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
LetsRun.com Co-founder Robert Johnson: Hello everyone this is LetsRun.com's Robert Johnson welcoming you to another edition of LetsRun.com's Track Talk where biweekly we talk to some of the biggest names in the sport of track and field. Today our featured guests are Ricky Simms and Noah Ngeny, the men behind the amazing success of Joseph Ebuya, the man who last week shocked the world and became the first Kenyan male since 1999 to win the [12km] World Cross Country Championships.
Simms is the head of PACE Sports Management and is perhaps best known for being Usain Bolt's agent. In addition to his management duties, he also coaches some of the top distance runners on the planet. Besides Ebuya, Simms is also the coach of 2009 5000m World Champion Vivian Cheruiyot, 2009 World 10k Champion Linet Masai, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Micah Kogo, Moses Masai, 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 1500m champion and 1000m world record holder. His time of 2:11.96 is still the world record today. Gentlemen, thanks for being with us, it's a great honor to have two people like you on the program.
PACE Sports Management's Ricky Simms: Thank you, Robert.
Johnson: I'm not sure where to begin, Ricky, but I guess I'll start at the beginning. Obviously the world is starting to know who Joseph Ebuya is but up until recently I think - except for insiders in the sport - he was sort of an unknown commodity. I'll start with what I had heard of him prior to this weekend.
I think it was at the Reebok meet a couple years ago when Usain Bolt first broke the world 100m record, which was a pedestrian 9.71 [actually 9.72] back then. But my brother [LetsRun.com co-founder Weldon Johnson] was at the meet and one of your athletes Steve Slattery was there and he came up to my brother and said, "You gotta do a story on this guy Ebuya. I spent some time with him in London and he grew up with a nomadic existence, moving from place to place, and just started running next to these guys and they brought him over to Europe and honestly he didn't even know how to run a race - like he didn't know that the point of a race was to win it. He never had shoes, never really had clothes.
So how much of that story is true? It seems like the more and more that I read that it indeed really is true.
Simms: Yea the story is true. I know Steve likes to tell some stories but this one is quite accurate in what he said.
A lot of the Kenyan athletes they come from the Eldoret region, they come from the Rift Valley or they come from the Nairobi area and the Kikuyu tribe does quite well. Joseph is one of those who is a little bit different, he's from the Turkana tribe. And the region is very very poor. We hear from a lot of the Kenyans coming from poor backgrounds but I think his was an exceptional case. His father - when Joseph was just a kid - his father had some livestock but there were raiders who came and stole the livestock. So pretty much from then on they've had a nomadic existence. [Inaudible] ... they roamed from place to place, month to month, probably living in what Noah's 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. I think people in that region, they would wear blankets. You may have seen it on TV... the Masais are sort of a similar lifestyle but these guys are maybe a little bit poorer. I remember watching a film one time referring to that part of the world and it said the people there only live to be 25-30 years old, they're dying quite young because people didn't have the nourishment because things were so barren.
So that's where Joseph comes from and there's not many athletes that come from that area.
Johnson: So in 2004 he's sort of running along the side of the road with your guys and they sort of urge you to bring him into the group. And then a year later he's running 13:03? I mean, how amazing is that even by Kenyan standards?
Simms I think how he started off was his father was doing odd jobs, just trying to survive, really, and one of the jobs he had was burning charcoal in the forest and Joseph probably as a 13, 14, 15 year old would have been on a bicycle cycling into the town area selling this charcoal for a little bit of money. On his route there, he would pass the training camp that we had in Nairu in those days and he would see those athletes running and they would be driving Mercedes Benz cars and they were considered some of the wealthiest men in Kenya and I guess he asked the runners, "What's this about? What do you guys do?"
So it went from there and he showed up... How it works in Kenya is athletes stay in a training camp there from November all the way up until June when they come to Europe and they stay there all week and then go home on the weekend. So they train usually at 6am and then at 10 they do their main workout and then something in the evening as well. For the AM training it is still dark. Everyone would assemble together at the gate outside of the campus. The coach would give instruction, you know, "Ok today we're doing a 1-hour run, at this speed, and this route," this kind of thing. The other athletes (inaudible) Joseph would be staying outside of the camp maybe with friends, in his case maybe living in the forest near there. And they would join in. At that time he was running in trousers, a shirt, no shoes. Pretty much all he had was trousers and a shirt.
I remember I had first gotten a call in the start of the summer of 2004 from Albert Chepkurui who was one of the big guys then (Editor's Note: Chepkurui's pbs are 12:56 and 26:38). "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." So I said, "Have you seen the guy before?" And he said, "Yea, he used to be able to stay with us for 10 minutes, then 15, then 20. But today he was real good, he stayed with us for a long time."
