The Secrets of the World’s Best 1500-Meter Training Group: How Elijah Manangoi, Timothy Cheruiyot, & Coach Bernard Ouma Turned Rongai Athletics Club Into a Powerhouse
The world’s best 1500-meter training group trains under the direction of a karate master-turned coach (Bernard Ouma) and they regularly dodge giraffes and even an occasional leopard in a National Park in their quest to be become champions.
*MB: The Secrets of the World’s Best 1500-Meter Training Group – Rongai Athletics Club
The world’s best 1500-meter training group can be found at Rongai Athletics Club, where, under the direction of karate master-turned coach Bernard Ouma, athletes like Elijah Manangoi and Timothy Cheruiyot dodge giraffes and drag tires to become champions
By Jonathan Gault
August 28, 2018
It was early August 2017, a week before the start of the men’s 1500 meters at the World Championships in London, and Bernard Ouma had a flight to catch. Though the men’s 1500 was the final individual event of Worlds, Ouma was serving as a Team Kenya coach for the championships and had to be in London early. So before he left the team’s training camp at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, he met with the Kenyan squad — which included his two pupils, the two fastest 1500-meter men on the year, Timothy Cheruiyot and Elijah Manangoi, as well as three-time defending world champion Asbel Kiprop and Ronald Kwemoi — over dinner at a hotel near the stadium.
The previous year, at the Olympics in Rio, the Kenyan men had failed to earn a medal in the 1500 for the second consecutive Games as American Matthew Centrowitz took the gold in 3:50.00, the slowest winning time since 1932. Ouma told the 2017 squad, in no uncertain terms, that London would be different.
“My point was: we are doing a 3:32 in London,” Ouma said. “Anything shorter than that, you’re getting a repeat of Centrowitz winning with a pace slower than the physically challenged [in the] Paralympics. We don’t want to do that. So we agreed: it’s 3:32.”
On the morning of the final in London, Manangoi approached Ouma. He wanted to know their strategy for the race. So Ouma sat Manangoi and Cheruiyot down and spoke one word: Monaco.
Monaco meant the Monaco Diamond League from three weeks earlier. In that race, Manangoi and Cheruiyot, both of whom train under Ouma as part of Rongai Athletics Club (RAC) in Nairobi, had broken away from the field at the 800-meter mark and gone on to run PRs of 3:28.80 (Manangoi) and 3:29.10 (Cheruiyot). They had won in a rout; the third-place runner, Kwemoi, finished over three seconds behind Cheruiyot. Ouma wanted his boys to try to drop the field early once again.
However, in the final, the opening lap was covered in 61.63 seconds. Not fast enough. Three-hundred meters in, Cheruiyot began to get nervous, and looked toward Ouma in the stands by the finish line.
“Elijah was supposed to go on the first lap, which he didn’t,” Ouma says. “Tim was looking at me going, What is going on now?”
During races, Ouma likes to think of himself as the conductor, his athletes the orchestra, and he responded by pulling his hands apart, the signal he uses if he wants one of his athletes to open up a gap. Cheruiyot received the signal and proceeded to run his next 800 meters in 1:52.05 in an incredibly even fashion, splitting 55.96 for his second lap and 56.08 for his third. Ouma has a phrase he likes to repeat in practice, “make it look easy.” That’s exactly what Cheruiyot was doing.
Here let us pause to appreciate the audacity of Bernard Ouma. Not only does he possess the firm belief that his athletes can open a gap on any field at will; he has a specific gesture imploring them to do just that, and used that gesture in the freaking World Championship final.
Initially, the only men who dared to go with Cheruiyot were the two other Kenyans in the field, Manangoi and Kiprop, and the trio soon gapped the field.
