How a U.S. Triathlon Coach Helped Kenyan Caroline Rotich Win the Boston Marathon

Ryan Bolton (right) has been coaching Kenyan Caroline Rotich (at center) and other international athletes through the Harambee Project since 2009. Photo: Ryan Heffernen

When 30-year-old Caroline Rotich broke the tape at the 2015 Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 24 minutes and 55 seconds, at least one person was not surprised—her coach Ryan Bolton. But what has come as a surprise in the running world is that Rotich has been coached by Bolton, a former Olympic triathlete and Ironman triathlon champion, for the past six years in Santa Fe, N.M.

“I always expected her to win,” Bolton said. “She has developed so well over the past five years, showing clear signs of greatness.” And, in 2015, it all came together. Rotich not only earned $150,000 for her win; but, also, some much due recognition for her coach. It’s not rare for Kenyan athletes to train part of the year in the U.S., but training under a U.S. coach is certainly an anomaly. Although Rotich was challenged to share much about her coach because of the language barrier at the post-race press conference, she did say, “People ask why I am coached by someone who knows about other sports like swimming and biking, but it is my choice. I trust what he does because I have seen the results in my running.”

RELATED: Photo: 2015 Boston Marathon

The Coach

Triathlon was first contested in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and, on Team USA was a South Dakota-born, Wyoming-educated 27-year-old by the name of Ryan Bolton. He was a three-sport star in high school who went on to compete in track and cross country at the University of Wyoming. Turning his attention to triathlon after college, Bolton recorded several top-10 finishes in international competition. He also placed 25th at the 2000 Olympics and went on to win Ironman Lake Placid in 2002. However, in 2004, he promptly retired from competition and decided to return to grad school to pursue an advanced degree in exercise science/physiology.

“In 2006, I started coaching triathlon; but, running was my love, and that was the background I came from, and I moved to Sante Fe for lifestyle,” said the 42-year-old Bolton. “I got connected to a small group of East Africans, who asked if I could ‘help out a bit.’” Bolton says he told them “you don’t just partially coach someone, especially when it’s their career—you’re either full-in or you’re not full-in.” He started with a couple athletes about nine years ago and it progressed from there.

However, as is the case all too often in the world of professional sports, the politics of agents, manager and national federations can make things complicated, uncomfortable and overbearing. Not wanting to deal with those situations, Bolton wanted to split from several athletes and agents, but offered to keep coaching any athlete who wanted to stick with his program. He offered to find them other agents who wouldn’t be as pestersome. Virtually every athlete followed him, including Rotich.

The Harambee Project

Thus, the Harambee Project was born. “Harambee” is a Kenyan term meaning, as Bolton says, “by working together, we achieve more.” The program includes athletes from both Ethiopia and Kenya, female and male, who live in a house in Santa Fe and have a car to share while in town for training. By living and training in close quarters, Bolton has indeed assembled a tight-knit family in the quaint New Mexico town known for its artisan community and rolling roads and trails situated at 7,200 feet above sea level. (Currently, the squad is comprised of two Ethiopians and four Kenyan athletes, and they spend anywhere from two to 10 months in Santa Fe.)

Also in the Harambee squad is 26-year-old Kenyan-born Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton. (No relation to Ryan Bolton, although “it really confuses people!”) The 2013 Wichita State University graduate (who placed fourth at the 2012 NCAA Cross Country Championships and second in the 10,000-meter run at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships) was married to Jarron Bolton—an American she met in Wichita—in 2012 and that set the course for her pending U.S. citizenship and possibility of competing for her adopted country sometime next year. She’s made huge strides running with the Harambee group for much of the past two years—including a fifth-place, 1:10:38 effort at the B.A.A. Half Marathon last fall—and Bolton predicts boldly that she’ll win the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 3.

There have been other incredibly talented athletes in the Harambee program. In 2012, Bolton was coaching another Kenyan athlete who had run a 27:31 in the 10K, which, as Bolton points out, “as an American, he would have been a superstar, the guy to beat, and on the Olympic team for sure.” But, in Kenya that year, he was the 22nd-ranked Kenyan and, therefore, wasn’t even considered for their Olympic team. Thus, even at 27:31, he wasn’t making any money, and had to leave the squad and do other things to survive, Bolton said. “It’s really unfortunate when you are dealing with this kind of talent,” he said.

