Stopwatch in hand, craning his neck, with his eyes trained on the iconic Brandenburg Gate, Patrick Sang is a tense man.
But the split times are bang on target.
The halfway mark at one hour, one minute and six seconds was well inside the world record pace, and the second half was a flying finish.
Two minutes and 53 seconds for kilometre 39; 2:53 for kilometre 40; 2:48 for kilometre 41; 2:44 for kilometre 42 …
A new world record!
“We did it!” Sang screams and hugs all people around him, as Eliud Kipchoge comes to a screeching halt, salty sweat drying up on his solid cheekbones.
The Olympic champion has just broken the world marathon record!
Broken is an understatement.
He has absolutely shattered it!
Blown it into smithereens!
His winning time on September 16 at the Berlin Marathon of 2:02:39 was 78 seconds faster than the previous mark of 2:02:57 set four years ago by compatriot Dennis Kimetto.
Never before has the men’s world marathon record been obliterated in this fashion since 1967 when Aussie Derek Clayton lowered his own mark at Japan’s Fukuoka Marathon by two minutes and 24 seconds, clocking 2:08:33.
For memorable seconds, Kipchoge and Sang embraced as photojournalists clicked away their cameras.
And then Sang let go, beating a retreat into the excited crowd and proudly looking on as his protégé launched a lap of honour.
A job well done.
Never one for the limelight, Sang thrives in operating behind the scenes. He calls the shots in the long runs on Kaptagat dirt roads and at speed work sessions in Eldoret.
Not that he hasn’t been the focus before, because at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, he earned Kenya a silver medal in the steeplechase before retiring three years later ranked fourth on the world rankings.
Kipchoge is, without doubt, the greatest marathon runner of all time, which automatically elevates Sang, his coach, to the rank of master tactician.
Sang launched Kipchoge’s stellar running career on the Nandi dirt tracks 18 years ago.
At the time, a shy young man walked up to the Olympic medallist and asked for a training programme.
“My relationship with Eliud started in a funny way, at a local championship in Nandi,” Sang recalls in an interview with Lifestyle on the sidelines of the 2018 IAAF World Athletics Gala in Monaco, where Kipchoge has just been named Male Athlete of the Year for 2018.
“There was this young athlete who would come to me and say ‘please, help me with a training programme.’ I would assume he was like any other athlete who wanted a training programme.”
Sang then handed the young man, then aged 16, a programme, and forgot about it.
“After two weeks, he came back and said, ‘I finished the programme and I want to continue. What do I do?’”
We continued like that for three or four times, in two-week sessions, and then he came back and asked me: ‘What should I do between now and the national cross country championships?”
That was 2001.
That’s when Sang came to know that the budding athlete’s name was Eliud, and that they came from the same village in Kapsisiywa, near Kapsabet in Nandi County. It is an area that many world beaters, including former Olympic 800 metres champion Wilfred Bungei, call home.
“I gave him the programme to take him up to the nationals and he did very well,” says Sang. At the time, Athletics Kenya awarded a cash jackpot for the most consistent athlete in the national cross country series, sponsored by battery manufacturers Eveready.
One million shillings would be shared between athletes who won all their races in the series.
A CARING MENTOR
In 2003, Kipchoge hit the jackpot and got his cheque.
“He then came back to me and asked me what he should do with the money, and so I took him to the bank and helped him through the process of opening an account,” Sang recalls.
He had a word of advice for the youngster outside the banking hall after transacting.
“I told him two things. One, that he must be prepared to make enemies, and, two, that he should do something for his mother and take care of his parents first,” says the athletics veteran.
That’s how their enduring relationship started.
In 2002, Kipchoge had finished fifth in the junior race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Dublin.
Then the following year, he won the junior global title in Lausanne.
Also in 2003, at 18, he beat Ethiopian great Kenenisa Bekele and Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj to become one of the youngest world 5,000 metres champions, winning the gold medal at the IAAF World Championships in Paris.
He maintained consistency, running almost all his career 5,000 metres races in under 13 minutes before switching to the marathon in 2013.
BAD YEAR FOR HIM
“The year 2012 was a bad one for him because he had trained well, but he got injured and by the time the Olympic trials came, he wasn’t 100 per cent fit,” Sang says, disappointment written all over his face.
He adds: “Unfortunately, he led most of the way in the race but lost in the final sprint. He was disappointed and we had to evaluate his career, and that was the time the decision was made to try the marathon.”
The marathon was a totally different proposition for Kipchoge.
Then there was another challenge.
Where would Kipchoge run his first marathon?
“Organisers of the London Marathon were interested in having him and there was the possibility of doing Hamburg.
We deliberated and a decision was made that we start at a smaller race. The whole idea was to get him experience first,” Sang says,
Kipchoge went on to win the Hamburg Marathon on his debut in 2:05:30.
A MARATHON LEGEND WAS BORN
And just like he focused on getting the right training programme as a rookie, Kipchoge was equally meticulous with his marathon training.