On the third lap, a few brave souls in the main pack decided they did not want to make the same mistake as in Monaco, where they had allowed the gap to become insurmountable. But they had to work too hard to reel in Manangoi and company in by the bell — the two leaders of the chase pack, Spain’s Adel Mechaal and Norway’s Filip Ingebrigtsen, both ran their third lap in under 55 seconds (54.70 and 54.99 respectively). Though the gap had been bridged, the chasers didn’t have a big finish left in the tank, and Manangoi and Cheruiyot crossed the finish line in first and second place, respectively, with Cheruiyot more than a half second ahead of third placer Ingebrigtsen.
It turns out that Ouma’s training-camp declaration was only off by a second: Manangoi’s winning time was 3:33.61, with Cheruiyot just behind in 3:33.99. It marked the first time anyone had broken 3:34 in a World Championship final since Hicham El Guerrouj in 2003.
The times were impressive, particularly given the 61-second first lap, but the legacy of the race is the manner in which they were achieved. Since El Guerrouj’s retirement in 2004, running fast has become decidedly unsexy in championship 1500-meter races. Centrowitz’s 3:50.00 in Rio was glacial, but had he run that time at this year’s World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, he would have won the race by a full straightaway — the winning time at World Indoors was 3:58.19, a time that four women have bettered so far in 2018.
Ouma likes it when his guys run fast, so in London last year, Manangoi, 25, and Cheruiyot, 22, employed a novel strategy: they simply ran away from everyone else. And unlike El Guerrouj, who often relied on a teammate to set the pace early on, there were no sacrificial lambs; even when Manangoi passed Cheruiyot late in the race, Cheruiyot still held on for the silver medal. That strategy has continued to work wonders in 2018, delivering 1-2 finishes for Manangoi and Cheruiyot at the Commonwealth Games and African Championships. And just as in London, those races were fast: Manangoi’s 3:34.78 was the fastest winning time at the Commonwealth Games in 28 years, while his 3:35.20 at the African Championships broke the meet record.
Some pundits would argue that forcing a fast pace from the front carries some risk, particularly when you’re running your third race in four days in a championship final against the world’s greatest runners. Ouma does not see it that way.
“If you see any athlete running on the track, it’s a reflection of what they practice,” Ouma says. “So if you see us running fast, that is how we practice. That is how we train.”
Yet at the same time, if an athlete is fit enough (and brave enough), it can offer tremendous advantages. There is no need to battle for position if you’re already at the front of the field. And with no athletes in front of you, the risk of falling is greatly reduced. Most importantly, there is no counter-strategy. If Manangoi and Cheruiyot decide to run 3:33, an opponent has two options: a) try to run even faster or b) hang back, and pray that they have miscalculated (anyone who chose this strategy in London was punished). Either way, Manangoi and Cheruiyot are the ones dictating the race.
One year later, no one has been able to figure out how to stop RAC. Cheruiyot has five wins in five Diamond League appearances in 2018, clocking a world leader every time out; his 3:28.41 in Monaco on July 20 made him the seventh-fastest man in history, three spots ahead of Manangoi on the world all-time list. The only man to beat him on the year? Manangoi, who at 3:29.64 is the only other man under 3:30 in 2018. Together, the group holds every significant international 1500 title outdoors, save the Olympics: Cheruiyot is the Diamond League champion, Manangoi is the world, Commonwealth, and African champion, and Manangoi’s younger brother George, who also trains under Ouma, holds the World U18 and U20 titles.
No training group in the world so thoroughly dominates an event. And it all starts with a karate master from a fishing town in western Kenya.
The first thing you notice about Bernard Ouma? He is big. Standing 6’2″, 198 pounds with a barrel chest and beefy biceps, the 43-year-old Ouma does not resemble any other distance coach on the circuit. The son of a police officer, Ouma hails from a village on the outskirts of Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city, which is located on the shores of Lake Victoria. Ouma grew up as a swimmer, but his best sport by far was karate, where he was Kenyan national champion in the open weight class five years running from 2001-2005 and the gold medalist at the Africa Zone 5 Championships in 2006.
