Discovery

I raced yesterday in Eldoret again. We were on a different course though. Courses here are a lot different than courses in Quebec, or Canada. They’re usually on a combination of a field, a soccer pitch or a grass track, where the course loops and zigzags around and back to get the most out of the area. They’re usually pretty flat too. Yesterday’s race was called ‘Discovery’. It was a pretty big event, the whole course was marked out by ribbon, there were stands to watch and there was even a section gated off just for Mzungus. There were a lot of Mzungus, mostly tourists, probably working with a foundation, or with the race organizers and directors. Before my race I spent some time looking for Reid Coolsaet, we had talked earlier and confirmed he would be at the race with Gillis, so I took some time to track him down to say hello.

There were hundreds of athletes milling around, along with parents and spectators, but white people are pretty easy to find. I didn’t have much luck in the crowds so Simon and I decided to try the fenced off area where I could see a lot of Mzungus. We walked over, and I asked the Kenyan standing at the gate if we could go in. He said only one, which meant only me, not my friend Simon. This area was clearly for guests and maybe some fast white athletes, either way, the only reason I was being allowed in was because I was white, and because this guy thought/assumed I belonged in this area. I explained I was looking for a friend and that I wanted my friend to come with me, but no dice. Simon said to just go in, and he’d wait.

As I walked over I sort of soaked it in. Suddenly it wasn’t crowded. Only notable Kenyans were in this area, like Kenyan Athletics presidents and the like, then, a whole lot of white people. I looked around for a bit, but couldn’t spot Reid or Gillis, so I turned around. I instantly spotted Michael and our friend Laban. I suppose in the time Michael arrived at the race, and when I began my search for Reid, Michael had been accosted by some Kenyan Athletics reps because he was completely decked out in the same clothing as the rest of the tourists and officials walking around, bright, clean, red shirts with ‘Discovery XC Kenya’ across the front, and a bright brand new white nike cap. I was a little jealous of the cap.

I didn’t like it that I couldn’t bring my friend with me, and I wanted to get out as quickly as possible. Outside the visits to friends we go on around Mosoriot on weekends, I sometimes feel uncomfortable when I’m suddenly pulled away from my buddies and treated differently, ‘special’, it feels like somewhere someone is flexing their political muscles, gesturing to all the Mzungus they’ve corralled and yelling triumphantly: ‘Look how clever I am!’.

So that sounded a little pessimistic.

I found Simon pretty quick, threw my arm around him, told him I didn’t have any luck finding my Canadian friend and I didn’t wait to go back.

I warmed up way too early, because I was unaware that there were youth sections at this event. So after 25min of jogging I think I waited for almost 2hrs. No big deal. One thing about doing triples is you always feel like you’ve just ran; it never takes too long to warm up either.

Finally once the junior women had gone, it was clear we were taking off soon. I jogged and hopped around with Simon. Had my spikes on, along with my sweet Mizuno racing shorts and singlet, engraved with the late Montreal Endurance logo. Good times. I felt good, but I wanted to treat this race as a tempo. Going out safe is the only way to go, and racing isn’t the goal for me here; training is.

All at once, without a warning, the guys starting lining up, the line was maybe 80m wide, and five to six guys deep. I like hanging right at the back, start lines can get really rough. Turns out there were three other mzungus. Two Italians and one guy from Switzerland, maybe. The latter couldn’t speak a lick of English. One of the Italians said he has a pb of 13:30, he looked my age, a lot shorter and stocky. The other reminded me of my training buddy Marco back in Montreal. He said he ran 8:20 for 3k. We chatted for a bit, jogged back and forth as the officials yabbed on about something or other to all the junior men. Then bang! The gun went, which is funny because we hadn’t even lined up at the startline, which was 50 feet in front of us.