So we said, "Ok, where does he live? What does he do? Let's invite him in to train at the camp. He doesn't have the shoes, he doesn't have the track suit, let's try to help him with his development as a runner." And pretty much very shortly after that he disappeared again. So we thought, "Ok he got the shoes, he got the track suit, so he's just gone to do something else."
We didn't really hear too much about him until December of 2004 after the season. Noah was in Nairobi and his brother was in the army - Noah is one of the heads of the army in Kenya, in the army athletics section - and his brother brought some guy out to him and Noah started asking him some questions. He said "Hey! We remember you, you were at the training camp, why did you disappear?"
The problem was, he was running barefoot all his life. And I guess you have different mechanics when you run barefoot. So when he put shoes on, he just got injured straightaway because his legs were hurting everywhere. So that's why he disappeared, he just took a couple of months off from running until he got used to the shoes.
So in December of 2004, Joseph ran a race in Nairobi, he had been training a little bit by himself. Our camp had move from that area about 4 hours away to Kaptagat. And Noah said "Ok, you can join the camp with the other guys." Benjamin Limo and John Kipkorir were two of the top Kenyan athletes at the time. So I said, "Go and train with them for the spring of 2005 and see how you get on."
It was him and 2 other athletes who joined at the same time, Micah Kogo and Mike Kigen (Editor's Note: Kogo now has the world record for the road 10k and Kigen has run 12:58). And they didn't leave the camp. If you're Joseph you have no reason to go home on the weekends if you've got no home to go home to, so the camp really became his home. And he trained religiously all throughout the spring and people were saying, you know, that he's doing very well. He ran a few races in Kenya in 2005 but it wasn't anything that special, you know, he was 8th in the Kenyan trials for the World Championships which was good. And I remember halfway through the summer Noah giving me a call and saying "Can you give a chance to this three guys who have been training partners of Limo over the winter?"
We were in the height of the season, it was July and races were hard to get for guys who didn't have personal bests really - 13:20 or 13:25 guys who are Kenyans, it's not that easy to get them into the meet. And the guys didn't look like they were, you know, that special. Maybe they looked like they needed another year's training before they would be able to be at the level to come to Europe.
So I said, "Look it's going to be tough to get all three of them, we can maybe bring one of them." And Noah kept pushing it saying "Maybe these guys are going to be good so let's give them a try."
Eventually, I remember when they traveled here, normally they fly direct from Nairobi to London but tickets are a little bit expensive on those flights. You can go cheaper through Egypt and things so we said, "Ok let's get a cheaper fare for them so we save some money."
The three guys arrived in Europe and I remember bringing them into the office and giving them a real strict lecture saying "You're here, you're representing us when you go to races so you're being on good behavior, you're going to have to work hard. For a career as a runner, if you make it, you know you're very much at the bottom of the ladder, you have to work very hard to climb up the ladder."
I talked for about 45 minutes and it was really tough that day it was "This is what we expect, this is not a joke. Money doesn't grow on trees in Europe, you have to work for what you get." And the guys went off to race, we had a good contact with a race in Finland and I think Kogo won it in 13:16, Ebuya was 2nd in 13:17 and Kigen was 4th, (former NCAA champ) Boaz Cheboiywo was 3rd.
And then 2 days later there was a meet in Heusden. 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 "Yea, 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.
Things like the airport, he couldn't read where the flights were going, he didn't know which gate to go to so everything was totally new... the things that we take for granted that most of the Kenyans know from going to school, he didn't have those experiences so it was a complete, complete culture shock 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.
Johnson: Right. It's pretty amazing. It sounds like he oughta endorse that book Born to Run as the shoes got him injured at the start. That's phenomenal. He runs 13:03 and he doesn't even really understand what the clock is. He's gotta sign a Nike contract and doesn't even know what a signature is. If it wasn't true - it almost seems too unbelievable to be true.
You know, one of the things that I would point out, you talked about how he didn't really know his kilometer splits, he really didn't even understand the clock, he was just kind of hanging on. That's one of the things that Slattery was talking to us about, you know, something as simple as crossing the finish line first and winning the race, he didn't understand that because he was 'staying with the group for 10 minutes, staying with the group for 30 minutes,' you know, and on and on. So if you look at the results, I think that they back it up. In that race where you say he ran 13:03, he was 4th in that race. That first year of running he never won a single race, he was 5th, 5th, 8th, 2nd, 4th, 3rd, 6th, and 10th.
Can you talk a little bit about that and what happened the next year at the World Junior Championships when he got the silver in the 10,000?
Simms: Yea, you know, another think 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.
