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The Kenyan Secret

An up-close and personal look at


how the Kenyans train, and what you can learn from them.

by Matt Taylor - chasingKIMBIA

Twenty-four hours hadn’t even passed and he wanted to race again.


Not necessarily today, but as soon as possible. And it didn’t matter
where or against whom. He just wanted another chance. He wanted a
race to go according to plan and without that pain in his foot. He
wanted the Mafrika now, but he knew it would have to wait. The only
thing that mattered to Ben Maiyo on Tuesday morning was that he
didn’t want to wait another six months before toeing the starting line.
He wanted another race. And he wanted it soon.
I spent the last three days sitting on a
beach in the Caribbean sipping Mai Tai’s
ala Milton Waddams from the movie
Office Space (“I asked for a Mai Tai, and
they brought me a pina colada, and I
said no salt, NO salt for the margarita,
but it had salt on it, big grains of salt,
floating in the glass...”) trying to pull
together season two of chasingKIMBIA,
my project documenting the lifestyle and
training of some of the best marathon
runners in the world. I needed to blog
one last time. I needed to summarize the
most eye-opening experience of my life
into one short post. My emotions ran the
gamut, as did my efforts to find a
recurring theme. Each morning I’d carry
my little moleskin notebook to the beach
thinking that it would come to me. There
has to be some way to put it all in
perspective, I thought. But each evening
I returned with a blank notebook. My
short vacation came and went without a
single note jotted down. It wasn’t until
my wife, Emily, and I were waiting in
the long line at the too small, too hot,
understaffed Caribbean airport that it
came to me.
When I returned from buying two
overpriced bottles of water, I found
Emily talking to a young American
couple standing behind us in line. We
shared a lot in common with James and
Amy (the two Americans in line) and the
conversation flowed naturally. That is,
until James asked, “And what do you do
for work?”
“Well, um, let’s see...” I stumbled.
How could I summarize the last three
months of my life in an amount of time
that didn’t cause them to duck out of
line? I couldn’t. And that’s when I
realized some things are better left
unabridged.
“I work with a group of elite Kenyan
marathon runners,” I finally replied.
“Wow!” Amy responded. “That’s so
cool. I just ran my first half-marathon
last month and hope to run a marathon
next fall. I probably couldn’t keep up
with the Kenyans for a mile. They’re so
fast, huh?”
“Yeah, they’re pretty fast.”
“How fast do they run per mile?”
James asked.
“It depends on the race and the course,
but the best guys run under five minutes
per mile.”
“Get out!” James said in disbelief.
“No way!” Amy laughed.
“Yeah, under five minutes,” I
repeated.
“Wow, they’re just machines aren’t
they?” James asked rhetorically, shaking
his head from side to side.
No James, I thought, they’re not
machines.
After a long silence I finally said,
“There are a lot of reasons the Kenyans
are successful. Cultural reasons. Genetic
reasons. Financial reasons. Societal
reasons. They all add up in the end. But
they’re not machines.” I looked at James
and Amy to gauge how interested they
were. “See, a machine performs the
exact same task over and over again.
There is little variation, no errors, and
never any adaptation. I know that
probably sounds like a good description
of Kenyan runners,” I said with a slight
laugh, thinking about the ups and downs
of even the best Kenyan runners, “but
believe me, they’re not machines.”
“Huh,” James sighed. “I never thought
about it that way. I know nothing about
the Kenyans, other than that they win
almost every major road race in the
States. The impression you get as an
American is that they just churn out
these athletes from a factory.” James
looked to his left and right before adding
quietly, “I mean, this is probably a dumb
question, but do these guys even have
families? Or do they take them at a
young age and put them into training
camps. Like gymnasts in the former
Soviet Union – where they take you as a
child and control your life until you
either win a gold medal or prove that
you don’t have what it takes?”
Thinking about my visits with some of
their families, I responded, “No, they
have families. Most have children. And
it’s not easy for them to leave their
families behind. They make big
sacrifices because running provides a
way out of poverty for many Kenyans.”
We were approaching the front of the
line when Amy said, “Well, it really
sounds like fascinating work.”
“Next,” the ticket counter agent said.
It was finally our turn.
“Hey,” James yelled as Emily and I
walked up to the counter. “What was the
web address again?”
“Chasing kimbia dot com,” I replied.
“You should check it out.”
“I will. Have a safe trip back guys.”
And it was from this conversation that
I realized there was no way to
summarize what I experienced and
documented over the last three months. I
had traveled to Kenya, visiting not only
their training camp in the rural village of
Iten, but also their homes. To watch an
elite athlete train is one thing. But to see
him at home, interacting with his family
is what finally opened my eyes to the
secret of Kenyan success. Are you ready
for it…the secret is…NOTHING! There
is no secret. They train hard. It’s no
secret. They eat unprocessed foods. It’s
no secret. They have a great genetic
pool. It’s no secret. They have spent
hundreds of years adapting to altitude.
It’s no secret. Running is the primary
sport in Kenya. It’s no secret. Running
provides a way out of poverty. It’s no
secret. And so on.
So instead of trying to summarize my
experience living with these athletes
over the last few months, I wanted to
share the culmination of the
chasingKimbia Season Two – The
Boston Marathon. At the very least,
you’ll realize the Kenyan athletes are
human, just like you and me. At best,
you’ll learn more about their culture and
the sacrifices they make to be the elite
runners of the world. Who
knows…perhaps you’ll even cheer for
them by name at the next road race.

