On Saturday night, training partners Elijah “Lion” Motonei Manang’oi and Timothy Cheruiyot lined up to etch their names in US city Eugene’s extremely rich track and field history.
The two decorated milers were drawn in a spectacular field at the 44th Prefontaine Classic at the Hayward Field Stadium, the famous “Bowerman Mile” being the last ever race on the famous track at the University of Oregon.
The Prefontaine Classic, which is the third leg of this year’s IAAF Diamond League series, is named after Oregon native Steve Prefontaine, an Olympian killed in a 1977 car accident while aged just 24.
It will be the last time that Hayward Field, host of the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships, several US national championships and six Olympic trials, will run a meeting in it’s current state as it will be brought down to pave way for a bigger, 30,000-seater stadium that will host the 2021 IAAF World Championships.
Hayward Field was built in 1919 and Saturday night’s “Bowerman Mile” was the last race on the iconic ground.
And, fittingly, Manang’oi was in the stellar field — featuring seven Kenyans — chasing the meet record of three minutes, 47.32 seconds held by Djibouti’s Ayanleh Souleiman since 2014.
“Prefontaine Classic” meet organiser Tom Jordan couldn’t have scouted for a better athlete than Manang’oi for the final hurrah at Hayward Field, the Kenya Police Service runner fresh from adding last month’s Commonwealth Games’ 1,500 metres title to his stellar collection.
The “Bowerman Mile” is named after another Oregon legend, coach Bill Bowerman, co-founder of the Nike apparel company who died in 1999.
A trip to Rongai last week landed us at the Rongai Athletics Club’s training base where Manang’oi has pitched camp alongside Cheruiyot, the 2017 IAAF Diamond League series winner in the 1,500m, his younger brother George Manang’oi, gold medallist over the distance at last year’s IAAF World Under-18 Championships in Nairobi, and a group of other upcoming stars.
Getting straight into the business of our interview, Manang’oi tells me how he looks up to his predecessors for motivation.
“When people with experience talk, there is need for one to listen and heed the advice,” he says, his mantra for a successful career that has earned him the world and Commonwealth titles. The 25-year-old star from Narok County is currently enjoying probably his best form so far, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in his cross hairs.
Like many of Kenya’s world beaters, Manang’oi went through the hands of legendary Irish lay Catholic missionary Brother Colm O’Connell, athletics coach at St Patrick’s Iten, who was quick to note his immense potential.
He thought that Manang’oi was wasting his time in the 400m and advised him to move up the distance to the 1,500m, predicting that one day, like many of his protégés at St Patrick’s, he would become world champion.
Nicknamed “godfather of Kenyan running”, Brother Colm saw the immense potential in Manang’oi owing to his endurance in training and versatility. The youngster had gone down to the 400m in high school after dumping the 3,000m which was his speciality in primary school. Among Bro Colm’s numerous track students are former and current world record holders in the 800m, Wilson Kipketer and David Rudisha, Olympic 1,500m champion Peter Rono and the current marathon sensation and former track queen Vivian Cheruiyot. The list is endless.
So when Bro Colm speaks, one has to listen. And Manang’oi did just that. Listen.
The policeman — who shifted to the North Rift from Nyahururu — listened, and made the 1,500m his speciality.
After completing is ‘O’ levels at Olpukut High School in 2008, Manang’oi stayed home for a couple of years, and then convinced his father, Nelson Manang’oi, that he would like to take up athletics, full time.
“After looking after my father’s cattle for two years, I told him I had secured a club in Nyahururu where I wanted to pursue athletics,” said Manang’oi, who couldn’t proceed to college due to lack of funds.
Allergies in Nyahururu and Iten, due to the cold, had forced him to relocate, in 2012, to his current stable at Rongai Athletics Club in Rongai, Kajiado County.
But his grand entry into “big time” athletics wasn’t a memorable one. Or perhaps it was, for the wrong reasons.
During the trials for the Bahamas 2014 IAAF World Relays Championships held at Kasarani, Manang’oi was struck by some reality check. “I was in my best form and I had invited my extended family from Narok to come watch me perform in the 400m,” he recalls, regret written all over his face. “They actually came in four vehicles.”
Running from lane eight, the travelling fans well positioned adjacent to the tape. Manangoi finished seventh overall and missed out on the ticket to Bahamas.
He was devastated. He felt he had disappointed his large fan base. Coming from a huge family of 32 brothers and 25 sisters puts it into perspective...
“You can imagine how disappointed I was ,with most of them around. “That is when Brother Colm’s advise to concentrate on the 1,500m replayed in my mind, two years later,” said Manangoi who was born on January 5, 1993. He now feels indebted to the Irishman, and to his current coach at Rongai AC, Bernard Ouma.
“He (Bro Colm) told me I could run well the 1,500m after he saw me handle long runs of over one hour easily. I had the speed and endurance, but I never thought I would run the 1,500m,” said Manang’oi, who told his coach Ouma he was no longer interested in the 400m after the Bahamas trials debacle.
“I told him that I would shift to the 1,500m immediately, but he, somehow, resisted, saying I should start with 800m first. I had a fixed mind and coach Ouma had just to surrender as I promised not to disappoint him.” Ouma would craft a training programme within one week to the 2014 Commonwealth Games trials.
“I had met Ouma in 2012 during Thika track and field meeting where I told him about my weather and allergy challenges in Nyahururu and, later, Iten.”