Moving on to the winter of 2005 and the spring of 2006. Benjamin Limo won the World Championships in 2005 so he was the man. Him and Ebuya formed a very close friendship. They just ran everywhere, whatever Limo did, Ebuya did the same thing. So he made the Commonwealth Games team and I remember that famous race in Melbourne where Craig Mottram was the overwhelming favorite on home ground and Augustine Choge, Joseph Ebuya and Benjamin Limo were the three Kenyans. It was a great race and Ebuya finished 4th in the end and was delighted. Limo had finished 3rd and they were just finishing together very close at the end And he was celebrating like he'd won the race (Editor's Note: Choge won in 12:56, Mottram was 2nd in 12:58 and Limo and Eguya were 3rd and 4th in 13:05).
Then he went on to the World Junior Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka. And again, I was really expecting him to win the world juniors at that time. But he took the lead with 800m to go and I thought "Ooh, this looks good" and then really he just kinda ran in in 4th position, didn't look like he was struggling too much but again crossed the line pretty much celebrating.
Then he went through a little period where he wasn't training so good after that. I guess he'd been in Australia for a while, he'd been in Japan so he lost it a little bit. And in Kenya he wasn't as strong as the other guys.
The first race he did after that in Europe in 2006 was Ostrava in the 3000m. And I remember the race, I'll never forget this race. He was coming 'round with about 3 laps to go and he and Tariku Bekele started opening a gap on the rest of the field. All our guys were in the race, guys that he was training with, Limo and these guys. They'd been beating him in training. He was just looking around all the time like he couldn't believe (he and Bekele) were running away from them and he was feeling so easy and he was running away from the rest of the group.
And then they came to the bell - Tariku was very good at that time (editor's note: 2006 was the year Tariku Bekele set his pbs of 7:29 and 12:53)- and 350m to go Ebuya pulls out to lane 2 and just turns it on and up the back straight just starts running away from the field.
And we were so excited, we were going, like, "Wow" because they were running a good time as well and he opened up a gap of 4 or 5 meters, going away with every stride. He hit the 200m to go mark, and stopped. Started celebrating. He thought he had won the race... he didn't realize that the finish was around the other side of the track.
He saw the other guys keep going and he started running again and still finished 4th. Even after the race I remember him picking up Tariku and doing a victory lap with him. I think he was so happy that he found his mojo again - that he hadn't lost the talent that he'd thought he lost a few weeks earlier. Again, he was happy to finish 4th in that race but that's a guy that you want to win.
Johnson: So that was Ostrava in 2006 so - I'm looking at the results - he ran 7:38, still ended up getting 2nd behind Tariku Bekele who's ended up being a world indoor 3k champion.
Simms: Yea I think he actually went back to 4th and actually ended up passing a couple guys in the home straight again to get 2nd. I remember at the time it was on YouTube and people thought it was very funny and everything but, you know, that was a learning experience for Joseph.
That season he did well. I remember him running in Gateshead I think it was and were going round to the start - I think it was a 2 mile race and actually maybe it was in Sheffield - and I was trying to tell him, you know 2 miles was a little bit more difficult for him to calculate the laps, it's not 7 laps or 7 and a half - but I said "Just keep going until you hear the bell, then you only have 1 lap to go."
But he ran under 13:00 that year in Paris, 12:58, finishing 6th. And then he went to the World Juniors in Beijing and he would have been one of the favorites - I think Tariku Bekele and him are in the same age group and Gashew [not sure on this name we think he may be referring ot world junior 10k winner Ibrahim Jeylan] another Ethiopian who was doing very well - and he won the silver medal in the 10,000m in a very close finish and he won a bronze in the 5000m.
I remember someone was calling me from the race 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. Again, he was celebrating, 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.
Johnson: Right, so that's 2006. Moving forward to 2007 it looks like ran 12:51, so he obviously progressed in terms of his time. But then he sorta had a setback right when his career was getting going. He decided to join the Kenyan military and not run for 9 months.
Simms: Yea 2007 was a good year when he really started to get consistent. 2nd in Paris, 2nd in the World Champs trials, made the team for Osaka. 2nd in the World Athletics Final (in the 3k), then 4th the next day in the 5000m and ran 12:51 in Brussels. But I think he had a big disappointment that year in the World Championships in Osaka because going there as a Kenyan you expect to be in the top couple, or fighting for a medal. And the heat was really, really slow. Something like 14:00 pace and he didn't make the final (editor's note: it was a slow heat where the top five all finished in 13:46 and Ebuya finished in 13:48) . And he was so... I've never seen someone so upset, it was like his world had ended. And because his English wasn't so good, we were trying to console him, other guys on the team were trying to console him, but [it was no use] and that really affected him a lot. He automatically assumed that [he had a good kick]. I think [he had to learn that] when the race is run at 12:55 he's got a good kick. But when the race goes at 13:45, everyone's got a good kick. So he learned that from the Osaka World Champs I'm sure.
