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Launching off the edge

The rise of Kenyan women runners

IT IS AN unseasonably wet August in the Rift Valley Province town of Iten. For two days it has rained heavily. Coupled with July’s chill, which shows no signs of lifting, it is miserable outside. Mary Keitany peers out of the window from time to time to see if the ground has dried out enough for her morning run. Children pass outside the gate huddled in thick coats. On any other Saturday she would have been out training as early as 6 am. A short distance away, clouds rush up the Keiyo Escarpment, covering everything in a ghostly fog. For most of the day the clouds obscure the bottom of the Kerio Valley but, for brief spells around noon, Lake Kamnarok and the shiny ribbon of the Kerio River are visible more than a thousand metres below.

At 9.10 am Mary slips on her running shoes. Her husband and training partner, Charles Koech, follows her out the door. They turn right at their gate and run slowly, an easy warm-up pace that enables them to judge the condition of the road. Mary is set to race at the Great North Run in Newcastle in the north-east of England in two weeks. An injury on the slippery roads would be devastating. She is trying to win her third title in the most popular half-marathon in the world.

Usually there are large groups of athletes training on the network of red-earth roads that crisscross the Iten countryside. The long stretches of quiet road, cutting through large swathes of farmland, is one reason Iten has become the running capital of Kenya.

 

MARY AND CHARLES run towards Sergoit Centre, picking up the pace as their bodies warm up. Mary’s slight frame moves like a whisper over the ground. At just over five foot tall, and weighing forty-one kilos, she is considered small – even for a town filled with lean athletes with sharply etched cheekbones.

The road is still wet. Mud accumulates on the soles of their training shoes, slowing them down. At Sergoit, they turn back towards the highway, then follow the tarmac for a while before ending their run at Mororia Complex along the highway. They check their watches. Originally, they had planned to run for an hour and forty minutes, but because of the road conditions they run for just eighty minutes – covering about twenty kilometres. As a former world-record holder in the half-marathon, Mary can cover twenty-one kilometres in sixty-five minutes, so this is not a challenge.

Her breakthrough performance in the half-marathon came in 2007 at the World Road Running Championships in Udine, Italy, when she placed second to Lornah Kiplagat’s world-record-setting performance. Mary and Charles got married in late 2007, and had a baby the following year. By 2009, Mary returned to running from maternity leave and re-entered the race, now called the World Half Marathon Championships. She won the gold medal, achieving a time a full minute and two seconds ahead of the next competitor, a time that still stands as the championship record.

It was then that her name began cropping up in running circles as an athlete to watch. She continued her string of world-beating performances, winning the 2010 Big Berlin 25,000-metre in a world-record time of 1:19:53, finishing five-minutes ahead of the second-placed competitor. Mary always goes for an emphatic win, which makes her an exciting athlete to watch – no conservative biding of time at the back of the pack to see how the race is shaping up for her. If she feels good, she goes to the front early, controls the pace and unleashes her devastating foot-speed to create a gap her competitors cannot close. But this style of running can be risky. The smallest miscalculation in energy expenditure means a race an athlete can win easily by tactical means can be lost by this full-out assault.

Mary made her highly anticipated marathon debut in New York in November 2010, and ran strongly before tiring in the final stages to finish third behind more experienced athletes. Nothing prepares one for the full marathon distance. An athlete once told me how he thought a full marathon would be like running two half-marathons back-to-back – but the reality felt like ten. Her third-place finish at a major city marathon meant Mary could incorporate her experience of the distance into her preparations when she returned to training.

She started 2011 by winning the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in a time of 1:05:50, marking the first time a woman had run the distance under sixty-six minutes. In her next marathon, London, with the experience she had from New York, she broke away at the halfway mark and ran alone to the tape, a risky move that nonetheless paid off with a world-leading time inside the prestigious 2:20 mark. With that run, Mary put herself firmly at the head of Kenyan female athletes, who were now winning as many championships and medals as their male counterparts.

A few years before, this was not the case. When Athletics Kenya selected a team for the 2004 Athens Olympics, Catherine Ndereba, Margaret Okayo and Alice Chelagat formed the core of the team that would compete in the women’s marathon, but the federation was unable to find strong reserves in case anything happened to the first string. Fast forward to the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, where Kenyan women swept the marathon. The team that won gold, silver and bronze comprised of Edna Kiplagat, Priscah Jeptoo and Sharon Cherop. At the time the top three female marathon runners in Kenya were Edna Kiplagat, Mary Keitany and Florence Kiplagat (no relation). Kenya swept the race without two of the top three marathon runners in the country, evidence of enormous growth in the depth of women’s running between 2004 and 2011.

 

KENYA’S FIRST MAJOR international competition took place at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in 1954, where Nyandika Maiyoro was fourth in the three-mile event; Lazaro Chepkwony was seventh in the six-mile race, and the Kenyan team was fourth in the 400-metre relay. At the Olympics in Melbourne two years later, Maiyoro was seventh in the 5,000-metres. By the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won East Africa’s first Olympic gold medal in the marathon event, Maiyoro was sixth in the 5,000-metres, and Seraphino Antao and Bartonjo Rotich reached the semi-finals of the 100-metre and 400-metre hurdles respectively.

