Eight Days of Surprise: What We Might Learn from the Kenyan Marathoning Men

By Emory Mort
May 5, 2012

The trio presumed least likely of the pre-selected six Kenyan men's marathoners have been selected for the 2012 Olympics team. And this is to Athletics Kenya's credit; they showed guts in sticking to their statement that the best three of six would be selected after each ran an April marathon. To briefly sum up the selected men: Wilson Kipsang had never run a "major" until winning London, double World Champion Abel Kirui still has the slowest PR, and Moses Mosop was third in Rotterdam, beaten by 2 relatively unknown Ethiopians. Though each of the three presumed Olympians listed above had incredible up-sides and were clearly the three best of the six in the spring marathon season, virtually no voter, if asked to pick their team for Kenya before the spring marathons, would have left off all three of the following: world-record-holder Patrick Makau, London record-setter and WMM winner Emmanuel Mutai, and Boston and New York winner and record-smasher Geoffrey Mutai.

Probably more so than any other journalist on the planet, I covered and contemplated these six men for the past several months. When I went to Kenya, I had been almost wholly disconnected from the running world for months, and had little definite "assignment" for the last-minute trip. I went in relatively "blind", but with several years' immersion in the sport both as an observer and mid-level participant behind me. While there, my interest and objective became clearer: I met with four of the marathon men; I met their coaches and managers, I watched them train. Above all the other potential stories about the Kenyan runners, theirs was the one that most fascinated me. So what is my reaction?

From this unusual selection process the fan can really learn something about human reality. The vast majority of the time, the vast majority of people have no idea what the future holds, but talk - at least superficially - as if they do. It's not as if we know that we don't know what's coming and can admit it. Rather, the vast majority of us pretend that we have a solid grasp about things that in reality is a grasp like trying to hold water in a tightly clenched fist. The presumption was that Geoffrey Mutai would win Boston, and almost certainly be on the team no matter the time and probably no matter the pace. But he dropped out about 2/3 of the way through the race. The presumption was that Moses Mosop would have to break the world record in Rotterdam to secure a spot on the team. He finished third in a relatively unremarkable time on a day when a previously second-tier Ethiopian woman (Tiki Gelana) won in 2:18. And now he's on the team. Patrick Makau was virtually assured a spot on the team after he brought the world-record back to Kenya, and now is off the team, even though his Kamba tribal lineage was seen as a mark in his favor. These were my presumptions as much as anyone else's, so these are lessons I'm taking to heart, however painful it is to recognize how little I know or can understand despite close observation.

This Does Get You on the Olympic Team(Recap here, photos here)

Two of the best Kenyan stories of the 8 days to glory, Wesley Korir (1st, Boston) and Martin Lel (2nd, London), were not considered for the Kenyan team, one of the downsides in their 6-man pre-selection procedure. Any procedure is going to have downsides, so this remark from me (unlike many in the running press) is not meant as a criticism of the procedure, but a comment on our ill-fated attempts (as humans) at predicting outcomes.

On the Team|
Wilson Kipsang
Moses Mosop
Abel Kirui

Off the Team
Patrick Makau
Emmanuel Mutai
Geoffrey Mutai

Top Performers Not Considered
Martin Lel
Wesley Korir
Levy Matebo

Why did it turn out this way?

Because I spent a great deal of time tracking these men, I should be able to say why the marathon selection process turned out the way it did. Unfortunately, I can not offer much explanation. There is a lot of variability in the marathon. Might things have been different with better weather in Boston? Sure, but things would be different in lots of scenarios. Why did Makau drop out? Why did Mutai drop out? What was Mosop's reaction to making the team? If I were working on this case full-time, these questions would and should be answered for the curious fan, even if the answers are half-truths. But that's not my situation and that's not the situation in the sport. Makau has recently said he planned to drop out in advance, "So even as I was going to London, I knew deep inside that I was not going to finish the race." Was that really the case or is he just saying that after the fact? I have no idea.