“What you see now is a confirmation that he’s a person who likes to plan. It’s something that’s in him. Not everybody has such characteristics.”
Kipchoge is an avid reader, and his quotes are legendary.
Sample these, featured in his special book simply titled ‘Eliud Kipchoge 2:01:39’:
“To run alone is not sport. To run with others is sport.
“What motivates me year in, year out, is the love for the sport and the legacy I want to leave for the present and next generation.”
“Only the disciplined ones in life are free.”
“100 per cent of me is nothing compared to one per cent of the whole team.”
“I always treat myself as my biggest competitor.”
“My secret? I run with my heart and my mind.”
“No human is limited.”
Is he a special athlete? Different from Sang’s other charges?
“All the athletes I handle work very hard,” says the coach. “They are dedicated, they understand the sport and they give it their all. But when you look at this individual, Eliud, something extra comes out.”
“He has full trust in the people who are around him.”
TRUSTED HIS COACH
Indeed, after winning September’s Berlin race in world record time, Kipchoge said it was all down to trusting his coach Sang.
“I trusted my coach and my programme,” he said. “Trust is what pushed me in the last kilometres.”
Sang highlights the fact that for the 18 years he has worked with him, Kipchoge has never asked what programme he should use the following morning.
“Even during Nike’s ‘Breaking 2’ project, which was very complicated, he never asked ‘what are we going to do next?’”
Sang was referring to a well-choreographed experiment in May, 2017, in which Kipchoge’s sponsors Nike attempted to have him and two other runners — Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa and Eritrea’s Zersanay Tadese — under their stable, run the marathon in under two hours under special conditions in Monza, Italy.
And while all the other guinea pigs wilted away, Kipchoge bravely ran 2:00:25, just 25 seconds off-target.
His body took a huge beating, but he recovered to win the Berlin Marathon four months later.
“He had internalised the project and so it was easy for him to recover from the ‘Breaking’ training regime. As the technical bench, we had to work on strong recovery and continue training.”
Sang doesn’t mind sharing Kipchoge’s training programme. “Our training is not a secret. It’s like a professor teaching a class of students. At the end of the day, the students internalise the information, and when it comes to examinations, they will produce, based on their abilities. Training is tailor-made for an individual,” he says.
Sang adds: “Even if I was to give you Eliud’s programme, as Elias Makori, it will not make you run like Eliud! Training is a roadmap.” Sang believes Kipchoge has five, perhaps six, more years of top-class running in him. Perhaps more.
“I would like to tell every living soul in the world that anyone can achieve whatever they want. All they need is to believe,” is Kipchoge’s parting shot.
My family is my support system, says top athlete of the year 2018
Eliud Kipchoge’s wife Grace and children Lynne, Griffin and Jordon are the most integral part of his support system.
“They are the ignition that switches me on every morning I wake up,” he said at Tuesday’s Monaco gala where he was named the IAAF World Male Athlete of the Year.
He is managed by Global Sports Communication (CSG), an event and management company based in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, and founded by former Dutch distance running champion Jos Hermens.
Through guidance from Patrick Sang, GSC set up a training camp in Kaptagat in 1985 where Kipchoge and other elite runners live a Spartan life.
The diet regularly features tea and butter-less white bread for breakfast, with beans, rice, potatoes, ugali, beef and cabbage dominating the lunch and dinner menu.
The occasional chapati on Thursday is by way of extravagance.
Peter Nduhiu, one of Kenya’s best sports physiotherapists, makes weekly visits to Kaptagat and often travels with Kipchoge to the big races.
“It’s not about Sang or Eliud alone. We have a whole array of services that support the athletes,” says Sang, Kipchoge’s career-long coach and Kenya’s steeplechase silver medallist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and also at two world championships (1991 and 1993).
“An athlete is like a corporation. A corporation at times sources services they cannot do themselves, and this aspect of management is critical, although many people don’t see it as such,” says Sang, himself a former 2:14 marathoner and steeplechase gold medallist at the 1987 All Africa Games in Nairobi.
“It’s a holistic approach towards handling an athlete. This set-up facilitates possibilities for athletes to train and actualise their careers.
“For instance, we are now able to help athletes access good medical support. Previously, it was a challenge.”
Kipchoge holds US-schooled Sang in immense respect.
“When you talk about Sang, I lack words to describe him. I admire his coaching skills and he’s been with me since an early age. He’s more than just a coach. He’s my coach, he’s my teacher and he’s my life coach. And above all, he’s brought me to this level.”
Sang is married with two children, one who just completed his masters’ studies in Australia, with the other a second year student at Strathmore University, Nairobi.
He believes local coaches have what it takes to keep producing world class athletes.
“In Kenya, we have good coaches. The only thing we need to build is trust between athletes and coaches. I see coaches like Bernard Ouma (who coaches Commonwealth and Africa 1,500 metres champion Elijah Manangoi, Diamond League winner Timothy Cheruiyot, among others, at the Rongai Athletics Club in Ngong) doing very well. It’s not rocket science. It’s a question of trust.”