At the 1962 Commonwealth Games, Antao won Kenya’s first club gold medals in the 100-yard and 200-yard sprints. The Perth games also saw the first appearance of Kipchoge Keino, who would go on to become the era’s most famous Kenyan runner. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics saw Kenya’s first Olympic medal, a bronze earned by Wilson Kiprugut in the 800-metres.

At the 1968 Mexico Olympis, Kenyan athletes came into their own, winning eleven medals, including three gold by Amos Biwott in the steeplechase, Naftali Temu in the 10,000-metres and Kipchoge Keino in the 1,500-metres. From 1954 to 1968, Kenyan athletes, coaches and officials interacted with the best in the world, learning and adapting their methods to fit the Kenyan training regime. This strategy ensured continuing success: the 1972 Olympics saw the team winning gold medals in the 3,000-metre steeplechase and the 400-metre relay.

Kenya boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics, along with twenty-four other African countries, in protest at the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to ban New Zealand from the games. At the time, New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, was on a tour of apartheid South Africa. The games were also significant for another reason. That year a young Irishman, named Brother Colm O’Connell, arrived at St Patrick’s High School in Iten to teach geography. In the evenings, the teachers would gather around a radio to listen to the Olympic Games. Among them was Peter Foster, who was in charge of the school’s athletics program. When Brendan Foster, Peter’s brother, won the 10,000-metre bronze medal at the Montreal Olympics, it ignited a lifelong passion in Brother O’Connell that would shape Kenyan athletics for decades to come. Peter finished his volunteer teaching program a year later and returned to the UK, leaving Brother O’Connell in charge of the athletics program.

The school had already produced successful athletes such as Mike Boit, the 800-metre bronze medalist at the 1972 Munich Games. Brother O’Connell learned from the athletes, read everything on athletics he could get his hands on, and attended coaching seminars in Nairobi. The boycott years provided him with the time and space to hone his coaching. The Cheruiyot twins, who ran in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics while still high school students at St Patrick’s, were his first success. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Peter Rono became the first Brother O’Connell trained athlete to win an Olympic gold. Competition to get into the school became fierce. In a land with limited opportunities, sports became a path to employment in the military, police, prisons and state-owned corporations such as the postal service and the ports authority.

Brother O’Connell set about establishing a system that would take the St Patrick’s method to other schools. In December 1989, he started a holiday youth camp for athletes and coaches from the region and soon Sing’ore, Kapkenda and Tambach high schools had strong athletic programs. Kitang, Kapcherop and St Francis Kimuron high schools soon followed, as did primary schools such as Mokwo. The holiday youth camp in Iten consolidated gains made by Kenyan athletics in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and took that knowledge to a wider and younger pool of potential athletes. Significantly, the camp offered places to an equal number of men and women.

The gap between the achievements of male and female athletes through the years is telling. While a Kenyan man won his first Olympic medal in 1964, it took a further thirty-two years for a Kenyan woman to achieve the same feat when Pauline Konga won the silver medal in the 5,000-metres at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The first day of the 2011 World Championships in Daegu was one of the most memorable in Kenya’s athletics history. There were two final races that day, the women’s marathon and the women’s 10,000-metres, with six medals on offer. Kenyan women swept both races, winning all six medals At the end of the championship, Kenya’s medal tally stood at seventeen, with eleven of those medals coming through female athletes. Both of the gold medalists from the first day, Edna Kiplagat and Vivian Cheruiyot, had attended Brother O’Connell’s youth camp. To date, the camp has produced more than two thousand runners, with about two hundred competing at international level.

 

GLOBALLY, ATHLETICS WAS changing from an amateur to professional sport. Under the leadership of the entrepreneurial Primo Nebiolo, the IAAF’s annual budget grew from $50,000 in 1981 to $40 million by 1999. Nebiolo believed runners should make a living from their sport as footballers and basketball players did from theirs. Due to his work, athletes at the top of their sports could now earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each season. With increasing professionalisation, Kenyan runners no longer looked at athletics as a way to get a government job or a college scholarship and instead started looking at it as a way to earn a living. Runners from the St Patrick’s youth camp settled in Iten due to its ideal training conditions and to take advantage of the new opportunities opening up in athletics.

The prize money won by athletes like Douglas Wakiihuri, Moses Kiptanui and Daniel Komen, who had major paydays in big city marathons and track races in the early days of professionalisation, drew many young people into the sport. A few Grand Prix or big city marathon appearances in Europe were enough to change an athlete’s life. Suddenly things like houses and cars, almost beyond the imagination for young men in the Rift Valley Province, were within reach and they flocked to towns like Iten to begin training. Inevitably, competition in the men’s races became fierce, and it was harder and harder to break into the international circuit. But the women’s events were a lot less competitive even though the prize money was the same as for the men’s events. This parity became directly responsible for the rise of the runner couple where the husband, a viable athlete in his own right, sacrifices his career to focus on the wife’s, becoming her training partner and sharing or taking over childcare and domestic chores in a role reversal that is groundbreaking in patriarchal rural Kenya.

