By Andy Arnold
May 24, 2016
Editor’s note: Andy Arnold ran for LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson at Cornell for three years (he ran under Zeb Lang his final year) and did a fifth year at Ohio State under Brice Allen. A 4:19 performer in HS, Arnold improved to PRs of 3:47, 8:09, 14:09, and 29:35. Johnson, Arnold and a slew of others went to Kenya in 2011 and Arnold caught the Kenyan bug. An anthropology major, Arnold recently received a Young Explorers Grant from National Geographic and thanks to that funding and the support of many others, including LetsRun.com, Andy will be in Kenya for the next four months. This is his fifth dispatch from Kenya; you can read the previous four here.
ITEN, Kenya — The 2016 IAAF Diamond League season is underway, with Sunday’s meeting in Rabat the third stop on the circuit. These 14 DL meets that span the globe attract the absolute best within the sport, and the importance of the Diamond League is not lost on Kenya’s top talent. A single victory can net an athlete vital income (it’s $10,000 for a win) and life-changing sponsorships, and the spectacular venues and disciplined rabbits allow many of the Rift Valley’s elites to run fast times early in the season, guaranteeing coveted spots in Kenya’s Olympic Trials. With Olympic dreams and financial success at stake, the world’s greatest runners use May as the time to ratchet up their training intensity with workouts that would make even Jim Ryun blush.
I have spent the past few weeks hanging around Iten’s various athletic facilities to catch a glimpse of track and field’s royalty putting in the hard work and posting some ridiculous training efforts. Two weeks ago, I witnessed Geoffrey Kamworor, and about 20 other members of coach Patrick Sang’s group, cruise 6 x 600 meters in 1:30 each, only to follow it with 10 x 300 in 39 seconds or better. Recovery was merely a 100-meter jog. This past Saturday, I joined Brother Colm O’Connell at Lornah Kiplagat‘s newly-constructed Tartan track to watch David Rudisha give new meaning to the word “speed.” A film crew from South Africa tried their best to have their drone keep pace with the Great One as he effortlessly clipped off 37-second 300’s. But they gave up entirely when he started splitting 150 meters in 16 seconds flat. Brother Colm’s comments following the training made Rudisha’s speed work even more impressive.
“He had a very difficult hill session yesterday (12 x 220 meters up one of Iten’s heartbreaking hillsides) so I’m just watching his rhythm today,” Brother Colm told me on Saturday.
The workouts put out by Kenya’s finest athletes are nothing short of incredible, and every week I find myself more impressed by the Kenyan work ethic. But nothing has been as eye-opening, (or foreshadowing for 1,500-meter runners everywhere) as watching Asbel Kiprop prepare for Saturday’s Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic.
My lesson in humility began at 8 a.m. last Tuesday, when Asbel and his training posse arrived at the High Altitude Training Center to purchase passes for Lornah Kiplagat’s track. May is the height of the rainy season in Iten, and with the roads and dirt tracks reduced to a muddy mess from incessant tropical downpours, the athletes are forced to use the Tartan surface frequently. Asbel, dressed in a teal Nike tracksuit with a series of trademark swooshes forming a gold circle over his heart, paid the 500 shillings per pass (about five dollars) for each of member of his entourage and, with spikes in hand, started the three-kilometer warm-up to the athletic facility (Rudisha also has to pay to work out here).
After about 15 minutes of light jogging, Asbel and his 12 disciples handed their passes to the gatekeeper and began strides and drills around Lornah’s complex. While spiking up, I asked Kiprop what the training schedule was for the day.
“We are doing 600s and 400s, but with short rest,” he told me. “We will probably do five times 600 and a few 400s afterwards.” Just then, 3:30 man James Kiplagat Magut (one of Asbel’s training partners) walked by and added, “This is going to be tough.”
It was a rare confession. I have never heard a Kenyan admit that a workout would be a challenge beforehand, so I braced myself for what would happen next. After everyone had stripped down and spiked up, the group of 13 athletes sauntered over to the 200-meter start line, with pacesetter Andrew Rotich at the head. Five meters from the line, the group hunched forward with hands on their watches and a slight hop in their step. A moment later, Rotich took off at a frantic pace with Asbel and Co. in tow. The first 200 meters was covered in 27 seconds and Rotich dropped out after passing 400m in 55-mid. Asbel was in the lead for the final 200 meters, and crossed the line in 1:24.
Ninety seconds later, after the training group had jogged 200 meters to get back to their start line, Rotich began again, clocking 26 though 200 meters and reaching 400 in 54-high. By the time Rotich dropped out, Asbel had separated from the pack, clocking 1:23 for his second 600-meter rep. This pattern of Rotich leading and Asbel closing stayed the same for the remainder of the 600’s, except that the gap between Asbel and his training partners would continue to grow. The 2008 Olympic champion ran 1:26 on the third rep, almost completely alone save for Rotich, and followed that effort with a 1:24-flat fourth rep. The next-closest finisher was nearly 15 meters behind when Asbel crossed the line.
