James Li & Stephen Sambu – A Winning Combination

By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

BOSTON (23-Jun) — There’s one thing that coach James Li accounts for Stephen Sambu‘s meteoric rise to success in 2014: confidence. Li, who has coached Sambu since 2010 when the Kenyan enrolled at the University of Arizona, has seen the 25-year-old rapidly develop his mental approach to racing, something that has catapulted him into the upper echelon of road racers this year.

“It’s really been a breakout year for him,” Li told Race Results Weekly here yesterday, taking a pause for effect and trying to find more descriptive words before settling on, “It’s great.”

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While a dozen or so members of the media circled around Sambu following his B.A.A. 10-K victory, Li stood ten meters away. Wearing a gray University of Arizona fleece and a proud smile, Li watched his newest star answer question after question in stride. Sambu had just run a world leading 27:25 to win the fourth annual event, and also bettered the U.S. All-Comers and Association of Road Racing Statisticians (ARRS) World Record for 8-kilometers in the process (22:01.03), pending validation.

Speaking in his usual soft, meaningful tone, Li was proud and happy for Sambu. Battling stride for stride with 2011 Boston Marathon champion Geoffrey Mutai, Sambu’s confidence was on full display, something Li took immense delight from.

Reflecting on the last four months, Li points to March 16, 2014, as the turning point, when Sambu went from above average racer to fearsome contender. It was on that chilly morning that Sambu raced aggressively against Mutai and double Olympic champion Mo Farah, finishing third at the NYC Half in 1:01:08.

“Ever since the New York Half, I think that was the race that gives him the confidence and knowing that he could compete with these guys. After that every race has been really good,” said Li.

Indeed, since the NYC Half Sambu has been on fire. He won the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile in Washington, D.C., (45:29), defeated 10-K world record holder Leonard Patrick Komon while claiming the UAE Healthy Kidney 10-K title in New York City (27:39), and ran a personal best 26:54.61 for 10,000m at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon, leading the field through a majority of the race and deciding to stay on the track after his pacing duties were complete. He only agreed to run that event two days before.

In each race, Sambu ran out front and disregarded any notion that other entrants may have better credentials than himself. He wouldn’t let their world championships medals, personal best times, or lengthy racing resumes dissuade him from challenging for the win.

oach James Li of the University of Arizona and Stephen Sambu after Sambu won the 2014 B.A.A. 10-K in a world-leading 27:25 (Photo by Karen Locke)

Coach James Li of the University of Arizona and Stephen Sambu after Sambu won the 2014 B.A.A. 10-K in a world-leading 27:25 (Photo by Karen Locke)

“The confidence level is really high and training feels great,” confirmed Li.

Consistency, not mileage is key

Interestingly, for all the accomplishments and great races Sambu has had this year, his mileage is relatively low. That, says Li, is a key to his consistency and tenacity.

“We always try to do things conservatively,” said Li, who also coaches Bernard Lagat and Lawi Lalang. “Consistency is the most important thing for me. But, he understands the system and he follows it really well.” He continued: “He would never do anything more than what we discuss and he understands the important aspect of this whole thing is consistency. I think it’s paid off. After four or five years training together, this year we really get to see the results.”

Although Li doesn’t count mileage, he estimates that Sambu has reached at the most 90 miles a week, a modest amount when considering other elites reach the 100 to 125 miles per week level routinely.

“I think he can run a little bit lower still. He’s still young relatively and we don’t do much mileage,” Li said. “I think so, I think he’ll be able to go longer and do better still. He’s an awesome runner and he’s been very steady.”

In college, Li dubbed Sambu “Mr. Consistency,” a nickname he is fulfilling this year. Sambu agrees with Li in that working together has provided him added confidence and experience that has served him quite well.

“I’ve been training with Coach Li since when I was in school, since 2010, so I’ve been with him all these years,” said Sambu, emphasizing the word all. “I love him so much, I thank him a lot for good training, giving me all the time.”

Firmly believing he can race alongside some of the best 10-K athletes ever to compete in America –including the aforementioned world record holder Komon and Mutai– Sambu has pushed the envelope a bit more this season.

At the UAE Healthy Kidney 10-K, Sambu made a very risky, yet decisive, move at halfway, surging hard away from Komon. Komon had no response, losing for the first time at 10-K on the roads since February of 2011.

Similarly, at the B.A.A. 10-K, Sambu was step for step with Mutai through 8-K. It was then he surged despite feeling pain and fatigue.

“After 8-K I knew I still had to run 2-K so I thought ‘let me increase the pace’ because I was just thinking about finishing,” he said. “It’s really good, it makes me feel good.”

That move broke Mutai, who would finish second.

Sambu now finds himself all alone as the fastest man in the world for 10-K this year. Next up, according to his manager Karen Locke, is the B.A.A. Half-Marathon on Sunday, October 12. Last year, Sambu finished third at the B.A.A. Half-Marathon, overshadowed by 2013 Boston Marathon champion Lelisa Desisa. Desisa would win in 1:00:34, seven seconds up on Daniel Salel and Sambu (1:00:41).

This year, with confidence and another few months of training under Li, he very well could be the odds-on favorite.

“It means a lot, a lot to me,” said Sambu, describing winning and his recent success. “It is good, I am so happy. I feel like I’m improving.”

LetsRun.com Note: Sambu was far from a slouch prior to this year. At Arizona, he ran 13:13.74 indoors for 5000 and was the NCAA cross country runner-up in 2012.