Mental strength the key to Africans' success


ATHLETICS:Arguably the best Kenyan runner of all time, Paul Tergat says the idea of Africans being inherently capable of running faster is all in the minds of their rivals 

EUROPE IS on its knees and lamenting its glorious past. America keeps promising a better future but has yet to deliver. Japan and Australia are a spent force and several more once powerful nations have been broken as well. There is no denying it.

We’re practically all screwed and anyone who thinks better days are coming soon can forget it. Fear not the obvious – this is not another rage against the crisis in the world economy. This is rage against the crisis in world distance running.

Because we’re now in the midst of the worst depression of all, unless you live in Kenya, Ethiopia, or one of the other East African countries where the young are raised in the mountains, run several miles to school, and the idea of fast food is finding a meal quick enough to prevent starvation.

As if there weren’t enough warning signs, consider last Saturday’s World Cross Country in Jordan: of the 24 medals on offer between individual and team races, 22 were won by East African nations. Kenya won nine – four gold, four silver, and one bronze.

Europe and America hardly got a look it and it was the same at the Beijing Olympics last year, where Kenya and Ethiopia cleaned up in every race from 800 metres to the marathon. So in the spirit of the G20 Summit I went looking for solutions and on Thursday evening called into the Kenyan Embassy in Ballsbridge.

This wasn’t actually a random visit. A small group of well-dressed diplomats were waiting to pay their respects to Paul Tergat, arguably the best Kenyan distance runner of all time, who happens to be in town for tomorrow’s Great Ireland Run in the Phoenix Park. Tergat turns 40 in two months but is still fancied to win.

When he arrives, unattainably lean and loose-limbed in a black pinstripe suit, Tergat immediately commands the room. He is not a shy man. He has bright eyes and a radiant smile and razor-sharp cheekbones. He stands about six-foot tall but doesn’t appear to touch the ground. He is the fittest-looking man I have ever seen.

I let Tergat do the rounds before I corner him. In his 16 years representing Kenya he has won practically every honour there is: five World Cross Country titles, in succession, from 1995-99; world records on the track and the road; four medals from the Olympics and World Championships.

It’s just those particular medals are silver, because of one man: Haile Gebrselassie. Rarely has one man’s sporting career been so constantly eclipsed by another’s – as no matter what Tergat did, Gebrselassie always did a little better. Their 10,000 metres duels are legendary. Gebrselassie narrowly beat Tergat in the Atlanta Olympics, and twice in the World Championships. When Tergat broke the Ethiopian’s world record in 1997, running 26:27.85, Gebrselassie came out the following year and ran 26:22.75 – as if to say beat that. Tergat never did.

They raced together 25 times, and Gebrselassie finished ahead of Tergat in 22 of them – none more extraordinarily than the 10,000 metres at the Sydney Olympics. Later, Tergat became the first man to run a sub-2:05 marathon, lowering the world record to 2:04.55. Inevitably, Gebrselassie beat that too – running 2:04.26 in 2007, and then, 2:03.59.

“Haile? I salute him,” he says. “Because he’s a great athlete. I have great respect for him. The amount of training that I put in, and still he comes and breaks my record? I have to respect him. I know how hard he works.”

But enough chit-chat. I’m here for some answers. Can the rest of the world close the gap on Kenya and Ethiopia? Can the white man be as good without living somewhere above the clouds, surviving on rice and beans? And is it not money, survival, that’s motivating the Kenyan dominance? Tergat takes a hold of my arm, looks me squarely in the eye. He doesn’t just answer these questions but destroys the myths that he says they represent.

He wasn’t born in the mountains (but further down the Rift Valley, in Baringo). He didn’t run to school (the road was too rocky). He only got into running late on and can’t handle training at altitude (because he breaks down). And if he was in it for the money he would have retired a long time ago (as a very wealthy man).

“The majority of Kenyan athletes were born in Eldoret, Iten. But I came from the lowlands. I didn’t have any sporting idol either. There was no one running from my village, someone to point out, like ‘this is somebody who runs’. I would read some things about Kenyan runners in the newspaper, but I would never come close to them.

“After school I joined the military, and one coach said ‘hey, young man, in the running, you are good’. He changed my life. No one in my life ever told me I was good. Growing up we struggled just to get something to eat.

“So when somebody tells you that you are good, that you have potential, it will change your life. It gave me the motivation, to believe more in myself. And I started to push myself.”

He talks about his training. About the 20-mile runs, the persistent gym work (with low weights, and high repetitions). It seems Tergat’s success is at least partly about withstanding the pain of hard training.

“When you have the passion, you won’t feel the pain. You only feel the pain when somebody is pushing you and you don’t want it. It has to come from you. Your passion, what you really want. I took it, and never looked back. And if you are doing any sport to make money you won’t succeed.

“I only trained at altitude once, for one season, in 2001. In Eldoret. That was the only time in my life. Because I couldn’t put up with altitude. I was very tired, all day. I couldn’t do my normal workouts. If I lived at altitude, would I have fulfilled my potential? I like doing all the hard work, at maximum effort, every training I do. I found at altitude I would push myself, but the next day I can’t walk. Because I was too tired.”

Well if it’s not about the altitude, not about the running to school, not about the motivation to make money and a better life, why is it the Europeans and Americans and practically everyone else aren’t as good anymore?

“The problem is that they’ve created a fear for themselves, that they can’t compete at the same level as the Kenyans, and Ethiopians.”

Then he takes me by the arm again, and points to the side of his forehead – “Everything is mental. I’ll you an example.

“I’ve tried to break world records. When I’m training for that, I’m already thinking in my mind, that I’m planning for the world record. Everyday I wake up I think ‘world record’. So by the time I’m going for the world record it doesn’t matter who is lining up against me. I don’t see them. I don’t count them. I already see myself as the winner, not competing against them. That’s makes it very difficult for the others.”

He then makes an arrow with one hand and a wall with the other, and starts pushing the arrow through the wall.

“The majority of runners may have the talent, but you have to break through the pain barrier. That is where many people come down. When it comes to the marathon, when it comes to world records . . . You have to break through the pain barrier. And that comes from many hours of training, concentrating.”

Breaking through the pain barrier? That sounds like a solution to the crisis in the world economy as much as the crisis in world distance running.

“Runners may have the talent, but you have to break through the pain barrier. That is where many people come down. When it comes to the marathon, to world records . . . .you have to break through the pain barrier