While the anxious Ouma couldn’t wait to see how Manang’oi would perform, his athlete took things easy to control the races.
He finished second in 3:38.00 behind Ronald Kwemoi in the first heat, beating veterans James Magut and Nixon Chepseba to third and fourth places, respectively. At the semi-finals, Manang’oi came in second in 3:36.00, behind Kwemoi, again, to qualify for the final.
Then, coach Ouma took him seriously. “I was pretty impressed even though I just ran without caring about experience or time.”
Ouma told him to clock a good time in the final, which would secure him a good manager. Manang’oi once again settled for second in 3:35.90, losing to Kwemoi, who clocked 3:34.9.
That time was also good enough to catch the eye of the Jukka Harkonen athletics management stable that also had javelin thrower Julius Yego and distance runners Jonathan Muia and Caleb Mwangangi.
Before heading to Glasgow, Manangoi warmed up in a championships in Nancy, France, where he clocked personal best 3:35.60. But he sustained a tendon injury during the semi-finals at Glasgow, finishing last in the final won by Magut with Kwemoi bagging silver.
Stablemate Yego went on to win the javelin gold and Muia the 3,000m steeplechase title with Mwangangi triumphant in the 5,000m. A memorable outing for the Harkonen stable.
Harkonen flew Manang’oi to Austria for treatment, with world champion Asbel Kiprop replacing him for the 2014 Africa Championships in Morocco.
At the trials for the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, Manang’oi, now attached to the Presidential Escort Unit in the police service, finished second behind Kiprop.
“With the experience and advice he got from teammates Kiprop and Kiplagat, I was able to control my races in Beijing, winning the heats and the semi-finals in 3:42.57 and 3:35.00, respectively.” He described the final as his “craziest race.”
Sixth at the final curve, he had to dig deep in the last 100m to bag silver at the line, beating experienced Moroccan Abdalaati Iguider and Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi along with Kiplagat (Kenya) and Kiwi Nick Willis. “I was so elated to win my first international medal, considering that I never competed in youth or junior championships.” I think what helped in the last 150m was my knowledge and experience from the 400m.”
He added that Kiprop, who has just defended his world title for the third consecutive time, motivated him.
“He actually told me that I will one day win the world title if I could stay focused and train hard. He told me that I am the person to take over from him. He advised me how to spread my energies across the distances and how to run in the championships and other races.”
On the family front, Manang’oi and Peris Peresian, who works at the Narok County Government, have two children, three-year-old Toreque and nine-month-old Ashlyne.
He described 2017 as his best season. That’s when Brother Colm’s and Kiprop’s predictions come true.
He started off the season with victory at the Doha Diamond League meeting in a world lead 3:31.90 before claiming victory in the Monaco leg in not only in a world lead, but also personal best 3:28.80.
That warmed him up for his major victory at the 2017 IAAF World Championships, becoming the only other Kenyan to win the title after Kiprop. His friend and training mate since 2014 at Rongai, Cheruiyot, claimed silver.
“It was the most difficult yet satisfying moments for our coach Ouma,” recalled Manangoi. “Difficult because Ouma had myself and Cheruiyot to advice before any race, and satisfying for the one-two feat.
With the Commonwealth Games coming early this year — just last month rather than the traditional August date — the athletes needed to hit competition form unusually early. Manang’oi captained the Kenyan contingent to the games in Gold Coast, Australia, winning gold in his speciality.
Now, his focus is on the Africa Senior Athletics Championships to be held from August 1 to 5 in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria.
This is where Africa will select its team for the IAAF Continental Cup (World Cup) planned for September 8 and 9 in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
“My ultimate target is to accomplish Brother Colm’s prediction that I will be Olympic champion, at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.”
“Adding the Africa, World Cup and Olympic titles to my collection should make me a complete athlete, and that is my desire, God-willing.”
Something else is on Manangoi’s mind this season.
The world record of 3:20.00 set by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj on July 14, 1998. “I want attempt to break the record either in Rome on May 31 or in Monaco on July 20.”
“It’s possible since I’m in better shape than the last two seasons. It’s all about hard work, self-belief, concentration and focus.”
The difficult issue of doping in athletics is not lost on him, especially after his mentor Kiprop was recently flagged for using a banned performance enhancer.
“I am in shock till now, and I hope he is cleared. Asbel is never jealous and is such a humble and good person.”
He is quick to appeal to fellow athletes to desist from using short cuts.
“It will ruin not only their health, but also their careers,” he concludes as his younger brother George, the world youth champion, and other athletes soak in the cool breeze at their accommodation after a hard morning training session.
In Manang’oi and Cheruiyot, they couldn’t hope for better mentors.
Name: Elijah Motonei Manang'oi
Date of birth: January 5, 1993
Place of birth: Narok South
Marital status: Married to Peris Peresian
Children: Toreque (three years), Ashlyne (nine months)
Schools: Tulele Primary School, Narok South,Lulung’a High School (2004-2005), Olpukut High School (2007-2008)
2015: Silver in 1,500m at World Championships in Beijing;
2017: Gold in 1,500m at World Championships in London;
2018: Gold in 1,500m at Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia
Personal best times:
400m: 47.33, Nairobi (Ken), July 13, 2013;
400m: 46.5, Nairobi, June 22, 2013;
800m: 1:44.8, Nairobi, May 18, 2017
1,500m: 3:28.80, Monaco, July 21, 2017
One Mile: 3:49.08, Eugene (USA), May 27, 2017