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Reflecting on three incredible months in Iten, Kenya – Home of Champions

Mary Keitany winning the 2012 Virgin London Marathon,becoming the third fastest of all-time.

As I sit on the roller coaster-like bus journey from Eldoret to Nairobi, it gives me time to reflect on the 3 month trip to Iten, Kenya as a whole.  In between getting thrown from window to window and launched off the roof in jack-in-the-box fashion, I realise that I have definitely taken being able to train injury free for the whole trip for granted.  The fact is I have just been enjoying it so much and relishing the opportunity to push myself to new limits.  But that is what you do when you are happy, you go for it and do not look back.

However, when I think back to what the previous trip between August and November last year was like due to shin problems and the worries I had before this one as a result of that, it really sinks in how grateful I am to be training injury free thanks to my physiotherapist, Ron Coutts.

Blogs and interviews have been a lot less frequent this time around as a result of me actually doing what I was here to do – run.  It is a sacrifice I have been more than happy to make and hope it pays off on the track this summer.  Nevertheless, I have been lucky enough to conduct two of the best interviews of my journalism career, which more than made up for the lack of other articles.

Spending time training and relaxing with Kiwi twins, Jake and Zane Robertson was a ‘Macced-out’ experience.  After leaving home aged 16 in 2006, the pair are now on the cusp of the highest echelons of the sport.  They are living proof that if you make sacrifices and follow your dreams to the bitter end then you will succeed.  As I concluded in my article with them in VO2 Max Magazine earlier this month, these boys prove people wrong for a living.

Jake and Zane Robertson, per 1500m final in Kitale, Kenya.

Two days ago I was also incredibly lucky to interview the charming and charismatic double London Marathon champion, Mary Keitany for the second time in my career.  What made this interview all the more special for me was that not only did it focus more on the personal side of her life than the running but she trusted me enough to ask any question I wanted despite one journalist not so long ago abusing this trust and writing unpleasing material.  This was made possible largely thanks to Jeroen Deen, one of the world’s top physiotherapists who is based in Iten.  Without Jeroen, I would not have achieved half the success I have done in the profession today.  He and Mary will be friends of mine for life.

There have been far too many people to name that have contributed to success and enjoyment of this trip.  One friend in particular was instrumental in helping us get set up in Kenya last year.  Both myself and Dan will miss his company and horrendous humour now that we are heading home.  Both trips would not have been the same without him.

From left to right: Ciaran, Nelly Masai, myself, David Rudisha, Dan, Linet Masai.

As an individual and as an athlete I feel very solid mentally and always have a positive mindset. Having had my fair share of injuries over the past few years I have often felt like I just needed the physical side of my running to catch up with the mental side.  During the first few weeks of this trip I had a handful of sessions with Klemens Weigl, as part of a sports psychology programme and already I am feeling the benefits. The sessions have filled me with belief that I can take the mental aspect of my running to an even higher level and as a result I am certain my times on the track will improve. His techniques and thought-provoking advice really gives you the feeling that you have an extra weapon in your artillery. I feel empowered and I look forward to a long and successful partnership with Klemens, even if it is via Skype.

Iten truly is a place where you can realise your dreams.  That said, you have to have a higher than ever commitment and desire to achieve your goals.  I came to Kenya knowing the results I wanted on return but would have to admit that to a certain extent, I naively thought it would come almost magically just by being here.  In week one something my training partner, Dan Mulhare said really hit home: “No one coming to altitude is going to improve unless you train harder than you would at home.”

My attitude has always been spot on thanks to my Dad’s inspirational advice over the years, but at home as a result of injuries and distractions which I won’t go into, my application and commitment has been lacking. Not now. Not ever again. This is the time I make sacrifices, work to fulfilling my potential and put smiles on the faces of those who support me.

Dan has definitely had a big influence on my training and commitment over the past 3 months. Anything I achieve this year would not have been possible without Clockwork Mulhare’s 6am screams at me: “Myles are you running this morning or what?” Had he not been here I would probably still be in bed rather than writing this article or running anywhere near the times I feel I can this year.

