The Brilliance Of Asbel Kiprop & Jairus Birech’s Crazy Quadruple: Scenes From The Spring’s Final Athletics Kenya Meet In Eldoret
By Andy Arnold
April 21, 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 five months. To read his first article, on the massive Nakuru track meet in March, click here. For his second, a behind-the-scenes look at workouts with Florence Kiplagat, Thomas Longosiwa and Jairus Birech, click here.
ELDORET, Kenya — The final stage of a series of races organized by Athletics Kenya took place in Eldoret this past weekend. I had been looking forward to covering this three-day competition all week long, for it was the main topic of conversation around Iten. From the dining tables of the Kerio View Hotel to the backseat of matatus (minibuses that serve as a hybrid of cabs and public buses), the gossip surrounding these races was palpable, and the talk from both Iten’s athletes and laypeople gave me a good idea of what to expect last Thursday, Friday and Saturday within the hallowed walls of Kipchoge Stadium.
Rumor had it that 2008 Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop was planning to make an appearance, as well as his 2015 world champion compatriots Nicholas Bett (400 hurdles) and Julius Yego (javelin). Earlier in the week, coach Renato Canova confirmed that his athletes would be competing at a variety of distances, using this track meeting as a final tune-up before departing for international competition next month. Kenya’s Daily Nation reported that David Rudisha would be gracing Kipchoge Stadium in the 400-meter dash, and coach John Litei also claimed that his fellow tribesman and “other” Maasai phenom, World Championship silver medallist Elijah Manangoi, would be making his track debut this weekend.
But probably the most significant aspect of this final AK track meeting was its location. There is a reason why Eldoret is referred to as the “City of Champions”: it is the nearest metropolitan center to the majority of western Kenya’s athletic hotspots. All across these rolling rural hills, thousands of aspiring amateur athletes carve out their destinies each and every day within the punishing ritual of training. They spend countless miles preparing for opportunities like the one afforded by this weekend, and there was no question that the clash between Kenya’s elite and emerging talent would be a spectacle of Olympic proportions.
The only piece of information that remained in doubt right up until the night before the preliminary rounds was the competition program. Much to the annoyance of Canova and Iten’s professional athletes, Athletics Kenya decided to leave the question of scheduling unsettled until the last minute (10 p.m. Wednesday evening to be exact). But that typical Kenyan procrastination did not stop the country’s athletes from arriving in droves Thursday morning. Just as in Nakuru, this local meet attracted an assembly of athletic talent rivaled only by Diamond League meetings and Olympic venues. The sheer volume of runners was staggering, as was the fan turnout, and together the athletes and audience made for an exciting three days of racing.
Day 1: The Thursday Prelims and Why Running Fast > Winning
I was told by both athletes and coaches that it was unlikely Kenya’s elite runners would compete in Saturday’s finals. Three straight days of racing in April, coupled with the fact that victory nets an athlete only 5,000 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $50), gave Kenya’s sponsored men and women little incentive to see the meet to its end. However, Saturday’s loss was Thursday’s gain, for the elite competitors treated the preliminary rounds as if they were a championship unto itself.
The competitions began around 10 a.m. Thursday morning after suffering a two-hour delay on account of Athletics Kenya’s last-minute preparations (in fact, it was Canova that had to unlock Kipchoge Stadium earlier that morning, for the AK officials had yet to arrive). The men’s 400-meter hurdles and women’s 5,000 meters were the unfortunate casualties in this disorganization, and had to be rescheduled for the following day. But despite the slow start, the racing began in earnest with the men’s 5,000-meter competition.
There were four heats of the men’s 5k, with each heat forming a field that exceeded 30 competitors. Sprinkled among these miniature road races were some of Kenya’s finest distance athletes. The first heat featured sub-3:30 man, Nixon Kiplimo Chepseba. The 25-year old, who ran 3:29 in 2012, won with a lethal kick over the final lap to finish in a time of 14 minutes and 29 seconds. Remember, at its lowest point, Eldoret sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. The NCAA altitude converter converts a 14:29 run at 7,000 feet to 13:49. The second heat was a less tactical affair and was won by a resurgent Emmanuel Kipsang in 13:56 (13:17 NCAA conversion). The 24-year old Kipsang had been frequenting Canova’s training sessions over the past few weeks, and despite his good form in practice, it was still unclear as to whether the man was simply a fine workout member or a serious competitor (Editor’s note: Arnold doesn’t have access to our results database as Kipsang ran 60:14 for 4th in the Lisbon half-marathon on March 20th. He also ran 13:08 for 5000 in Brussel last year). His victory over thirty of Kenya’s top runners certainly points to the latter.
