Group Training: The Kenyan Secret?

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          The strength of the pack is the wolf; the strength of the wolf is the pack. Rudyard Kipling wrote that during his long, and well received writing career. What’s more, in the book Once a Runner it states that Kipling was a 4:30 miler, a feat that would have been extremely impressive at his time (I have not been able to confirm Kipling’s ability as a runner, but in review I think that he was probably not, actually, a 4:30 miler. The book was simply making an attempt at satire.)

 

            The quote, however, does have a place in the running world. As it happens, this quote was painted in giant letters around my high school cafeteria (we were the Timberwolves.) Its relevance was brought to mind in thinking of a recent conversation I had with a Kenyan distance runner. August 8th through August 10th I was in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania for the GNC Live Well Liberty Mile. I was assigned a roommate named Emmanuel Bor, a Kenyan national who ran in the NCAA at the University of Alabama.

 

            Bor is, obviously, not the most accomplished Kenyan distance runner in the world. However, he has run some rather impressive races, and has some very impressive range, boasting a 3:42 1500 pr, accompanied by a 28:39 road 10k. More importantly though is that he has spent time with other Kenyan distance runners, both here on U.S. soil and in his native Kenya. He has spent time training in both locations.

 

            When you talk to African distance runners, you will get an extremely varied level of communication. There are some that don’t speak any English at all. I ran into an Ethiopian a couple times this summer that just nodded and laughed all the time. I don’t know how he managed to make all of his travel arrangements (It is important to note that his smiling, laughing, nodding demeanor seemed extremely friendly and humble.) Then there are some like Bor. I wouldn’t call Bor “Americanized.” He still has a very strong sense of his Kenyan culture. He is, however, rather intelligent (not that others are not, just that he is,) and has a very good grasp on the English language and American culture.

 

            What, I would say, I loved most about being Emmanuel’s roommate is that we got to talk about running for, like, a day-and-a-half straight. I love to talk running, and generally it’s others who want to change the subject. Emmanuel stuck right in there with me though. We, of course, got to the issue of “what makes Kenyans so much better than Americans?”

 

            I think it is important to acknowledge that there are a number of factors that make East Africans such good distance runners. However, I am going to save other factors for other posts. The reason I would like to acknowledge in this post is the one Bor gave me, “In Kenya, everybody train together. Maybe tomorrow, you beat me in the race, but if we run together and train together everyday, I get as good as you soon. If we keep training together, I start to move up and get faster, you know you can too. Then you go, and try and be faster, and we keep moving up, going back and forth like that. That is how it is in Kenya.” Emmanuel went on to explain that literally EVERYONE trains together in Kenya. The marathoners train with the 800-meter runners. He talked about how, here in the U.S. Galen Rupp trains, “over here,” and Ryan Hall trains, “over here,” and Nick Symmonds trains, “over here,” this was all accompanied by hand movements to signify that they are, indeed, training in different locations (note that Nick Symmonds and Galen Rupp are both members of the Oregon Track Club, but they have different coaches and do not train together.) He then went on to offer the question, “don’t you think those guys have something to give each other? They could make each other better.” Emmanuel further explained that other Kenyans are welcome to join the group. In Kenya, his accomplishments are mediocre, but he is still welcome to join the others to train.

 

            Before we go off on rants and raves saying that this is it, this is the big Kenyan secret, let’s remember that there are other explanations. Let’s also remember that this isn’t entirely off of the American model of training, the same thing exists to some degree.

 

            American coaches and athletes have accepted the concept of group training. There are professional training groups around the nation that embrace this concept, some of the more notable including the Zap Fitness Group, the Austin Track Club, the New Jersey – New York Track Club, Rogue Athletic Club, The Hansons’ Brooks Olympic Distance Project, and of course, the very well known Oregon Track Club. These groups have even seen the value in having members with different skill sets.

 

            In the sect of the Oregon Track Club coached by Alberto Salazar we see Matt Centrowitz, a prominent 1500 meter runner, Galen Rupp, a world class 10k man, and Luke Puskedra, a half-marathon specialist on his way up to the marathon. Having athletes from a varied background gives each athlete the opportunity to workout with someone who is strong where they are weak. Galen Rupp gets to hammer out speed sessions with a 1500 runner who can kick with the best of them, and Centrowitz powers through long threshold runs, being pushed all the while by Puskedra, a 61 minute half-marathoner. Each day someone is going to be feeling good, someone is going to challenge the others to work hard. Each day, each athlete has to step up or be left behind. This is how the Kenyans do it, and this is what these groups are trying to replicate.

 

            We see the success of these groups as well. In 2013 10 out of the 12 distance runners on the U.S. World Championships Track and Field Team were from training groups like this. The other two athletes were from different situations where they benefit from group training, but are not part of an official training group. These groups have fostered a rise in American distance running. It is no longer the case that the top American is hoping for a spot in an Olympic or World Championship final. Athletes like Evan Jager, Leo Manzano, Galen Rupp, and Matt Centrowitz are serious contenders for, or already have, international hardware. There are people from the U.S. who don’t take part in these traditional training groups who are also contenders such as Bernard Lagat, and Meb Keflezighi. However, the U.S. has always had those outliers who are very good, and they are, often times, not natives of the United States (I point that out only to speak to their genetic makeup, not their country loyalty. A post for a different time.) The rise of these groups truly has made the United States a powerhouse in world distance running.  However, we seem to still be a step behind the East African Countries. Let’s take a look at some differences in the group-training model between them and us.

