We started our journey at 5.00am, headed to a school at the border of Elgeyo-Marakwet and West Pokot counties.
This is an institution which has specialised in nurturing running talent. As we cruised past Iten in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, hundreds of athletes could be seen grouping and getting ready for their early morning run.
Our destination, the iron-sheet structured Kapsait Athletics Secondary School, lies about 150 kilometres away from, and is a place where many athletes now study and reside.
Our mission was to get to know about the school, the educational programmes it offers, and, most importantly, trace one of the school’s most famous students: Africa 5,000 metres champion, Edward Pingwa Zakayo.
Zakayo, a form three student at the school, is also a World Under-20 Championships gold medallist and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, and has been a huge aspiration to his schoolmates.
A devout Christian
Other notable names at the school includes Leah Kibet, a semi-finalist at the IAAF World Under-18 Championships in the 400 metres hurdles (who has since changed her race to the 800m), 2018 East Africa Secondary School Games’ 5,000m champion Catherine Relin along with Joseph Muigai, Reuben Longosiwa, among others.
We arrived at the school, just in time for the morning assembly where Zakayo, a devout Christian, was reading a word of encouragement from the Bible, in the book of Psalms 113:5, before leading the students with a word of prayer.
After we settle down for the quick interview, ahead of the start of the day’s classes, Zakayo says it’s a delicate balancing act between sports and education, but adds that he’s giving it his best short.
“Balancing education and sports is tricky, but I have always tried my best to do well in class just as I do in athletics, and my goal is to be a successful athlete with a good, bright future,” said the second born in a family of eight.
His day starts at 6.00am when, together with his training mates, they head for a one-and-a-half hour workout before going to class.
By the end of the day, they will converge for an evening run which he says is normally “easy” compared to the morning workout.
Zakayo’s career took shape in 2014 when he competed at the national athletics championships, where finished second in the 10,000m race, attracting the attention of national coaches.
But his memorable race, he recalls, was when he teamed up with World Under-20 Championships silver medallist Stanley Waithaka to beat Ethiopia’s rising star Selemon Barega in Tampere, Finland, at the age-group competition.
To show how good Barega is, at the Brussels IAAF Diamond League meeting in August last year, the Ethiopian youngster ran the fourth fastest 5,000m race of all time, 12 minutes, 43.02 seconds, which falls behind the three fastest times ever run by compatriots Kenenisa Bekele (12:37.35), Haile Gebrselassie (12:39.36) and Kenya’s Daniel Komen (12:43.02).
“We had strategized with my good friend Waithaka on how we can beat Barega after he beat us in Nairobi at the 2017 World Under-18 Championships,” says Zakayo.
“It was a sweet revenge for me, and I’m still smiling when I think of that race,” states Zakayo.
But Zakayo recalls that they almost lost it after concentrating too much on Barega, forgetting Jakob Ingebrigtsen from Norway who managed to squeeze in for a bronze medal.
“At that time, we knew our great challenge and competitor was Barega forgetting the Norwegian. He was going to win gold but my finishing kick saved the day coming from the behind to beat the four athletes ahead of me,” recalls Zakayo, who maintains Barega may have won in Nairobi, but he isn’t good at the big championship races.
It was Thomas Mukhwana who saw how well Zakayo was running during the secondary schools national championships. He then introduced him to the school in Kapsait, where Zakayo, upon finishing his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in Osinandi Primary School in Narok County, travelled all the way to Elgeyo-Marakwet to seek a place in Form One.
On arrival, he met the school’s deputy principal, Painito Chisanya, who enrolled him in Form One where he embarked on his training.
“When I arrived here, I had nothing because we were very poor at home and getting school fees was a challenge. I talked to the deputy principal who allowed me to go on with my education and I’m happy God opened avenues and I can now pay and help my siblings back at home,” Zakayo explains.
I would also not forget my friend and former IAAF Diamond League champion in 800m, Ferguson Rotich, who gave me training kit after he saw me running well.
Three weeks ago, Zakayo was named the most promising boy, beating his friend Rhonex Kipruto who was second during the annual Sports Personality of the Year Awards held in Mombasa.
“I was happy to be awarded as the most promising boy’s award recently, and my goal is to be named athlete of the year. My career has just started and I will be working hard to keep my name high up.”
After bagging silver in 3,000m during the World Under-18 Championships in Nairobi, Zakayo was selected in the team that headed to the Commonwealth Games in Australia, where he clinched bronze in 5,000m in 13:54.06 behind Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei (13:50.83) and Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed (13:52.78) showing little respect to other seniors.
He went ahead to seal the deal in the IAAF World Under-20 Championships, where he bagged a gold medal in 5,000m before proceeding to Africa Championships in Asaba, Nigeria, where he didn’t disappoint after clocking 13:48.58, beating Ethiopia’s Getaneh Molla (13:49.06) and Eritrea’s Yemane Haileselassie (13:49.58) to bag gold.
Zakayo’s already in the thick of a busy season as he aims to compete in the National Cross Country Championships in Eldoret on February 23. Zakayo will be seeking a place in the Kenyan team that will be heading to Aarhus, Denmark, for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships slated on March 30.
“My season started well with a few races outside the country which has kept me in good shape and I will be looking forward to a good run at the national trials for the cross country championships.
It will a hard task because this is my first time and I will be happy to get chance,” he said.
IAAF World Championships
Once done with cross country running, Zakayo will then concentrate on the IAAF Diamond League series where he says he wants to restore Kenya’s lost glory in the 5,000m race.
“If you follow the 5,000m race history, you will find that Kenya has not been performing well recently, and I will start my build-up for the race immediately in May when the Diamond League series starts. I hope I will be able to perform well,” he added.
He is also expecting to represent the country in the IAAF World Championships which will be held in Doha, Qatar, in October.
His school principal, Lawrence Isinta, says Zakayo has been “a very obedient” student and is always ready to help upcoming athletes in training and by also motivating them.
“We are really proud of Zakayo because he has put our school on the world map for his good performances in athletics. He has been motivating students on the need of remaining disciplined and working hard in class,” said the principal.
He also said Zakayo has been helping fellow students out by buying them small things, like the geometrical sets for those who come from poor families, from his earnings in athletics.
Mpaima Pingwa, a class six pupil, is following his brother’s footsteps and has also been competing in the 5,000m race.
Zakayo remains grateful to their mother, Agnes Pingwa, who brought them up well, despite various challenges.
According to his coach Erick Kimaiyo, a former Honolulu Marathon champion, Zakayo has proved that he can perform well both in class and in sports.
“Zakayo is a hard working boy and with the way he is training and performing, he will do wonders in the long distance races in track events,” said Kimaiyo, who is also the director of the school which sponsored by American sportswear giants, Nike.
Kimaiyo also coaches Chicago Marathon champion Brigid Kosgei among other upcoming athletes.