However, the rise of professionalism in athletics coincided with the loss of prestige of the Commonwealth Games. ‘In the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, the Commonwealth Games were mentioned in the same breath as the Olympics,’ Roy Gachuhi, Kenya’s leading sports journalist, says. Gachuhi has written on sports for the leading dailies in Kenya for more than forty years. While some of the big-name runners attend the Commonwealth Games, the marathon runners do not. Due to the gruelling nature of the distance, elite marathon runners ideally run only two full marathons a year with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. In a World Championship or Olympic year they may run three, as a title in those competitions can increase appearance fees in the big city races. But they have not been known to change their schedules to accommodate the club games. Even for the shorter distance runners, who can run their events ten to twelve times a year, the Commonwealth Games rank below the Olympics, World Championships and professional track meets in the Diamond League. The fact that non-Commonwealth nations, including Kenya’s strongest rival – Ethiopia – do not compete is an added disadvantage. However, for younger runners the Commonwealth Games are great events to make a name for themselves. At the games in Glasgow in 2014 Mercy Cherono and Julius Yego won gold in the 5,000-metres and javelin respectively, capturing national attention and landing product endorsements, and leading to strong showings in subsequent World Championships and Olympic Games. The Commonwealth Games are also a great chance for athletes from other disciplines where Kenya is still developing, such as swimming and cycling, to compete at international level. Kenya will send a large contingent of athletes to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games this year and hope to beat the tally of ten gold medals, ten silver and five bronze that the country won at the last games.

 

AFTER THEIR RUN, Mary and Charles change and shower before we sit together in their living room for breakfast. The couple made a mutual decision to concentrate on Mary’s career when Charles started having knee problems just as her potential for success became apparent. Their oldest child, Jared, sits quietly on the sofa, but their lively four year old Samantha runs around in an Adidas jacket. It is not hard to imagine her following in her mother’s footsteps.

‘The first three months I returned to training after having her were hard,’ Mary says. The weight she gained during her pregnancy, coupled with the long break she was forced to take from running, made it feel as if she was starting all over again. Athletes are careful not to miss even a single day of training, planning their travel around available running paths and jogging at least forty minutes a day in the off season to keep their body in a state of readiness. It is easy to lose fitness, and having to start from scratch means laboured breathing, burning lungs and an itchy feeling. Mary did not know if she would return to her previous form, but slowly her body started to respond to the training and, as happens with some women runners, she came back to racing stronger that she was before.

Her first major comeback race was the 2014 New York Marathon, where she remembers being nervous at the starting line. She had a lot of prove. The first time she ran New York in 2010 she came third in a gutsy debut performance. A year later, she stood at the starting line as the overwhelming favourite on the back of her world-record run at the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon, and her sub-2:20 time at the London Marathon in the spring. She took off at a blistering pace at the start, hitting 5,000-metre mark in 16:03. Her mile splits were the equal of those of Paula Radcliffe in the 2003 London Marathon in which she set a new world record that no one has matched since. Commentators wondered if this was a smart move, considering New York’s hilly course, chosen to showcase the city’s five boroughs rather than achieve fast times. Between miles fifteen and sixteen, Mary began to look tired as her blistering starting pace took its toll. The two Ethiopian athletes, Firehiwot Dado and Bizunesh Deba, working together behind her, caught up in Central Park, and all Mary could do was hang on and finish in third place again behind the two. Athletics observers consider this race the lowest point of her career. It illustrates the dangers of her front-running strategy, but Mary didn’t see it that way. After the race she said she would do it all over again without changing anything. She went on to win the New York Marathon in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

At the 2017 London Marathon, she went on to break the women’s-only world record in the spectacular time of 2:17:01. Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 world record, over a minute-and-a-half faster at 2:15:25, was achieved with male pacesetters, which is no longer allowed under new regulations. Many athletics observers don’t consider it fair to uphold a record that utilised the now restricted methods.

‘If I had male pacesetters and I am in the shape I was in London [2017 Marathon], I can break that record,’ Mary says.

At thirty-five, she is doing her best running, which she attributes to her partnership with Charles and the way they structure their lives to accommodate their marriage, children and training. The disappointments of that disastrous New York Marathon and a heartbreaking fourth-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics are far enough behind her, buffered by a world record and three straight New York wins.

She remains an intense competitor, but there is a lightness in her mood from knowing that while a race could fall apart at any moment she will have her life to come back to. Thoughts of the end of her career are also inevitable at this juncture.

‘People say you should retire when you are still strong,’ Mary says as she brings up the retirements of Usain Bolt and Mo Farah after the 2017 World Championships in London. Both athletes, unbeatable in their peak years, were defeated in their last races. If she retired today she would be remembered only in superlative terms, but right now her training is going well and she is preparing her run New York try to make it four wins in a row.

‘I have been running since I was ten and I will continue running till my legs give out,’ she says.


From Griffith Review Edition 59: Commonwealth Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review