 

            If I wanted to train with Chris Solinsky, Evan Jager, and Matt Tegenkamp, I would have no idea how to go about doing it, nor would I be included if I did somehow get in touch with their coach, Jerry Schumacher. I am a good runner, yes, but that group, along with Al-Sal’s group is exclusive. You have to already have some street cred to get in, and while my running resume is by no means weak. It is, most definitely, not at the level of the guys in those groups. Taking it a step down and looking at some other programs around the nation. Most of the training groups I have talked to have been interested in me joining. However, they would, most likely, not be interested in some of the other guys from my college team who were conference level runners.

 

            That leads me to the first difference I see between our model and the Kenyan model, exclusivity. You have to be proven to a certain degree to become a part of these groups, it’s like applying for a job. Furthermore, some of them are invite only. The Kenyan model that Emmanuel described to me was all-inclusive. He was allowed to train with Olympic gold medalists.

 

             I think this is one reason you see so much greater depth from Kenya than the U.S. It’s true that our group training method has fostered top-level contenders. However, there are countless, competitive road races around this country. Often times the mid-tier, up-and-coming, or marathon-oriented professionals make their living on these races, and as a general rule, the East Africans who are entered in the race tend to fare much better that the Americans. There is, quite often, even “American Money,” prize money that is exclusively for Americans so as not to discourage Americans from entering the races because they will finish low in the prize money due to the overwhelming talent of the African contingent. The fact that Emmanuel, a mid-tier, road racing Kenyan, and countless others like him are able to train with the top runners in the entire world may be a contributing factor to the alarming depth of Kenyan distance running.

 

            There are some valid reasons for our model. First of all, there are a lot of coaches, a lot of athletes, and a lot of locations in the United States. Not all coaches, or runners for that matter, have the same philosophy on the best way to train distance runners. We all agree on the general grand scheme of an effective training model. We disagree on the logistics. We all agree that you have to run quite a bit, you have to work hard, you have to push yourself, and you have to stay healthy. The most effective way to do those things is a point of contention though. This makes for a number of coaches who have differing opinions, each with a stable of athletes that buys into their approach.

 

            Furthermore there are the economics to worry about. The whole economic scheme of things here as opposed to Kenya is a reason, in and of itself that can contribute. However, coaches and athletes have to earn a living here. That’s not to say that they don’t in Kenya, it just doesn’t take as much of income there. Not everything is money driven. Athletes can afford to train full-time, and not work, and still be able to survive, and so can coaches.

 

            If the training groups in the U.S. were to be all-inclusive, who would stop the 4:30 marathoners, or the 4:30 milers from showing up? How would any coach be able to make a living? Generally, the elite athletes don’t have to pay their coach a monthly fee (sometimes there is a prize money percentage,) but non-elites do. If an elite group were all-inclusive, why would there be a need to pay a coach or even have coaches on the high school and college level (coaches do have administrative duties, but someone could be hired on a part-time/as needed basis to take care of this?) This may all sound great to the casual runner, or even to the above average runner who has to pay for their coaching, but these coaches have spent a lot of time on a very specific skill set, so that they could commit all of their energy to what they love; and be able to provide for themselves and their families. If we take that away we will either have homeless, or less committed coaches.

 

            This leads me to the final difference between the U.S. group training system and the Kenyan group training system; the financial situation of the athletes. Again, the financial factor is something that can be explored in another article, but without going too in-depth, I will say that the financial climate in Kenya is on that allows an athlete to relocate, and throw everything they have into running. The financial climate in the United States is not.

 

            Hypothetically speaking, let’s say somebody read my blog and thought, “let’s change this, let’s get one big group together with all the top guys, and let anyone in who wants in.” Let’s say that person somehow broke all the logistical barriers previously stated and pulled it off. Then, let’s say that person called me up and said, “I’ve done it. You have the chance to train with Hall, Meb, Rupp, Centro, Manzano, Jager, True, etc. There will also be numerous athletes that are at a level between where you are and where they are. There will be guys where you are, and there will be guys that aren’t at your level. Anyone who wants in is in.”

 

            I still don’t know if I would go. In fact, I probably wouldn’t unless it were somewhere in Northern Utah, or they could somehow guarantee me a job. I would think, “what a fantastic opportunity, I would love to do it, but how am I going to pay rent? How am I going to provide for my family? How am I going to eat?” In the U.S. you have such a wide array of financial need on the part of the athlete that it is simply not possible to get everyone to one location, or even two locations, or even five.

 

            Now, before anyone goes picking apart the fact that I have based my entire blog on the testimony on one Kenyan distance runner, I will say that I don’t know for certain that this is the state of the Kenyan group training system. This blog is based on the hypothetical group training system that he described, and the things that make that type of training system possible in Kenya. I think that the fact that Americans from training groups have risen, and continue to rise to the gauntlet that has been laid by the East African distance runners is a testimony that group training works. The overall purpose of this article is not a call to action; it is a call to discussion. What are differences between these two models? What are the strengths of theirs? What are the strengths of ours?

 

            Ultimately I think we have seen group training as beneficial to Kenyans, and we have replicated it in ways that we can. The best we can do is continuing to improve within our means. Keep an eye out for my next article on contributing factors to East African dominance.

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