(Editor's Note: Prior to the interview Simms told us that Ebuya cried non-stop literally for a day and a half after being eliminated in the heats of the world championships. Simms said Ebuya was so devastated it was tears gushing out of his eyes type crying).
And then I think 2008 he looked good in the trials for the Olympic Games but I remember about 600m to go he (just) stopped - and I think 2 or 3 of them had broken away - and he looked like he was going to make the team but he stopped. He didn't really understand why at the time - I think maybe someone was clipping his heel or something and he was not happy with it.
And then he joined the army in 2008. The army in Kenya is a good career for people because you get paid more than people doing teaching jobs and other regular jobs. I think you get a lot of stability there because you get a pension and you get a salary for many years and if you're an army guy nobody messes with you. So a lot of people aim to join the army and you can run in the army. It's something that a lot of the Kenyans aim to do.
(Editor's note: Prior to the interview, Simms said that a military person in kenyan either gets something like $300 per month or $3,000 per year and that also people in the military don't get robbed as much as random people in Kenya).
The problem with it is that someone who's getting towards the peak of their career - he had finished 4th in the world cross country championships earlier in the year - he was just at the stage where he [had developed the talent to mix it with] Kenenisa Bekele, the big guy, so to go to the army college for 9 months wasn't something that we thought was gonna help his running career. But we had to respect his wishes and he was determined to do that. His brother had been in the army and luckily Noah was there in the army position to provide for him and guide him through.
He graduated I think last year, April of 2009. Obviously when he came out of college he wasn't very fit. Somehow he made the team for the World Championships in Berlin but he didn't have that much training behind him. He ran 12:59 in Brussels last year.
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. He had a very good winter this year. He won a lot of the cross country races in Spain. He'd been in Europe for about 5 weeks and normally when the Kenyan athletes are at low altitude for that length of time it is more difficult for them when they go back to run the trials. So we were very concerned that he didn't have enough training time before the trials. But we knew, once he made the team, that - given he had a month to get ready again - that he'd be ready for the World Championships. It turned out exactly right for him.
Johnson: Let's talk a little bit about that. I talked to you last year when I was in Amman, Jordan about the difficulty as a coach in trying to have someone sort of make the Kenyan team but then produce their best at the World Championships. I remember from talking to you that you thought one of the problems was people have to be in such good shape to make the team and then the Kenyan federation takes the team and these guys just hammer each other for a month or so from the time they have the trials to the (world) championships. And the best guys, the guys that win the trials, are sort of on the way down, but you sort of want to catch it on the way up to the World Championships. Do you [consciously] hope that they sort of eke their way onto the team and then hammer themselves into shape for worlds? How do you manage that as a coach?
Simms: It's something we've been working closely with the Kenyan federation on. Because the Trials are 4 or 5 weeks before the World Championships, it's very difficult to be at your peak both times. And I think traditionally an athlete like John Ngugi who was so dominant for Kenya at the World Cross Country, he wouldn't be in great shape for the trial because for years he would be finishing like 30th, 40th, 50th at the Trials and then with 1 month solid training he would get in shape very quickly and win World Cross Country beating all the other guys. The challenge for us is getting them on the team because Kenya's race is more difficult than World Cross Country a lot of times. I think in Joseph's case it worked quite well this year because he wasn't in top, top shape in the trials and then that 1 month's solid training brought him up. I know athletes that have gone there very fit before and then 1 month later they've just passed their peak and gone over the edge.
Perhaps Linet Masai could have been a little bit like that this year. She won the trials by 30 seconds and then the girl who finished 4th in the trial improved throughout the camp and Linet struggled to hold her [form]. Masai still was very good, she finished 2nd in the world, but she probably wasn't as good as she was a little bit earlier. So it's difficult getting the peak right. You've got to be sure of being on the team... But you've also got to ensure that if you get on the team you're gonna do well at the Championships.
Johnson: Talk a little bit about how the logistics of it work. I guess you're coming up with the workouts in London and then do you get them to Noah and he actually implements them? Explain a little bit how the whole system works, how you get your feedback and how you coach someone from a different continent.
Simms It's not an ideal situation, if I was in Kenya the whole time it would be a lot easier. As I said earlier most of the Kenyan athletes train from the 1st of November up until May in a training camp. They all train together. We've got coaches in the camp, Noah heads it up, Sammy Rono is our other coach and other people are there sometimes. And what we do, we try to send a structure once every 6 weeks of what to do on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday... etc. Tuesday and Friday are normally our workout days. I'll send a workout on Monday for Tuesday and they'll send me back a report on the times everyone did, including any problems, etc, etc. So it's kind of working together with the people in Kenya and coming up with what works best. And the good thing is... I see the athletes quite alot [when they come to Europe to race at different times in the year]. Especially the ones - Vivian Cheruiyot, for example, the world champion - I would talk to her almost every day, she's one I work very closely with... Kogo and the bigger, successful guys. But with the development guys it sort of works like that [the long distance communication]. So we work together with the people in Kenya.
