Abel Kirui is back!

The final stages of Chicago Marathon this weekend saw Kenya’s Abel Kirui surging away from defending champion Dickson Chumba. In doing so, Kirui wound back the clock and secured his first marathon victory since 2011. Back then, Kirui was enjoying a purple patch, winning the 2009 and 2011 World Championships in Berlin and Deagu respectively and taking the silver medal in the 2012 London Olympic games behind Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda.

Following the London 2012 Olympics a barren spell endured for Kirui,  the depths of which may have led some to think that he slipped into retirement in his comfortable family home in Kapsabet, Nandi District in Kenya.

However, behind the scenes Kirui was far from ready for his pipe and slippers and instead was battling a frustrating and painful period of injuries at just the time that he believed he should be at his best attacking the world record, which has been a long standing ambition of his.

I have known Abel since early 2011 when I became a part of his coaching team in Iten under the leadership of Renato Canova, we went on become good friends in the period that we worked together and have stayed in regular contact since Lauren and I have lived back in the UK.


Abel Kirui in the gym with the author

Abel has asked me on numerous occasions to write a book about him – maybe he will change his mind when he sees my haphazard writing style. Whilst a book is not forthcoming, I will do my best to convey Abel as a runner and a man in a way which does him justice in this 2 part blog series.

Whilst I have you attention I would like to briefly mention Florence Kiplagat. Florence was also part of our small group of elite runners in Iten (The group consisted of Abel Kirui, Jonathan Maiyo and Florence along with me and coach Canova.) Florence was also victorious on Sunday putting in a dominating performance to make it not only a double for Kenya, but also a double for Coach Canova and for my old team Global Sports Communication.

Although Florence’s performance was more than worthy of a full blog of it’s own I won’t do so for a few reasons. Not least of which is that she is quite a private lady who does not seek out the limelight. Whereas Mr Kirui as any one who knows him can attest to, loves to have an audience and I am happy to provide it for him.


Abel Kirui at Kameriny Track in Iten with the author

The worst of Abel’s injuries in the post 2012 period was eventually diagnosed as a stress fracture low down on the outside of his shin. Unfortunately, high quality medical care is a luxury not afforded to even the very best Kenyan runners and the diagnosis and subsequent recovery from the fracture took a long time.  The injury was first diagnosed after a scan in Eldoret shortly before London Marathon 2013 were Abel had plans to significantly better his 2:05:04 personal best.  It was still causing him problems much later in the year and he was also forced to drop out of that years World Championship team;  Derailing his ambition to become the first man to win triple world marathon titles. His comeback from the injury was far from plain sailing and he continued to suffer with small injuries and compensatory pains for a long time afterwards.

Although his motivation was sky high it appeared that maybe father time was catching up with Abel who was already 30 when he won Olympic silver in 2012. Elite marathon running is a brutally competitive game and if you are not at the very top of your form then there are dozens if not hundreds of others waiting to capably fill your seat at the top table.

The years immediately following an Olympic medal (or World Title) are commercially some of the most lucrative in an athletes very short career and Abel missed out on some significant financial benefits as well as racing opportunities due to his injuries in that same period.

Over time Abel did retain his fitness and made numerous ‘comebacks’ with mixed success.  A DNF in Boston and a 10th place in Amsterdam in 2015 were both disappointing and whilst a 5th place in Tokyo in early 2016 was more promising, it continued to appear that Abel’s best days were now behind him. But to those close to him he was still showing signs that he was capable of returning to his best.  He was posting good results in training and he was in very good shape in Boston in 2015 but became ill upon arrival in the US. He battled on bravely but fell off the pace early on and did not finish the race.

Abel Kirui’s training and coaching had altered somewhat during this period with Renato having taken up a full time position with the Chinese Federation. At the end of 2015 Renato left that position and returned to Kenya.  Although he had still been setting Abel’s workouts and communicating with him remotely, the return of ‘Mzee’ (wise old man) to Iten had an immediate positive impact on Kirui (as seen by his improved performance in Tokyo). They share a close bond and his form took another turn for the positive.  Canova’s skill as a coach goes far beyond setting great workouts and he is a master of working on the psychology of an athlete as well. He told me “the job of the coach is to make possible in the mind of the athlete what before was impossible” – Ok, so the English is not perfect but the idea is clear. Canova had started to work his magic on Kirui and the process of moulding him back into a champion had begun.

