Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why are the Kenyan runners so great?

Man On A Mission from jamieleedalton on Vimeo.

I can't recommend this full length video "Man on a Mission" enough. It is presented and narrated by the great Eamonn Coghlan and highlights  Brother Colm O'Connell and his work at St. Patrick's High School in Iten, Kenya. Iten is a small town of about 4000 people, but is also the focal point for so many of the world's greatest runners. After watching it just once, I have to say it is one of the best documentaries on running that I have ever seem. There is the history, with videos and interviews with greats like Kip Keino, the wisdom and techniques of Brother Colm, the beautiful Kenyan landscape and people, and the immediacy with filming and discussions about the most recent Kenyan star David Rudisha.

There is no one secret to the Kenyan success in distance running. As Eamonn Coghlan says it is a "perfect storm" of many elements, but the simple approach to training that Brother Colm espouses with the basics of an inner calm mixed with courage that has helped propel many Kenyan greats over the past 20 something years to the elite world stage.

Brother Colm wants his athletes to be relaxed and not intense about their training. He doesn't want them imagining the exertion or the pounding effects of running, and this means a lot of slow running for his charges. In fact, 800 meter world record holder David Rudisha is asked at times to work out with younger runners to keep himself grounded. At the beginning of the documentary, Brother Colm is seen telling his proteges that he wants them to learn about the sport and that he is just not interested in putting on a training camp.

 Having visited Kenya last summer and having taught  in Kenyan schools, I must say that the intensity of the athletes looking at the coach at this point in the film so reminded me about the students I taught in the slums of Nairobi and how they hung on every word I said. There were no distractions. As an elementary school teacher, the biggest battle I face is that kids today can't sit still and concentrate, let alone care about what a teacher is saying. The Kenyan students are masters of knowing how important it is to listen to a teacher! My favorite part of the documentary is when Eamonn Coghlan goes into a classroom at St. Patrick's and asks how many in the crowd of students are great athletes. Now this class is in the hotbed of the greatest distance runners on the planet. I am sure the slowest person in the room could be a top runner for any high school in America, however only a few hands shot up. Then Eamonn asked (it was a chemistry class)  how many of them are great chemists. Hands shot up around the room. Yeah, that is the Kenya I remember. They are more interested in academics than sports. Do you think you would get the same response in a classroom filled with America's best high school football players?

Brother Colm also talked about his training system that he calls FAST. It stands for Focus, Alignment, Stability, and Timing. He has them run slowly as he gets them to focus the eyes, work on the core with alignment and stability, and then work on the timing of their feet on the ground. Maybe you have seen videos of the Ethiopian runners doing similar slow running drills with their arms rotating around like clock hands. Brother Colm explains that this is to distract the body so that the core is strong so that when they race they can be "locked" into position.

You will learn a lot from watching this video. Brother Colm is a calm and relaxed coach who had done much to bring about the dominance of the Kenyan runner.

Here is a newly published book: Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth.


Anonymous said...

Jim .... where do you find these videos .... they are awesome. I really enjoyed watching this one. Glad to hear the running is coming along for you.


Jim Hansen said...

Hey Greg,
This one is really good and much better than anything on television on any night! I think it came from a Running Times post. I hope all is well.

Anonymous said...

darn it I watched it but now it is password protected!

Jim Hansen said...

This happened a week or so ago and then it came back online again after a few days. When or if it comes back online there is an option to download the video to your computer.