Tough act to follow

Tough act to follow


Number one, No less: After an incredible 2010, David Rudisha is targeting the World Championships this year. AFP

His workout over, David Rudisha sat quietly on the couch in the small lounge outside his small shared bedroom in Iten, Kenya, thumbing through the February issue of Track & Field News, a chronicle of his achievements set against far less spartan backdrops.

On Page 3, Rudisha is in Monte Carlo, handsomely attired in tuxedo, with Blanka Vlasic, the towering Croatian high jumper, after receiving their 2010 Athlete of the Year awards from the International Association of Athletics Federations. On Page 7, Rudisha is in Oslo, pulling out a narrow victory in the 800 metres. And there, on the cover, he is in Brussels, securing the Diamond League season title in his specialty.
With the drone from television in the lounge competing against only the trill of songbirds, Rudisha turned the pages while scooping a lunch of rice, beans and carrots from a small bowl.

“This is where I started and this is where I’ve succeeded,” he said of Iten, a town in the Great Rift Valley of western Kenya that has a well-earned reputation as a cradle of world-class runners.

“Why change things that have been working for you?” Rudisha said. “The place is nice and we can keep it simple.”

Rudisha’s victory in Brussels last August 27 was sandwiched between two of the greatest 800 performances ever: a world record five days before and another two days later. And to think that Rudisha was only 21 at the time. Rudisha, who lives with his wife and son in nearby Eldoret when he is not in serious training, said that after he broke the African record in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2009, running 1 minute 42.01 seconds, he was confident that Wilson Kipketer’s 1:41.11 world record, set in 1997, was within his grasp.

“There was no other step left than to break the world record,” Rudisha said. “My aim was to run under 1:42. At Huesden, Belgium, some people were expecting the world record.”

He fell shy at that July 10 meet, running 1:41.51, at the time the second-best 800 ever.

“That 1:41.5 was a good indicator,” said Rudisha’s coach, Colm O’Connell, who has been instrumental in burnishing Iten’s reputation as a running mecca. “The last few days of July, three days in a row, in Nairobi at altitude. After that, I sat down with him and said, just give me three weeks and we’ll have a world record.”

Rudisha was ready. Running from the front on a cool August 22 evening in Berlin, on the track where he failed to make the final at the 2009 World Championships, Rudisha ran 1:41.09 to take down Kipketer’s record. A week later in Rieti, Italy, he ran 1:41.01.

“I think it’s possible to run under 1:41,” Rudisha said. “Below 1:40, I don’t know.”
Few coaches ever have one athlete who breaks a world record, but O’Connell, an Irishman who has worked in Kenya since 1976, has had two, and in the same event: Rudisha and Kipketer.

“He was running 200/400 when I first came to know David in 2004,” said O’Connell, whose coaching resume is packed with world-class athletes, including Ibrahim Hussein, who in 1988 became the first African to win the Boston Marathon.

“But by the end of the first session here, I said to David, ‘I’ve seen you at 200 and 400 metres; how about running 800 metres?”' O’Connell said. “And lo and behold, on a dirt track here at 8,000 feet, with a couple of other runners, he ran 1:49 practically on his own. And I stopped and thought. Then I said, ‘Instead of 200/400, how about trying 400/800?’ In 2006, I cut back on his 400 and focused on 800. That’s basically how he came to find his distance.”

The 800-man

Maybe so. But O’Connell chuckled, acknowledging an “inclination” toward the 800. Indeed, his proteges in the event also include David Kiptoo (1:43.38 in 1996), Joseph Tengelei (1:43.57 in 1995) and Japheth Kimutai (1:42.69 in 1999). In his modest living room on the grounds of St Patrick’s High School, where he once taught, a kitten sprawled on his lap, O’Connell  spoke of the qualities that set Rudisha apart, including his 6-foot-3, 157-pound frame and his 45.50-second base speed over 400 meters.

“He is taller than the other 800-meter runners,” he said. “Wilson is real smooth, polished, with panache; he glides around the track. David works around the track. But he has speed. Kipketer ran 46 for 400, David 45. He can split 400 faster than Wilson.

''Wilson was very quiet,“ O’Connell continued. ”With Wilson, you’d have to be very close to him to know what he thinks. With David, he’s much more of an extrovert. You can see that at the press conferences. He has more confidence. When you put him on the track, he has a presence because he is so tall. Wilson could hide in the pack, lurking back there.``

O’Connell and Rudisha have resisted the temptation to race more, especially with meet directors offering attractive appearance fees. In fact, O’Connell said Rudisha raced only sixteen 800s last year, including trials and finals.

“What worked with Wilson won’t necessarily work for David,” O’Connell said. “There’s a great temptation. That’s why there aren’t many coaches who have had two great athletes. You need to put aside the other guy, and the challenge as a coach is to put away everything you did and start anew with another athlete.”

After taking a few weeks off and attending awards ceremonies, Rudisha was back to training last month. He looked strong one day recently, finishing 15 repeat 150-meter hills on a hard-packed dirt road. He joked with his training partners, who included the versatile 2008 Olympian Augustine Choge.

Moments later, Rudisha was on his knees pulling his running clothes out of a makeshift wash basin and wringing out the water, then hanging them on the line for the warm sun to bake them dry.


“There’s a lot of expectation in this year, because the last performance of 2010 was a good thing,” he said. “They’re expecting me to do a lot and improve on that this year. I don’t want to put that pressure on myself. I just need to focus. What I really need is to avoid distraction. It’s a nice place up here. You can train with the other guys, keep thinking about the track and train as a group.``

Rudisha enjoys reading inspirational books, listening to African music and studying films of the 800 races of Kipketer and Sebastian Coe, the former world-record holder and now the chief organiser of the 2012 London Olympics. Rudisha said he would continue to dabble in the 400, but that the 800 would be his main focus.

“The 400, it’s tough,” Rudisha said. “If I can do some good speed work, focus work, reduce the mileage, then I think I can do sub-45. Below 44, no, I don’t think so. I’d have to change my whole training to be a 400-metre runner and I do not think I have that. My aim is 800 metres. After World Championships, then we go for the Olympics.”

In Nairobi, a short flight from Iten, Rudisha hopes to qualify for the World Championships in South Korea in late August. Only then, he said, will he even think about running world records.

“Coming off 2010 into the 2011 season, expectations are high,” O’Connell said. “People are thinking he will pick up where he left off and that won’t be the case. Our only goal is the World Championships. If we break any records, stadium records, etc., that is a bonus.”

Rudisha echoed the sentiment, noting that world championships were typically strategic races. “After the world championships, if I am feeling good, maybe we go for fast times,” he said.