The Man Who Took Down Asbel Kiprop: A Week With Kenyan 1,500-Meter Stud Ronald Kwemoi
March 22, 2016 to August 22, 2016
Why everyone needs to start paying attention to this young man
By Andy Arnold
August 1, 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 has spent this spring and summer in Kenya. This is his sixth dispatch; you can read the previous five here.
It is high time that you all met 20-year-old Ronald Kwemoi.
Some of the more ardent track and field fans may recognize Ronald Chebolei Kwemoi as the young man who shattered the world junior 1500-meter record back in 2014, posting a ridiculous 3:28.81 at Monaco’s Herculis Diamond League meeting. The Mt. Elgon native’s 1500-meter performance is currently tied (with Mo Farah) for the ninth-best all-time and is the fifth-fastest ever run by a Kenyan. Whispers regarding the future of the 1500 floated about Stade Louis II that balmy July night, with many hailing Kwemoi as his country’s heir apparent in the middle distance races.
But the nature of athletics is fickle, and despite showing outstanding potential in the 1500 meters, Ronald had largely been absent from podium conversations over the past two years until last month. After battling a leg injury for the majority of the 2015 season, Kwemoi failed to qualify for the World Championships and finished last year as just the sixth-fastest man in Kenya.
Few Olympic teams are harder to make than Kenyan men’s 1500 squad. With the arrival of Elijah Manangoi, a resurgent Collins Cheboi, and the ever-increasing dominance of Asbel Kiprop, 2016 was shaping up as another tough year. But as LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson famously quips, “Talent doesn’t go away,” and Ronald has made the case that he isn’t going anywhere but to the podium in Rio.
After a mediocre 2015 campaign, Ronald joined Renato Canova’s training group in Iten, allowing the legendary Italian coach to guide him back towards his old form. Kwemoi has largely kept a low profile this year, using the fall and winter months to build a large base, after which he traveled to Japan for a final training stint before the Kenyan Olympic trials. The base phase went exceptionally well, and before he left for Tokyo, I had the opportunity to watch Ronald run a 1:48 rust-buster in the 800 meters during a small Athletics Kenya track meeting in Nakuru. At that race, Coach Canova shared with me his belief that Kwemoi’s training had been going so well, he would not be surprised if he broke the 1500- or 5000-meter world records soon (scroll down to point #4). I thought it a bold prediction at the time, but after watching Ronald finish third at the Kenyan Olympic Trials this June and first at the Monaco Diamond League meeting two weeks ago (handing Asbel Kiprop his first loss over 1500 meters since 2014 and also defeating the 2012 Olympic gold (Makhloufi) and bronze (Iguider) medallists as well as the 2015 silver medallist (Manangoi)), Canova’s words started to ring true.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or so I’m told, and to better gauge the current form of the world junior record holder, I asked Ronald if I could shadow his training program this past week. He happily obliged, allowing me to watch three workouts that would put the fear of God into any man, woman or child that has ever set foot on a track. Seriously, with the Games of the 31st Olympiad right around the corner, everyone better start paying attention to Ronald Chebolei Kwemoi.
TUESDAY: Speed Work at Chepkoilel
It was 8 a.m. Tuesday morning when Canova’s white matatu minivan pulled up to Iten’s famed archway, allowing me to hop inside. Driving was former 800-meter star John Litei, who has taken up the coaching duties ever since Renato flew back to Italy two weeks ago. Seated opposite of John was talent scout, close friend, and sometimes-coach Kip Evans, who had volunteered his time to help with Canova’s group now that their leader was forced to work with the athletes remotely.*
We arrived at the University of Eldoret’s dirt track, also known as Chepkoilel, at 8:30 a.m. and were greeted by one of the greatest athletic spectacles I had yet seen in Kenya. At least 100 athletes were working out that morning, and among them were some of the country’s most iconic stars. London Marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge was busy leading a marathon group through 1k repeats, with Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, 2:03 man Emmanuel Mutai and about 30 other sub-2:08 marathoners in tow. Walking around the first turn and wearing a Nike world champion singlet was the greatest steepler of all time, Ezekiel Kemboi, surrounded by a posse of five pacemakers. Over on the back stretch, doing strides under the auspicious eye of coach Patrick Sang, was a pack of 10k athletes led by World Half Marathon champion Geoffrey Kamworor. Even the grandstands featured track and field royalty, as I spotted 2012 World Indoor champion Hellen Obiri briefly chatting away with Kenya’s 800-meter Olympic Trials victor, Margaret Wambui.