Dan and myself during track session at Kamariny Stadium

Gideon Gathimba is a Kenyan international athlete and world record holder (4x1500m relay) who won the mile race in Aberdeen for the opening of the Sports Village in 2009.  He kindly invited me to live with his family and train with him for 5 days in the middle of my trip.  It turned out to be the best 5 days of my life – filled with some incredible experiences.  We met his 122 year old Great Grandmother who had never seen a white person before.  As I entered through the gate at the bottom of her garden and she caught a glimpse of me, she started dancing around and shouting ‘mzungo, mzungo’ –  a term that many Kenyans use to refer to white people.  It was heart warming to see how delighted she was that a mzungo had come to visit her and also brought her some small gifts.  It is an experience which I will take with me to the grave.

Myself and Gideon’s 122 year old Great Grandmother, Adelaide

Gideon plays an active role at his local church when he is not jet setting around the world as part of his life as an international athlete.  By taking me along to Sunday service as his guest, we created a little bit of history.  No white person had ever attended and again their welcoming warmth towards me was inspiring.  Little did I know they were expecting me to get up on stage and give a mini speech.  I through in as much Swahili as I could muster and thanked them for their kind welcome and greetings.  It seemed to go down ok and I quickly migrated back towards my pew.

Myself, the Pastor and his daughter at Sunday service

In the final part of my trip we both competed in the Athletics Kenya track meeting in Thika.  My first race on Kenyan soil and I was the only mzungo in the whole stadium.  Racing in Kenya gives you a tougher than ever mentality that makes nerves in Scottish championship  call rooms fade into insignificance.  All eyes on were on me.  Thankfully this inspired me and made me more determined.  I knew I had been training hard and most importantly I knew that I had more ability than almost anyone in the stadium thought I had.  Racing below race distance at 400 metres, I ran 0.5 seconds outside my lifetime best and placed 4th out of 8.  I am told the announcer shouted on the microphone, halfway in to the race: “who is this mzungo and why is he beating our boys?”  We hope to raise sponsorship to get Gideon into the Aberdeen Union Street Mile road race this year.

Gideon taught me the importance of ‘shape’.  ‘Shape’ to Kenyans means more than just being in good shape, but being in shape to compete against anyone on any given day.  Previously I had been naive and in some ways lazy, thinking that 4 weeks of hard training with some weights and core mixed in would get me into prime shape.

Right now I am the fittest I have ever been but what Gideon and Kenya to a certain extent too has taught me is that there is no reason why this is anywhere near my limit.  It gives me huge confidence that if I could run 1.53.07 for 800 metres last season, off the back of 6 weeks hard training which had been preceded by months of messing around, then this year can be hugely improved.

Day 1 of the 2011 trip, not in ‘shape’

You can learn a lot from the Kenyan athletes.  You can also learn how not to do things.  So many train in groups that follow the lead/fastest runner’s programme.  These are not suited to everyone and it is why many runs themselves into the ground and into an early retirement. The rain here is indeed far worse than home. Almost every road is un-run able at times when the skies decide to open. However, they need to toughen up and run in the rain sometimes, they think we are crazy when they see us running in only a small bit of rain.  Another way that this can be looked at is that they do not feel the same pressure as we do at home to complete every session that is planned for them.  It is flexible and they can easily miss one here or there.

Coming into ‘shape’

Thanks to BodyHelix I was able to organise a mile race at the Kamariny Stadium in Iten.  It was a huge success and we hope to build on it greatly next year.  With winning times of 4.14 for the men and 5.00 for the ladies, there was a high standard turn out which was great to see.  It felt fantastic to give something back to a place which has given me so much.