A natural storyteller, the sentences unspool slowly and precisely when Ouma opens his mouth to speak, and with his glasses perched atop the bridge of his nose, he possesses the air of a college professor — albeit one who could kick your ass at any time. When it comes to his own life, Ouma has quite a story to tell. He arrived in Nairobi in 1994, initially serving as an errand boy at his sister’s shop. Over the next decade, Ouma split his time between working jobs in the auto industry to pay for school (mainly in sales and as a consultant), attending classes at the University of Nairobi, and training as a karateka. During that time, Ouma also took up sprinting, and though his PRs (sub-11 in the 100, sub-50 in the 400) were far from world-class, he enjoyed the sport.
In 2006, around the time he graduated from the University of Nairobi with a degree in automotive engineering, Ouma developed a stress fracture that prevented him from sprinting. Shortly thereafter, his training group began to split up and was in need of a coach. Some of the athletes approached him with a request: Why don’t you help us with coaching as well? You seem knowledgeable. Ouma accepted, and in 2006 he founded Rongai Athletics Club.
“Coaching is a calling,” Ouma says.
Though Ouma continued to work his sales jobs, he would frequently skip out on work to pursue his true passions, karate and coaching. He was fired twice, but rehired both times, under the condition that he cut back on his sporting outings. He did not. Just after Easter 2012, Ouma was fired for the third and final time. His karate career over, Ouma decided that he did not want to go back to sales. He had invested in a couple of businesses, and brought them in as sponsors of RAC. From now on, Ouma was a full-time coach.
It did not take long for Ouma to find his first major talent. In 2011 and 2012, Elijah Manangoi had been training under Brother Colm O’Connell, the famed Irish coach of Kenyan greats such as David Rudisha, as part of Brother Colm’s Young Athletics Training Program at St. Patrick’s School in Iten. But Manangoi had grown frustrated at his lack of racing opportunities as part of Brother Colm’s group, and after the 2012 season, his final as a junior (U20) athlete, he left in search of a new coach.
Manangoi was introduced to Ouma by a mutual acquaintance, Christophe Chayriguet, a Frenchman teaching German at a school in Eldoret, but before he could join the group, he had to earn Ouma’s trust. Ouma views RAC as a family; members without spouses all live in dorms, and Ouma is very selective about who he will admit.
In addition to a time trial (Manangoi ran 2:34 for one kilometer), all athletes who wish to apply to RAC must bring along a parent or guardian, who sits for an interview with Ouma to assess the athlete’s character. Convinced that Manangoi would be a positive addition to the RAC family, Ouma allowed the then 19-year-old to join the group in November 2012.
By now, you may have heard that Manangoi used to run the 400 meters, and while it is true that Manangoi ran a hand-timed 46.5 seconds to finish 4th at the Kenyan nationals in 2013, it’s not quite accurate to say that he was ever a 400-meter runner.
“We were doing the mileage of a 1500-meter [runner], doing the speedwork of 400, 800, and 1500 all together,” Ouma says. “So this was a block kind of training.”
The transition to full-blown 1500 runner began in April 2014, after the Kenyan World Relays trials in Nairobi. The inaugural World Relays were going to be held the following month in The Bahamas and Manangoi, who had never been on a plane before, wanted to get on the team any way he could. Manangoi had been sprinting well in practice so Ouma entered him in the 400 meters, thinking that was his best way to make the team.
Manangoi told family members in his home village back in Narok County of his opportunity at the World Relays trials, and over 50 of them piled into four vans to make the two-and-a-half-hour journey to Nairobi to watch Manangoi compete. But Manangoi finished in 7th place, and when the officials read the name of the athletes who had been selected to the team at the end of the meet, Manangoi’s name was not on it. His family was devastated.
“[Nelson Manangoi, Elijah’s] father, was a very old man, he was a former chief, and was so disappointed when the trials ended and the son’s name was not called,” Ouma says. “And he called me outside, a very agitated and annoyed old man, and said, ‘I want my boy to go back to school.’ He was so charged that I couldn’t answer.”
