It’s Monday morning at 5:30am. Today is considered an easy day on the Kenyan training schedule so we go for a gentle run from the High Altitude Training Camp down to the Kamariny Stadium. The track’s deserted because it’s raining but we decide to do a lap anyway – and soon discover why no one else is running on it: we sink several inches in the murram, leaving deep footprints. Training over for the day, we head to the neighbouring town of Eldoret to meet running legend Moses Tanui.
On the way we stop to look at the London Marathon Wall of Champions. The influence of the race is huge in this area of Kenya. It’s the one race every Kenyan wants to win, and after seeing local residents Wilson Kipsang and Mary Keitany win the 2012 race recently, that desire is even greater.
But long before Kipsang and Keitany were making their mark, Moses Tanui was the most successful Kenyan running export. He won the Boston Marathon in 1996 and 1998 before investing his prize money in several properties in the town, including the Grandpri Hotel where we meet. We’re here for a marathon master class from one of Kenyan’s best-loved runners and the first man to ever run under 60 minutes for a half-marathon. He set the record in 1993.
“You compete with yourself and the course when you run a marathon,” he says. “I trained for endurance and speed. I ran seven days a week, twice a day – sometimes three times. I ran 300K a week.” Moses tells us that he feels he did everything possible in athletics: he started with cross country, moved up to 5,000m and 10,000m on the track and finished with the marathon.
Then he simply stopped running. “Kenyan runners don’t retire, they simply disappear,” he says. Moses doesn’t run any more, but he loves to watch athletics on TV. Seeing Kenyan runners in the street is hard for him though, because he misses his racing days, but he’s channelling his competitive energy into a new sport: golf. His ultimate goal is to become the number one amateur in the country. We’re not sure if he’s joking.
His take on Kenyan running is a little different to anything we’ve heard on the trip so far. “Kenyan runners all want to do the marathon these days because there’s so much money to be made,” says Moses. “A Kenyan man might win one marathon and never win another because he’s too young to have built a strong endurance base and he doesn’t know how to recover properly. And because everyone wants to run the marathon, there are no good Kenyan 5,000m and 10,000m runners right now.”
We ask him what tips he’d give to amateur marathon runners eager to improve. He mentions key sessions like hill work – 21K of hill work to be exact. In Eldoret it’s possible to run 21K of rolling hills starting at 1000m above sea level and climbing to 2700m. For his long runs, he covered 38K. Fartlek sessions would involve one minute fast, one minute slow for at least an hour.
The biggest mistake he made in a race was to push at 25K because he felt good. “I learnt the hard way that when you’re racing a marathon, don’t push until the 35K mark. If you have any energy when you reach that point, you can use it to outsmart the other runners,” he says. He also advocates running an even pace throughout with a negative spilt of just a few seconds.
He puts his first Boston win down to having a day when everything went right. “There is nothing more enjoyable than winning a marathon.” We agree that we’d like to find out for ourselves, but even after spending three days learning how the Kenyans run, that day could still be a long way off.