The BodyHelix Men’s Mile 2012

Things could not have gone any better for me this time around.  I recorded my biggest ever weekly mileage week at 75 miles in week 10 of 12.  Whilst my Dad urges me to not get too fixated on mileage like he did it is hard not to get excited but I remain careful and hold back when necessary.  The track sessions I have done here give me real hope that I can run the times I want to this year.  I was pleased to be hitting fast times in sessions on the slightly too long dirt track at 8000 feet above sea level.  My last 2 weeks have included some quality sessions but reduced mileage and I am beginning to feel fresh as the races approach this weekend. I will line up to run the British Milers Club Grand Prix 800 metres on Saturday followed by a 1500m and 4x400m relay in Aberdeen on Sunday in my first outing as club captain.  It will be fantastic to see my Mum again when she kindly collects me in Manchester and drives me back to sunny Scotland.

It’s clear to see that I absolutely love it out here in Kenya and I could easily live here.  However, it is a strange feeling to have that I still really, really want to come home.  I am looking hugely forward to seeing family and friends again but the burning desire to be home again comes from wanting to produce the results that all this trip’s hard work was designed to do and that many people have supported me in doing so.

Yesterday I completed my final track session on Kenyan soil.  It was only 5 x 200 metres and with a long-ish recovery to get the legs ticking over for Saturday’s race.  I was determined to hit one of them in 24 seconds and the first 4 went by in 25, 25, 25 and 25.  I said to myself before the last rep: “you will hit 24, now GO!!” Coming down the home straight I was thinking to myself ‘push as hard as you possibly can and leave it all on the track, you will not have another opportunity to rectify this if you don’t push hard enough now’.  I crossed the line in 24.94 and as I put the brakes on I went up onto the bank of the track and was confronted with the most incredible view across the Great Rift Valley.  It was one of the best moments in my running life.  That is the magic of Iten, Kenya – Home of Champions.

Elated at hitting the elusive 24 second rep!

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Braveheart Becky aims to follow in the footsteps of her mother

Written by Myles Edwards in Iten, Kenya.

The first in a series of in depth interviews with Aberdeen Athletic Club members features under 17 middle distance star, Becky Cheyne.  Cheyne chats to Myles Edwards about her aspirations for the coming years and what it is that drives her to succeed in the sport.

Born in Aberdeen in 1997, Becky tells us how she first got involved in athletics:

“My first ever race was a Primary Schools event at Chris Anderson Stadium (now Aberdeen Sports Village).  I was in Primary 5 and managed to come 4th in the 800m.  Although I missed out on a medal, I was very proud of myself because my only other races had been at school sports days.”

This race planted a seed within Becky which continues to spur her on today as she then went on to compete in all Active Schools events from 2007-2010 and scooped 1st age group place in every Race for Life from 2007 through to 2009.  She hopes to return to the Race for Life event this year as she has missed the past few due to other commitments.

Now coached by the legendary Grant Smith, Becky has won ‘Athlete of the Week’ three times since the introduction of the award in November 2011.  Becky says:

“I am proud of this achievement because it shows that I am improving and heading in the right direction.  I think the introduction of this award means that secretly we all strive to do better and that our performances are recognised.”

Coached by Grant Smith since 27th June, 2011, she goes on to describe the influence that Grant has on her progress and that of others in the group:

“Grant is a good coach for many reasons.  He emails our workouts to us beforehand so that we know what times we have to improve on.  He also emails us our times following the session so that we can write them in our diaries and make comparisons with similar sessions from the past.

“He also gives us little tips on how to improve our running styles and techniques. He is always happy to help and never pushes us too far, he just goes with our abilities instead of pushing us to breaking point. He’s always happy, encouraging and positive.”

With personal bests of 2.49.1 and 5.56.2 for 800 and 1500 metres respectively, Becky aims to improve on both of these marks this season off the back of some great training over the winter months.

Cheyne goes on to tell us why athletics is the sport which she most enjoys:

“Athletics is my favourite sport because nobody judges you, every member of Aberdeen AAC is very friendly and welcoming. The sport itself is very enjoyable – you can run from anywhere, for whatever distance and for whatever reason. You can also use it to take your frustrations out on really well.  If I’m annoyed, I simply think – ‘I will show them’ – and therefore run better because of it.

