2004 Kenyan Olympic Trials - Moi International Sport Centre

Report from Nairobi by Sean Hartnett

Since Naftali Temu and Kip Keino won gold in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the selection of Kenyan middle and long distance runners remains a crucial 'qualifying round' for Olympic competitions.

The format for the 2004 Kenyan Trials called for 800 and 1500 Semis and Women's 10K Final on Friday, with Saurday's slate of 800M, 1500M, Steeple, 5000M and 10000M Finals ripped off in numbing succession. The top-two finishers in each race gain instant self-selection for Athens. The third spot was announced by Athetics Kenya during an hour-long assembly at meet's end.

Only select events are contested at the Kenyan Trials. This is a Track & little field meet, and the emphasis is on track races longer than a lap ­ races where worries about 'A' qualifiers are abandoned at the airport. SlideShows incorporating race summaries, results and photos are provided for these events via the home page.

 

Setting the Scene ­ Trackside at the Kenyan Trials

The assembled crowd of about 10,000 fans only partially fills the large concrete soccer stadium that is the Moi International Sport Centre. This is a modest facility by U.S. standards, the track is a mid-grade poured composite surface that seems to be over a decade old. A new Mondo track is soon to be rolled out at the former Olympic track in central Nairobi, and then there is that quid-pro-quo facility slated for Eldoret . . . but for this last weekend in June of 2004, there is no finer track in the world.

June is winter in Kenya and it was generally overcast and a bit cool at 20C or 68F. Unfortunately the only time the sun popped out was during the men's 5 and 10K races ­ and track temperatures rose sharply.

The precise scheduling of Saturday's Finals was set aside when the arrival of Kenyan President Kibaki was delayed ­ and after waiting an hour ­ the competition began without the Commander-In-Chief.

Despite the recent pummeling the Kenyan athletes and federation have taken at the feet of Kenenisa Bekele and his Ethiopian mates, the Kenyan mood is optimistic -particularly in the steeple, 1500 and 800, and who can deny the promise of Eliud Kipchoge who saved the Kenyan day with his epic win in The Paris 5K.

Perhaps the gathered athletes, spectators, officials and managers are simply buoyed by the prospect of sensational racing among the world's deepest pool of distance talent. Yet, sheer talent only gains you admission through the Athlete's Gate, for once the athletes take to the track, the fierce competition for Olympic selection places a premium on fearless if not predatory racing skills.

So intense is the competition that in several of the races ­ the men's 5K and 10K, and to a lesser degree steeple ­a decisive move by the victor simply decimated his vanquished foes. Unbelievably the final laps of these races looked more like a JV meet than races featuring fields chock full of A qualifiers.

I'm also told that this result is typical of logarithmic stages of fatigue experienced at altitude. Yes, the altitude. Nairobi is just below the 2,000 meter contour ­ about 6,000 feet, and racing at this altitude exacts a toll measured either in the visible duress of beaten athletes or by the stop-watch.

You might as well throw the watch away ­ except there are no clocks to begin with.

 

Competition Too Good to Watch

Yes, suddenly it dawns on me ­ the most enlightening aspect of the Kenyan Trials is simply that indeed time does not matter ­ in fact it barely exists. Scanning the stadium ­ there are no clocks in sight. No double facing digital clocks at the finish and 200, no scoreboard clock, and no listing of times with placings posted on the electric scoreboard. Sans clocks, not even a split-caller was present.

The only tribute paid to the watch was a low-grade video-feed computer timing system affixed to the finish pole, and a six-seat timers' stand. Given the published 1/10th second times, it appears as the latter hand timing system prevailed.

To me the message beholden in this 10,000 mile pilgrimage to Kenya is that the watch gets in the way of a full appreciation of the pure head-to-head competition that is our sport. The speed and tactics of these athletes is best appreciated with our eyes, whether it is the rush of the 1500 field as the fly around the final curve, or the explosive accelerations of Kipchoge and John Korir in the 10K which had the visceral fan appeal of a slam dunk. These impressions were burned into my retina and that track-side of my brain ­ long before my colleague Chris Mbaisi informed me that Kipchoge had run a Kenyan soil record 13:14.

So the next time you want to see a great competition, take my Kenyan advice and put down that watch. Too often we 'filter' what our eyes see through the numbers of the watch, and in the process miss the essential elements of the competition. Do try this at home or the meet of your choice. Put aside the watch and focus all your sensory receptors on the unfolding efforts of the athletes, and tactics that bring victory or mere misery.

 

Trackside Chat with Bernard Lagat

Indicative of the competitive nature of the Kenyan Trials, Bernard is the only Sydney medalist to advance to the Kenyan Athens team in the same event. Noah Ngeny, Reuben Kosgei, and Wilson Boit Kipketer were all dispatched to the back of the pack, while Paul Tergat has left the track for the marathon.

Now, Lagat is the veteran, yet this Sydney bronze medalist had to produce one of the strongest sprints of his career to survive the serious challenge of a new generation of Kenya milers.

Q. That was some race -

Lagat - Right here, this was the toughest competition, but we came through. The Olympics is going to be a celebration, we are going to celebrate over there.

We have two young guys, Timothy Kiptanui is very young, and Isaac Songok is also very young. It is hard to believe that I am the oldest on the team now. I wanted this one so bad ­ making the Olympics twice that is my dream. It doesn't matter coming first or third, I know I made the team.

Q. The pace was slow in yesterday's Prelims, but the final was fast from the gun.

Lagat - This was fast. You know what, as an athlete the guys get sick of seeing a slow race, and all they have to do is just see the last 300. As a runner you get sick of that.

