’s my big goal in 2007” he said—his tactical skills will have to be honed.

“I like to run with the pacemaker,” he admits, “I like to stay with them. But in the World Championships it’s different. Tactically, if I learn and know when to go slow, I’ll know that I have to do something to change the tempo, and when to start to kick.”

With his eyes firmly focused on Osaka and a third World Championship appearance, Songok said he’d like to run some indoor races this winter, but pass on a team spot for the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, where the 12 km distance is a bit too ambitious.

“I just have to improve a bit,” he said of his overall 2007 plan. “If I train well and get good training, then everything’s going to be okay.”

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF