Keeping Kenya's runners on track


Cork-born Patrician brother Colm O’Connell helps train world-class runners in Kenya, writes JODY CLARKE. But what is the secret behind his great track record?

‘IMPROVING all the time,” says Br Colm O’Connell, looking down at his stopwatch. And with that he skips off the grandstand, and makes his way across the dirt track to Augustine Choge, the man who ran the times.

This is surely the oddest couple this side of the Great Rift Valley. It’s certainly the oddest one on the track. The man in Lycra is the fifth fastest indoor runner of all-time at 3,000m. The other is a stocky fellow from Co Cork, dressed as if he should be sitting up at a bar in Mallow, his home town, rather than coaching the man who would lead Kenya’s seven-member team earlier this month to the World Indoor Championships in Doha, Qatar, where Choge came 11th in the 3,000m final.

O’Connell nods his head, points, gets right up to Choge’s face and then turns on his heel, just before the athlete goes for one final run around the track.

“I need to get up close and see if he is stressed. It’s a bit like revving a car and seeing if the fan belt comes flying off.”

It seems like an odd thing for an athletics coach to say, especially one decked in a pair of suit trousers and a paint-spattered polo shirt, but then O’Connell is not about appearances. He has been getting the best out of Kenyan athletes for decades, even if he lacks the world-class facilities other countries take for granted.

Roll off the names of several Kenyan middle-distance runners, and it’s hard to think of one who hasn’t passed through his hands at some stage. Peter Rono (1988 Olympics gold for the 1,500m), Wilson Kipketer (800m world champion 2000, and world-record holder) and Matthew Birir (1992 Olympics gold, 3,000m steeplechase).

“There isn’t an athlete here who hasn’t felt a rub of Colm,” says the Cork man, chuckling. “A tip here, a tap there, they’ve all got it,” he says.

THE REASONS BEHINDO’Connell’s success have been debated for years. The genetics of the local Kalenjin tribe, former cattle farmers, tends to come top of the list of explanations. But to understand how O’Connell, a man who used to “love getting pissed in the Skeffington” as a student in Galway, has got to the top of the sport, you have to go back to February 1976. That’s the month the Patrician brother left Ireland and came to Kenya to teach in an isolated secondary school about 8,500ft up in the Rift Valley.

St Patrick’s had been going since 1961, but it wasn’t until 1968 that it began to make its first mark on the sports pitch: in volleyball. Br Marcellus Broderick, who had spent time in California, started training teams, and soon the school was the best in the country. “Between 1973 and 1988, I don’t think we lost a volleyball match,” says Br Paul Brennan, another Patrician who won several national basketball titles while teaching at the school.

Before long, St Patrick’s started winning national championships in basketball, hockey and tennis. “We had to win everything,” says Brennan. “We had the psychology of winning. But it was also down to hard work. Often, we had a competition on a Saturday and we were in the stadium training on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”

“Marcellus wouldn’t settle for second best”, adds O’Connell. “He was a real go-getter and the driving force behind the school, and I suppose I inherited that spirit.”

By the 1980s, athletics had become more professional, and runners saw the sport as a way to travel and get an education. O’Connell tapped into this new enthusiasm, and started developing athletes from an early age. In 1985, at a national athletics meet, the school won 19 out of 21 events. They didn’t compete in the other two.

That’s quite a record for a man who insists he knew little about athletics before he came here. “But that meant I was willing to sit and observe. I had to ask questions and was willing to learn. If I came here and knew it all, I would be telling everyone what to do. So I learned from the athletes. There is a danger, if you are a very qualified coach, that technique will start taking precedence over the ability of the athlete.”

O’Connell is certainly quick to brush away any idea that there is a secret to what he does. “The secret is that there is no secret. And we won’t tell you what it is because there is none. But we’ll keep pushing it to make you think there is.”

Walk the roads of the Kenyan town of Iten at 6.30am, though, and you may get an inkling as to what makes runners from the area so successful. Athletes both Kenyan and foreign pound the mud tracks that run parallel to the main roads.

Alongside them are children on the way to school, most of them walking but quite a few running as well. This is Kalenjin territory, and “the Kalenjins are the running tribe”, explains Ian Chaney, a former Irish cross-country runner who manages several athletes in the area.

He’s been coming here for several years and understands the benefits foreigners get from coming here to train. It’s not just about the altitude training, he says, “they also learn the psychology. They become more relaxed, as the Kenyans know how to turn off and relax. You see a Kenyan runner after training and he’s just sitting underneath a tree, staring at the grass.”

SO IF YOUgot a two-year-old from Ireland and moved them to Iten, could they be a successful athlete? “Well, that’s it,” says O’Connell, mulling over the possible reasons we haven’t produced an Eamonn Coghlan for years.

“The Irish lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to running. When we were kids, we were running, climbing, getting cuts, breaking legs, arms and getting cracked in the shins playing hurling. Those things help build your toughness and discipline.

“Now we’re pampered. When you stand at the starting line, the guy from Iten will have greater endurance and a will to win because he will have a greater pain threshold.”

He points to Dieter Baumann, the last European man to win long distance in the Olympics, in 1992 in Barcelona. “Dieter lived here for a couple of years. He had to make sacrifices but that’s what made him a success. You talk about genetics. But who needs genetics? Dieter came here and got the will to win.”

On the track are two identical twins from New Zealand. “One of them is very good, I’m told,” says O’Connell.

Looking at the immediate surroundings, it is difficult to understand why they came here. The track is a simple mud and dry dirt affair, and Lane 1 has such a big hole in it “that you need a ladder to get out”, says O’Connell. But “you can have all the equipment and physios in the world. If you don’t get an athlete with the right approach and determination, it won’t matter.”

Looking around the Eldoret track, it’s hard to disagree. Former Olympic silver medallist Patrick Sang is putting his own charges through their paces, while Claudio Berardelli – coach to the former 800m world champion Alfred Kirwa, as well as Olympic medallists Janeth Jepkosgei and Nancy Lagat – is also here.

Stephen Cherono, meanwhile, the world-record holder in the 3,000m steeplechase, shakes hands and listens to a couple of words of advice from O’Connell. The Irishman knows everyone, and it seems as if everyone wants to know him.

Choge is striding now, and comes in for his final 400m. “That’s a good sign,” says O’Connell, tapping his watch. “It shows a relaxed feeling. If he was kaput at the end of training, that would be a problem. I want him to go into competition knowing that his best is yet to come.”