So today I wanted to take it out all myself, and incidentally Benjamin Kipkirui came and took it. I said wow this is exactly what is supposed to be. So I followed him and just made it past.

Q. Take us through that last lap.

Lagat - I was in good position and just going by the tactics that my coach told me all the way up to 150 to go. That is when there were some guys on the inside like Alex (Kipchirchir)and another guy just came up on the outside and I couldn't go and kick. So I had to wait for everybody to go and I had to swing wide, but I am pleased with it because I had the kick. I said 'man - I got to work hard for this.'

Q. The box developed quickly and coming off the curve you were in 4th and nowhere to go.

Lagat - A lot of people said that they were worried, but you know what, when you are feeling good and strong you think that everything is in control, and that is what I felt.

Q. Now you can focus on your second Olympics-

Lagat - This is a stepping-stone towards the Olympics, this is what I need practice for because I've been losing races by within a second in the last few meters. I will run just a few races before the Olympic competition.

Q. Does this provide some measure of redemption for last year?

Lagat - This is a good thing so far. I went to indoor and got my gold, and I want to get gold again in the Olympics. So all the frustrations from last year I just put aside and all I have to do is focus on the positive energy to put aside all the negative energy.

 

Kipchoge ­ Kenya's Best Hope Goes Crazy

Iluid Kipchoge's emphatic win over 5,000 Meters stands out as the top performance at the Kenyan Trials. On paper Kipchoge's 13:14.0 is an impressive Kenyan soil record, but from trackside his mid-race attack was even more impressive as he simply shredded a field of world-class runners - like only Bekele might.

Kipchoge is a runner who does not fear the front, in fact he prefers to control the race from the point. Kipchoge set the tone for the race when he revved up the pace for the last 300 meters of the opening K. He then eased back until 3K when he attacked with a radical acceleration that broke open the front pack. A lap later Kipchoge lit-out at even a higher pace ­ the ferocity of this 1-2 pace punch left little drama for the final K.

A half-hour after his race, Kipchoge watches the 10K and explains his strategy. "I decided to run so hard that the competitors must think that you are crazy. I had to go fast and then go faster again, otherwise it won't work. Sometimes you need to be crazy in order to win the race."

Notably, this was Kipchoge's first 5K of the Olympic campaign as his focus is squarely on Athens. "I will train here in Kenya now and not go abroad for training," Kipchoge offers. "I can not say if I will come back home with a gold medal but I will try my best to be on the podium, to come one, two or three. We will have to see."

 

Post-Trials Safari with Paul Tergat

On the Sunday following the Kenyan Trials we head out to the southern N'gong Hills region for a two-hour run with Paul Tergat and a small group of athletes. We meet at Tergat's house in N'gong and load a half-dozen athletes into a Toyota Land Cruiser, and Paul brother Kip drives out to a ridge-top south of N'gong city.

The plan is not too technical, they'll run south on this dusty road for two hours. The landscape is quite different than the densely wooded N'gong Hills just a few kilometers to the north, this is more like a high arid environment. Early in the run, the approaching athletes stir a herd of zebras, near the end antelope scurry about the road.

The route rolls up and down long hills with just a few Maasai shelters along the way. Amazingly, these people with no TV or newspapers, recognize Kenya's top athlete, and call out "Tergat," and salute the passing runner.

"I have many routes," Tergat notes, "but this is one of my favorite places to train. Looking out over the vast open country, Teragt adds, "It is just me and my country. This area is quite barren and not much grows here, but to me it is beautiful." After watching the athletes log kilometers, I assure Tergat that great fitness grows along this dusty road.

After an hour some athletes retire ­ Munji has been bothered by a stomach parasite, and others had raced in the previous day's trials. Tergat presses on with Joshua Chelanga at his side. This was appropriate as Chelanga and Tergat have trained together for over a dozen years. Chelanga was the set-up man for the dominant Kenyan World Cross of the late 1990's, and later had good success on the roads. After a couple years of injury, Chelanga is returning to fine form and accompanies Tergat for the full two hours.

Rail-thin Luka follows half a kilometer back. New to Tergat's group Luka embodies the talent and determination of legions of Kenyan runners. On the drive back to N'gong, Kip pulls the Land Cruiser into a small village and the athletes stop at a small inn to commemorate the day's effort with Kenyan white tea.

 

N'gong Hill Climb

On the final day of June we accompany Tergat and a large group of athletes on a very typical N'gong workout, the climb to the top of N'gong Hill, the highest point in the N'gong. The route to the top of N'gong Hill is comprised of a series of steep climbs up narrow hard-pack red-clay roads. The athletes start amidst maize fields, then work their way up through a mixture of wooded parcels and modest farms, and finally reach a forest of fog shrouded evergreen trees. Appropriately, the rugged road pierces the clouds for the final kilometer as the athletes climb to the satellite dish and communication towers that mark the summit. "Time is not important," Tergat tells the group before they begin, "what is important is that you see the top."

This was an out-and-back (or up-and-down) run originating from Tergat's house. Because the roads are so narrow ­ with one blocked by a disabled truck ­ Kip drove to select intersections ­ to take pictures and video. The uphill climb lasted over 40 minutes, with some sections more steep than others, but all of it uphill. In some stretches the athletes were reduced to 8 minute mile pace, but they continued to climb. Near the top as we watched amidst the fog mist that hung over large pine trees, a symphony of birdsong filled the still air. I am sure the runners were oblivious to the birds as their songs are drowned out by the massive bass drum pounding of their pulse.


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