The Art of Domination - Staying at the Top
In a cheesy but informative documentary called Triumph of the Nerds, computer insider Bob Cringley chronicles the rise of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others to the top of the computer world. In the movie, Gates is shown to be not only brilliant and lucky, but eventually obsessed and paranoid in an effort to keep Microsoft on top of hungry competitors. Jobs, as anyone who has studied him knows, was known as a ruthless and demanding boss who got results. They both clearly were not only talented technologically, but were well-suited for the job of "generals" of companies. As I sit here listening to iPod background music and typing in Windows 7, I certainly find myself entwined with the processes of men like Jobs and Gates. There were and are many computer companies, but Microsoft and Apple have outlasted many, and out-earned virtually "all", partly because "that's the way it was supposed to be" and partly because of the choices of their leaders.

The competition in Iten, Ngong, and Bekoji for the top marathoning spots in the world is not unlike that in Silicon Valley. Both hotbeds - East Africa and America's west coast - have "matured" and "aged" over the years. Who can stay on the top for long? How does one stay on top of the marathoning world for long? With the number of competitors and the amount of resources spreading and growing, this is a highly difficult task. It's extremely unlikely that one gets to the top in the first place, and once one gets there, staying there is almost a completely different ball-game. While in some cases it may be true that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies to the top marathoners for certain periods of time, it ain't true for eternity. We as humans may hate change, but becoming a rich person in a town where not many people have money is a huge change, and positive change can be just as difficult as negative change. Not only are the male runners exploring the unexplored (running times never before run by humans), but they are joined by many others attempting to do the same, and offered uncomfortable intensities of attention by many in their communities. A runner breaks a record, relaxes and celebrates, and then sees their neighbour run within a few seconds, and then four other neighbours join them. This brings up a very human dilemma: how much force do I need to apply to stay on top? Where and how do I apply the force? From what resources should I seek nourishment to stay in top form? What sacrifices am I willing to make, for how long? "If" the wheels come off, how do I gracefully manage my fall from the pinnacle?

The Late Sammy Wanjiru

We can see examples of high- and low-functioning individuals in each of the questions above. The stories of Sammy Wanjiru, Haile Gebrselassie, Paula Radcliffe, Martin Lel and other top marathoners come to mind, for various reasons. Paula and her desk covered in pre-approved performance-enhancing supplements, Lel and his return from injury (only to be virtually ignored by his federation), Sammy for his fall, Haile for his skillfully-managed stay at the top of all levels of the sport. Each athlete tried, with varying degrees of success in varying realms, to stay at the top.

To look more deeply into the current selection, it's too simple to say that anyone has really fallen from the top. Each of the three non-selected men will have an opportunity to break records, win enormous amounts of money, and do other "glorious" things in the fall marathon season (NY, Frankfurt, Chicago, Berlin). Each of the three marathon-selected men, on the other hand, have a very tough challenge ahead of them just to win a medal. The Ethiopian men are, as Abel Kirui said when we talked to him in Iten, "causing us to lose sleep at night." Of the six Kenyan men pre-selected for London, the only one who clearly "won" is Wilson Kipsang. He won the race and elevated himself to one of the premier racers on the planet - no questions asked any more. Plus, he will have the chance, like Wanjiru, to win Olympic marathon gold for Kenya. He has won. He has reached the top unequivocally. But for Mosop and Kirui, his two likely London teammates, to "win" they need medals in London, which is going to be very difficult.

While each man has the chance to do something glorious, they also have the chance to fail miserably. While each could have his stay at the top end almost immediately (to their and others' shock), each has made a great deal of money and from that has access to resources. So there is no way to classify this situation. Some of those who did not make the team will say they are disappointed, or shrug it off.

If one is observing the sport for entertainment, then one can make all sorts of statements that have very little validity. But if one is looking at the Kenyan men's marathoning selection with an eye on learning about reality, then there is much to potentially learn from the efforts to stay on top. One lesson is: as much as we try to control it, there are some things out of our control. If only one of the "top-3" for the marathon team didn't make it, people might look at that runner and try to point out flaws. But in this case, none of the three made the team. Are there patterns we can look at in each of the three? Well, one pattern is that the three who made the team are all coached by Renato Canova (though Kipsang is relatively independent). But does this have any real validity as an explanation? I don't know! If offered as an explanation, then one has to wonder about how the non-selected rose to be the favorites going in. To me it seems like one interesting piece in a big puzzle. Another piece is the idea that perhaps the top-3 were saying they were interested in the Olympics, but deep down their allegiance to this claim was not truly present. Which is to say, they weren't lying on purpose, but when push came to shove, they didn't have it.