“I prefer athletics to team sports purely because my hand-eye co-ordination is a bit skew-whiff! However, I do still consider athletics to be a team sport as everyone is in the same club.  Also, in relays we are a team – even if you’re not picked to be in the squad of 4 you will still get a buzz from cheering everyone else on.”

Keen to find out what drives Becky to train harder and harder week in, week out, I ask who it is that inspires her:

“My Mum, Denise is without a doubt the person who inspires me most as it was not so long ago that she ran for Scotland.  Kelly Holmes is someone who I also greatly admire.  She didn’t have the best start to life and didn’t even like running to begin with.  Despite this, she never gave up and in the end her hard work produced two gold medals in the same Olympics and also got her a knighthood.

“I admire the attitudes of athletes such as Derek Redmond who battle through severe pain to get to the finishing line.” (Redmond famously pulled a hamstring during the 400m semi final at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and had to hobble and be carried by his father for almost 200m to cross the finish line)

Becky goes on to say that she ‘holds athletes in high regard who, despite their talents continue to be modest and support younger athletes’ like herself.’

Next we move on to what Becky feels she can achieve within the sport of athletics:

“I am not certain of exactly what I can achieve but if I keep training well and getting personal best times then I will in myself feel that I have achieved an awful lot.

“I think it would be brilliant to run for Scotland one day, or compete in the Olympic or Commonwealth Games.  However, that is not a necessity for me to be satisfied. As long as I know that I can run for as long in life as I want to and that I am a lot fitter and more active than my peers at school, then I will be a happy chappy.”

The next interview will be with middle distance maestro, James Joy as he looks to improve on his 800m personal best of 1.53 from last year.

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“Some things never change……some things.”

By Myles Edwards

 
 
Cast your mind back to 1967.  Labour were in power in the United Kingdom.  War in the Middle East was causing conflict in the western world.  Casino Royale was a box office hit.  Mini skirts were the craze.  Ken Barlow was strutting his stuff in one of the nation’s favourite soap operas.  Some things never change……some things.

Mel Edwards is a former British marathon international runner with a personal best time of 2hours 18minutes 24seconds (set in 1967), and is widely regarded as one of the most inspiring, modest and popular coaches in the running fraternity.

Born in December 1942, he graduated in Civil Engineering from Cambridge University in 1966 and has since enjoyed a great deal of success in the world of distance running.  In a career which has spanned over 40 years, Mel has endured a roller coaster of ‘injuries’ and success at every level from club competitions to international level.  Detailed and accurate training diaries have been kept, which show he has racked up a total of over 100,000 miles of running!

Mel Edwards at Font Romeu, high altitude training camp 2008

Following receiving his second Cambridge ‘blue’ for his exploits on the track he went on to bigger and better things in 1967.  It was quite literally a record breaking year for Mel.  He impressively broke the Scottish 6 mile record – whilst finishing 2nd to Lachie Stewart, but went one step higher on the podium in the English universities 3 mile race by cracking the previous record.  1967 saw him really flourish as an athlete, most notably in the marathon distance of 26.2 miles.  In his first attempt at the event, Mel ran away from his rivals early on to win the Harlow marathon and climb to 4th in the British rankings.  To cap it all off, he narrowly missed out on the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, by 2 places.

What contributed to this large amount of success in a sport, which, at the time was highly competitive in the UK?  In an answer that was oozing with Mel’s typical, determined attitude, he said:

“It was down to single minded focus on getting the best out of myself, by doing the work and when injured leaving no stone unturned to find the solution.”

Renowned for his training regimes of around 100miles per week, what makes Mel stand out is his positive attitude and dogged determination to get the best possible outcome from everything he does.

In November 2006, aged almost 64, Mel underwent a MRI scan for lower back pain.  45 minutes later he was diagnosed with Myeloma, an incurable but very treatable form of bone marrow cancer.  After numerous treatments and minor disruptions to work, 8 months later he was back to full-time work as a chartered road safety engineer and running over 20 miles per week.  His reaction following the diagnosis typified his personality traits.

