By Jonathan Gault
June 9, 2020
The last time the running world saw Timothy Cheruiyot, he was authoring the most dominant men’s 1500-meter performance in World Championship history. On the final night of last year’s Worlds in Doha, Cheruiyot took the lead immediately, ran the first lap in 55 seconds, and powered away to a 3:29.26 victory to win by a championship-record 2.12 seconds.
Under normal circumstances, Cheruiyot, 24, might have spent this week recovering from his third straight victory in the Bowerman Mile (he’s won 12 of his last 13 Diamond League races), which would have been held on Sunday at the newly-renovated Hayward Field. Fans may have speculated about how close Cheruiyot could come to Hicham El Guerrouj‘s 1500 world record in Monaco, the annual testing ground for how fast the world’s best milers can truly go. Cheruiyot would be eight weeks out from the Olympics in Tokyo, where he would chase the one title that has eluded the Rongai Athletics Club (RAC); between Cheruiyot and teammate Elijah Manangoi, the club currently holds the world, Commonwealth, African, and Diamond League 1500 titles.
“This is one medal which is very elusive, that we’ve never gotten at Rongai Athletics Kenya — an Olympic medal,” says RAC head coach Bernard Ouma. “This was our year.”
Instead, Cheruiyot spent March and April — a period in which he’d usually be laying the groundwork for the summer racing season — farming tea, maize, and potatoes back home in Bomet County. When he did return to group training four weeks ago in Ongata Rongai, the team’s base outside Nairobi, he was focused not on Olympic glory, but a “race” in which his opponents will be over 4,000 miles away when the starting gun is fired.
It is not the season he, or anyone, envisioned. But, because of the global pandemic known as COVID-19, it is the season that we have.
Life at the RAC training camp looks very different right now. Local regulations prevent gatherings of over 15 people, so 80% of the team has yet to return to camp. Of the seven athletes who have returned, their fitness is not close to what it would usually be this time of year. Most tracks in Kenya, including RAC’s usual practice track at GEMS Cambridge International School, are closed, so RAC had to receive permission from the Ministry of Sport to train at Nyayo Stadium.
In one area, however, RAC has taken a major step back toward normalcy. For the first time since the outbreak, Cheruiyot, Manangoi, and three more of RAC’s top athletes will compete on Thursday against the Ingebrigtsen brothers in a team-scored 2000m race, held as part of the Impossible Games — the retooled, socially-distanced version of the meet formerly known as the Bislett Games.
The competition against the Ingebrigtsens is more of an exhibition than a true race. They won’t compete on the same track — Team Ingebrigtsen will compete at Bislett Stadium in Oslo, while Team Cheruiyot will compete at Nyayo in Nairobi. And the playing field won’t be level – Nairobi’s 5,800 feet of elevation tilts the event in favor of the Ingebrigtsens. But for Ouma, more important than the outcome is the sense of focus that returned once his athletes could finally mark a competition on the calendar.
“They get so motivated and driven with any plan,” Ouma says. “When the Impossible Games was discussed, then all focus came to that. And you can read from them that they feel they’re back in the system.”
While Cheruiyot and Manangoi are the Kenyan headliners for Thursday’s showdown, Ouma says not to overlook the third member of his squad, a new Rongai recruit named Edwin Melly (RAC’s Timothy Sein and Vincent Keter will also line up on Thursday as pacemakers). As an 18-year-old in 2012, Melly ran 1:43 and earned bronze at World Juniors (behind only eventual Olympic medalists Nijel Amos and Timothy Kitum) but has battled injuries in the intervening years and has not broken 1:45 since 2015. Ouma says Melly has a leg up on his teammates right now; while Cheruiyot and Manangoi took a break from training in March as COVID-19 began to spread, Melly remained in Nairobi and continued training.
“He’s in very good shape,” Ouma says. “If things were normal, he’d be a force to be reckoned with [in the Diamond League], judging by what I’ve seen him doing in training. Not having good experience on the world stage could be something to worry about…[but] I expect him to run very well come Thursday. He’s the strongest in the group as we speak.”
