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ITEN, Kenya—The morning air is crisp as the minivan plods down a red
clay road, trailing the pack of runners as they head toward the
escarpment, past schoolchildren, cows, and simple mud huts, eventually
doubling back through the center of Kenya’s pre-eminent running town.
Renato Canova, the man behind the wheel, has driven this route many
times. One of the world’s most accomplished distance running coaches,
the 69-year-old Italian has been working with Kenyan athletes since 1998
and now spends much of the year in the Kenyan rift, an area famous for
minting world-class athletes in events ranging from 800 meters to the
As usual, Canova is animated as he follows the progress of the run,
occasionally pulling even with the pack to critique an athlete’s form or
offer encouragement. On this morning, though, there’s an added layer of
complexity. As Canova shouts out in heavily accented English, a young
interpreter named Anna Lin repeats the words in Mandarin, and Wang Bin, a
Chinese Athletics Association administrator, yells out the window to
These runners—Canova’s latest protégées—are 16 members of China’s
national women’s middle- and long-distance running team, in the early
stages of preparation for the 2015 World Athletics Championships, to be
held in Beijing in August 2015. On this February morning, midway through
a six-week stint in Kenya, it’s clear they have their work cut out for
“In this period they are not very strong, practically,” Canova tells
me as he steers his Toyota TownAce alongside a runner who’s fallen off
the pack, grabbing her side and wincing.
“Renato, she says she ate too much for breakfast,” Lin, sitting next
to me in the back seat, translates, referring to the athlete who ate
fried eggs and sausage less than an hour before the run.
Canova appears both exasperated and amused. “What does she think to
eat a breakfast like this?” he asks Lin. “She is missing out on good
Canova’s newest athletes might be forgiven if they appear to be in
over their heads. Despite being China’s best young runners, their
credentials are unimpressive in a town known as the Home of Champions,
where thousands of Kenyan athletes—including Olympic gold medalists,
world record holders, and past winners of Boston, New York, London, and
dozens of other major marathons—can be found plying the dirt roads every
Overlooking the Kerio Valley, Iten has several attributes that make
it an ideal spot for training: a temperate climate, soft dirt roads and
forest paths, and an altitude—7,500 feet—that falls within the “sweet
spot” defined in David Epstein’s 2013 book The Sports Gene. Epsteinargues
that training between 6,000 feet and 9,000 feet helps stimulate an
athlete’s production of red blood cells, and therefore aerobic capacity,
while still allowing for vigorous training.
The town also lies at the heart of territory inhabited by the
Kalenjin, a community of several closely related traditionally
pastoralist tribes renowned for its distance running prowess. Though the
Kalenjin represent just 12 percent of Kenya’s population, the group
accounts for nine of Kenya’s 10 all-time fastest male marathoners, and
seven of its 10 all-time fastest women—a dominance that extends down
through other long and middle distances in the world’s most decorated
endurance running nation.
Although no single factor is responsible for this success, studies
have shown that the Kalenjin, as a group, have several physical
attributes that lend to biomechanical efficiency, including thin lower
legs and a high leg length to torso ratio. More likely to be born with
frames conducive to distance running, Kalenjin children are thought to
benefit aerobically by growing up at altitude and—because many live in
rural locations—commonly walking or running long distances to school.
Given the Kalenjin running tradition, and the prospect of financial
rewards for those who make it to the top, many pursue the sport with the
aim of escaping poverty—which is acute enough in the Kenyan rift to
remain a motivating factor, yet not so acute that widespread
malnutrition hinders the development of young athletes.
It is in this context that Iten, along with the larger neighboring
town of Eldoret, has become a magnet for aspiring athletes from Kenya
and beyond. Some—like Wilson Kipsang, a former farm equipment salesman
who began training seriously only in his mid-20s and eventually set the
marathon world record—will find riches. But most will struggle. Take
Simeon Lelel, an Eldoret native who Canova has hired as a pacemaker for
the Chinese women. As we chat after the morning workout, Lelel tells me
his marathon personal best is 2:16, which despite being run in Nairobi
at an altitude of 5,500 feet is still a time that would rank among the
top 20 or 30 performances run any given year by U.S. men. In Kenya,
though, this barely qualifies him as a serious athlete.
So Lelel supports himself with occasional casual labor and other odd
jobs, including his gig as a pacemaker, which lasts the six weeks the
Chinese are in town. Lelel tells me he’s thrilled to have the
opportunity, though it won’t exactly bring him material comforts. Most
of the money he’ll use to help pay his relatives’ medical bills and
“My family is very poor,” he says, adding that he rarely eats anything besides ugali, a cornmeal paste, and steamed sukuma wiki greens, both Kenyan staples. “Sometimes getting food is a problem.”
The world inhabited by the athletes Lelel paces has little in common
with his own, as well as that of international stars like Kipsang, now
the owner of Iten’s Keellu Resort Hotel, where Canova’s Chinese athletes
are staying. Although most of the women were born in rural areas,
Canova tells me, all were recruited as children to join special sport
schools, and they are effectively employees of the Chinese state,
receiving monthly salaries from their respective provinces.
Unlike most Kenyans, their primary motivation is not the prospect of
financial gain, but national recognition, earned through success at
China’s National Games, held once every four years, and through
international competitions like the Olympics and the biannual World
Championships. Although athletes performing well at these events
sometimes receive apartments, cars, or other perks, only China’s biggest
stars—like Liu Xiang, the former 110-meter hurdles world record holder
who has several lucrative endorsements—can expect to become wealthy
Canova, who was hired by China’s Athletics Association last year, is
slowly trying to change this, encouraging what he calls an “idea of
professionalism.” The notion is that some team members, like most of the
world’s elite track and field athletes, will compete for prize money on
this summer’s European athletics circuit even as they train for next
year’s World Championships and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Ultimately, with the right training and incentives, Canova believes that
China, by virtue of its size alone, should be able to produce several
internationally successful athletes—even if the average Chinese may not
be engineered for running like the average Kalenjin. “It’s never a
problem of pure talent,” he says. “When you speak about a country with
almost one and a half billion people, there is talent for everything.”
China’s current crop of female athletes has a precedent for success.
In 1993, a team of peasant women from northeastern China’s Liaoning
province, led by a fiery chain-smoking coach named Ma Junren, won six
medals at the World Championships, in Stuttgart, including golds in the
1,500 meters, 3,000 meters, and 10,000 meters. The following month,
members of the “Ma Family Army” set world records in all three events at
the Chinese National Games in Beijing. One athlete, a 20-year-old named
Wang Junxia, ran the 10,000 meters in 29:31—42 seconds faster than the
previous world record.
Although no members of Ma’s 1993 squad ever failed a drug test, their
extraordinary success led to a host of doping allegations, which Ma
countered by citing the team’s grueling high-altitude training and its
use of natural tonics, such as turtle’s blood and caterpillar fungus.
Eventually, though, six Ma-coached athletes, including onetime
5,000-meters world record holder Dong Yanmei, would fail tests for the
blood-boosting substance erythropoietin and be dropped from China’s
national team before the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. By then, Ma had
come under scrutiny for other unseemly coaching tactics, including
confiscating athletes’ winnings and physically abusing runners who were
“lazy” or disobedient.
Canova, whose affability stands in stark contrast to Ma’s
explosiveness, refuses to speculate on the use of drugs by Wang and her
contemporaries, arguing that their success was primarily the result of a
brutal training regimen that saw the women run as many as 175 miles per
week, often at high intensity. This hard work, he tells me, was largely
motivated by China’s bid to host the 2000 Olympics in Beijing, which it
narrowly lost to Sydney before later securing the games in 2008. “There
was this idea, if you produce top results, and because of these top
results China can have the Olympics, you become a national hero,” Canova
tells me. “Never before in the world was there someone working so hard.
They had this incredible motivation.”
Today, in advance of the 2015 World Athletics Championships in
Beijing, as well as the 2015 World Cross Country Championships, to be
held next March in the southwestern city of Guiyang, Chinese officials
and their athletes have a renewed focus on running. This time, though,
in a country far more open than it was in the early 1990s, the
federation has decided to look outward, abandoning turtle’s blood and
attempting to learn from the Kenyans, the sport’s masters. Despite
significant Chinese investment in Kenya, Wang, the team administrator,
insists his team’s presence in Iten is not related to politics but is
instead a question of clean air and soft dirt roads—increasingly rare at
The decision to train here (for now, only during winter months) is
also linked to Canova. A native of Turin, Italy, Canova began coaching
members of the Italian national team at 24, rising to become technical
and scientific director of the Italian Athletics Federation. Eventually,
he turned his attention to Kenyans, coaching several world champions
and world record holders, and between 2003 and 2010 serving as the
national coach of Qatar, which bought its way to athletics success by
offering citizenship and regular salaries to dozens of Kenyan athletes.