RACE DAY. WATCHING


FROM OUR HOTEL ROOM.
“Guys, I tell you this. Someone is
going to win the race tomorrow.” He
paused for a few seconds to let it sink in.
“No matter if the weather is [crap] or the
wind is blowing - someone will win the
race.”
Those were Coach Dieter Hogen’s
final words the night before the race. We
were huddled in the hotel room with the
athletes – Ben Maiyo, Stephen Kiogora
(know affectionately as “Baba”), and
James Koskei – who were sitting close
to each other on the bed. Dieter was
standing in front of them on the other
side of the room.
“James, this is your best training in a
real long time. You should not let it go
to waste.”
“I know,” James responded anxiously
before taking in a very deep and slow
breath, as if he was trying to calm
himself down.
“You are in great shape James. You
can run very well here.”
Fifteen hours later James would finish
fourth in the Boston Marathon. It was
his best marathon race ever and
probably one of his greatest athletic
accomplishments. Several years ago
James was winning every short road
race in America. But he was also getting
old. His speed was diminishing and it
was time for him to try the marathon. At
the age of 38 he put together a great
period of training and pushed his ageless
body to a fourth place finish in a tough
Boston Marathon. Incredible.
“Ben and Baba,” Dieter continued,
addressing Maiyo, the 2006 Boston
Marathon runner-up and his training
partner Baba, the 2006 New York City
Marathon runner-up. “You are both
proven competitors. There is no doubt
you can run very well tomorrow.
Training has been very good. We did a
very strong 30K and the 15K was fast
enough. You guys are ready.”
They proved yet again that they are
great competitors – and contenders.
When the race broke open over
heartbreak hill, six athletes remained.
Three of them were Ben, Baba, and
James. These six athletes were the
contenders, the competitors. At that
point, when the six athletes turned left
onto Beacon Street at the Dunkin’
Donuts, the anticipation in our hotel
room went through the roof. No one said
a word, but we were all thinking the
same thing – “Maybe, just maybe, they
can go 1-2-3.”
Optimism runs rampant over the final
stages of a race when you still have guys
in contention. That’s one thing I learned
from the marathons in New York and
Boston. But one-by-one our guys fell off
the pack. First Ben. My heart sank.
There are many guys who deserve to
win, but if you had to rank them, Ben
would certainly be near the top of the
list. He is quiet and focused and
extremely serious. Every time I see him
he lets me into his life just a little bit
more. And because of that I’ve become
one of his biggest fans. I wanted Ben to
win that race more than anything else.
Then James fell off the back. It wasn’t
a big surprise. James is a great
competitor and a fast finisher, but he’s
also 38. I don’t think anyone expected
him to be where he was. Except James.
You could see it in his eyes and hear it
in his voice the night before – he wasn’t
going to waste his current level of
fitness. James, one of the nicest and
most easy-going guys in the sport of
athletics, would finish in a final sprint,
out kicking a much younger Ethiopian
runner to place fourth.
With Ben and James off the back, our
hopes hung with Baba. Rightfully so, we
were optimistic. In New York he closed
well over the last 5K and out kicked
Paul Tergat in the final 800 meters. He
was in a great position to come out as
the victor. Then came the twitch in his
upper left leg. It was just enough to
force a slightly slower pace. In the
course of 50 meters it was over. Robert
Cheruiyot and James Kwambai had
pulled too far ahead, leaving Baba
behind. He fought the wind and the pain
over the final two miles to finish third –
his second podium finish in as many tries.
There was a collective sigh of relief in
our hotel room. Another season had
come to an end.
“Okay, that’s not too bad,” Dieter said
after seeing Ben cross the finish line.
“Third, fourth, and six. Not bad.”
There was a long silence in the room
as everything started to settle in. Then
Dieter added, almost to himself, “But we
didn’t win the race.”