The third heat of the 5k was the most entertaining to watch, for it featured a familiar field. Tucked away within the ranks of athletes were the world’s top two steeplechasers in 2015 according to LetsRun.com, #1 Jairus Birech and #2 Conseslus Kipruto. Standing not too far away from these legends of the chase was a man who hopes to one day join them, European U-23 champion Mitko Tsenov. The three steeplechasers took their marks amidst the gigantic field of runners, and following the loud “BANG” of the starter’s gun, were swept away by a frenzied pace. The first three laps were each run under 65 seconds, and the field quickly strung out. After about 2k, Tsenov had had enough of the mad dash and dropped out. One thousand meters later, to my surprise, he was followed by Birech. I must have looked concerned for Birech, because Canova turned to me and explained, “Jairus is fine. He wanted to use this race as a warm-up for the 1500 meters.” It was a lesson in humility for me, for that meant Birech just finished his 3000-meter “warm-up” in 8 minutes and 17 seconds (7:55 NCAA conversion)… a mere eight seconds off my PR in the 3k. There is a reason why the man is eyeing the world record in Rome on June 2.
Conseslus Kipruto went on to win the 5k in 13:47 (13:09 NCAA conversion), the fastest time of the day. His victory was sealed by a tremendous kick over the final 150 meters, and his acceleration was so profound that it left his competitors standing still by comparison. This sprint finish made me realize how dangerous Kipruto is in a tactical steeplechase (indeed, he has taken silver at the last two World Championships). Perhaps Ezekiel Kemboi is not the only athlete Birech and Canova should be worried about?
The morning’s excitement during the men’s 5k was rivaled only by the men’s 1500 meters races that began about an hour later. At 11 a.m., Coach “Warm-Up”, the perennial starter for Athletics Kenya (so called because that phrase is practically the only thing he says), lined up eight heats of about 20 men each. He did not waste any time after getting the men organized, firing off each field of athletes in rapid succession. The first heat was won in relatively pedestrian 3:51 (3:42 NCAA conversion). Former 1:43 man Job Kinyor won heat two in 3:44 (3:36 NCAA conversion) but with the arrival of the third heat, the racing really started to heat up and get interesting.
This change was in large part thanks to the world’s most decorated steeplechaser, Ezekiel Kemboi., the 33-year old who has won 6 global steeple titles. Sitting in third for the first 1000 meters, Kemboi let the race develop without much drama, as the leaders ran their first lap in 61 and came through 800 meters in 2:02. But with 500 meters to go, Kemboi turned on the jets, breaking away from the field in a matter of seconds. He held a good lead for the entirety of the last lap, until about 10 meters from the finish, where he paused to wave to the crowd and walk across the line, just barely edging out his flailing competitor. The finishing time was 3:47 (3:39 NCAA conversion).
Standing next to me during Kemboi’s win was Canova and his star pupil, retired steeplechase world record holder Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar (Canova still calls him by his Kenyan name, Stephen Cherono). They were enjoying and analyzing Kemboi’s performance when I overheard Canova remark, “It is not possible to understand the shape from this. He is a showman.” Shaheen, smartly dressed in a red-checkered collared shirt and designer jeans, was more critical, “This is boring to watch. How can these guys run so slow on this track (Kipchoge Stadium sports a Mondo surface)? They will do the bare minimum to win.” Turning to me, he added, “Remember this, it’s better to get last and run 3:46, then win and run 3:47.” No sooner had he finished these words, when objections started to cry out in my mind. “It’s April… it’s the prelims… it’s not his race… it doesn’t matter!” But one realization silenced all these voices: Shaheen’s the world record holder. You don’t run 7:53 without a mentality that’s fearless to a fault.