Johnson: Going into worlds this year, you coach also Moses Kipsiro of Uganda (Editor's Note: Kipsiro was the bronze medallist at worlds). Going in, did you think "Joseph is my best guy, he's my best bet." Or is it sort of like, there are so many guys that you coach that you don't really know who's the very best? I guess Joseph would have been in the Kenyan camp, not your camp, leading up to the championships.
Simms: After the trials Joseph was in the Kenyan training camp. Pretty much at that stage we're not involved with the training at all for the last 3 to 4 weeks. But we give them instruction and I think a lot of our athletes know now not to [overdo it] because they're training with people they don't normally train with. They go out on an hour run and they really can start picking up the pace, so you have to really watch that you don't overdo it in that camp. But I think this year particularly Coach Leting who's in charge did a good job of controlling what they were doing and I think they did very well in Poland.
But you know who's running well in training. We really thought Linet and [Tirunesh] Dibaba were going to be the top-2. Linet was clearly the best in the camp according to what we had heard.
The strange thing is, the race in Kenya (the Kenyan trials) is quite different because Micah Kogo was there Moses Masai was there, Ebuya and they had all been training together. Ebuya finished 3rd in the trial, Kogo dropped out, Masai dropped out. They were off the pace. 1, 2 weeks later Masai went to World's Best 10k in Puerto Rico and runs 27:19 and Kogo runs 27:22 (at another race) on a cold day. Obviously Kogo and Masai were in very good shape and they didn't make the team.
So, sometimes you don't know what's going to happen but the reports were that Ebuya was doing very well in the camp. Actually, Kipsiro of Uganda, he ran World's Best 10k as well, finished 5th or 6th, had a problem with his Achilles in the latter stages of the race. He's a monster talent. You guys had a story on him a couple weeks ago. But he's just a little bit susceptible to injury. I expected Joseph to be up there fighting but Moses surprised me that he did so well (and won the bronze medal). It had only been a couple weeks since World's Best and he hadn't had a good meet there.
We were expecting him [Joseph] to be near the front. But again, you just never know what's going to happen on the day. The Ethiopians weren't as strong this year as they normally were. This year the Kenyans were a little bit better than they normally are but the Ethiopians were a little bit lower.
Johnson: Looking ahead, it sounds like his life has already been transformed and I was reading that... he apparently has bought 2 and a half acres of land that his father sort of manages and his father didn't even know about World Cross Country and couldn't watch the meet because he had spent the night keeping elephants from ruining his crops. So looking ahead how life-changing is this going to be to be the World Cross Country Champion. What are his goals? Does he think, "I want to be an Olympic champion or is that sort of too abstract of a goal? Where do you go from here?
Simms: ... 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.
So I think it will be very good for Joseph because he had never won a major championships before. 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.
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 front-runner. 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. Hopefully in the African Champs and the Commonwealth Games this year and the World Champs next year and the Olympics on his "home ground", if you like, in London because he's spent a lot of time here, so that would be definitely the big fish for him.
Johnson: We have Noah (Ngeny) there and I haven't really brought him into the conversation. I think one of the questions that a lot of people have, and I think Noah might be the perfect example of this, there have been examples of guys - and you talked about Daniel Komen I think he's a prime example of this too - a lot of Kenyans don't have the longest of careers. You look at a guy like Haile Gebrselassie who has been on top for like 20 years. And you contrast that to someone like Noah who within 3 years of running was running 3:28 in the 1500. He started running in 1996, Olympic Champion in 2000, but then is basically out of the sport by 2004, 2005. Are people worried about Joseph having a short career or have things changed in the past 10 years where Kenyans will start to have longer careers?
Simms: Unfortunately Noah's thing was an injury, he had a bad car accident, an injury that sort of cut that career short...
Noah Ngeny: (hard to hear) ... for other people like me, you know, I had an accident and that's what made my career short. Someone like Ebuya, he is so special because he is still young. And he has just come in and we are planning, and [he is staying] true to plan... and we are planning that he is going to go far. You know, most of the Kenyan athletes they are running for maybe only a short time you know maybe some are running on their own... So I think for Ebuya it will be ok.
Johnson: Noah, when people say you started running in 1996, [does that mean] there was no running before that and then you're literally on top of the world? It seems to me that that would be such a shock, that type of sudden success, it might be hard to deal with. When you grow up are you dreaming of a career in athletics or is it just something that comes to you without thinking about it?