Ouma knows that the Ingebrigtsens are fit, noting Jakob’s 13:28 Norwegian 5k record on the roads on May 20. He also knows that, between the altitude and the lack of a full buildup for the race, his squad won’t be close to 100%. Despite all that, Cheruiyot told The Olympic Channel RAC wants to run a fast time — “under 4:43-4:44.” Hicham El Guerrouj‘s 2000m world record stands at 4:44.79 (3:33.59 1500 pace).
Ouma is more cautious (and more realistic); he says breaking 4:50 is attainable, but anything beyond that is a reach.
“I don’t want them to push so hard because that is a recipe for getting injured when you are not well-prepared,” Ouma says.
Still, Ouma believes it won’t be easy for Team Ingebrigtsen to win.
“I’m not saying they can’t beat us, but they have to dig deep to beat us.”
The postponement of this summer’s Olympics has had drastically different effects on Ouma’s two star pupils. For Cheruiyot, virtually invincible over the last two years, it could not have come at a worse time in his career, right in the middle of his prime. And it’s not just that Cheruiyot’s shot at his first Olympic team has been delayed (he finished 4th at the Kenyan trials in 2016); any shot at a 1500 world record will likely have to wait until 2021 as well.
Though El Guerrouj’s 3:26.00 WR is over two seconds faster than Cheruiyot’s 3:28.41 personal best, it’s not inconceivable that Cheruiyot could have taken a shot at the mark in Monaco this year. Ouma doesn’t like to talk about the world record — he says an Olympic medal remains the priority, with any fast times simply a byproduct. But he also saw Cheruiyot run 3:29.26 solo in Doha in October — a race that is believed to be the fastest time ever in a non-rabbitted race — and knows he is capable of more.
“What if he was in much better shape than that, not having to run the heats and semis, running fresh with the pacemakers?” Ouma says.
For Manangoi, however, the Covid-19 delay has served as a blessing in disguise. After a 3:32 season-opening win in Doha, Manangoi struggled for much of the 2019 season, first with a hamstring injury and, later, a stress fracture in his ankle. Manangoi was not confident he could be back to full fitness had the Kenyan Olympic trials been held this year; now that they’ve been pushed back to 2021, he has plenty of time to return to form.
Ouma knows his athletes are disappointed that their 2020 racing seasons have suffered, but he has tried to make them take a wider view of the pandemic and its effects.
“This thing is across the world,” Ouma says. “Everybody is suffering. People are dying. So it is human that you put aside your personal expectations, your personal ambitions console with everyone. It is about we, and not me as a person…Life will not always be smooth. These are expected. Our plans are normally long-term and not results-oriented. And if we are doing long-term, then we expect hurdles along the way. We expect disappointments along the way. We expect defeats along the way.”
As for the rest of 2020, Ouma plans on sending his squad to the Diamond League opener in Monaco on August 14, where either Manangoi or Cheruiyot has won the 1500 in each of the last three years. He is hopeful they can run other DL meets — currently, 10 more are scheduled — but that depends on a couple of factors. First, that the meets go ahead as planned. And second, that his athletes will be able to travel as usual, rather than be forced into lengthy quarantines upon arrival in Europe.
“We are used to arriving at the destination, take a day or two maximum to rest, and compete and come back home,” Ouma says. “If we are asked to come and stay for many days to quarantine, I don’t think it’s one thing we’ll want to do. It can’t work for us.”
For the meticulous Ouma, the 2020 season has been a challenge. He prides himself on his ability to prepare his athletes for competition, but the interruptions caused by coronavirus have robbed him of that ability.
“For the first time, I’m going to a race not prepared at all,” says Ouma.
But the Impossible Games is not about results. It is about sending a message that the track & field is on its way back, about giving track-starved fans something, anything, to watch in a year when the competition calendar has been decimated.
“We want to bring some competition to your online channels, to a TV station, just to entertain you,” Ouma says.