AFTER THE 2007 BOSTON


MARATHON. IN THE ELITE
ATHLETE RECOVERY ROOM.
We hurried over to the elite athlete
recovery area in the Fairmont Copley
Plaza. It was chaotic, but very
controlled. Ropes and dividers kept
everyone where they needed to be. And
just in case you wandered into a place
you didn’t belong, security was quick to
show you the way to the door.
When an athlete crosses the finish line
he/she is immediately assigned a
chaperone that escorts the athlete to the
recovery room, which is nothing more
than a conference room converted into a
post-race training room. Dozens of
chairs line one side of the room.
Gatorade and bottled water sit sealed on
tables at the far corner. Bagels and fruit
sit on trays on an adjacent table. Along
one wall is a row of massage tables, next
to each is a massage therapist waiting to
help aid recovery. Scattered throughout
is a sea of orange. Either the orange
Boston Marathon jackets worn by the
race staff, or the orange vests worn by
USADA drug testing personnel. The top
three finishers and a random selection of
athletes are assigned a second chaperone
immediately after crossing the finish line
– a USADA drug tester. These
chaperones will not let the athlete out of
sight from the time he/she crosses the
finish line until they have peed in a cup
and signed all the paperwork. For some
athletes it may take 20 minutes. For
others it can take an hour or longer.
James is the first to arrive. He’s
wearing the biggest smile in the room
and two volunteers flank him. He must
have been randomly selected by
USADA.
“Great job James,” Tom says as they
embrace in a hug. Tom Ratcliffe is the
founder of KIMbia Athletics, the
management company that represents
these athletes.
“Thanks,” James responds with an
even bigger smile. He nods his head
quickly several times before shrugging
his shoulders. He doesn’t speak, but we
can all read his mind - I still have it.
Baba comes around the corner next
carrying his green race bag and a
bouquet of flowers. He flashes us his
signature smile as he makes the rounds
with each of us. It’s hard to gauge his
initial reaction - he’s always smiling.
“Tom,” a voice yells from around the
corner. “Ben is in here.”
Tom and Dieter flash their brown
passes and enter the recovery room to
find Ben lying face down on a massage
table. Ice is wrapped around his foot and
up the back of his leg. What looked like
an achilles injury at first turned out to be
a problem with his metatarsal - perhaps
a dropped metatarsal, which is much
better, in terms of recovery, than an
achilles injury. When I enter the
recovery room Ben is still lying face
down and appears to be in pain.
“Habari?” I ask in Swahili, meaning
‘How are you?’
Ben manages to lift his head and flash
me a forced half-smile. “I am okay.”
The look of disappointment is heart
wrenching. He slowly lowers his head
back to the table and doesn’t say another
word. If I spoke better Swahili I would
stay, but what could I possibly say that
would make him feel better? I’ve been
around enough athletes to know when
they just want to be left alone. There
would be a time and place to talk to
Ben. This wasn’t it.
As I turned around to leave the room,
Baba was standing in front of me with
his big grin. “Matt, can you take my
bag? I have to go drug testing.”
“Sure, not a problem,” I respond,
taking Baba’s bright green John
Hancock bag. Next to Baba are three
people - the USADA chaperone, the race
chaperone, and a BAA official
responsible for getting athletes to the
press conference.
“Matt,” the official says after listening
to a message in his headset. “We need
Stephen for the press conference.”
“Oh, okay,” I responded, somewhat
surprised. “We just talked to Jack and he
said they didn’t need him.”
“Nope. They changed their minds.
They want the top three finishers.”
“Sure. That’s fine.”
I look at Baba, who is clearly
confused. “Baba, they want you for the
press conference.” He nods his head.
“But you also have to do drug testing,
okay?”
“Okay.”
“It looks like they want to do the press
conference first, so why don’t you drink
some more water and go with this
gentleman to the press conference. We’ll
come in the other side and meet you
there.”
“Okay,” Baba nods, a smile never
leaving his face.

