LRC Track Talk With Ricky Simms And Noah Ngeny
The two men who manage and coach 2010 World Cross-Country Champion Joseph Ebuya talk with LetsRun.com's Robert Johnson about Ebuya's Amazing Rise To To The Top
On Thursday, LetsRun.com was honored to get to talk to the people behind the success of 2010 World Cross-Country champion Joseph Ebuya. For more than an hour, we talked to Ricky Simms and Noah Ngeny about Ebuya's amazing life story and rise to the top during our 7th Edition of Track Talk.
Simms is the head of PACE Sports Management and is an agent for 80 top athletes from around the world including Usain Bolt. In addition to his agent duties, Simms also is the coach of many top distance runners on the planet including Ebuya, 2009 5,000m World Champion Vivian Cheruiyot, 2009 World 10k Champion Linet Masai, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and road 10k world record holder Micah Kogo, former world champion Ben Limo and on and on.
Ngeny, who (along with Sammy Rono) is Simms' "man on the ground" in Kenya, is better known as the 2000 Olympic 1,500m champion and 1,000m world record holder. His time of 2:11.96 is still the world record today.
There certainly have been a lot of rags-to-riches stories coming from Kenya over the years, but Ebuya's life story is truly special and one we wanted the world to learn all about.
Last weekend in Poland, Ebuya became the first Kenyan man to win the World Cross-Country title since 1999. Currently, Ebuya may be the king of the distance of world, but as recently as six years ago, he'd never had a toothbrush and had lived his entire life as a nomad. In terms of running, he had no idea really what the numbers on a clock meant, and even the concept of winning a race and crossing the finish line first was somewhat foreign to him. After Ebuya ran 13:03 in the 4th 5k of his life, he was offered a Nike contract. The only problem was, he had never held a pen and didn't know how to sign his name. Truly unbelievable.
In 2004, as a 15- or 16-year-old, Ebuya started running barefoot in trousers next to some of Simms' athletes in Kenya. At first, he could only keep up for 10 minutes, then 20, and soon he was keeping up for 40 minutes of a hard training run with guys that had broken 13:00 for 5k. Simms was convinced to let Ebuya into the training camp and the rest is history (after a few bumps in the road).
Ebuya started off at first as a pacer in practice for 2005 world champ Ben Limo, but soon he was taken to Europe as a reward for doing good pace work. After a winning a coin toss between three of Simms' athletes for a spot in a race in Huesden, Ebuya ran 13:03 and his career as a pro runner was on.
To learn all about Ebuya's amazing life story, as well how Simms handles coaching some of the top runners in the planet while also being one of the top agents, we highly encourage you to listen to the show. Simms was a great guest, as he talked about everything from Ebuya to the differences of coaching Kenyans and Western athletes to the role of drugs in the sport.
If you missed the live broadcast, you can download it in its entirety, listen to it at the player on the left or read a full transcript of the podcast here. All of those options will take up some time, as the show's transcript is more than 11,000 words long and some 19 pages in Microsoft Word.
Many of you may not have that type of time, so please see the highlights of the show below. A nice Ebuya profile also exists here.
Simms Talking About Ebuya's Backround
"(He is from the Turkana tribe and) they roamed from place to place, month to month, probably living in what Noah (Ngeny has) described as a cave or a small hut and just moving their goats to different places to feed. Living off the goats and whatever they find in the forest, fruit from the tree, that kind of thing. So that's pretty much the background and how he grew up. Therefore he didn't have any school, they didn't have any money, they didn't give him any money. He didn't have things like a toothbrush, clothes, shoes, things that we would take for granted."
Simms On How Ebuya Joined His Group
(In 2004) Albert Chepkurui, who was one of the big guys then (Editor's Note: Chepkurui's PRs are 12:56 and 26:38) and he said, 'Ricky, you wanna see this guy; he was running with us today, we were going fast and he was able to stay with us for 40 minutes. But he had no shoes on, he was running in trousers.' And I was like, 'Whoa, that's pretty good.'"