Another thing to consider is the pre-spring half-marathons. Makau, G Mutai and E Mutai all ran half marathons and each ran relatively well, but none ran spectacularly, or in a big-name venue. Mutai won a race in Eldoret, G Mutai won in Spain, and Makau was second in a different Spanish race. For the other three, Mosop ran an unspectacular third in his half marathon, Kipsang ran 61-flat in a non-winning RAK performance, and Kirui won in Barcelona in perhaps the most impressive of all the half-marathons run in 2012 by the pre-selected. Are there trends here? Not really. Not enough data, too many different courses, and too little emphasis on these early races. Certainly we can't say that those who were running well in half marathons were guaranteed success, or those who weren't were headed towards disaster. This explanation is too simple.

Back to Training in Kenya

Chances for Kenyan Medals
I think the Kenyan men could come away with zero medals in the London 2012 Olympic Marathon pretty easily. On the other hand, I think they have about a 10-25% chance of coming away with all three medals. Compared to the American team, who I think as a team have about a 10% chance at one medal, about a 0.0001% chance at all three medals and 90% chance at zero medals.

The Kenyan team may benefit from a sort of "symbiosis", feeding off each other, given the three men selected. Each of the three have remarkable accomplishments to their name, but none of the three is really "above" any of the others. They all probably approached the spring marathons seeing themselves as slight underdogs to make the team. So perhaps this team of star underdogs will run well as individuals and together in London. Just a speculation. Or Ethiopia's team could tear them to shreds.

One thing to keep in mind is that Renato Canova is very skilled and experienced working with national organizers from different countries. This doesn't mean that he'll be able to manage to get all of his words in with Athletics Kenya or Kip Keino and the Olympic committee, but given his success and experience, Canova may be able to negotiate a slightly more athlete-friendly set-up for the Kenyan marathoners heading into London than they have experienced in the past. The national organizers may want to herd everyone together and get them on some sort of "rough and ready" training schedule, but in Kenya this process is dynamic and changing, so look for Canova to do his best as a diplomatic advocate trying to work for the best of the athletes and Kenya, where he lives. He also can be expected to adapt to the athletes and the variables in the international scene. He can point simply to this year's results from the Ethiopian men to ensure that the men's marathoners know they could possibly have a very tough fight on their hands in London. What strategy do you use to run away from a team of highly-motivated 2:04 runners with nothing to lose? It is this expected great battle at the front that should give fans hope that an unknown runner can sneak up for a medal.

How can the sport benefit?
After this pre-selection drama, I come away thinking the sport has some real challenges in terms of having widespread popularity, simply because there are so many characters, from so many countries, running so many races, in so many timezones, and the characters, at least for the time being change very fast. However, the races themselves are in high demand from the average person, and the races are participatory. There is a lot of interest in exercise and running, but it's hard for most people to actually follow the sport. As I write I realize that I'm only talking about one country's runners, from one sex, in one event.  

The European press (where the IAAF is based) has an especially difficult task, because they are trying to advertise in markets where there is essentially no longer a "home team". What French marathoner are the French people rooting for? What Italian marathoner? What German marathoner? And, to go to different continents, what Argentinian marathoner? What Chinese (male) marathoner? If the sport and media was centered in Ethiopia and Kenya, this wouldn't be a problem. But because so much of the money is driven by Europe and America, this is essentially like the NFL attempting to make a splash in the USA while the teams had all moved to South American cities. Then again, Premier League soccer is tremendously popular in Kenya.

Abel Kirui and Renato Canova
(Profile on Kirui Here)

