We caught up with the world’s fastest marathoner, who returns to the roads this weekend in Berlin.
KAPNG’ETUNY, Kenya — A smooth drive from where I train to where Geoffrey Mutai trains can take about an hour and a half, but on this particular day in July, the journey took me four and a half hours. I had woken up earlier than usual, packed my training gear and set off hoping to reach there in time for a chance to do a 30K long run with him and his group after I had gotten a tip from a reliable source about their training program for the day. Unfortunately, the journey did not start as I had planned. For the next two hours, I stood in the chilly, cloudy morning beside the road waiting patiently for a public service vehicle traveling that route.
My journey began in weather that was a little somber, but sitting next to the window in the vehicle and watching scores of athletes running beside the road — some with familiar faces — kept me preoccupied. As we passed a number of athletes out training, I could only wonder what it really took for one to become an outstanding runner. It had rained the previous day and that was why many athletes were training on the tarmac road instead of on their normal trails in one of the world’s famous training destinations, the Kaptagat forest. Further ahead, as the vehicle reached a different altitude at Chepkorio, the vegetation changed, and it became chillier and misty despite the fact that it was 8:30 AM. The mist intensified with each kilometer of the journey until it was so dark that I began to wonder if the vehicle was actually passing through a dark cloud! The headlights of other vehicles were only visible at a very close range and were moving at a very slow pace, probably not exceeding 20 kilometers, or 12.4 miles, per hour. With about 10 kilometers remaining in my journey, not all the vehicles and motorbikes on the road were able to go on. The road from Kamwosor to Kapng’etuny was impassable.
I trekked for the rest of the journey, at some points having to literally wade through mud, occasionally soaking my shoes in the long, wet grass as I walked on some foot paths in a territory that was strange to me. One-and-a-half hours of trekking finally got me to Kapng’etuny. I met three athletes who pointed at Geoffrey’s house for me, and also showed me a short cut there. My gut advised me not to take it, and I was right! After walking a few meters ahead, I met Geoffrey himself in his 4-wheel drive vehicle. A lot of questions quickly rushed through my mind: Will a celebrity stop when a stranger waves at him to do so? Will he agree to talk to me after I introduce myself? Should I tell him that I am an athlete or a journalist?
I waved at him to stop — and thank God, he did! I asked him if he was going to Eldoret. After introducing myself as an athlete and telling him where I wanted him to drop me, he told me to get in the vehicle, which I did. I sat beside him in the front seat. Geoffrey also offered a lift to some locals who were going to Kamwosor market — what a great and generous man the locals have for a neighbor!
Once I finally settled in my seat, Geoffrey told me that he had received my messages and was just about to call me! He engaged the 4-wheel drive and drove carefully, his truck skidding from one side of the road to the other. We began by discussing the bad road conditions, and I wondered how they managed to train.
A few minutes after touching the smooth tarmac road, I thought it wise to conduct the interview while he drove, so as to save him his precious time. The interview seemed to have taken as long as the journey! I thanked Geoffrey for the interview and asked him to drop me, but surprisingly, he also wanted to stop there to meet someone. We alighted and he bought some refreshments, and as we sipped the drinks and talked about other topics, it struck me that Mutai is not only a great marathoner, but a great person as well.
Competitor.com: Most of Kenya’s long distance athletes train at Iten, Kaptagat, and Nandi Hills, among other places. Why did you choose to train here?
Geoffrey Mutai: To me, going to Iten is like going to train at a lower altitude. I was born and brought up around here and as you have just seen for yourself, this place is at a higher altitude compared to the places you just mentioned. The only time I trained in a different place is when I had emerged the winner at the national trials for the world cross country championships last year. We went as a team to train at Kigari, Embu and the results of my training there were not good. I became weaker. From then, I have observed that it may not be good for me to change my training base.
When you were not included in the Olympic team despite being ranked by the IAAF as the world’s number one a lot of people were disappointed. Were you also disappointed? What do you tell your fans?
I really wanted so much to go to the Olympics but it was something beyond my control and there was really nothing I could do about my being left out. It was painful when I heard the news, which came as a surprise to me, because even after failing to finish at this year’s Boston Marathon, the officials at Athletics Kenya (AK) had nevertheless assured me that they were going to include me in the team. They had even given me the go-ahead to go and survey the course in London, and I did fly there directly from Boston.
The athletes who were named for the marathon team are my friends. We meet often and I do wish them the best. Like myself, they didn’t have any say on who was to be selected for the team. I know that the exclusion of me and Patrick Makau in the team gives great motivation and hopes to the athletes from the rest of the world, especially from Ethiopia. Sometimes, a race is won psychologically and the exclusion of athletes who are ranked by IAAF to be stronger gives hope to the other competitors.
For my fans, I have let bygones be bygones. I am now concentrating on my next race, the Berlin Marathon.
Do you have a strategy you plan to use while going for a world record?
I did not plan to run the world’s fastest time of 2:03:02 in Boston, neither did Patrick Makau while running the world record of 2:03:38. A world record happens when all conditions work in one’s favor during the race: perfect health, good weather and good pacemakers. With the training I have done, I believe I shall be able to try [for] the world record if only all the conditions will be perfect. A few days to the race, I shall consult with other elite athletes in that race and the race organizer about the time splits the pacemakers will run.
What are your thoughts on paced marathons like Rotterdam and Berlin and on the unpaced ones like Boston and New York?
With good and strong pacemakers, a paced marathon is good since a runner will begin concentrating later on in the race when the pacemakers have done their part. The fact that I have won Boston and New York doesn’t mean I would do well in unpaced marathons. I ran Berlin and Rotterdam while still new to marathon and did not already have enough training and experience like I had while running the other two. However, with inexperienced pacemakers who move at an irritatingly slow pace or who run too fast for a good pace, an unpaced marathon may be better.
Can you compare the local races here in Kenya to those abroad? Do they help you in your preparations for big races abroad?
There is a very big difference. The competition here is very tough since almost all the athletes who turn up are elite. There is always so much jostling at the start line and getting to the front is not easy. I believe anyone who can manage to clinch a position in the top-50 here is capable of winning any race abroad. I do these local races mostly to promote them and not necessarily to compete in them. After running in a local race, it makes the races I run abroad feel easier.