Despite the saturation of athletic talent working out at Chepkoilel that day, Ronald Kwemoi and his training partner Edwin Kiptoo still managed to shine. Canova had concocted a brutal speed session for the young men that morning, and Coach Litei and Kip Evans were gracious enough to share the schedule with me.
“It is not easy,” Kip explained. “Five sets of 300’s, with three repetitions per set. The recovery time between sets will be five minutes, but the rest time between reps will change each set. Renato wants 30 seconds’ recovery for the first set, one minute for the second, two minutes for the third, four minutes in the fourth, and five minutes between each in the fifth set.”
After completing their warm-up jog, Ronald and Edwin stripped down to their singlets and compression shorts and laced up their racing spikes. Ronald was decked out with the latest Nike gear, while Edwin sported adidas’ new line. Despite the rival sponsors, both men are good friends and even better training mates. Watching Edwin and Ronald stride out was like seeing double; they are mirror images of each other.
The workout got underway with Edwin leading Ronald down the back stretch for the first 300 meters. Even though they alternated the pacing duties, they finished each rep side by side, pushing each other down the homestretch. As the workout progressed, the repetitions became insanely fast, as the list of times shows:
SET 1: 3 x 300 (:30 rest between reps)
41.6, 43.2, 42.2
SET 2: 3 x 300 (1:00 rest)
39.9, 42.6, 40.5
SET 3: 3 x 300 (2:00 rest)
39.2, 39.5, 39.3
SET 4: 3 x 300 (4:00 rest)
38.5, 38.6, 38.2
SET 5: 3 x 300 (5:00 rest)
38.6, 37.8, 36.5 (Ronald)/37.3 (Edwin)
Ronald and Edwin looked comfortable throughout, smiling and talking with each other between the reps and sets. Following the last 300-meter repeat, both men told me that their bodies felt good, and that they were confident about their current form.
Overhearing this, Coach Litei just grinned, saying “Oh really? We’ll see how you two feel after Thursday.”
THURSDAY: Mortal Combat
It rained for the next two days from Eldoret to Iten, forcing Coach Litei and Kip Evans to abandon their plan to hold Thursday’s workout at Chepkoilel. The training was moved instead to Lornah Kiplagat’s Tartan track facility in Iten. Both Edwin and Ronald arrived early that morning, eager to start what Coach Litei predicted as one of the tougher training sessions they’d have to face.
The facility was nearly empty, with only the caretaker and a herd of goats disturbing an otherwise vacant backdrop: a stark difference to Tuesday’s parade of Olympic athletes. Coach Litei and Kip seemed pleased by the solitude, as they would need to give both Ronald and Edwin their undivided attention that morning.
Once again, Kip showed me the workout schedule for the day and it was a doozy: Renato had ordered a pyramid-style program for his athletes, calling for repetitions of 600 meters, 800 meters, 1000 meters, 800 meters, and 600 meters. The recommended recovery was six minutes between reps, and the tempo would be a fraction off of race pace.
After completing their short warm-up jog, Ronald and Edwin stripped down and spiked up. They did about six hard strides down the back stretch, and then at the coaches’ bidding, silently approached the starting line. Coach Litei pulled Edwin aside to explain the pace that he wanted, ordering Edwin to run 27 seconds through the first 200 meters. Edwin just nodded, his face emotionless as he processed the pain he was about to endure. Returning to lane one, he jogged ahead of Ronald, threw both hands up into the air right before crossing the start line, and tore off into the turn with Kwemoi shadowing his steps. As expected, Edwin reached the first 200 in 27 seconds and 400 meters in 55 seconds. With about 50 meters remaining, Ronald took the lead, crossing the 600 mark in 1:22.3 to Edwin’s 1:23 flat.