Ngeny: You know for me, when I was young I did think about running. Because in Kenya, when I grew up, I see people that are running, it changed their lives... they're driving good cars and living in good places. So it made me dream of athletics.
Johnson: One of the things I was thinking about: I was reading a profile a while back about Usain Bolt and when he had all that success and you said some guys would have a hard time dealing with being, you know - how do you top setting 3 world records, that's a lot of pressure, you're now on top of the world, you can only fail - but Usain has that easy-going personality and has thrived in the limelight. How do you think Joseph will handle the fame and the success? He'll be the Kenyan that everyone is watching. It sounds like - we were talking before this interview - he is very popular and has a very charismatic personality. How do you think that will all play out?
Simms: 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 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, so.... (and those guys ) weren't even in Poland.
The depth is so great and this is one of the things ... 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 (it's so much easier. For example) we represent Mo Farah and work very closely with him. Even on a bad day, he's still gonna be number one in his country or even in Europe, he's still gonna be one of the strongest guys. 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.
Johnson: Yeah. Let's talk a bit about the financial side of things. Obviously, you probably don't want to reveal exact specifics, but how much money could someone like - maybe prior to his great success - would someone like Joseph Ebuya be making? You also represent a couple of American athletes. Leonel Manzano is a World Championships finalist at 1,500 - he's one of your athletes. I mean, up to this stage in their career, would someone like Leonel be making more money than Joseph Ebuya just simply because he's an American? So I guess answer those two types of questions.
Simms: Yeah, I think Leo is making more money than Joseph. But I guess it's because of what I said earlier, that there are a lot of athletes in Kenya all fighting for the same prize and the best Americans - Leo and Bernard Lagat - they're right there in the 1,500 meters - a blue ribbon event - so they're very popular.
So if you had ten other guys at the same level as them and one day, they're finishing eighth-ninth and the next day, they're finishing one-two and it's more difficult to market them and to really make them a big star. And that's kind of the situation in Kenya, so what we try to do, what we've really focused on the last couple of years - it's been good with the girls, the likes of Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai - trying to have them at the level of Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar. So you know they are the top Kenyans and Defar and Dibaba are the top Ethiopians and people get to know their names and people get to be excited when they come. You know we had a very good indoor meet in Birmingham with Dibaba against Vivian this year and it was one of the most exciting races of the indoor season. And the organizing was very happy, and the fans really got into it and stuff, so it's trying 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;" they're - we don't call "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. Just a good example over the weekend was a girl, Emily Chebet, who wasn't that well known and she beat the world champion. So again, because there are so many and they're so close to each other, it is difficult to try and make them into stars.
Johnson: The difficulty of making the team ... I think Noah (Ngeny) might be a good example of that, in 2000. Part of the problem in the past used to be the Kenyan Federation. It sounds like things - particularly your relationship with them - may have improved, but in 2000, Noah wins the Olympic gold medal. 2001, he's on the World Championships team, then he refuses to go to the Kenyan camp. Obviously, I assume he was happy with the work and the coaching he was getting with your group (which at the time was led by Kim McDonald). And the Federation decides to kick the Olympic champ off the team. Do you think something like that would happen nowadays? Or would there be more dialogue between the agent and the coaches? Or is it still sort of, you don't listen to the Federation / you're gone; I don't care what you've done for us?
Simms: I think that was a very good example. Noah had trained once in his life outside of Kenya when he spent the winter in Australia and he spent the spring in Stanford.
Kim McDonald, who was his coach and manager, had a good group and that was a very, very successful structure for a lot of the middle-distance guys particularly. I think the longer distance guys, they can work better in Kenya, but Noah being able to be with Kim all that time was very, very good for him. And he didn't want to go back (to the) training camp in 2001.
These eight or nine years, we've kind of grown to know that it's normal now to have the training camp before the Championships, but back then, Noah didn't want to go home to train because he was used to training in London or in the States, so it was something that wasn't going to really work for him. So when they threw him off the team, it was a big shock at the time.
Nowadays, Noah's actually the athletes' representative in Athletics Kenya now, so I think he's helping a lot to explain the side of the athletes and the position of the athletes. But ultimately, Athletics Kenya makes the rules and we have to follow their rules and (now) they're doing very well. They're winning. They dominated in World Champs Cross-Country in Poland and they had a very good Olympic Games and a very good World Championships last time.
So I think everyone is - this is how it works now - so everyone is working toward that goal and people know that you get yourself in shape for the Trials and then after the Trials, you're gonna train in the training camp in Kenya and put the icing on the cake if you like before you go to the Championships. I think the aim of Athletics Kenya is not to have athletes over-racing before a championship. And that's why they like to keep them in Kenya as much as possible. So everyone ... in the meetings that we have, we always talk (about how) we're all trying to get the same thing here.
