How China’s Top Runners Moved to Kenya to Learn the Secrets of Marathoners’ Success

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
May 23 2014 10:16 AM

In Kenya, Running With Chinese Characteristics

China’s top runners are training under an Italian coach in a small Kenyan town that has produced some of the best marathoners in history.

(Continued from Page 1)

The world inhabited by the athletes Lelel paces has little in common with his own, as well as that of international stars like Kipsang, now the owner of Iten’s Keellu Resort Hotel, where Canova’s Chinese athletes are staying. Although most of the women were born in rural areas, Canova tells me, all were recruited as children to join special sport schools, and they are effectively employees of the Chinese state, receiving monthly salaries from their respective provinces.

Unlike most Kenyans, their primary motivation is not the prospect of financial gain, but national recognition, earned through success at China’s National Games, held once every four years, and through international competitions like the Olympics and the biannual World Championships. Although athletes performing well at these events sometimes receive apartments, cars, or other perks, only China’s biggest stars—like Liu Xiang, the former 110-meter hurdles world record holder who has several lucrative endorsements—can expect to become wealthy through athletics.

Canova, who was hired by China’s Athletics Association last year, is slowly trying to change this, encouraging what he calls an “idea of professionalism.” The notion is that some team members, like most of the world’s elite track and field athletes, will compete for prize money on this summer’s European athletics circuit even as they train for next year’s World Championships and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Ultimately, with the right training and incentives, Canova believes that China, by virtue of its size alone, should be able to produce several internationally successful athletes—even if the average Chinese may not be engineered for running like the average Kalenjin. “It’s never a problem of pure talent,” he says. “When you speak about a country with almost one and a half billion people, there is talent for everything.”

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China’s current crop of female athletes has a precedent for success. In 1993, a team of peasant women from northeastern China’s Liaoning province, led by a fiery chain-smoking coach named Ma Junren, won six medals at the World Championships, in Stuttgart, including golds in the 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters, and 10,000 meters. The following month, members of the “Ma Family Army” set world records in all three events at the Chinese National Games in Beijing. One athlete, a 20-year-old named Wang Junxia, ran the 10,000 meters in 29:31—42 seconds faster than the previous world record.

Although no members of Ma’s 1993 squad ever failed a drug test, their extraordinary success led to a host of doping allegations, which Ma countered by citing the team’s grueling high-altitude training and its use of natural tonics, such as turtle’s blood and caterpillar fungus. Eventually, though, six Ma-coached athletes, including onetime 5,000-meters world record holder Dong Yanmei, would fail tests for the blood-boosting substance erythropoietin and be dropped from China’s national team before the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. By then, Ma had come under scrutiny for other unseemly coaching tactics, including confiscating athletes’ winnings and physically abusing runners who were “lazy” or disobedient.

Canova, whose affability stands in stark contrast to Ma’s explosiveness, refuses to speculate on the use of drugs by Wang and her contemporaries, arguing that their success was primarily the result of a brutal training regimen that saw the women run as many as 175 miles per week, often at high intensity. This hard work, he tells me, was largely motivated by China’s bid to host the 2000 Olympics in Beijing, which it narrowly lost to Sydney before later securing the games in 2008. “There was this idea, if you produce top results, and because of these top results China can have the Olympics, you become a national hero,” Canova tells me. “Never before in the world was there someone working so hard. They had this incredible motivation.”

Chinese national team training in Iten.
Iten’s soft dirt roads, clean air, and altitude are ideal for training.

Courtesy of Jon Rosen

Today, in advance of the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing, as well as the 2015 World Cross Country Championships, to be held next March in the southwestern city of Guiyang, Chinese officials and their athletes have a renewed focus on running. This time, though, in a country far more open than it was in the early 1990s, the federation has decided to look outward, abandoning turtle’s blood and attempting to learn from the Kenyans, the sport’s masters. Despite significant Chinese investment in Kenya, Wang, the team administrator, insists his team’s presence in Iten is not related to politics but is instead a question of clean air and soft dirt roads—increasingly rare at home.