Unlike many coaches, Canova gained a reputation for openly sharing his
training programs, which were transmitted by word-of-mouth among legions
of aspiring Kenyan athletes who didn’t have coaches, as well as through
Canova’s own posts on LetsRun.com, a leading running website.
As a result, Canova’s training philosophy has played an important
role in shaping the sport’s recent evolution—in particular, a remarkable
transformation in the men’s marathon that has occurred over the past
decade. In 2003, the Kenyan great Paul Tergat accomplished what was
described as a “quantum leap” in the event when he won the Berlin
Marathon in 2:04:55, taking 43 seconds off the previous world record.
Since then, 24 men—all Kenyan or Ethiopian—have run faster, led by
Kipsang’s 2:03:23. Although doping allegations have begun to circulate,
Canova attributes the marathon revolution to two main factors: the
decline of prize money in track events, which has encouraged athletes to
focus on the marathon and other longer road races earlier in their
careers, and changes in training methodology, largely facilitated by
Canova himself, that stress fewer overall long runs (training sessions
of more than 30 kilometers), but more runs that are both long and fast.
Whatever the cause, the results have been impressive.
“Ten years ago, if you ran 2:06 or 2:07, you were the top athlete,”
says Duncan Kibet, who won the 2009 Rotterdam Marathon in 2:04:27, then a
Kenyan national record. “Our time now, this is a digital era. We
changed from analog to digital tech.”
Notably, though, this same transformation has not occurred in the
women’s marathon, where Briton Paula Radcliffe continues to hold the
world record of 2:15:25 she set in 2003, and six of the top 10 all-time
performances were run in 2005 or earlier. sA Canova tells me, this is
partly explained by the fact that female running is less common among
many rural Kenyan and Ethiopian households, which means there are fewer
Kenyan and Ethiopian women than men racing at an elite level. With less
competition at the top, the earning potential of an elite Kenyan woman
tends to be much greater than that of her male counterparts, and outside
countries, like China, stand a better chance in women’s distance events
than they do in men’s.
It is largely for this reason that China’s federation has decided to
focus mainly on its female runners, who, despite lacking the accolades
of their Ma-coached predecessors, have managed some recent international
success. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, a Chinese woman, Xing Huina,
won gold in the 10,000 meters, edging out two Ethiopians. Five years
later, at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Bai Xue, a 20-year-old
from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, won gold in the women’s
marathon, becoming the youngest champion in the event’s history.
Although Bai, now 25, has struggled with injuries, she is training to
compete in Beijing in 2015 and is easily the most accomplished athlete
in Canova’s group. Though shy, she agrees to chat following her
afternoon workout, which featured 800-meter repeats on Iten’s new,
exclusive, Tartan track. Insisting that she shower before we talk, she
meets me in the courtyard of Kipsang’s hotel, sporting wet hair and a
black down jacket. With Lin translating, Bai tells me about her career
in athletics: how she left home for sports school at the age of 14
because her father thought she had talent, how her win in Berlin came as
a complete surprise, how she’s inspired by all the accomplished
athletes she sees along the roads of Iten.
Still, despite the many other female stars in town—Mary Keitany,
Kenya’s national marathon record holder; Florence Kiplagat, world record
holder in the half-marathon; even Radcliffe, who, at 40, is using Iten
as a base to prepare for the 2015 London Marathon—Bai says she hasn’t
actually spoken with any other top athletes. While she’d like the
opportunity, she says she’s mainly focused on her teammates and their
collective goal of reviving Chinese running.
When I ask what it will take for China to succeed, she surprises me with a word in English.
“Grandpa,” she says, before continuing in Mandarin. “The leadership of grandpa Renato, for sure.”
the boy in the first pic isn't even training, he's just running home from school...still stunting on her
I thought it was a girl... it has a beautiful face, too pretty to be a boy. It is just head shaven.
Anyways, I thought for a second that the dark skinned running next to the Chinese was actually the coach. Then I read that the coach is Italian. Maybe the Kenyan was actually helping the Chinese keep up by motivating her, which is sad because the Kenyan is clearly better than her, since, as femme said, she is not even training and is running next to her.
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