Caroline Rotich

Bolton is quick to respond to those who said that Rotich’s victory was a surprise, and that she came out of nowhere: “She has developed a lot over the last five years; but, she’s run a 2:23 marathon, a 1:09 half-marathon a few years ago. She’s shown signs of greatness—I’ve seen it. I’ve been to other Marathon Majors with her, and she’s been right on the cusp; but, the marathon is just like the Ironman. Everything on that day has to go right, especially at that level.”

The coach thought about this when he listened to the commentators on race day, hearing them say that his athlete was “only fourth” at Tokyo (2014), fifth at Chicago (2012) and fourth in Boston (2011). “It’s funny, people now are asking if I expected her to win and, you know, I always expected her to win,” he said.

Bolton says her training has included a mix of base, speed endurance and neuromuscular work. “Caro responds well to decent volume and averages around 105 miles a week during heavy training periods,” he said. “At times she’ll get up to 125 or so a week. Long runs range from 14 to 24, depending on time of the season and intensity of the workout.”

Behind The Scenes in Boston

So what does the coach of an elite runner do while his athlete is running Boston? He went to the start in Hopkinton and hung out at the Korean Church near the start line, the historic staging area for the race’s top runners. Once the elite women and men started, the coaches, agents, managers and other VIPs got on a bus and headed back to Boston, where they watched the rest of races play out on TV inside the VIP room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel.

“For the first 25K, I was pretty sure the women would all be in a pretty big pack, so I wasn’t surprised with any of the happenings,” Bolton said. “Caro was tucked in right where I told her to be and looked to be running comfortably. Boston doesn’t really start until the 30K mark, so I knew the fireworks would start coming soon. That was part of the race plan as well.”

Bolton expected runners to throw in some strong surges from 25K to 35K. “The goal for Caro during this period was to cover any big/important moves,” he said. “She was executing perfectly and by 35K I knew she had a great race going. At that point the field was really starting to whittle down and by 38K or so, it was down to three. I was getting very excited, but nervous. I knew she could do it, but I also knew that the quality of the field was very, very high.”

When the runners reached 40K, race organizers rounded up all of the representatives for Rotich, Deba and Dibaba and escorted them to the finish area. Along with Rotich’s agent and a representative from Athletics Kenya, Bolton was escorted to the finish line. But it took about five minutes, during which no one could see what was happening in the race.

“As I approached the line I heard the announcer say, ‘It’s down to two: Ethiopia vs. Kenya’ and I then knew that Caro was still in it. However, the vantage from just behind the finish line wasn’t all that good so I was scanning from the Jumbotrons and the line to see what was happening. It all happened really fast, but before I knew it, Caro had won. It wasn’t until later that day that I was able to watch how the last mile played out.”

What’s Next?

Despite Bolton’s solid success in straight-up run coaching, he says “kind of my main job, you could say is coaching triathletes, mainly age-groupers.” He also produces training plans and writes a training blog for TrainingPeaks.com. This past winter, one of USA’s top elite triathletes, Ben Kanute, worked on his running with Bolton in Santa Fe. (Kanute is one of the best swim-bike athletes on the Olympic/ITU circuit), and notable progress was seen via Kanute’s first top-10 finish at a big international race of the year in New Zealand. “By the time he left here, two weeks before Auckland, he was on cloud nine and he was running really solid.”

“But, coaching this group of elite runners in Sante Fe is just my passion, my love, and it’s providing me more support,” he said. Since Monday his phone and email have been blowing up with from athletes and agents interested in training with the Harambee program.

“The bigger our camp can be, the better,” Bolton said. “My dream is to create a really solid camp, where people can be based out of, and getting really great talent here, too. I guess, they think I’m doing something right.”

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About the Author: Tucson, Ariz.-based freelance writer Barry Siff is president of USA Triathlon, serves on the executive board of the International Triathlon Union and is a competitive triathlete and runner with a 2:42 lifetime best in the marathon and several Ironman finishes to his credit. 

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