Simms On Ebuya's 13:03 5k In His 4th 5k
"With the World Championships coming up, there was sort of a break in the European calendar, so I was able to get 1 place for 1 of these guys in Heusden ... and in a flip of a coin, Ebuya was the one who got the flip there and he (ran) 13:03, so it was a massive shock to all of us. And I remember the next day when he came home I brought him into the office and Benjamin Limo was there to translate because we knew he didn't have very good English. And that's really when I first found out his story. I asked him 'how did the race go?' He looked at me like 'What are you talking about?' And Benjamin explained that he didn't speak English and he told me where he came from and how he was getting on. So I said 'What time did he go through the first kilometer? At 3k what was the split?' And he looked at me again and Ben translated it into Swahili and he said 'He doesn't know.' And I said, 'What do you mean? Did he not see the clock?' And he said 'Yeah, he saw the clock, he saw the numbers, but he doesn't know what the numbers said.' It was a completely new experience for him."
"I think soon after that, we were able to negotiate a contract for him with Nike. We brought him in to sign the contract, but he hadn't held a pen before. So he didn't really have a signature. So those are the things he started learning about at that time so you know really - that was 2005, the last 5 years have been schooling. He's a very popular guy and he's improved so much. He really came from a very difficult background."
"You know, another thing I just want to say is, all these things, we're not being disrespectful to him in any way - not having a signature or that kind of thing - it's not something that's funny; it's just a fact and he didn't have an opportunity, the things that we're used to. So I think it's even more of a testament to him that he's done so well considering all the hurdles that he had to overcome there."
Simms Talking About How Ebuya Didn't Really Grasp That He Needed To Finish 1st In Races - Not Just Finish With the Leaders
"I remember someone was calling me from the (world junior 10k final) and commentating and on the last lap of the 10k they're saying, 'Oh, Ebuya looks like he's jogging. He looks very good. (The Ethiopian Jeylan is) leading, Ebuya's on his shoulder, it looks like he's going to unleash his finish now.' And they get to 80m to go and he started looking around, started dropping his arms, and (the guy on the phone says to me), 'He thinks this is a heat!' And I'm on the phone saying, 'No, no, no it's a final! Tell him to sprint!' So what happened? He crossed the line and finished 2nd. (But) again (after the race), he was celebrating (and) did a victory lap."
"We kind of then started wondering 'what is going on?' And we realized that through his whole running career, the objective for him was to keep up with the leaders. If they were doing an hour he would keep up for 10 minutes, then 15 minutes then up to 40 minutes. So I think the concept of actually trying to beat someone in a sprint was still something that when you told him, he knew it, but it really wasn't deep down. He was still happy to kind of be in front and kind of finish at the front. He liked the feeling when you finished at the front of the group. He'd feel quite good about it. So that killer instinct in the last lap was something that we saw that he didn't really quite get it quite yet. It's something that took a couple of years working at to getting up to really wanting to win these races."
Simms On What Ebuya Learned While Spending 9 Months In The Kenyan Military In 2008-09
"I think that experience in the army was good for him because he got the education that he didn't have when he was younger. And he was taught discipline and they learn a lot of things there. Also because he hadn't been running for almost a year then, he saw the money was running out so I think it made him hungry to put it on the line to keep earning the way he can."
Simms On What Winning The World Cross-Country Title Means In Kenya
"It's 11 years since a Kenyan man won the 12k so it's a really, really big thing for them. It's their 'scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl' or a goal in the FA Cup final, whatever the big sporting event is in whatever country you come from. Winning the World Cross-Country for a Kenyan is pretty much right up there with those events. I think he had a great reception coming home yesterday and the President and everyone wanted to meet him."
Simms On How Defeating Kenenisa Bekele In December Really Boosted Ebuya's Confidence
"A key race this year was the Edinburgh cross-country when he defeated Kenenisa Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge was third and one of our other guys, Titus Mbishei got second. I think that gave him a lot of confidence because, you know, Kenenisa Bekele, we've tried everything to beat him ... the most talented athlete, no matter what you do ... remember, in 2007 we thought we had him beat with a lap to go but he still won in the 10,000m at the World Champs. I think when Joseph actually beat him I remember him crossing the finish line in Edinburgh shaking his head in disbelief, thinking, 'Where's Bekele?' He didn't believe it. So that was a big boost for him and I think now winning this, again it confirms that he can win these things."
Simms On How Ebuya Has Learned To Push The Pace From The Front
"I was a little bit angry with him last year in the race in Brussels when he ran 12:59, because it looked like he could have run much faster but he waited at the front, he didn't move on. We used to have an athlete called Daniel Komen, who was just a reckless frontrunner. He just went out at a pace and just killed everyone. I think Joseph, he's not a crazy finisher. He has that ability to lap very fast."