The field sprinted off mad, then slowed to a dead walk around the first sharp left turn, we were off. I looked around and could see that I was near the back, of the group, but I wasn’t worried, I knew if I stuck with my tempo plan, I’d climb up nicely. I could see the 8:20 Italian not for ahead, so I knew I’d probably be catching him after the first 2k loop or so. With the guys so tightly bunched, the dust was really bad through the first few k’s. It was tough to see and breathe. Through 2k I felt comfortable, my watch said 7:15, but the markers were all over the place; the start and finish were in different spots, and it was supposed to be a 2k loop. As I climbed through the field I battled a bit. Three Kenyans at a time would feel me coming up, look back and see a Mzungu, then surge like mad. They’d even drift out in front of me, WIDE, to keep me from passing. I passed the Italian not long after 2k, and kept moving without too much effort. On 4k I tried to stay patient, but I could feel the guys around me slowing, and my effort level still wasn’t too high so I continued to pass guys. At this point there were two Kenyans sort of following me, climbing through the field. They would hang on as I’d pass a group, then surge passed me to get into the clear, then 150m or so later I’d pass them getting up to another group. At around 5k I started to feel it. The heaviness. I started to get a stitch in my stomach, and my legs were getting heavy, but I was still passing dudes. I met a while ago in Kerichou, an Australian. He’s been on the hunt for athletes looking to set up a training camp possibly in Nakuru. Running by him he told me I was the first Mzungu; the two Italians and the Swiss dropped out. I started to fight. I was riding the red line and had 2k to go. I stuck with the guys around me, 5 or so, and got into their rhythm; slowing right down around turns and surging on straights. When we got closer to the finish the pace increased and I responded. 400m out from the finish the course zigzags back and forth with 180 turns four times. We all kicked on the last turn with about 50m to go, I slipped in front of two or three of them.

I was so far back they had run out of popsicle sticks with numbers on them to know my place, but at 6k Michael said I was about 140th, so I probably finished right around their. Simon told me the officials had announced 420 starters. Tons of guys dropped out, throughout the entire race bodies could be spotted along the sides. At the start guys were tripping and falling all around me, and within the first kilometer six or seven guys had stopped dangerously in the middle of the lane, trying to make their way to the outside of the course. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were only 250 finishers. But it was impossible to know for sure. At the chute there were two lanes for some reason, and finishers were coming in all mixed up, and there was one lady taking the detachable part of our bibs in her hand, mixing up both lanes as they filled up. I think they only really care about the top 40 or so. I don’t know what the winning time was, but Simon ran low 24s and he was in the 60s.

We had fun watching the men’s senior race after our cool down. The leaders are ridiculous. Asbel Kiprop was serious and finished 5th I think, which is better than his first race in Eldoret a few weeks ago where he dropped out. Reid seemed to have put in a good effort, doing something similar to what I did, working his way up the field. He’s only been here for a few days, so not quite adjusted yet. I think he finished in the low 100s. The race was changed from a 12k to a 10k, and the winner won in 29 high, which seemed slow to most of my buddies and I. They were all expected a 27min 10k. We thought the course might be a little long.

Later we joined Reid, Eric and his crew for lunch in town. My buddies came with, but when we arrived Simon was the only one who joined us in the restaurant (it was pretty expensive for Kenyans) the rest joined the Kenyans from Reid’s group and went to a Kenyan place. We sat down and ordered.

They had burgers and chocolate milkshakes. Milkshakes. Chocolate ones. Milkshakes. Boner.

As we sat down, Jake and Zane Robertson joined us with their Kenyan friends. These guys are hilarious. They’re really living the life here. Zane is down for acouple months from Ethiopia where he has a girlfriend. Jake lives and trains in Iten. The know how to kick it here. Zane led the men’s 10k for a solid 3k or so, then got a stitch or something and had to pull out. The Kenyans know they’re tough. We all chatted about whatever came to mind, about races, Eikiden, coaches, crazy Kenyan Athletics guys, the training here in Kenya and youth in the sport back home.

It was nice to sit down and chat with some westerners/and Canadians. Even runners I look up to. I quickly found out though that we are having very different experiences. On our way back to the cars Reid pulled out a photo of his digs in Iten. It’s a resort, complete with a pool and gym room, and their diet isn’t drastically different from food back home. They were nice enough to invite us up to stay to chill, or even for a few nights, apparently accommodations aren’t difficult to find. My problem is I have no money to spend on luxuries. A pool is pretty tempting though, you can’t swim anywhere here because it’s easy to get parasites, and I stay away from touching any water that isn’t in a container or on a stove.

What I mostly got from sitting around with all those guys; the Robertsons and two Olympic Canadian Marathoners was reassurance. Not that I have any doubt about what I’m doing. It was more the ease, relaxed atmosphere and confirmation that it all works, and it’s all a good time.

Which is exactly what I’m experiencing, in my local way.

