Athletics: McDonald fine-tunes time machine

Simon Turnbull talks to the manager shaping the career of Daniel Komen
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The Independent Online
As the Roman rain lashed down on the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday night, Sebastian Coe's 800m world record survived another assault. By almost two seconds, in fact, Wilson Kipketer missed the time the erstwhile MP for Falmouth and Cambourne set in Florence 16 years ago this Tuesday: 1min 41.73sec. Kim McDonald could have empathised with Kipketer, the great Dane of Kenyan pedigree. He spent much of his youth chasing not after Coe's times but after the emerging world-beater himself.

When Coe gained his first national success, as the 16-year-old winner of the intermediate 3,000m in the English schools championships in 1973, McDonald was the Yorkshire team-mate in third place. Running for Bingley Harriers, McDonald enjoyed area success at senior level, winning the Yorkshire and Northern 5,000m titles and the Southern 3,000m and 10,000m championships. He even caught up with Coe once. "I beat him in the short race at the Gateshead cross-country meeting," he recalled. "In 1979, I think."

Now, seven years after Coe's retirement, it is McDonald who has his eyes on new horizons in track running. The most sparkling performance at the Golden Gala in Rome, the first of the summer's top-ranked grand prix meetings on the European circuit, was not Kipketer's bold two-lap battle to overcome the combined odds of the elements and Coe's historical greatness but the latest glimpse of Daniel Komen's ground-breaking ability. In a 5,000m slowed by the rain and the absence of orchestrated pace-making, Komen ran the third fastest ever time, 12min 48.98sec. In doing so, he left Salah Hissou looking like an outclassed club runner on the final lap. The Moroccan, in fact, is the 10,000m world record holder. Or, as McDonald chose to put it: "Daniel ran 12:48 like it was 13:48."

As a former 5,000m runner who had a personal best of 13min 49sec, McDonald could appreciate the aesthetics of making such a time look so effortless. As Komen's agent, he could value it more tangibly. The 21-year-old Kenyan on the books of KIM International happens to possess the most prodigious distance running talent the world has ever seen. And, in an era also blessed with the remarkable Haile Gebrselassie, that is a priceless commodity indeed.

Komen's worth could be gauged even in absentia in Hengelo eight days ago as Gebrselassie deprived him of the world best time for two miles. The Ethiopian's time at the 3,000m mark, a little over 200m from the finish line, was 7min 29.51sec; the world record Komen set for the shorter distance last September was a staggering 7:20.67.

A runner capable of leaving Gebrselassie nine seconds adrift would have seemed inconceivable as recently as 12 months ago. Komen, at that time, was not even good enough to secure a place in Kenya's Olympic team; he finished fourth in the national 5,000m trial race. His winning time in Rome on Thursday was 4.59 secs outside Gebrselassie's world record, 12min 44.39sec, but it was his second run inside 12min 50sec and it was achieved with a nonchalant grace that left Tim Hutchings and Steve Cram awestruck in the Eurosport commentary box. Hutchings, who clocked 13min 11.50sec for fourth place in the 1984 Olympic final, gasped "Unbelievable!" while Cram pondered: "Who knows what this man is capable of?"

McDonald must have a fair idea. Though Komen is coached by Moses Kiptanui, both he and the 3,000m steeplechase world record holder and world champion are guided by the Yorkshireman during the track season, which they spend with him at Teddington. "The goalposts are forever changing in this era of middle and long-distance running," McDonald said. "Last year the goal was 12min 43sec or 12min 45sec for 5,000m. Now you have to believe someone like Daniel can run 12:35, certainly in the 12:30s. Maybe, as things stand, the ultimate goal would be around 12:30, or just under. But in another 12 months we might be talking about the possibility of breaking 12:20. There is no point setting an all-time goal. You've just got to adapt every year."

Merely contemplating the 12:30 barrier would have seemed the stuff of fantasy racing as recently as the start of the 1994 season, when the world record stood at 12min 58.39sec to Said Aouita. But Komen, even on a rainy night in Rome, was more than nine seconds quicker than the Moroccan. He was, to further broaden the perspective, 11.43sec faster than Dave Moorcroft's world record of 14 years ago, which still stands as the European record, and 26.42sec quicker than Lasse Viren's best.

Komen missed Gebrselassie's world record by a mere 0.70sec in Zurich last August and it will clearly stand at his mercy in Stockholm on 7 July. Before that comes a 3,000m race in Moscow today and Kenya's world championship trials in Nairobi on 29 June. "The plan is also to have a go at breaking eight minutes for two miles in July," McDonald said. It is a plan with a fair likelihood of success too. Komen's 3,000m record equates to around 7min 57sec for two miles.

Thus, as the 800m world record approaches its 16th birthday, a part in track history is beckoning Sebastian Coe's old rival. He may have been the second best schoolboy 3,000m runner in Yorkshire, but as a manager blessed with the Komen touch the world-record book is Kim McDonald's oyster.