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Updated: April 15, 2014 18:45 IST

Training with marathon star Kipsang

  • DPA
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Wilson Kipsang of Kenya celebrates his win in the elite men's race as he crosses the finish line in a course record of 2:04.27 during the London Marathon.
Wilson Kipsang of Kenya celebrates his win in the elite men's race as he crosses the finish line in a course record of 2:04.27 during the London Marathon.

The Kenyan runner won the London Marathon held on Sunday. Here's a look at the unique training regimen he follows

It’s Friday night in the western Kenya athletics training town of Iten, and marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang, wearing a shining gray leather jacket, strides into the restaurant of the hotel he owns.

He sits down to a dinner of two beef sausages and a plate of French fries slathered in fluorescent sweet ketchup, laughs while greeting a dozen fans, then heads over to a floor–shaking dance party in the next room.

Kipsang won’t get to sleep until 1 AM this Friday, and after less than four hours of rest he’ll need to be awake and laced up for a 30 kilometres run.

It’s a typical weekend for the elite Kenyan runner preparing for the London Marathon, and all part of being a successful athlete.

“If you run good but don’t socialize, the people don’t feel you and you don’t even see the importance of what you are doing,” Kipsang says.

Not a strict regimen

Kipsang is at the top of his game. He smashed the marathon world record by 15 seconds last September in Berlin in 2 hours 3 minutes 23 seconds.

He’s been training hard in Kenya’s high altitude Rift Valley for five months of six days of running per week.

But Kipsang is also happy to forgo his rest time for public appearances like late night parties and church fundraisers. Indeed, he says he’s not that into the strict training regime one might expect of an athlete of his level.

“Training is not very complicated,” Kipsang says, breaking out into the quiet, easy laugh that accompanies nearly every statement he makes. “We don’t try to have specific things that need to be done.

It’s just, ‘hey, let’s go, guys.’ ” Kipsang says he mostly makes up how hard he’ll train each week based on how feels on Monday morning.

Kipsang has no coach, he says he borrows training programmes from other runners who do, and barely stretches before long distance runs.

He sleeps only a little, and has no interest in special diets either.

It’s a far cry from some superstar athletes who cloister themselves in training camps under the tutelage of a running guru, but it works.

At dawn on Saturday, the first hints of orange are tinging the horizon, and Kipsang and about twenty other runners are set for their 30km “long run.” Kipsang does a quick jog, the lack of sleep after the party apparently not a problem.

“I compensate during the day,” he says with a smile. “Normally I take very little hours of sleep.” After fewer than five minutes of stretching, Kipsang suddenly shouts out a few words to the other runners in their Kalenjin language, and the race is on.

“Hey, let’s go, guys.” The pace car revs after them to hand out water bottles. The morning is cold and there’s a thick mist even after the Sun is up. The group runs past farmers digging with sticks into fields of banana and coffee, and weaves around herds of cattle wandering across the red dirt road.

Kipsang isn’t the only champion in his group.

He is flanked by Rome Marathon winner Luka Kanga, and William Kipsang, no relation, who once set the course record at Rotterdam.

For them, the long Saturday run isn’t a training session, it’s a real competition, and they continually ramp up the speed with each passing kilometre.

At six feet tall, Kipsang is physically larger than the other runners. His body is upright, arms in control, and he leans slightly forward, as if using gravity to pull him forward in a controlled fall.

A typical week for Kipsang consists of hour—long runs of varying intensity on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Tuesday he works on his sprinting speed. Thursday is a blistering “fartlek,” where he runs up a long hill alternating minutes sprinting and jogging. He finishes on Saturday with the long run, and rests on Sunday.

But Kipsang says he changes things up based on how he feels. The mental discipline of knowing when to push it and when to slow down, rather than a certain program, he says, is what separates great runners from pretenders.

“If it is an easy run, then it is an easy run,” he says. “You don’t do it the opposite way.” If he’s cavalier about his routine, Kipsang obsesses over his form.

Scrolling through photographs of himself running after the 30km, he notes the position of his elbows, and points out flaws in other runners’ strides.

His smile disappears when he sees a picture where his body twists unnaturally mid—stride. He says he needs to work on his foot landings.

Mentoring youngsters

The other runners in the group look to Kipsang as a sort of adviser.

Without many coaches in Iten, younger athsletes gather around a big name like Kipsang, who in turn dispenses tips and gear.

He drives them to practice in his wood paneled SUV and his silver pick—up truck. Afterward he takes everyone out to a Kenyan version of the “Breakfast of Champions“: milky tea loaded with sugar, fried pancakes called chapatti, deep fried samosas, and his favourite, beef sausages.

Helping out younger runners is a bit of tradition in Iten, where the successful athletes often learned without coaches and return to build restaurants and hotels, employing locals and safeguarding their retirement. Kipsang has already opened the Keellu Resort for that purpose.

15 kilometre out on Saturday, the fog hasn’t cleared and the runners turn back for the second half. One by one, they start to fall back or drop out, waving down the pace car and hopping in, their faces dripping with sweat and mist.

Soon, only Kipsang and another runner are in front. With a kilometre left, the other runner begins to flag, his feet no longer kicking high. Kipsang powers to a sprint.

The pace car drives with Kipsang and the speedometer says 20kph.

Kipsang is running under 3 minutes a kilometre.

Kipsang reaches the end, and immediately checks at his watch.

“One hour thirty,” he announces and smiles. It’s a pace that could win many world marathons.

The other runners eventually catch up. For a few minutes, they pass around bottles of water and joke with each other, steam rising off their shaved heads.

Then Kipsang shouts a few words in Kalenjin and they hop into the cars to go to breakfast.

“Hey, let’s go, guys.”

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