MONDAY NIGHT. AT KING’S.


I didn’t expect Ben to come. When I
saw him a few hours after the race, he
was lying in his bed with ice wrapped
around his foot. His mood was somber
to say the least. But at the dinner table
when Tom asked if the guys were
coming to the post race party, they all
nodded in unison. “Yes.”
“Good,” Tom said. “We’ll see you
guys there.”
King’s is a bowling alley/bar/
restaurant/ arcade/billiards super fun
place. And it was the spot of the elite
athlete post-race party. The athletes
spend all season focused on a single goal
– so it’s fun for them to let off some
steam when it’s all over. And that’s
exactly what the athletes were doing.
Ben, Baba, and James were already
several frames into a heated bowling
match. They were laughing and smiling,
enjoying a rare night out on the town. It
didn’t take long before the music kicked
up another decibel. And once that
happens, you know it’s only a matter of
time before the first person, with the
help of some liquid courage, steps out
onto the dance floor. First to hit the floor
were a few BAA volunteers. But before
long it was packed with athletes,
coaches, family members, managers, and
staff. Lidiya Grigoryeva and Jelena
Prokopcuka, who hours earlier battled
each other from Hopkinton to Boston to
finish 1st and 2nd in the Women’s race,
were now dancing up a storm with
Denisova Lyubov (7th place). It was a
great moment to take in. Rarely do you
see this side of the sport - the best
athletes in the world letting their hair
down after (not only) a hard race, but an
agonizing four month training cycle. It’s
a rare moment because in a few weeks,
they’ll be at it again – making sacrifices,
pushing their bodies to the limit,
teetering on the edge of injury – all in
the hopes of having something to
celebrate at the finish line.
It was a night I’ll never forget.
Bowling with Ben, Baba, and James was
hysterical. It was the first time they had
ever played, but surprisingly they were
quite good. The lights were turned low
and the lanes were illuminated with
fluorescent and black lights. Large TV
screens hung over the lanes displaying
either photos from the last few days or
music videos that corresponded to the
dance music playing throughout the bar.
When a Shakira video came on, Ben
tapped me on the shoulder. “This is good
music,” he said with a smile. Then he
yelled something in Swahili to Baba and
pointed up at the screen. Baba laughed
and said something back in Swahili.
Immediately afterwards Ben stood up
and walked to the ball return. He
grabbed a bright orange ball and heaved
it as hard as he could right down the
center of the lane. A strike in the 10th
frame. He smiled and started towards his
seat. I had to explain to him that he got
two more balls. After his third ball he
smiled when his score flashed up on the
screen - 116. Not bad for his first time
ever.