Both athletes appeared winded but not hurt, and together they slowly jogged around the track in preparation for the next rep. The six-minute break soon passed, and Edwin increased his pace as they collectively approached the start line to begin the 800-meter segment.
“Alright now, 1:56. Stay patient, keep the pace even!” Kip shouted as Edwin took off in a frenzy around the turn. The two milers looked incredible as they powered away from us around the turn and along the far side of the track. Each stride was a symphony of movement, with their feet touching the Tartan surface for the briefest of moments before firing back into position to catapult their thin torsos forward.
Admiring the perfect form, Kip remarked, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Edwin could run 3:32 right now. Look at him, he’s as smooth as Kwemoi!”
The RunCzech Racing athlete certainly looked like one of the world’s best as he came through 400 in 57 seconds. Earlier this month, the 18-year old Edwin Kiptoo had finished second in the 1500 at the Kenyan Junior Championships, but was left off the team for the World U20 Championships (AK selected the third place, Anthony Kiptoo in his stead, together with the winner, Kumari Taki. Taki would win gold and Kiptoo bronze at Worlds). But Edwin seemed to be taking the devastatingly unfair decision well, and was at the moment going toe-to-toe with one of the world’s best 1500-meter runners.
With 50 meters remaining in the 800-meter rep, Ronald shifted gears to pull even with Edwin and cross the line in 1:55.0. Coach Litei started shouting encouragements as the two Kenyans prepared for the 1k rep, shuffle-jogging again for the next six minutes.
After the recovery time had ended, Edwin bravely took the reins again and set off to pace Kwemoi for the 1k. But the young athlete was starting to crack under the pressure of the workout, and after passing 400 meters in 58 seconds, we could see that he was suffering. Ronald patiently waited behind Edwin over the next lap, passing 800 meters in 1:59-high before kicking in the last 200 meters in 26.3 seconds. He covered the 1k rep in 2:27 flat. Edwin was not too far behind in 2:31.
Ronald and Edwin looked crushed, spending a full minute bent over sucking for air with both hands on their knees before beginning their shuffle-jog recovery around the track. In a strange sort of way, seeing these two elite athletes suffer was as inspiring as the workout itself. After all, it proved that they were mortal. Observing the distress of their franchise runners, coaches Kip and John decided to make the next rep the last, electing to save the guys instead for the insanity that awaited them on Sunday.
“This is it Ronald, last one Edwin! One more 800 and you’re done!” Coach John yelled out reassuringly.
With Edwin still in a world of hurt, Ronald took over for the final 800-meter repetition. It passed by without much drama, as Kwemoi maintained an even effort to run 1:59.1. Edwin finished a few seconds behind in 2:04. Not a bad day for a race-pace training session at 7,300 feet above sea-level.
Workout in the books, both athletes hurriedly threw off their spikes and changed into warmer clothes to start the cool down. While they ran off together out onto the red clay roads leading away from the facility, I asked John and Kip if they were concerned about today’s effort.
“No,” said Coach Litei. “Today was good. It was meant to get them tired for Sunday. Sunday is the true test.”
SUNDAY: The Shadow of Shaheen
It was the Lord’s Day in Iten, but the Sabbath was not to be a day of rest for Ronald Kwemoi or Edwin Kiptoo. From the depths of his coaching past, Renato Canova had recalled for them a workout that few of his athletes ever attempt, a workout that can either make or break a runner. It was a workout reserved for his very best athletes, one that Saif Saaeed Shaheen famously completed before running his still-standing world record of 7:53 in the steeplechase. Training sessions like this are the measuring sticks by which greatness can be compared, connecting the past to the present. All runners are familiar with such “signature workouts,” but few ever try something like this.
Knowing the gravity of today’s session, Kip and John recruited pacemakers for Edwin and Ronald. As I watched the two poor souls warm up with Kiptoo and Kwemoi, I wondered to myself if they knew what they had gotten themselves into. The schedule for the workout was 2 kilometers, 8 minutes’ rest, 3 x 300 meters with 1-minute recovery, 8 minutes’ rest, and finally 1 kilometer. Renato’s goal paces for the day were 5:15, 39.5, and 2:23. In short, it was insanity.