Whether elites, organizers and media like it or not, they are entwined with the "mass man" running 8 10 minute pace marathons and signing up by the tens of thousands to run for "charity", "health", "honor", etc. Because ING NYC attracts so many people and so much business, there is a satisfactory monetary incentive for people, even highly educated Americans, to put themselves through training to have a tiny shot at breaking records. The average runner is probably more to thank for the marathon world record being lowered than any other factor, so people at the top of the sport need to work together and recognize this co-relationship. Would distance cycling be doing so well in Europe if there were essentially no teams (a la marathoning) and the vast majority of the top runners came from East Africa, and changed quickly at the top? Marathoning is thriving not because of a vast amount of attention to the top, but a concentrated effort at the top supported by a massive amount of people who don't know anything about the top runners. This is not the case in most professional sports, where the majority of fans know the teams and the top players even if they never participated in the sport. Perhaps elite marathoning organizers need to set their sights on more universal values that apply to its niche - "record-breaking", "global", "lone wolf", and be very careful allocating money and resources that do little within its real sphere of influence. For example, if someone is into "boundary expansion", "unique solo efforts" and "pushing the limits of the human mind and body", then elite marathoning is a perfect place to cast one's attention. If one is looking for "team efforts played out over seasons", then marathoning doesn't fit the bill (see World Marathon Major award).

How often is the sport marketed in this way? Is there a way for people at the top to consolidate and streamline efforts to pursue the strengths of the sport to produce an attractive package? Personally, I see a lot of cracks in the system, including simply poor presentation of the races themselves. Perhaps the sport needs commentators who literally cover every marathon of the year, and are dedicated to the elites. There should be a different channel for elites and average Joe. The Virgin London Marathon does this for its UK coverage. There is the mass BBC coverage that covers everything, and then there is a dedicated channel for the pro men's race, and a dedicated channel for the pro women's race and all three channel are available online.  Commentary and coverage focused on the mass consumer makes sense for the mass consumer but is a major detriment to engaging the highly-engaged niche fans on whom the front-end of the sport relies. I don't see this split being recognized and managed well. Rather, it's more like a lot of water is getting poured in the crack between the split, failing to really nourish either side (average Judy runner/fan and elite Dibaba runner/fan). Each side of the crack is getting a bit of water, but not enough to nourish, and much of the water is being wasted. I think here of the Boston Marathon coverage, which was entirely geared to "average Joe" fan and not the fans of the sport. If I turn on a baseball game, the announcer is not explaining to me why the runners go counter-clockwise around the bases, and how many outs are in an inning. But in marathon coverage, this level of talk and analysis while watching the elite performance is somehow still acceptable.

Getting back to the Kenyan men, I saw this flaw in the sport's coverage clearly by the time the project had finished. My writing seemed to fill a niche that was completely vacant. It's amazing how little the fans know about the top runners in the sport! It's amazing how few week-by-week narratives exist in the sport! I think my series was interesting because it continued in a common thread. This is rare in the sport of elite marathoning, at least in the coverage of non-Americans or non-Europeans. This is interesting. We should look at this from all levels if the sport wants to thrive. These (perhaps no more than others) are dynamic times, given the technologies in our hands and many other factors, and the sport needs to be on its guard to send resources where they need to go in order to nurture the growth of the unique aspects of the sport, and not to save dinosaurs ("the lack of Italian 10,000m stars") held on to by unrealistic psychological entropy. Because it is so deep in us, and so widely available, and so enjoyable, I think the sport is going to prove "timeless". When are people not going to be interested in seeing how fast other people can train themselves to run? However, for totally understandable reasons (mainly rapid transition), at this point the front end of the sport is - despite never-before-witnessed talent - treading water with unfocused leadership and lack of common purpose and/or ideals.

Writing this series has pointed out to me that we should be focused on storylines, universal themes, and valuable insights about life that are interwoven with the journeys of these runners, even if (and especially if) they come from different backgrounds from us. We should set up systems of communication within the sport that accept, highlight, and nurture change at a rapid pace, while still providing long-lasting potential value. For the average fan, this is not that important. But for the sport, which is going to rely on record-breaking performances, it is essential.

Perhaps our lives will change in such ways that we will no longer be interested in trying to run under 2:03 in the marathon, and the sport will accept this. This is possible.

Looking ahead to London and the fall marathons, everyone in the marathon world can take a deep breath. Now, we start writing a new chapter, starting with the gong of the Olympic marathon and continuing with three fall marathon majors that each featured record-breaking performances last year. We are witnessing rapid change and potential for change not only in marathon times and personalities, but also in the sport's presentation. Some of the characters will remain the same, but as this last cycle has shown, we would all do best to approach a time of rapid change with mindful wonder and openness, reminding ourselves how comically under-equipped our "prognostication" function is. 


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