But Ouma had a plan, and before the family left, he asked Elijah’s brothers, Sam and Dan, to meet with him the next day. They agreed.
Ouma began by explaining a misunderstanding. Some of Manangoi’s family, unfamiliar with the trials process, had viewed his failure to achieve selection as an insult. Ouma explained that, no, the selectors had nothing against Elijah personally; he had not been selected because he had not placed high enough in the trials.
“[In Swahili], mzee is a very elderly and respected person,” Ouma says. “So I told [them to tell] mzee: don’t worry, 400 meters is not Elijah’s event…His race is coming, and you’re going to see this in a few months’ time.”
Two months later, Manangoi returned to Nairobi for the trials for that summer’s Commonwealth Games in the 1500. His family, still scarred from the World Relays trials, stayed home this time, but Manangoi ran 3:35, a four-second PR, to finish second and make the team, his first time representing Kenya (he would finish last in the final in Glasgow).
In 2015, Manangoi, by then focused on the 1500 full-time, officially arrived in a big way. He whacked another six seconds off his PR to run 3:29 in Monaco and then earned a silver medal at the World Championships in Beijing. At the end of the season, he returned for a celebration in his home village. Ouma tagged along, and when he saw mzee, he approached with a question.
“I asked [jokingly], ‘Do you [still] want the boy to come back to go to school?'” Ouma says. “He was so happy, I could see tears dropping down his cheeks. He didn’t give me an answer. That was an answer enough.”
Manangoi may have the superior medal collection, but there is no doubt that Timothy Cheruiyot is RAC’s model pupil. Quiet by nature, Cheruiyot maintains a low profile; in fact, it can’t be totally ruled out that he is actually a running automaton designed to fulfill Ouma’s every request. He has the ability to endure massive amounts of pain in workouts, is utterly fearless in races, frequently attacking with several laps to go, and never questions Ouma’s training.
“He has a lot of trust in the coach,” Ouma says. “If he is told, you’re going to sleep in the water, he will sleep in the water.”
There is only one thing Ouma has tried to fix: Cheruiyot’s running form, punctuated by his distinctive forward lean.
“These are old habits,” Ouma says. “You might not be able to change much, but you can influence them toward good performance. I’ve been working on his [stride], which [was] very long but [is] shortening now.”
Ouma was introduced to an 18-year-old Cheruiyot in the spring of 2014 by Gideon Chirchir, the 1994 Commonwealth silver medalist in the steeplechase and head coach of the Kenyan Prisons team. Cheruiyot didn’t have much growing up as the son of farmers in the village of Singorwet. Chirchir noticed Cheruiyot running around the local track with tattered shoes on his feet and determination in his eyes and asked Ouma if he would be able to help the teen out. The RAC motto is “to tap young athletics talent of the less fortunate,” and Ouma, who doesn’t charge for his coaching services, told Chirchir that if he entered Cheruiyot in the upcoming trials for the World Junior Championships, he would bring the boy some shoes and make an assessment (Editor’s note: Now that he’s established, Nike pays Ouma a coaching stipend).
Wearing the new shoes, Cheruiyot blasted a time of 1:45.92 in the 800 meters, a PR of over a second. Though he came .07 shy of making the team, Ouma was impressed enough to offer him a spot at RAC.
“[That was] his first time running in real, good spikes and that was his  pb [until this year], running raw, very ragged, natural, nothing refined,” Ouma says.
Later that summer, Ouma took Manangoi and Cheruiyot to meet with Nike executive Robert Lotwis at the Intercontinental Hotel in Nairobi.
“Robert, I have two good athletes,” Ouma told him. “These boys will be good some day. I need your assistance.”
Lotwis threw the runners some shoes and signed them both to endorsement contracts. Cheruiyot, who was 18 and did not have an agent at the time, signed a two-year deal, plus two option years, in which he would be paid $5,000 for the first year (the remainder of 2014). Manangoi, who had already made a senior team at that point, got $10,000 for the first year. Both boys were overjoyed.
Though Cheruiyot had run well at the World Junior trials, Ouma asked that Cheruiyot spend the remainder of the year focusing on training rather than pursuing overseas racing opportunities.
“Some of his friends would tell him, ‘Oh, you’re a 1:45 guy, what are you doing there? You should be out, you should be flying back and forth!’” Ouma says. “And being the disciplined character he is, he never bothered to listen to anybody outside.”
The reward for Cheruiyot’s patience was a breakout season in 2015. Like Manangoi the year before, Cheruiyot tried to qualify for the Kenyan World Relays team in the distance medley relay, and at the trials, his team faced a squad featuring Asbel Kiprop and Ronald Kwemoi, both sub-3:30 men. While Cheruiyot was not initially selected for the team, he did turn some heads with his performance.
“Because of his running style, he hit somebody with the baton and the baton fell down,” Ouma says. “He went back to pick the baton [but there was] a huge gap, close to 60 meters, [he somehow managed to catch] up with everybody, and he came position 2 [but] was never selected for the team.”
The following weekend, on April 18, Cheruiyot traveled to an Athletics Kenya meet in Nakuru and unleashed his fury on the 1500-meter field, winning in a near three-second personal best and world-leading time of 3:36.3 on a muddy dirt track at an elevation of 6,000 feet.
News of Cheruiyot’s incredible performance quickly spread. Later that day, Noah Ngeny, the Kenyan team manager for the World Relays (and 2000 Olympic 1500 champion) called up Ouma.
“Coach, send me the particulars for this boy!” Ngeny told Ouma.
“Oh, the guy you didn’t select last weekend?” Ouma replied. “I told him, he has no particulars. He has no passport. He has no ID. So if you want to help him, call him and get for him an identification because you’re a government official, and get him a passport. So Tim was summoned to go to Athletics Kenya on Monday and everything was done and [two weeks later] was on his plane to Bahamas.”
When it came to racing on the world stage, however, Cheruiyot was still unbelievably green. Running the anchor leg of the DMR at the World Relays in his first race overseas, he got the baton level with Australia and the USA but blitzed his first lap in a ridiculous 51.96. Though Cheruiyot led by as much as 25 meters, he was eventually overhauled by Ben Blankenship, who anchored the U.S. to the win in world-record time.
But Cheruiyot learned from the experience, and by the end of the year he had finished 7th in the World Championship final against a stacked field. Every year since, he’s gotten faster — from 3:34 in 2015 to 3:31 in 2016 to 3:29 in 2017 to 3:28 in 2018 — and though he has yet to solve Manangoi in an international championship final, he has been the world’s best 1500 runner this year.
Ouma believes that the biggest reason for Cheruiyot’s breakout season is his consistency: he comes to practice every day, puts in the work, and by the time he leaves, he’s a little bit better than he was when practice began. Do that every day for four years straight, and those tiny gains add up to something significant.
Cheruiyot’s agent, Malcolm Anderson, adds that Cheruiyot is not the sort to become distracted by the opportunities his newfound wealth affords him.
“He’s not that extravagant,” Anderson says. “He doesn’t go and splash his money around.”
Rather than spend his money on alcohol or a flashy car, Cheruiyot is investing it back into his home village. He’s bought an extra three acres of property for his family to grow tea, maize, and potatoes, and is just the second person from Singorwet to own a tractor. He’s also begun a fledgling business constructing rental houses and has quickly become the most popular man in town.
“[The villagers] all want to watch him when he races,” says Anderson. “So they put posters up saying Timothy Cheruiyot is going to race and we’ll have a television in the town center to watch him race.”
A typical practice at Rongai Athletics Club begins with a message: be on time. Anyone who is tardy owes Ouma one push-up for every minute he is late. No one is exempt, whether your PR is 3:28 or 3:48.
“The young ones see us as stars,” says Cheruiyot, who has had to serve the punishment twice. “We are disciplined doing push-ups.”
Ouma brings that discipline to almost every aspect of his coaching. He pays attention to the details, values precision, and has a distinct plan of exactly what he wants to accomplish on each day of practice.
“That falls into this methodical, planned, I’m-getting-the-work-done approach,” says Anderson, who works with several East African athletes as the head of the agency Moyo Sports. “That’s very much the case [with Ouma] and totally uncharacteristic of not just Kenyans, but in general in East Africa, it’s very laid-back.”
Anderson says that he feels at ease when Ouma is part of the Team Kenya coaching staff at major championships — as he was in London last year — because “you just know that you’re going to be able to get stuff done if Bernard is in there.”
It’s not hard to see where Ouma’s craving for discipline and order stems from. It began with karate lessons as a youngster, and continued in the early days of RAC, when Ouma worked with researchers from Osaka University to study the muscular composition of his athletes.
“Most karate coaches are Japanese,” Ouma says. “That is the culture, the lifestyle. I’ve done this for many years. With them, you are either early or if you are late, you don’t attend the class.”
In addition to his work with the Japanese, Athletics Kenya paid for Ouma to travel to Hungary for a sports science coaching course in 2016. Anderson believes those experiences laid the groundwork for the organized, professional atmosphere of RAC.
“Now that he’s traveled a lot more, he’s seen different cultures, he gets it,” Anderson says.
RAC’s track sessions, which are typically held at GEMS Cambridge International School’s six-lane track in Nairobi, unfold like a three-course meal. The appetizer is a warmup routine that Ouma calls the 30-30, in which his athletes alternate 30 seconds of jogging with a 30-second progressive stride; Ouma invented the drill when he found that several of his athletes weren’t interested in doing a traditional two-to-three-mile easy warmup. The entree is whatever speed session Ouma has on tap that day — repeat 400s, 300s, and the like. And every workout concludes with “pudding” (that’s dessert to you Americans), which usually consists of two sets of 4x150m sprints.
Typically, RAC does speedwork three times a week, assuming there is no race that week. Often Ouma will utilize RAC’s younger athletes as pacesetters for the top guys such as Manangoi and Cheruiyot — who do “99%” of their sessions together, according to Ouma — though the younger athletes generally won’t run every rep of a session or may not run the full distance on every rep. At 5,889 feet above sea level, Nairobi lacks the elevation of Iten (7,874 feet) or Eldoret (which can climb as high as 9,000 feet in places), Kenya’s traditional training meccas, but that is fine with Ouma, who doesn’t believe his middle-distance athletes need to go much higher.
When RAC isn’t at the track, things really get wild. Most of the group’s other runs take place on dirt roads within the 45-square mile Nairobi National Park, just south of the city. More than a few sessions have been interrupted by the wildlife that inhabits the park. In one recent practice, Manangoi was leading the group when he threw his hands up, the sign for danger. Ouma, tagging along on a motorcyle, soon realized why: a buffalo was charging right at RAC’s top woman, Winny Chebet (5th at World Indoors this year). Immediately, Ouma wheeled his motorcyle around and scared it off.
A few years ago, some RAC athletes had to stop in the middle of a run to allow what they thought was a baboon to cross the road. Only once practice was over did Ouma actually reveal that it had been a leopard. There are lions in the park, too — “lions are not a big problem — they’re quiet, they’re shy,” Ouma says — but above all, Ouma fears encountering a rhino, which would make mincemeat of the skinny RAC runners. But that doesn’t stop him — or his athletes — from coming back, day after day.
“Sometimes a zebra gets in the way,” Ouma says, as if it’s no more of an inconvenience than waiting for a Ford Taurus to pass before crossing the street.
Ouma’s athletes are also in the gym three times a week. Everything RAC does is geared around running fast, so when it comes to strength training, he has a simple philosophy: in order to run faster, you must strengthen the muscles you use to run.
“I’m taking you to the gym to be fast,” Ouma says. “For example, you use your hips as a pendulum. This is a pivoting point for running. If the hip is to go at a faster frequency, the hip has to be strong. So most of my training works on very particular muscles.”
Ouma’s athletes rarely use free weights. Instead, he is a strong proponent of resistance training. One of Ouma’s favorite sessions involves using a tire, which is tied to a harness wrapped around an athlete’s waist (occasionally, Ouma will place a rock inside the tire for extra weight). Ouma will take his athletes out to an undulating course, just over one kilometer long, and have them run it five to seven times with intermittent surges. Sometimes, instead of a tire, Ouma will attach the harness to a bicycle, with a rider pumping the brakes to create resistance (Ouma admits this is a problem as it can cause the bike’s tires to wear out quickly).
Ouma is very selective about who can tackle the tire. Currently, only his most experienced athletes, Manangoi, Cheruiyot, and Chebet are allowed to use it, though they do so frequently: once a week during racing season, sometimes twice if there’s no competition in the near future.
“It is a process to reach [the tire],” Ouma says. “You’re prone to injuries in the back if you don’t use it properly.”
Tires aren’t limited to outdoor work, either, as Ouma will lead RAC athletes in gym sessions where they lift and flip them (Check out RAC’s Facebook page for some video evidence).
Mileage is the one area where Ouma lacks his trademark precision; it is not something he’s concerned with.
“I don’t believe in accumulations of mileage,” Ouma says. “I believe in thresholds in terms of what pace are we doing in this long run, not [how many] kilometers are we covering. And how hard are we working in this long run? What is the production of lactic acid?”
Ouma doesn’t track his athletes’ mileage, and to be honest, there isn’t that much to track. The absolute longest amount of time that one of Ouma’s athletes will run for is 90 minutes, and only then in the fall and winter base-building seasons. During the competition portion of the season, very few runs last longer than an hour.
“Maybe 17 kilometers (10.56 miles) in the morning when it comes to long run day,” Manangoi says. “Maximum 16 to 17.”
Why so short? Ouma has a different question.
“What is the point of running 25 kilometers if you need to run 1500 meters to win?” Ouma says.
But when RAC athletes race, Ouma demands they take advantage of it. Earlier this year, I stood in the mixed zone at Hayward Field waiting for Cheruiyot to come through after winning the Bowerman Mile. I spied Ouma and went to offer my congratulations, but he was not in a celebratory mood. Ouma had wanted a 3:46 or 3:47. Cheruiyot had run 3:49, and Ouma was frustrated with the pacemaking. Even after Cheruiyot ran 3:28.41 in Monaco in July, making him the seventh-fastest man of all-time, Ouma wasn’t entirely satisfied; part of him felt Cheruiyot could have gone even faster.
“If the body allows you to run fast,” Ouma says, “we want to run fast.”
You may have noticed that Ouma did not seek out Manangoi or Cheruiyot. This is by design.
“Joining us is not easy,” Ouma says. “The process is so discouraging. I don’t recruit elite athletes. I don’t recruit senior athletes. I take the young ones who will listen to me, who will buy into a system. The status of Asbel Kiprop, even if he had not doped, I would say no [if he asked to join the group]. He has been through a culture that is not mine.”
The result is a close-knit group, which helps Ouma navigate certain challenges. Like, for example, what to do when you coach the world’s best 1500-meter runner…and his biggest competitor. When it comes to Manangoi and Cheruiyot, Ouma says there has never been a rivalry or conflict between them during their five years as teammates, even as they’ve battled it out for prize money and medals on increasingly larger stages. He just prepares them both as best he can and doesn’t worry about the result.
“In terms of who is going to win, who is going to lose: yes, to the managers, it is a big deal because they have to consider their interest,” Ouma says. “To me, I’m neutral and I’m in the middle. I let the best person win.”
Indeed, Cheruiyot says that he enjoys working out with Manangoi, even though Manangoi has been the only man between Cheruiyot and the gold during their last three encounters in championships. When I ask Cheruiyot if it’s difficult to race against his training partner, knowing only one of them can win, he shakes me off.
“No, no, no,” Cheruiyot says. “We want to go 1-2. If he wins, I am happy. If I win, he is happy.”
RAC has grown over the last few years to the point where Ouma says he now has 15 to 18 athletes at the club’s base in Nairobi, the youngest just 11 years old, with another dozen or so scattered across the country. The success of Manangoi and Cheruiyot has allowed him to build the group, but it took several years for Ouma to earn the respect of his peers.
Ouma is a member of the Luo, one of over 40 tribes that exist in Kenya. The Luo are known for their fishing prowess, not their distance runners. The majority of coaches, like the majority of distance runners, are Kalenjin. Ouma did not care.
“Initially people didn’t believe in me, judging from my tribe,” Ouma says. “But now majority are seeing my work and my work is speaking louder than anything else.”
Now RAC’s roster includes athletes from no fewer than six tribes. Cheruiyot is Kalenjin, while the Manangois are both Maasai; Elijah famously slaughtered a goat and drank its blood as part of a traditional tribal celebration following his silver medal at the 2015 Worlds.
Yet there are still times Ouma feels that he is judged for who he is, not what he’s done. Having guided Manangoi and Cheruiyot to a 1-2 finish in the 1500 at Worlds — the only event in the entire championships where training partners went 1-2 — Ouma was named a finalist for Coach of the Year at the 2017 Athletics Kenya Golden Gala, an awards night held in December honoring the year’s best in Kenyan track & field. Ouma fully expected to win the award, and shared his excitement with his family.
“I remember my wife preparing a suit,” Ouma says. “And I remember telling my kids, don’t sleep early today. Daddy will be awarded today.”
But while Manangoi captured the top award, taking home the night’s highest honor as Athlete of the Year, the coaching award went instead to Japhet Kemei, who primarily works with younger, developing athletes.
Ouma is still hurt over the disappointment his family felt that night, and believes that his ethnicity had something to do with it.
“In terms of tribe, yes, it played a part,” Ouma says. “Because come on, I don’t want to be a politician, but many medals from the world championship, two actually, the under-18 [world champion], [and] Diamond League overall winner. Who else has that kind of athlete in 2017? Nobody. And if I’m wrong, they should publish a preview or a breakdown of the criteria used to single out the Coach of the Year.”
That’s not Ouma’s only concern. Anytime a training group begins to enjoy success, there will be those who question the way in which that success is achieved, particularly in Kenya, a nation whose drug problem simply will not go away. When the news broke in May that Kiprop had tested positive for EPO, it sent shockwaves around the globe, and Ouma felt them keenly in Nairobi. He knows that the more Kenyans test positive, the more scrutiny his group faces.
“The only worry that I have is the doubt of cloud over the clean athletes like Elijah, Timothy, Winny and the rest,” Ouma says. “That is what makes me unhappy. Our doors are open to WADA, ADAK (Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya), and we have signs to abide by the rules of sport. We are being tested. I don’t know how many times. Every competition, outside of competition. We have never missed a test. We are found on time. We’ve never seen any irregularities. They are doing their job, we are doing our job as well to make the sport clean, competitive.”
Ouma can’t draw up a strategy to silence the doubters. All he can do is make sure his athletes keep showing up to practice on time, keep running their 30-30s, keep clear of the zebras in Nairobi National Park. On Thursday, the Diamond League final in Zurich beckons; beyond that, the 2019 Worlds and 2020 Olympics lie on the horizon. Cheruiyot and Elijah Manangoi will still be in their primes in Tokyo, and with two more years under his belt, George Manangoi could be a medal threat by then as well. An Olympic 1-2-3 sweep by the Rongai Athletics Club? Heck, if Ouma’s runners can pull that off, it might even be enough to win Athletics Kenya Coach of the Year.
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