And especially nowadays, as opposed to maybe ten years ago, is that the World Championships and the Olympic Games are so important for an athlete's career and you don't get those big appearance fees and you don't earn money if you're not the world champion or the Olympic champion. So for an athlete to be thrown off the team and miss out is really a big ... it's very harmful for them, whereas maybe ten years ago - Noah in 2001 - he was the Olympic champion, he could go to London, Zürich and still get paid and it didn't matter as much. But nowadays I think it's much more difficult to skip a Championships.
Johnson: You were talking to me earlier (before the show) that nowadays, if you're 13:10 Kenyan, there's not really much of a market for that. It's all about being at the very, very top or having some sort of Olympic or World Championships hardware behind you. But one thing I wanted to talk about ... you have a few Western athletes. Steph Twell, Manzano, those types of people. And there's always debates on the LetsRun.com message boards, you know, "Ritzenhain has run 12:58 (sic) ... if you put him at World Cross-Country, could he have been competitive?" Do you think that the top Westerners, even someone like Ritzenhein - I mean, obviously, when he's been at his very best, he's been up there and was challenging Bekele - or is someone like Ebuya at another level above him and it's just sort of that the PRs and the times are close sort of when the Kenyans and the Africans are off a little bit and the Americans and the Westerners are at their very best? Or do you think that they're ... it's more similar? How do you think Ritzenhein would have done if he was on his game at World Cross? And do Western athletes really ... do you think they can compete?
Simms: 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, like Leo, for example, last year in the World Athletics Final, 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. And Ryan Ponsonby and Coach Cook, they're really doing a good job with him and I think he's going to be one for the championships.
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 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, 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.
And then on the other hand, you take the World Championships or the Olympic Games in the 10,000 meters when a couple of our girls - Linet Masai - they really went after it. Abeylegesse was putting a real pace on them (in the 2008 Olympic 10k) It looked like Shalane Flanagan was number five with a couple of laps to go and my girls were actually in second and third at that point and I thought, "Alright, we've got two medals here." And because they had gone with it and started around 68s or 69s there, Shalane was able to come through in 70, 71 and just pick them off on the last lap. So it works both ways.
But I definitely think that the Americans, I think ... Mo Farah is one of our athletes; I think it's only a matter of time before he runs 12:52, 12:53. I believe there are many athletes who can compete with the Kenyans and definitely there's nothing ... it's not that they're different or you can't do it ... I think Craig Mottram showed that for years and Ritzenhein had a fantastic - I think it was 12:56 he ran in Zürich last year. That surprised everyone but hopefully, that gives belief to everyone. I think that the problem in the UK is that the depth just isn't there. To make the team, the difference between the first guy on the World Cross-Country team and the last guy is quite a difference ... um, 30 seconds; in Kenya, the difference normally between the first and last guy in World Cross-Country might only be like 10 or 15 seconds on that day. So, no, I think it can be done.
Johnson: One thing I was thinking about is that you represent Manzano, who is coached from afar by John Cook, so ... you're coaching athletes from afar, as is John Cook. Do you talk to him about training? And one other question I might have is why ... have you ever thought about coaching Manzano yourself. It seems kind of weird that you coach the Kenyans from afar but you don't coach some of your other ... sort of Western-based athletes from afar.
Simms: I talk to Coach Cook a lot. He knows a lot more about coaching than I do; I make that clear from the start.
I think coaching is a thing where you're always trying to learn. I started in this business in coaching (but now am) a bit more into the management side of it. 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 overthink 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.
We do help when Leo's here. He jumps into the sessions with the Kenyans ... I think that's the real advantage for an athlete like that, training with such a strong group. And it worked for Bob Kennedy and Steve Holman, Pascal Dobert, Graham Hood, all those guys, Seneca Lassiter. Throughout the years when they were working with Kim, they really benefited from training with a group of Kenyans. Mo Farah at the moment is probably the best example; he works in with them as much as he can. But I still wouldn't be able to coach Mo because it still requires more individual attention than I have to give to the African guys.
Johnson: Yeah, exactly. I was kind of wondering which takes up more of your time. Coaching the Kenyans? Or is most of your time sort of spent on the agent side of things? Finding guys races? I assume ... I would think representing Bolt would be a full-time job in and of itself.
Simms: Yeah, you know, it's not just me here. We've got a team, a staff, and everyone does everything.
I think most managers that work closely with athletes know when they're in shape, what kind of rest they need, so you have to have that knowledge of how their training's going to be part of the team that are moving them forward. Of course, Usain is the standard athlete in the world at the moment, so I spend a lot of my time working with him, but I'm fortunate to have a very good team of people here that can help with all the other things.