The fourth heat was won by another member of the Canova clan, Vincent Yator, who looked comfortable as he crossed the line in a time of 3:49. Not bad for a guy who is running long distance now. The 26-year old, who ran 13:04 in 2010, but didn’t compete on the European track circuit after 2012 is trying to make it as a 10,000 man now. Last year, he won the Paris half and ran 59:55 for 13.1 before finishing 4th at the Kenyan 10,000 Trials. After another heat with a 3:47 winning time, Jairus Birech once again toed the line, looking plenty warmed-up for his 1500-meter effort. He finished with a time of 3:49 (3:40 NCAA conversion), good enough for second behind the relatively unknown Hosea Cherongei (Editor’s note: Our results databases list the winner as the equally obscure Gerald Vincent).
The final two heats proved to be the fastest of the day, led by 18-year old Edwin Kiptoo’s 3:43 wire-to-wire spectacle (3:35 NCAA conversion). Could he be Kenya’s latest new star? 2012 Olympic 5000 bronze medallist Thomas Longosiwa was narrowly beaten in the eighth and final heat by 1500-meter specialist and 1:45 man, Timothy Cheruiyot. Cheruiyot looked incredible in an earlier AK race in Nakuru, and this win was only a warm-up for what was to come this weekend.
The men’s 800-meter race was the final highlight of the afternoon, and its 11 heats featured many of Kenya’s biggest stars. The winners included Silas Kiplagat (1:47, looking relaxed), Elijah Manangoi (1:46), and Renato Canova’s new middle-distance prospect Sammy Kirunga (1:48, walking away from the field) (Editor’s note: The NCAA conversion wouuld take off about 1.2 seconds at this altitude). But one runner stole the spotlight, and that was none other than Olympic gold medallist Asbel Kiprop. His heat went out fast, with Kiprop tucked inside in the fourth position until the bell. Kiprop reached 400 meters in 52-high, where he then proceeded to unfurl his impossibly long stride and unleash a scorching pace for the field to follow. They couldn’t, and all the challengers wilted before reaching 600 meters. As the three-time world champ cruised down the finishing stretch to certain victory, the Kenyan crowd was thunderous. He crossed the line in a time of 1:45.1, an impressive feat given that he slowed at the tape to stop his own watch (perhaps a little early as his official time was listed as 1:45.2, which converts to 1:44.0 according to the NCAA). (Apparently the athletes do not trust the timekeepers at AK. I witnessed half of the athletes stopping their watches at the finish to check their times. Some even had the interesting strategy to stop their watch 20 meters from the finish line. I guess there is more than one way to run a PR?)
Day 2: The Friday Semis and the Early Indications of a World Record?
The Friday races picked up right where Thursday left off, or rather, Athletics Kenya picked up the slack that it had left over from the day before. The heats of the women’s 5,000 meters were called early in the morning hours, and I witnessed three women crack the 16-minute barrier. Sandrafelis Chebet won the first heat in a time of 15:47 (15:04 NCAA conversion), while Vivian Chemutai ran 15:54 for a tactical victory. (15:10 NCAA conversion). Following the women’s races, an army of AK officials went to work putting the men’s 400-meter hurdles in order. Once finished, world champion Nicholas Bett made short work of them, winning the first heat in 49.84 (the NCAA converter actually slows these 400h times at 7000 feet by just over .2 of a second). His brother, World Championship semifinalist Haron Koech, was not far behind, clocking 50.17 in the second heat. The two men appeared as mirror images of each other, flying over the hurdles in Kenya’s national team colors. Their form and raw speed were incredible to witness, and lead me to believe that they are the men to beat in Rio this summer.
The excitement in the stadium continued to grow with the start of the men’s 1500-meter semi-finals. The previous eight heats had been narrowed to just two today, featuring qualifiers such as Birech, Cheruiyot, and Kiptoo. Much to the crowd’s (and my) disappointment, Longosiwa and Kemboi elected to bow out of the semi-finals. Still, their absence did not alter the level of competition much.
Despite gusts of wind, the first heat was won in 3:44 by Cheruiyot, thanks to a crushing last 200 meters in 26 seconds flat (3:35.9 NCAA conversion). The second heat proved to be even more tactical affair, but Kiptoo once again found that extra gear to power away to another victory in 3:47 (Editor’s note: Our results database lists a 3:43 winning time). Birech was a step behind, but despite his 42-second last 300 meters, he could not catch Kiptoo. Canova, however, was unperturbed by the performance of his steeplechaser, “Jairus is training hard, and his motivation is very high. He does not need to race this weekend, but he insisted.” It was clear that Birech had some heavy legs over the last lap, but he still managed a fast time despite his workload.