“Those are malignancies, cancer”, said Dr. Frank Smith.  Much to the doctor’s amazement, Mel’s immediate reaction was not to be shocked but “I’ve got a big cross country race coming up soon.”

When asked if he felt his attitude and fitness achieved from competitive sport had helped him face cancer head on, Mel’s response was definitive:

“There is no question these elements made fighting myeloma much easier. I would hate to have had to deal with it if I had never had to show determination in my life due to things coming too easily. Certainly fitness means that you have a built-in reserve which can be used to deal with additional stresses.”

It is this attitude which has served Mel so well throughout his life and during the treatment.  An inspiration to many, but what makes this inspirational character tick?

“I am inspired by the opportunities available to do constructive things, such as helping people with their athletics aims and trying to make roads safer in my working capacity. These aims, when carried through, give people a feel-good factor.”

British marathon running was booming in the late 1960s and continued to do so for the best part of the following two decades.  In 1968 there were only 2 countries to have more than 3 runners faster than Mel – Japan and UK, which, looking at today’s standards makes him look rather unlucky at missing out on competing at an Olympic Games.  But it is evident that excuses, simply, aren’t in his nature.

In 1968, 46 UK men broke the 2hours 30 minutes barrier.  In 2007, only 31 men managed to achieve this feat.  With all the advances in footwear, nutrition and training tools, as well as even faster role models, albeit almost all from other countries – why is there such a decline in British marathon running standards?

Mel’s opinion on the decline is, again, filled with absolute clarity:

“It is down to distance runners not putting in the work they did 40 years ago.  You have to be totally dedicated to getting the mileage in and choosing the right races.  Between 1966 and 1984, in Aberdeen alone, there were ten guys faster than 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon.”

For many people, it is intriguing to find out what gets an athlete through long runs without boredom setting in.  For Mel, it is simple:

“I really enjoy the challenge of distance and time.  The fact that others with an aim to be in the top echelons of marathon or cross country running in the UK, were doing similar training also gave me a desire to be the best.”

A common site in elite marathons. (World record holder Haile Gebrselassie 3rd from right)

The lack of top marathon runners in the UK today is in stark contrast to the likes of Kenya, Ethiopia and America.  For Mel, in the late 60s and 70s you only had to turn up for a local race to compete with or witness elite athletes in action.  Therefore can the lack of male distance running role models in the UK be a factor in the decline of standards?  Perhaps so, but with Mel’s philosophy, it is very likely that all smaller factors would subsequently fall into place.

“More role models would emerge as a result of increased hard work from individual athletes.  To be the best, you must learn from, and work harder than those faster than you.”

His fair, no nonsense attitude spans far wider than himself or anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting him.  For those who are not familiar with the name, Oscar Pistorious, he is a South African Paralympic runner, known as the “Blade Runner”.  He is the double amputee world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400 metres and runs with the aid of carbon-fibre limbs, attached from the knee down.  In 2007 Pistorious took part in his first international able-bodied competitions.  However, the International Association of Athletics Federations (with their typical Rubix Cube-like mindset) ruled that his lower leg, artificial limbs gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes and subsequently banned him from competing under their rules.  Thankfully this decision has since been reversed and he is eligible to compete in able-bodied Olympic competition.

Mel’s opinion on Oscar Pistorious’ situation not only demonstrates his love of a challenge but also seems to apply common sense to some harsh obstacles which had previously been placed in the path of the young South African’s destiny.

“I believe he should be allowed to compete at the highest level possible.  He is not far off the top able bodied 400m runners and relishes the challenge of competing against them. Why deny him the chance?  He deserves the opportunity to enjoy himself as he wishes and I see this taking precedence over views of others on his actions.”

The British male marathon running scene offers little sign of competing at the front of world class racing.  At 67, Mel Edwards shows less chance of slowing down than Formula 1 cars and even less likelihood of quitting than Ken Barlow:  “I have no reason to stop.  I feel good and it is exciting.”

Some things never change.

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