Athletics: They'll be coming down the mountain when they come

Pat Butcher visits Kigari to see the Kenyans preparing to sweep the board again at the World Cross-country Championships in Turin on Sunday
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The Independent Online
Out of the dark and the thick vegetation they come. Spectral figures gliding silently across the damp, red earth. It is a primal, almost primeval scene. But then a guttural comment or a giggle betrays them. They may look like wraiths but there is little more substantial on earth. This is the Kenyan cross-country squad, fine-tuning for the World Championships in Turin on Sunday.

When the weekend is over, they will almost certainly rule the world. Again. For the time being, this is 6am on the dirt paths around St Mark's Teacher Training College in Kenya's Central Highlands, about two hours' drive north of Nairobi.

There is no small irony in this whole procedure of bringing their elite squad to Kigari for a month before the World Championships. Nairobi, where most of these athletes live, is already over 1600 metres (5,500ft) above sea level, ample for the altitude training which has long been recognised as beneficial to any endurance event. But, as head coach Dan Muchoki tells us: "Nairobi is just as polluted as any big city nowadays so it's fresher up here; also there are fewer distractions."

Paul Tergat, world champion for the last two years, confirms the benefits of squad training. "Running together three times a day for a month, you get to know the strengths and weaknesses of your team-mates, and you can work on that, so by the time of the World Championships, we are really strong."

"Up here," is over 7,000ft high on the South-eastern slopes of Mount Kenya. After the early morning run (only 10km today) the squad, top finishers in the senior and junior nationals last month, then congregate for a light breakfast of boiled eggs, bread and jam, washed down with the milky, sugary tea which could well have originated on the surrounding plantations. There is a short break before they get down to the "serious" work around 10am.

Since this is less than a week before Turin, the load is being eased. After 20 minutes of jogging and stretching, Muchoki supervises a 30-minute intensive sprint session, with four groups criss-crossing diagonally on the college hockey field, with the now cloud-capped peak as a backdrop. After lunch, they will run another 10km, individually if they wish, around 4.30pm.

This is already impressive, but Muchoki relates that a month earlier the "serious" session was probably two to three times longer. "They start off doing 220km a week and we gradually come down to around 120km. The women will do about 60 per cent of that load."

It is hard to see what the rest of the world can do to combat the Kenyans, apart from reproducing the circumstances which the Moroccans have done to a certain extent with their altitude camp in Ifrahane. Significantly, the only man to beat a Kenyan to the individual title in the last 11 years has been Khalid Skah, who was born in Ifrahane.

Kenyans have taken all four team titles for the last two years, but their neighbours, the Ethiopians, are a constant threat in the women's events. Less so in the men's. Tergat is on a hat-trick, but he has been comprehensively beaten by Paul Koech in the big three Kenyan events this season. Koech, fourth in the world event last year, has gone to Nairobi to renew his visa, a reminder that there are some things that come hard for Africans in Europe.

Muchoki says that Tergat has "come up" in Kigari, but Kip Keino, the godfather of Kenyan distance running, voices concern: "Tergat ran a lot of races after the Olympics," he said. "He's tired. The temptation of money is very high. I worry for our athletes sometimes." Since there is prize money on offer for the first time in the World Championships, it is an appropriate question to put to the soft-spoken team captain.

"I don't think I could run any harder," Tergat says. "This is a team sport, we run for our country first of all. Then, when we see we have won as a team, we run for ourselves. Koech is very strong, I was a long way behind him in the nationals. But there is also Hissou [the Moroccan who broke the 10,000m world record after the Olympics]. He has only raced once this season. And [Jon] Brown [GB] and Guerra [Portugal] beat me in Seville, but the mud was terrible."

There has been a drought in Kenya for the last seven months, with the attendant threat of famine. As we prepare to leave the country, the anticipated "long rains" are reported to be gathering in the west. Sunday would be an appropriate day for them to break. It will certainly be raining Kenyans in Turin.

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