Following the 1500’s were the women’s 800-meter semi finals, or rather, the Eunice Sum show. While the first two heats were won in tight races, Sum simply destroyed her competitors in the third and final heat of the day, clocking 2:03 after a 58-second first lap into a steady headwind (2:02 NCAA conversion). The next-closest finisher was over 10 seconds behind the 2013 world champion. I was seated next to New Zealand athlete Jake Robertson during Sum’s race, and he couldn’t help but comment on her dominance, “Look at her form. She just looks better than everyone. No girl in Kenya can beat that woman.” One can only wonder if that prophecy extends beyond the borders of East Africa and if that applies to the women with Hyperandrogenism.
Unsurprisingly, the men’s 800-meter race proved to be the highlight of the day. 22-year old Sammy Kirongo, who has run 1:45 every year since 2013 (and has a 2:16 1k pb), won his heat convincingly in 1:47 flat, prompting Canova to proclaim that, “I think [Sammy] will make the Olympic team this year. He is very strong, very focused.” I do not doubt Canova’s foresight when it comes to track and field, but that predication was made before Elijah Manangoi, the 2015 world championship silver medallist at 1500, toed the line. If Manangoi elects to try his luck at the half-mile distance this summer, qualifying for Rio is going to become that much more difficult for every Kenyan half-miler, for he looked incredible in this race. Despite a slow first lap (54 seconds), Manangoi managed to throw down a 52-second last 400, negative-splitting his way to 1:46. Almost as amazing as the performance was the fact that Manangoi sported a USA singlet for the semi-final.
After the race, I asked the World Championship silver medalist about his wearing the red, white and blue. Manangoi laughed, and explained that the singlet belonged to “my friend Leo Manzano.” The two apparently traded uniforms with each other last year. I have to admit, that USA kit looks awfully good on the young Maasai middle-distance star.
But once again, the other competitors were only warm-up acts compared to the show delivered by Asbel Kiprop. Stepping onto the track, the stadium suddenly fell into a hushed excitement as the tall, thin silhouette of Kiprop sauntered over to the start line in lane one. He was flanked by two men who eagerly volunteered as rabbits for the Olympic champion, despite the fact that this heat was a semi-final for Saturday’s competition. But Kiprop had already decided that he would not be running Saturday, and the five other men that were continuing on to the next day quietly resigned themselves to the fact that this race was going to be extremely fast.
The starter’s gun fired and the race was off, with Kiprop and his mango-colored Nike singlet gliding around the first turn at an almost unnatural speed. The two pacesetters hit the bell in 50.7, and from there Kiprop was on his own. He reached 600 meters in 1:17 and continued to accelerate all the way through the finish. Crossing the line, my watch read 1:44 flat, the fastest time of the day (Kiprop had 1:44.34 on his watch, Athletics Kenya gave him 1:44.6). It was a spectacular performance in April… in Eldoret… at 7,000 feet of altitude. Leaving the stadium that day, all the talk centered on Kiprop and the possibility of a new world record in the 1500 meters. I must confess, after watching the lithe figure of Kiprop effortlessly cruise to 1:44 Friday, sub-3:26 somehow felt a more tangible reality.
Day 3: Saturday’s Finals and Revelation
My expectations were low heading into the Saturday finals. Everyone around town had warned me that many of the professional athletes would have opted out of the competition by this point. It made sense: after all it was April and the international competitions were fast approaching. In less than three weeks, the Diamond League circuit would begin in Doha, signaling the start of a long march towards the Olympics in Rio. But Saturday proved to be anything but an off day for Kenya’s finest athletes, allowing the last day of Athletics Kenya’s early-season competitions to be a spectacular sendoff.