Simon enjoyed a solid vegeburger, and his first chocolate mocha milkshake. The burger had arrived with the buns lying on the plate, like at restaurants at home, in case you want to pick out something, or add ketchup or whatever. He started eating the two buns separately. I should him how the top bun sits on the patty and you squeeze them together and bite out of it like a sandwich. He loved it. I’m glad he came, and tried something new. A lot of our Kenyan friends always hint at wanting to come to Canada, and asking for help to get there, but very few would be able to handle it or like it, in my opinion. They don’t know about the differences of life style, especially in food, and it doesn’t seem to cross most of their minds. Once in a while Michael or I will pull out a cliff bar, or a trail mix bar or something, and most will turn their noses at it, basically expressing an unwillingness to try something they don’t know. Simon is one of the few that is aware of the differences and is ok with putting himself in unfamiliar situations ie: sitting at a western restaurant table full of Mzungus and eating our food.

 

Q&A

During races, I have noticed that proximity is very important to the Kenyans. Seldom do you see one run well alone unless they are winning at the end. They seem to require that close contact-connection during the event. What are your thoughts?

The first thing I notice about the group running, is that it’s social. They’re all friends, just like we see in CIS or high-school teams. Many hours a week are spent together training, stretching, suffering and relaxing. In workouts most athletes will hang on as long as they can to the leaders, and then slowly drift off the back struggling badly. I’m not sure why younger athletes do this. Their last intervals end up being much slower than their firsts if they manage to complete the workout. Fartleks, out on the roads are a good example of this, the fittest athletes set the top end pace, and most follow suit, so there are never any breakaways in workouts. They may race a little, but due to the rest in the fartlek, the group is always given time to regroup and set out again together. In track workouts you can see a similar pattern, where the strongest set the top-end pace, and the rest do their best to follow it, regrouping again on recovery, but they keep the racing until the last intervals, and even then the breakaways are a couple guys, never one alone. I think this has a lot to do with the depth here. It’s difficult to imagine just how many good runners are around here, and in every group. Its crowded in the front, so I think that’s one of the reasons why we see Kenyans grouped together at the front, racing each other, because they’re the ones who are at that high level and there are so many of them. None of them are holding back, they’re giving it their all, they just happen to be all around each other. I’d keep in mind that this is what you see at the front of international races, but if you take a look at the rest of the field, you would see a number of athletes all strung back, struggling to maintain after holding on to that front pace, no matter nationality.

In yesterday’s race, the lead of about eight (including the 7:31 dude that’s in my training group) stayed together until about 5k, where they began to string out single file, just like all the rest of the poor souls who had been hanging on before the 5k mark. The leader ran solo for a good 5k, I don’t remember seeing him being challenged at all.

I think another reason is racing tactics coupled with longevity. Most want to win, that’s the one and only goal. This is their job, and if they get wins, they get bonuses and managers and sponsorships, and they don’t need to worry about life anymore. So if they are in a situation where a race is relatively slow, and they trust their kick enough they may try and win the race as easily as possible. But maybe all the Kenyans in a finishing group may be thinking the same thing, so they all stay together. Another tactic is bluffing during a race, manifesting itself in surges, a group racing each other may have individuals bluffing their fitness, and others calling their bluff, just holding onto the pace, waiting for the others to fall off. An international athlete has this dilemma, racing hard is costly so easy wins are a blessing. They get picked to travel for races in Europe or abroad. They race and race and race, and if they start racing poorly they get shipped back here, and basically dropped until they can prove their worth again. It sounds cutthroat. But it seems to be the way things go.

Slightly off topic of the close connectedness of their running, but still relevant I think, is how they talk about the race. Simon and my other buddies often call it ‘The Game’, and the last kick ‘The Fight’. I find them visualizing a lot, not for the purpose of visualizing specifically, but just imagining it, just like a striker imagines himself scoring right before he kicks a penalty shot. They talk and mime, and joke about the pain. It’s a game to them, because it’s played many times, I think. It’s never ever an end-all, be-all. There’s always another. So the games are times where they get to test themselves against one another, maybe that guy who is always finishing just slightly ahead, or always leading the fartleks. Then they recover and get back to work again.

As simple as that, no matter the result.

DNFs don’t phase them, the next game will be better.

No stress, just training and The Games.

 

Dragon