The decision to train here (for now, only during winter months) is also linked to Canova. A native of Turin, Italy, Canova began coaching members of the Italian national team at 24, rising to become technical and scientific director of the Italian Athletics Federation. Eventually, he turned his attention to Kenyans, coaching several world champions and world record holders, and between 2003 and 2010 serving as the national coach of Qatar, which bought its way to athletics success by offering citizenship and regular salaries to dozens of Kenyan athletes. Unlike many coaches, Canova gained a reputation for openly sharing his training programs, which were transmitted by word-of-mouth among legions of aspiring Kenyan athletes who didn’t have coaches, as well as through Canova’s own posts on LetsRun.com, a leading running website.

As a result, Canova’s training philosophy has played an important role in shaping the sport’s recent evolution—in particular, a remarkable transformation in the men’s marathon that has occurred over the past decade. In 2003, the Kenyan great Paul Tergat accomplished what was described as a “quantum leap” in the event when he won the Berlin Marathon in 2:04:55, taking 43 seconds off the previous world record. Since then, 24 men—all Kenyan or Ethiopian—have run faster, led by Kipsang’s 2:03:23. Although doping allegations have begun to circulate, Canova attributes the marathon revolution to two main factors: the decline of prize money in track events, which has encouraged athletes to focus on the marathon and other longer road races earlier in their careers, and changes in training methodology, largely facilitated by Canova himself, that stress fewer overall long runs (training sessions of more than 30 kilometers), but more runs that are both long and fast.

Whatever the cause, the results have been impressive.

“Ten years ago, if you ran 2:06 or 2:07, you were the top athlete,” says Duncan Kibet, who won the 2009 Rotterdam Marathon in 2:04:27, then a Kenyan national record. “Our time now, this is a digital era. We changed from analog to digital tech.”

Notably, though, this same transformation has not occurred in the women’s marathon, where Briton Paula Radcliffe continues to hold the world record of 2:15:25 she set in 2003, and six of the top 10 all-time performances were run in 2005 or earlier. As Canova tells me, this is partly explained by the fact that female running is less common among many rural Kenyan and Ethiopian households, which means there are fewer Kenyan and Ethiopian women than men racing at an elite level. With less competition at the top, the earning potential of an elite Kenyan woman tends to be much greater than that of her male counterparts, and outside countries, like China, stand a better chance in women’s distance events than they do in men’s.

It is largely for this reason that China’s federation has decided to focus mainly on its female runners, who, despite lacking the accolades of their Ma-coached predecessors, have managed some recent international success. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, a Chinese woman, Xing Huina, won gold in the 10,000 meters, edging out two Ethiopians. Five years later, at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Bai Xue, a 20-year-old from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, won gold in the women’s marathon, becoming the youngest champion in the event’s history.

Although Bai, now 25, has struggled with injuries, she is training to compete in Beijing in 2015 and is easily the most accomplished athlete in Canova’s group. Though shy, she agrees to chat following her afternoon workout, which featured 800-meter repeats on Iten’s new, exclusive, Tartan track. Insisting that she shower before we talk, she meets me in the courtyard of Kipsang’s hotel, sporting wet hair and a black down jacket. With Lin translating, Bai tells me about her career in athletics: how she left home for sports school at the age of 14 because her father thought she had talent, how her win in Berlin came as a complete surprise, how she’s inspired by all the accomplished athletes she sees along the roads of Iten.

Still, despite the many other female stars in town—Mary Keitany, Kenya’s national marathon record holder; Florence Kiplagat, world record holder in the half-marathon; even Radcliffe, who, at 40, is using Iten as a base to prepare for the 2015 London Marathon—Bai says she hasn’t actually spoken with any other top athletes. While she’d like the opportunity, she says she’s mainly focused on her teammates and their collective goal of reviving Chinese running.

When I ask what it will take for China to succeed, she surprises me with a word in English.

“Grandpa,” she says, before continuing in Mandarin. “The leadership of grandpa Renato, for sure.”

Jon Rosen is a freelance journalist writing on East Africa and Africa’s Great Lakes region. Follow him on Twitter.

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