The first hint I got that Abel may have been back to something approaching his best was a message he sent me in early August describing a Fartlek workout he had just completed that morning in Iten. The workout consisted of 80minute continuous running (after a full warm up) made up of  15×3’/1’ + 10×1’/1’ (15sets of 3mins fast with 1min recovery + 10 sets of 1min fast 1 min recovery). Abel covered 24km in that period for an average pace of 3’20”. On rolling hills that was a promising sign but perhaps nothing too out of the ordinary in Iten; A place where impressive distance running is the norm.

Less than 60seconds later a follow up message read:

“I am now from Hill Workout – 10x400m – now I am taking lunch”

A 24km Fartlek followed by 10x400m Hills all before lunch.

That of course sparked my intrigue but I must admit to also having a touch of concern. My immediate response was ‘Is Canova there?” I nervously awaited his reply but within seconds was put at ease

“Yes, Canova is here – very happy”

Why my reticence until I knew that Canova was in Iten with him?
For all Abel’s wonderful talent, exciting and excitable personality and extreme mental toughness (did you see how much he was hurting the final half hour in Chicago?) he does also have a tendency to let his enthusiasm get the better of him and has on occasion taken matters of training into his own hands adding additional work on top of that prescribed. I have examples of this from my time as his Assistant Coach, some of which are quite amusing but some of which had significant negative consequences for his upcoming races.

What we have seen above with the Fartlek/Hills in one morning is an example of what Coach Canova calls a Special Block – that is 2 hard workouts in the same day. (NB, Kenyan’s start training very early in the morning so although both of these workouts were done before lunch they would have been separate workouts. Probably something like a 6am start and an 11am start.)

These Special Blocks are not unusual in Canova’s training for his elite athletes and he knows Abel so well and is so in tune with his capabilities that I am certain that if Canova called for a Special Block for Abel, that he was indeed ready to handle that type of training safely.

However, Abel making that judgement for himself would have been based on emotion and enthusiasm rather than cold hard objectivity.

We chatted whilst he was in the Netherlands for the Tilburg 10m event at the beginning of September and he was full of confidence for Chicago and and ran well in the 10m, things were looking up.


The winning team from Chicago Marathon

Abel’s form was confirmed in mid September when he reported a 40km training run in 2hour 5minutes in Nangili. Nangili is a small town 45minutes drive east of Eldoret and in running circles refers to a dirt road which many of the top Kenyan runners use for their most important long runs ahead of a marathon. Despite the 5am start from Iten to arrive in time for a 630am warm up, I would always relish Nangili long runs as a coach, you knew you were going to witness something special.

Nangili offers a very smooth surface underfoot, it is also slightly lower altitude than Iten or Kapsabet and much flatter, making it is the ideal location for serious marathon training.

Although Abel is full of enthusiasm he is not one to boast or exagerate his form, so I knew that he was now ready. Let’s put this workout into perspective;  40km run in 2hr 05 is 3’07”/km, if he had carried on for a further 2.2km at the same speed he would have run a 2hr 11 marathon. That is a on dirt roads with 2 large hills in either direction (out and back course) at altitude, in training.

In 2012 in the build up to London Marathon (As in VLM not the Olympic Marathon in the same city later that year) Abel had run a similar time (this one was slightly faster) and Canova had turned to me from the drivers seat to the front passenger seat of his Toyota Pick up in the final km and said simply “the world record is possible”. Canova is a man who knows world record form when he sees it having coached the current mens steeplechase world record holder and Florence to her HM world record. Unfortunately that was one such occasion where Abel’s enthusiasm had gotten the better of him and big mistakes had been made in the days following that run which hampered his recovery.  Subsequently his best run of that marathon cycle had been in Nangili 3 weeks before rather than in London itself where he had made a brave bid for glory, as the last man to hold on to Wilson Kipsangs blistering mid race surge, but faded back to 6th by the finish line.

I was confident that between the two of them and Renato and Abel would not allow the same mistakes to repeat themselves, and the excitement for Chicago was set.

3 weeks and a day later as Abel crossed the line in first place and immediately broke into his famous victory dance it was confirmed: Abel Kirui is back.

Thanks for reading,