"I think what I was really happy about at World Cross-Country was that he wasn't afraid to take it on. He led most of the race. I think that was good, developing that confidence to not just sit and wait and look where Bekele is going or where the other guys are ... that he was able to just go to the front and assert himself on the race."
Simms Talking About Whether He Worries If Ebuya's Win & Sudden Fame Will Hamper His Focus
"It's definitely something that we have to monitor very closely. I think when you come from (a poor) background and you earn 100,000 dollars over a couple of years, then you think you're a very rich man already, so why do you need to run anymore? You can buy your house and your cars and everything else. And we have seen definitely some athletes in the past who have been happy with what they've got and they didn't need to run for 20 years when they could just run for four or five years and earn a lot of money and they're living very comfortably and they're very happy with their career."
"Who said you have to go and punish yourself every day for an extra five years if you're happy, if you've got enough?"
"I think in Joseph's case, one of the things we try and do is keep him grounded. We have to buy his little bit of land first, he has to build a house, then he can get cars and stuff after that."
"But you know the thing as well, with the Kenyans, is that you look around tomorrow and there's five guys who are maybe going to beat you again. So just because he won the World Cross-Country last weekend, if there's another race next Sunday and we put (Micah) Kogo and Moses Masai and Martin Mathathi and all these guys in with him again, he's gonna have to work hard to beat them as well (and) they weren't even in Poland."
"The depth is so great and this is one of the things (about Kenya). It's hard to make a star of a Kenyan athlete compared to some other countries because today you win and tomorrow you finish fourth, but you're still doing an amazing performance. Whereas, in other countries ... even on a bad day, (you're) still gonna be number one ... So I think Joseph knows he has to be on his toes because, again, there's ten of his training partners (who) are breathing right down his neck or even who'd be looking around at him from the front if he lets it slip for even one or two weeks."
Simms On The Challenge An Agent Faces In Trying To Publicize Kenyan Athletes As Individuals & Stars
"(We try) to give them an identity of their own."
Because people talk about the Kenyans and it makes me a little bit mad because they're not "the Kenyans." We don't call (Westerners) "the British" or "the Irish" or "the Spanish" - they're athletes - everyone's an individual. Everyone has good days, bad days. And there's a lot of individuals, so sometimes it's hard to know all of them, but people like us who work in the sport, we know them as individuals. So I think that's a challenge for the sport.
And really, as a Kenyan athlete, you have to be marketable. That's why Haile Gebrselassie has been so good is because he consistently is winning all the time. Kenenisa Bekele is winning. And, in Ethiopia, those two guys are pretty sure they're going to make the team toward the World Championships every year and the World Cross-Country every year, whereas in Kenya, you can make it one year and you can be sixth, seventh the next year, so you're not getting a chance to be on the big stage. I think you see with the women that the depth isn't quite as good and that's why we are able to make the girls a little bit more famous.
Simms On Whether He Thinks Westerns Like Dathan Ritzenhein Can Compete With The Kenyans And Ethiopians
"I definitely think they can compete. I think, as we've said all throughout this discussion, that it's such a depth of Kenyan athletes that one guy has a bad day and three guys are having a good day. So if Ritz has a bad day, there's no one else there from the U.S. to take his place."
"But I think especially the shorter the distance, it's easier. Like at the 800 meters and the 1,500 meters. (Take) Leo (Manzano), for example. Last year in the World Athletics Final, he finished the last 200 meters faster than anyone and he beat some big names in that race and I definitely think he's one ... look out for him in the championships because he's got this killer kick."
Simms On How The African Athletes Are Fearless
"What the Africans are particularly good at are the fast-paced races on the circuit ... they run free, they run fearless ...Joseph Ebuya is not really counting the seconds in the lap and if they run through in 57 on the first lap, it doesn't really bother him; it's not something that fazes him."
"I think, again, going back ... Daniel Komen was the best example of that. You know, he could knock in a 58 in the middle of the race and run a sub-four-minute mile I think in the World Champs in '97 in the middle of the race and maybe other people would be overthinking it and saying, 'Oh, I'm gonna die now. This is too much for me.''"