MONDAY NIGHT.
AFTER KING’S.
Tom said it best – “The elite athlete
recovery area is actually a depressing
place to be. There are only a small
handful of happy athletes. Everyone else
is depressed.”
The athletes don’t come to the race to
place in the top 10. Sure, there are
exceptions, and when you really get
down to it, making the podium is cause
for celebration - but for the most part,
there are 2 or 3 happy athletes, and a
dozen or so who did not perform up to
their own expectations. But by the time
the after party hits, all is forgotten...if
only for a few hours.

TUESDAY AFTERNOON. TEAM


MEETING AT THE HOTEL.
Twenty-four hours hadn’t even passed
and he wanted to race again. Not
necessarily today, but as soon as
possible. And it didn’t matter where or
against whom. He just wanted another
chance. He wanted a race to go
according to plan and without that pain
in his foot. He wanted the Mafrika, but
he knew it would have to wait. The only
thing that mattered to Ben Maiyo on
Tuesday morning was that he didn’t
want to wait another six months before
toeing the starting line. He wanted
another race. And he wanted it soon.
Although you have to admire his
determination and competitiveness,
racing in the next few weeks would not
be the best decision for Ben’s long-term
career. He needed to rest and let his foot
heal. He pushed Tom and Dieter pretty
hard, but in the end he relented to their
advice. Get some rest, relax at home,
spend time with your family – and then
we’ll do it all over again. That was
Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon we
sat down for the end-of-season team
meeting.
Coach Dieter was very pleased with
both the training and the racing for Ben,
Baba, and James. He was very upbeat
and positive throughout the meeting. In
the unpredictable sport of marathon
racing, you can’t be unhappy with 3rd,
4th, and 6th. But at the same time you
don’t have to be 100% satisfied either.
Ben and Baba weren’t 100% satisfied.
After the race I asked Baba if he was
happy with his race. “Me, I have to be
happy. I finish number three in the
Boston Marathon.” Then he paused and
squinted his eyes searching for the right
words. “But I want to win the race.”
Because his English isn’t perfect, I
wasn’t sure if he was referring to
yesterday (wanted to win) or next year
(want to win), but it doesn’t matter – I’m
pretty certain he feels the same about
both.
At the end of the meeting, Dieter
asked the guys what’s next. James was
just happy to be in shape and feeling
rather recovered after the race. He wants
to continue his marathon training, but
had no firm plans where he wanted to
race next. “Coach, you know best,” he
said.
Then Dieter turned to Baba. “I want to
run New York,” he said with a smile.
That was it.
Ben was sitting with his head down
when Dieter said, “And what about you
Maiyo?” Ben continued to stare at the
floor for a few seconds before lifting his
head and looking at Dieter.
“I want to beat the Mafrika,” Ben said,
emphasizing each word. Then he added
quietly, “I want to race Cheruiyot.”
Mafrika is a nickname given to Robert
Cheruiyot (2007 Boston Marathon
Champion). In Swahili Mafrika means
African. I’m not sure where the
nickname comes from, but I assume it’s
because Cheruiyot is the best marathoner
in the world right now. He is The
Mafrika. In a way, I think Ben must feel
like he could be the Mafrika. He has
finished 2nd twice (Chicago 2005 and
Boston 2006) and felt like he could have
won the race yesterday, had his foot not
caved in at 23 miles. A different
outcome in those three races and Ben
Maiyo is The Mafrika.
“Okay,” Dieter said matter-of-factly.
“I assume he will be back to defend his
title in Chicago.”
“Then I want to run Chicago,” Ben
said sternly. And that was the end of the
conversation...
_

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