Silently, the group of athletes jogged towards the line to begin the 2k segment. Kip and John had previously been arguing about the correct pace for the repetition, claiming that 5:20 would be a better goal given the altitude, but ultimately told the pacesetters to try for 63 seconds per lap (5:15 pace). Wordlessly, the group set off, with the two pacers in front, followed by Edwin and then Ronald at the rear. They crossed 400 meters in 63.5 seconds and 800 in 2:06.4. Not willing to break up their rhythm, the coaches just urged them on, shouting “maintain!” Ronald, however, was done playing around, and took over after passing 1k in 2:38. With the pacers dropped out, he and Edwin hit 1200 meters in 3:10, and reached the mile in 4:14. Ronald closed his last 400 meters in 58 seconds flat, running 5:12 for the first 2k. Edwin was no more than a step behind.
We all could sense that something special was in the works now, and Coach John and Kip asked the pacesetters to rest during the 300’s so that they could be fresh for the final kilometer. Edwin and Ronald took turns running the 3’s, hitting an average of 39 seconds flat. If the lactate was beginning to take hold in Ronald or Edwin, they weren’t showing it, as both men seemed to have their gaze glued to the track in anticipation of this last thousand-meter rep.
After eight short minutes, Coach Litei called the pacesetters, Ronald and Edwin to the line, demanding 56 seconds for their first 400 meters. The athletes’ chests were still heaving a bit as they stood motionless in lane one, resetting their watches while we onlookers waited with bated breath to see what the men could manage.
After a hop and a step, the pacesetter sprinted off with Ronald and Edwin on his heels, splitting 28.0 and 56.0 for the first lap. After reaching 600 meters in 1:24.9, the pacesetter stepped off, leaving Ronald and Edwin alone for the final lap. Kwemoi looked amazing, attacking the last 400 meters as if it were the bell lap in Rio. Kicking hard through the line, he ran 55.1 for his last lap, clocking 2:20 flat for the final kilometer of the workout. Edwin finished a few meters behind, in a still impressive 2:22.
It was a mind-boggling training session, one that left me wondering how good Kwemoi could be at the upcoming Olympic Games. Catching up with him after the workout, still breathing heavily and leaning over the water jump barrier, I asked him if he had anything to say to his fans or the LetsRun.com faithful.
“Tell the people… that Ronald Kwemoi is back. It’s been over two years, I had to battle injury… but I’m back.”
He paused for a moment, and then looking at me with a smile said, “And I’m ready to kill everyone come Rio…”
Later that night, while having dinner and discussing the workout with Kip and John, Renato Canova called us from Italy, eager to hear about the session. As Kip read the splits to the old coach, I could see his face light up, at times even shaking his head in what looked like disbelief. Hanging up the phone, I asked Kip what Renato had said.
“You’re not going to believe this… but Ronald ran the exact splits that Shaheen ran a decade ago in this workout, right before his world record. There was little more than four-tenths of a second difference between them…”
If ever there was a sign that Ronald Kwemoi is gold-medal material, that was it.
*Editor’s note: Reports on the ground confirm that authorities in Kenya have been interrogating and sometimes detaining foreigners involved in athletics. This investigation is part of a response to IAAF and WADA pressure, as well as recent reports, such as the ARD Documentary, of doping conspiracies throughout Kenya. The recent arrest of agent Federico Rosa and the detainment of coach Claudio Berardelli, (both lacking significant evidence) as well as sweeps throughout the country by the department of immigration, has left many foreign agents and coaches wary of the lengths Kenyan authorities may go to create the appearance of fighting performance-enhancing drug use in Kenya on the eve of the Olympics.
Renato, in an email sent to Arnold last week, explained that he, “preferred to go home, because I didn’t want to fight again with immigration at this point in the season.” He had a similar situation before the 2008 Olympics, in which his case ultimately prevailed, but the hearings distracted his attention from the athletes. That is why, for the moment, Renato is coaching remotely.
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