"Whereas the Kenyan guys - really, they're fearless and Noah (Ngeny), in his career, he used to go out and go after it every race. And I think it's not been happening as much anymore since El Guerrouj, Noah ... and Bernard Lagat came in at the later stages as well ... and Morceli earlier, but those races aren't happening as much."
Simms On The Difference Between Coaching Westerners And Kenyans
"I think coaching the Kenyans is a little bit different because they train in a group. They don't analyze every single thing they do every day or every little ache and pain. A lot of the times, they can be injured and not even tell you because they don't want to miss a race or, you know, it's just their culture is a little bit different. So it's a lot easier when they're here in the summertime. We go to the track, we do a workout, and then I don't see them until the next day when we go back to the track again."
"Whereas, even as manager for a lot of non-Kenyan athletes ... they come into the office, we talk a lot longer about how they felt in the workout, about how their blood test was, about how everything is going. And I think perhaps we over think things too much sometimes, so it's definitely a different challenge to coach ... I couldn't coach Leo because I would have to dedicate my whole ... that's a full-time job, whereas I can still manage to have an impact on the Kenyans with Noah and with Sammy Rono in Kenya. I can have an impact on what they're doing without talking about it 24-7."
Simms On Coaching:
"(Kim McDonald) was meticulous at keeping files of all his training and he didn't get as much recognition as a coach - he coached Daniel Komen, Moses Kiptanui, Noah Ngeny, who were all world record holders or Olympic champions. And so he kept every single workout ... So when I came here ten years ago, I studied those workouts. That was my daily reading. Every night, I was taking that stuff home to try and learn what he was doing at the time. So you know, we have the structure in place. I look back at my files - what Limo did in 2005 and Kipsiro, what he'd do for that workout the same week of the year and we try to just compare it like to see where people are. So it gets easier as the years go on, but coaching always has to be changing up for the individual athlete and if somebody gets injured, that's where the work starts, really."
"(When) things are going well - coaching is easy. It's when things are not going so well, you have to really think about it."
Simms On Whether Declining Drug Use May Explain Why Times Aren't As Fast As They Were A Few Years Back
"100% (I'll) bet my life on it (that) Noah (Ngeny) doesn't even know what a drug is. He never had any experience with anything like that. We had William Chirchir, Laban Rotich all running sub-3:30 in the 1,500 meters, so for sure that's very, very achievable. Again, in the longer distances, a lot of the guys I worked very closely with were running very, very fast times - Moses Kiptanui and you know all those guys who ran 7:30 ..."
"I think now there's so many guys running there that sometimes the races are a little bit more tactical; people are not really going for it the way they used to."
Simms On Noah Ngeny's Amazing Work Ethic & How Current Athletes Are Distracted
"Yeah. I think one of the things as well about Noah's time, Noah - he was the hardest-training athlete I've ever worked with. If I told him to go and run 24 400s, he'd say, 'OK, let's go.' He'd have his spikes on, ready to go."
"And I think now perhaps another reason (why the times aren't faster is) that the athletes are a little more (spoiled/distracted) ... you know, everyone's on the internet, everyone's on their mobile phones, everyone likes to live the life a little bit, so it's harder for someone to (stay focused). Noah and I were just talking about this this morning - there's so many distractions now for the athletes."
"In his day, he was able to go and lock himself away in a training camp for six weeks, two months and just get the work done. And nowadays, there seem to be so many events and things going on that it's harder to do that. But hopefully we can get that discipline installed in some of the guys now and they can keep their heads on. I think with the Kenyan athletes, it's a very clear pattern that when an athlete is focused and disciplined, stays in the training camp, doesn't go home, doesn't get involved in farming and businesses and everything, they run well."
"And those guys who run well one year and then they start spending their money and doing a lot of other things, they're the ones that ... you know, when you see them disappear quite quickly and they don't have a good second year. But I think that's the job of the management and the coaches to try and keep them as focused and as disciplined."
"And that's (true) I think with every athlete in the world (not just the Kenyans). The sprinters, throwers, everything - that kind of stands true for all. I could think of many examples from Usain Bolt on ... and that's one thing his coach works very hard on is keeping him hungry for training and he's doing a fantastic job of that at the moment. I think the real champions, they really have a hunger or something inside them that makes them want to run for years and years and hopefully, Joseph can be one of those in the next few years."