World Champion javelin thrower Julius Yego wowed the crowd with a few 80-meter bombs throughout the morning. Meanwhile, as Yego performed his best Achilles spear-throwing impressions, Vivian Chemutai crushed her competitors in the women’s 5k, winning in a time of 15:32 (Editor’s note: She officially now competes for Turkey as 19-year old Yasemin Can and is listed as having run the Rotterdam marathon just 6 days before in 2:47). In the men’s 1500-meter race, Timothy Cheruiyot made a statement by winning in an absolutely stunning 3:36. His final 300 meters were covered in 39 seconds, yet he looked smooth throughout the effort. Cheruiyot is a prime example of the staggering amount of depth Kenya has in this event: he was seventh at the World Championships in 2015 but only the fourth Kenyan finisher in the race!
Eunice Sum made good on Jake Robertson’s prediction by winning the women’s 800 meters in a time of 2:02. Her form was once again perfect throughout this effort, as Sum seemed to just effortlessly pull away from her talented competitors over the last 100 meters.
The men’s 5,000-meter final signaled the arrival of Emmanuel Kipsang, who broke a talented field that included Longosiwa, Issac Songok, Frederick Kipkosgei, Clement Kemboi and Nixon Chepseba. The start of this race was fast, with the six-man pack running 4:12 for their first mile. But Kipsang stayed at the front throughout the race, forcing his followers to suffer his hellish pace until it proved too much and allowed Kipsang the luxury of winning with space in a time of 13:44 (NCAA conversion of 13:06)
The only letdown Saturday came in the men’s 400-meter dash, for it was billed as one of the premier events of the meet. Kenya’s Daily Nation had hinted earlier in the week about a potential David Rudisha-Nicholas Bett showdown. But Bett elected to stick to the 400-meter hurdles, and Rudisha unfortunately was a no-show. But one of Brother Colm O’Connell’s proteges did make an appearance: 800 world youth champion Willy Tarbei. The 17-year Tarbei, who ran 1:44.51 last year, is built like Rudisha, and the Great One’s training partner has a frighteningly similar stride pattern. That is probably why the young Tarbei won convincingly in the 400-meter final, cruising to a comfortable victory in 46 seconds.
But the highlight of this final day of competitions started before the doors of Kipchoge Stadium had even opened, and provided me with a revelation that went beyond just the track oval. I had risen early that morning to meet with Jairus Birech at the nearby Belio training camp. It was a little past 7 a.m. when I arrived at Belio, but Birech was already awake and toiling away within the concrete walls. Inside the quaint training grounds, the sub-8-minute steeplechaser was busy washing his car with a rag and a small plastic bucket filled with rain water. He must have been working on the task for some time, for the car already appeared to be spotless. As we talked, he put the bucket and rag down in favor of a mop, and then began cleaning the tiled floors leading into his tiny, dormitory-sized room. Watching this short and slender Kenyan carry out mundane chores in the early-morning light, you never could have guessed that he was one of the greatest athletes in the world. He seemed too grounded, too at peace with a simple life, to be the same record-setting runner global audiences and messageboard readers have come to witness and discuss with a sense of awe. But here he was, Jairus Birech, one of Kenya’s most successful and famous athletes, starting his day by wiping away the mud that had built up around his rims and floors from last night’s rain.
Two hours later, my sense of respect for the man, which was already too high to quantify, reached stratospheric levels. I had visited Birech that morning to ask him some questions about his childhood, so our topic never once ventured into the domain of racing. The nature of our conversation, the morning chores, and the fact that I had already watched him compete in three races over the past two days, made the possibility of him running in the finals simply an absurd thought. It never even crossed my mind to ask him. So you can imagine my surprise when I was standing on the infield of Kipchoge Stadium, waiting for the start of the men’s 10,000 meters, to see Birech come striding out onto the Mondo track in spikes and a purple Nike racing kit.
The legend only grew from that moment on. As the starter held up his gun, 50+ athletes crouched over the start line awaiting the signal to sprint. The gun fired, and the marathon-sized pack streaked off around the turn at an absolutely terrifying pace. The first lap was covered in 58 seconds, and the 800 meters was eclipsed in under 2 minutes and 4 seconds. By the third lap, the 10k had a line of athletes strung out over 200 meters, with none other than Birech in the lead. His only challenger was a tall, skinny Turkana athlete named Peter Emase, a 22-year old who had won a half-marathon in Madrid in 2014 in 62:00.