The workout had already decimated the Kiprop crew, which is no small feat given the quality of his training partners. In addition to James Magut, Asbel was being chased by Elijah Kipchichir Kiptoo (3:35 PRb), Clement Langat (13:15 5,000 PR), and Hillary Maiyo (3:35 PR). By the fifth 600m, even Asbel appeared wounded, running 1:38 at the back of the pack.
But Kiprop was only taking a breather. Following the last rep, the group began to shuffle-jog around the track. Nine minutes later they returned to the start line with Asbel at the front. Half of the entourage had already tapped out and were spiking down by the high jump area, breathing heavy and licking their wounds. But Asbel was anything but tired. He ran three more 400-meter intervals at 53 seconds each, with only three minutes’ recovery. By the final rep, he was the only man left on the track.
Tuesday’s workout revealed to me the rarefied air that Kiprop currently occupies, and left no question that he is one of the best milers in the world. But what he did on Sunday revealed something far greater, and I feel confident in saying that Asbel’s breaking of the world record this year is all but a certainty.
(Editor’s note: Kiprop has sent mixed messages this year about whether he’ll attempt to break the world record in the 1,500. Prior to the DL opener in Doha, he discussed going for the WR but then said he wouldn’t attempt a WR this season. He told Arnold that he will try for the WR in Monaco on July 15.)
Like Tuesday, Asbel purchased the track passes for his band of athletes and jogged down to Lornah’s facility. The weather was cool and overcast, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. It was a good omen, because Asbel had chosen today as the final hard effort before racing the Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic. The start list of the race may very well be a preview of this summer’s Olympic final, and Asbel felt that he needed to test himself before toeing the line with the best the world had to offer.
The group was especially quiet that morning, and after hearing the training schedule from Asbel, I understood why. The Olympic champ wanted to start the day with 1200 meters at race pace. He would then take a seven-minute break, after which he hoped to do four times 400 meters with only 50 seconds’ rest. After a final seven-minute rest period, he would cap the workout off with some fast 200’s.
It was one of those workouts that middle distance runners mark on their calendars at the start of the season. A workout that NCAA teams whisper to recruits as a rite of passage. Coaches describe such days as the “signature workout,”or “going to the well” or “the ball-buster.” Every alum brags about these kinds of trials with a deep sense of pride, like war stories shared by veteran soldiers.
But what I witnessed on Lornah’s track that day was the workout to end all workouts. Andrew Rotich got things started by pacing Asbel through 800 meters in 1:51, at which point Asbel took over and closed the final 400 meters in 56 seconds. He had run 1,200 meters in 2:47… at 7,300 feet … in training. Not one member of his training squad was even remotely close to him when he crossed the line. But as some of Iten’s finest athletes came staggering down the homestretch, Asbel had already started his watch and began jogging around the track. Seven minutes later, he was back on the line and ready to tackle the 4 x 400-meter segment of the workout. Every single quarter was run in under 55 seconds by Kiprop, going 54, 53, 54, 54. Once again, Asbel was basically on his own, as all other members of his team had either tapped out or struggled to keep the pace under a minute. Finally, after another seven-minute break, Asbel showed off his speed. He ran four 200s, on only 50 seconds rest, in 23 seconds each.
So the full workout was as follows:
4 x 400 (:50 rest): 54, 53, 54, 54
4 x 200 (:50 rest): 23, 23, 23, 23
In short, it was insane.
After a short cool-down, we met up in the parking lot of the Iten Club restaurant. Everyone was in high spirits, smiling and laughing in that post-workout glow. Asbel was reclining in the driver’s seat of his red BMW X6, chatting with Timothy Limo and me about this weekend’s Bowerman Mile. He was feeling confident about the upcoming showdown at Hayward Field, but when I mentioned how the headline for LetsRun this week should read, “Asbel Is Unbeatable,” he was quick to invoke some modesty.
“No no … anyone can win this weekend. The field has some of the best runners in the world. [Matthew] Centrowitz is there, as well as [Abdelaati] Iguider and [Taoufik] Makhloufi. I will definitely be watching the Rabat races to see how they perform.”
Perhaps Kiprop is right to be cautious. After all, Prefontaine is where he suffered his only 1,500/mile defeat of 2015. Both Iguider and Makhloufi ran solidly in Morocco, and I have no doubt that Centro, coming off a World Indoor title, is in the best form of his life.
But after watching Kiprop train this past week, I can’t help but feel that all other milers are now in a race for second place. Asbel is literally on another level right now, perhaps a level that no other 1,500-meter athlete has been to before. If the race goes out quickly this weekend, I have no doubt that history will be made by Kiprop on the historic grounds of Hayward Field.
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