You know, we've had this going for 20 years. Kim 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 - (Editor's note - we didn't catch what he sadi next something like - Bob, ???Sanya???, all these guys did over the years).
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. Things are going well - coaching is easy. It's when things are not going so well, you have to really think about it.
Johnson: Right. And looking ahead to this summer, there's no World Championships. What will be the goal for Joseph? Since he won World Cross-Country, is there some thought that he might want to move up to the 10,000 and run that more seriously on the European circuit? What type of time goals do you have or have you guys even thought about that?
Simms: No, absolutely. I think one of the big things this year is African Championships because it's in Kenya. It's in Nairobi, so the Kenyans will try and put a very strong team out. And it's an important championship. The government will want them to do well there. Same with the Commonwealth Games. Although they're not major championships for Americans - they probably aren't following them too closely - in Kenya, that is a major championship. I think we're definitely aiming to try and have some guys running in the 12:40s this year. The event hasn't really moved forward that much. I think it was 12:50, 12:51 Joseph and Moses Kipsiro ran in 2007 and Moses Masai ran a 12:50 in 2008 and apart from Bekele, a lot of people are running in the 12:55 to 13-minute bracket.
So it would be nice if we could get a couple of guys touching on :47, :46, :45, that level, that would be quite nice. I think Joseph, he still has some work to do at the shorter distances. His PB for 3k is still only 7:34, so that needs a big change. And I think 3k is an event - even more so than 5k - that hasn't been lightning fast. You know, Komen's record - nobody's even got close to that 7:20. Hicham I think had a go at 7:24. Kenenisa hasn't had a fantastic winter by his high standards, so it'll be interesting if any of the other guys can break out and just try and run 7:26, 7:27, which was really normal for Paul Bitok and Luke Kipkosgei and those fast Kenyan guys, Benjamin Limo, ten years ago. So I think there's still a lot of things these guys can do.
And (with) the Diamond League coming in this year - will be interesting to see if there are less long distance races in the calendar. As far as we know so far, there's no big 10k race this year. Brussels was always where you had that crazy, amazing 10k. So it's going to be interesting (to see) where people run the 10k. But I guess it'll be a good season and I think it's an opportunity for people to try and improve their times and again concentrate on those two championships for the Kenyan guys. And the Europeans have got European Champs. It's probably tougher for the U.S. guys because they don't really have any chance this year. So hopefully, we'll see Mr. Manzano out running some fast times on the track.
Johnson: Right. I'll definitely try to wind this down with one or two more questions. You talked about the times sort of stagnating in the 12:50s and coming back a little bit from where they were maybe ten years ago and I don't want to be a pessimist, but I think some people say that and think, "Well, wow, has the drug usage gone down?" I mean, how big of a problem do you think that still is in the sport in the long and middle distances and do you think it's less ... could that possibly be the reason why some of these times aren't quite as good as they were maybe eight or ten years ago?
Simms: Actually, I don't think so because I think a lot of the times - and just while we're here, I'm gonna try and pull up the all-time list - but I think we just see from our group that a lot of the Kenyan athletes who were running, like Noah (Ngeny) running 3:28, 100% I'll bet my life on it Noah 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 at 10k, probably what you said is the opposite. We've had some very (good times and great depth recently). ... Kogo ran 26:35. We've had some very fast 10k times in recent years. So I think when the Africans all came ... with real strength into the circuit, you saw some very, very fast times.
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. Maybe the women's sport is a little bit different to that. I don't want to comment on that, but I think in the men - I don't think there's any difference really.
Johnson: Talk about guys going for it; I was actually getting ready for the interview last night and I watched Noah's 2:11.96 1,000-meter world record. I think he went out in the first 400 in 49 seconds, so I was ... definitely very impressed by that, Noah. Hopefully, you can pass some of that fearlessness on to Joseph, because it seems like he's a real talent and definitely has a bright future for him. He's only .. what? 22 years old? Is that right?
Simms: 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.
Johnson: Well, definintely. And it sounds like - I think focus and discipline and hard work goes a long way - and it sounds like you and your group aren't resting on your laurels. Every year, you guys seem to be getting better and better. Kind of like Usain topping himself every year, it seems like Pace Sports Management keeps doing a little bit better every year. It was great to have you on the program, Ricky and Noah. It's a great honor to talk to two guys like yourselves. We want to congratulate you guys on your great success and I'm sure there's a lot more to come this summer. So give our best to Joseph and, again, we can't thank you enough and we'll hopefully catch up to you at some point this summer, maybe in New York or somewhere.
Simms: Thank you, Robert. It was good talking to you.
Johnson: Okay, take care, guys. Thank you.
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