Martin Lel: Born to run
Martin Lel is hoping for a record fourth win in the London Marathon tomorrow. He explains why he owes so much to his Kenyan tribe, spaghetti and the 20km daily jog to school
Saturday 25 April 2009
Martin Lel was running in a time-trial in Nairobi on Sunday when he felt a twinge in his hip, which he knew immediately might stymie his chances of winning a third successive London Marathon on Sunday. Happily, an MRI scan on Wednesday evening showed no significant problem. Lel will run, and run fast. If the 30-year-old Kenyan is to become the first man with four London Marathon titles in his locker and only the second man to win three on the trot, he might even improve on the remarkable time – 2 hours 5 minutes 15 seconds – with which, in winning last year's race, he established a new course record.
When we meet, though, the MRI scan is several hours ahead of him. Lel still does not know for sure whether he will be able to compete. And yet he sits on stage in a function room at London's Tower Hotel positively bathing the pre-race press conference with a smile that, were it harnessed to pylons, might at a stroke solve the problems perennially afflicting his country's electricity supply. Watching him, a British former long-distance runner assures me that a European athlete in the same circumstances would either refuse to attend the press conference, or would sit there with a face gloomier than a wet weekend in Trondheim. Similarly, the bout of malaria that scuppered Lel's chances of winning last year's Olympic marathon in the steaming heat of Beijing would have rendered a European athlete practically prostrate with frustration and self-pity. But Lel insisted on running anyway, and beamingly declared himself thrilled with fifth place. London is lucky to have him.
And he is lucky to have London. After the press conference I sit with him while he eats his lunch. "I can say I am the luckiest champion," he says, between forkfuls of carbohydrates contained in the incidental form of about 15 boiled potatoes. "It is very good to be Olympic champion, but that is not the strongest field. This is the strongest field. This is the best marathon. The winner here is the champion of champions."
Lel says this with an earnestness that dispels any suggestion of arrogance. He can eat and talk at the same time, but not even he can simultaneously eat, talk and smile, so his expression has become serious, making him look much older than his 30 years. I ask him why he ran in Beijing when he was manifestly under-prepared. "Because it was for my country," he says, simply. "For the betterness of my country." In goes another potato. What will he eat before Sunday's race? "Tea, a piece of bread, a bit of banana, about an hour before I leave for the starting-line. And the day before, spaghetti. And milk."
English is his second language, some distance behind Swahili, and in truth it is difficult to make out everything he says. But the vigour and sincerity with which he says it somehow facilitates comprehension. He is the fifth child of six brothers and three sisters and was raised in the town of Kapsabet in the Rift Valley. His father was a preacher, but also a subsistence farmer. "I have built a good house for them, whereby they have more space. I have built a house for me nearby. And my brothers and sisters live there too. I have given them land, and animals. So they are all comfortable."
By the standards of rural Kenya, Lel's success as an athlete has generated unimaginable wealth, yet he has plainly derived huge pleasure from spreading much of it around. "It was a very hard life," he says of his childhood. "As I got older, the family was depending very much on me. My two older brothers got married, so they had their own families depending on them. I had seven people relying on me, so I worked in a grocery store. At the same time I was a good runner and I was trying to train. Then my cousin Simon Bor, the [marathon] champion of Los Angeles [in 1999], convinced me to concentrate on running. It was very hard for me to leave the grocery store. But then there was a competition in Kenya to find runners and he convinced me to try to exploit my talent. There were 15 picked [by Claudio Berardelli, the Italian who still coaches him] out of 600."
I ask Lel why it is that Kenya consistently produces such wonderful long-distance runners? Most of them, he explains, come, as he does, from the Nandi tribe. "Kip Keino, Moses Tanui, Paul Tergat, they all come from my tribe. Some say it is the food we eat that makes us strong, the way we live. In the history of our people we wear no clothes and we are used to drinking the blood of animals."
The blood of animals? "Yes, a spear here [he gestures to his neck], in a cow. That blood is very good for you. But with a new generation things change, whereby there are medical problems now with the animals and the blood is not so fresh. Our history is changing. Nandi people have always depended on animals, but the new generation need different sources of income. So it is good that so many become athletes. They come to a place like this, London, and get a few ideas to take home."
I form a dispiriting image of his fellow tribesmen heading home from Heathrow with plans for Starbucks franchises, but I don't suppose this is quite what it means. And it is the worst kind of cultural condescension to wish on them a continued purity of life undefiled by Western consumerism – they can learn from us just as we can learn from them. After all, the conditions that equip so many Kenyans for an illustrious career in athletics have been usefully married to Western expertise.
As my friend the British former long-distance runner tells me: "For increasing numbers of Kenyan athletes, the possibility of failure has been reduced dramatically by European agents, who have shown them how their whole lifestyle should be directed at peak performance. The majority of them do very little except eat, train and sleep. But at the same time there has always been a correlation between innate intelligence and a good career as an endurance sportsman. Think of our own people, like Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett. Intelligent men, all of them. From the less intelligent ones, there is a lot of misdirected effort. For example, some of them run too many marathons, chasing the bucks. Two a year is the optimum number. Martin understands all that. He's a very bright guy. But also, in the most basic way, he and the other East Africans have a huge head-start on British runners, because from an early age they've run miles to school."
If it is a cliché, the future East African marathon runner pounding his way to school in a distant village, it is supported by the facts. "I ran 20k to and from school every day," Lel tells me. "In bare feet, sometimes in the rain." He finishes his lunch and pushes away his plate. "It was very hard," he adds, beaming again.
2009 Contenders and characters
Sammy Wanjiru smashed the Olympic marathon record en route to victory in the heat and humidity of Beijing last summer. Kenya's first Olympic champion in the marathon, he intends to chase the world record as well as victory.
Tsegay Kebede will be making his London debut but the little Ethiopian has already made a big impression in Britain, having run away from the field in the Great North Run on Tyneside last autumn.
Zersenay Tadese has already put Eritrea on the global distance running map, taking Olympic 10,000m bronze in Athens in 2004 and winning the world cross country crown in 2007.
Irina Mikitenko missed the Olympic Games because of injury but then broke through the 2hr 20min barrier with victory in Berlin. The 36-year-old German, a native of Kazakhstan, won in London last April.
Catherine Ndereba has won 18 of the 21 marathons she has contested and is the reigning world champion. Known as "Catherine the Great", the Kenyan took Olympic silver in Beijing.
Mara Yamauchi missed a medal in Beijing by just 22 seconds. The 35-year-old Oxford woman – now living in Tokyo, with her Japanese husband – is the lone British hope for a podium finish.
The fun runners
JORDAN AND PETE
Katie Price reckons that training for the marathon with her husband has put some oomph into their sex life. "You can go for ages when you're really fit," the model better known as Jordan said.
Devonian Richard Spencer needs to beat five hours to claim a place in the Guinness World Record book for the fastest marathon dressed as a vegetable.
The football season being a marathon, rather than a sprint, Tony Pulis will be on familiar ground. A point or three at Fulham today would no doubt help the Stoke City manager on his way around.
Obi-Wan Kenobi v Robin Hood. Bank manager Jeremy Ransom, dressed as the former, and veteran soldier Phillip Minns, clad as the latter.
IF YOU CAN STAND THE HEAT
Gordon Ramsay will be relieved to escape his recent nightmares for an hour or four. He reckons he will be out of the kitchen for at least 3hr 45min.
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