Tergat's day of hit and myth

Simon Turnbull speaks to Kenya's king of cross-country about his Marrakesh mission
PAUL TERGAT is not a typical Kenyan runner. His talent alone is exceptional, even for a son of the Rift Valley. That is likely to be made apparent once again today, when the main race of the weekend unfolds in the World Cross-Country Championships in Marrakesh. Not since 1994, when three men finished ahead of him in Budapest, has Tergat been beaten in what Time magazine has called "the world's greatest footrace". A fourth successive world cross-country title would further set apart the Kenyan air force sergeant.

He already stands alone, as the fastest ever 10,000m runner. In Brussels last August Tergat became the first man to break the 26min 30sec barrier for the distance. Stopping the clock at 26 min 27.85sec, he deprived Haile Gebrselassie of his proudest possession. Just five weeks earlier, in Oslo, the Ethiopian had regained distance running's most coveted prize, the 10,000m world record. Like Gebrselassie, Tergat has emerged as an East African running phenomenon. He has done so, however, as a trend-bucking trail-blazer.

Tergat laughs at the standard story of Kenyans and Ethiopians discovering their future world-beating talents by running 10km to and from school every day. "In my case it's certainly a myth," he said. "From home to school was just 800m. Sometimes, if I woke up late in the morning, my father would take me. He worked for the government. He owned a car. I didn't even like running when I was at school. I wasn't particularly good at it anyway."

Volleyball was Tergat's first sporting love as he grew up in Kabarnet, a farming town of some 100,000 inhabitants. He was also an accomplished basketball player. "It was only when I went into the armed forces and I was made to go on runs that I discovered I had a talent for it," he said. It is not the only talent the urbane 28-year-old possesses. He is fluent in six languages, among them English and Italian. And, in addition to his sporting and military careers, he runs an export business, dealing in farming equipment and cars.

Much of his worldly wisdom has doubtless been acquired in Italy. Since 1992, when he first appeared on the international running scene after winning of the Kenyan cross-country title, Tergat has spent several months each year in Brescia. There, in the Alpine foothills, the coach and exercise physiologist Dr Gabriele Rosa oversees a training centre for distance runners. Tergat has emerged in the footsteps of Gianni Poli, winner of the 1986 New York Marathon, and of his compatriot Moses Tanui, the 1991 world 10,000m champion, as the star pupil of Dr Rosa's Team Fila.

There is, he insists, no mythical secret to his success - or that of his fellow countrymen. "We are all human," Tergat said. "No man has two hearts. What we do is train hard. To be able to sustain the kind of pace we run at we have to train very, very fast and consistently. No nation trains as hard as the Kenyans." And no nation runs like the Kenyans in the World Cross-Country Championships. Today, in the men's 12km event, they will be attempting to win the team prize for the 13th year in succession.

In the vanguard of that Kenyan challenge, Tergat will be seeking to become the fifth man to win more than a hat-trick of individual titles. The first was Jack Holden, the teak-tough Tipton Harrier who triumphed four times between 1933 and 1939 and went on to win the European marathon title as a 43-year-old in 1950. Then came the Frenchman Alain Mimoun, four times a winner between 1949 and 1956, and the Belgian Gaston Roelants, whose four wins spanned from 1962 to 1972. John Ngugi is the only man to have won four years in succession, from 1986 to 1989.

Tergat started his winning run in Durham three years ago, after a pregnant pause. He would have missed the race had his son not arrived just in time for him to reach England with 24 hours to spare. His trip to Morocco was hard labour too. Having presumably missed the Marrakesh Express, the Kenyan team endured a 24-hour trek, via Brussels and Casablanca. They arrived, however, to news that should ease their high-speed 12km journey today. The Moroccans will be without their two leading country boys, Salah Hissou, runner-up to Tergat in 1996 and 1997, and Khalid Skah, the champion of 1990 and 1991.

In the absence of Hissou, the most likely threat to Tergat in the individual stakes might come from within his own camp. Paul Koech finished 12 seconds ahead of Tergat in the national championship race in Nairobi last month. Tergat, however, lost to Koech on home soil last year before emerging as a world beater in Turin. The unconventional Kenyan, it seems, is taking the same roundabout route to the top of the world in Marrakesh.