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The man who keeps Eliud Kipchoge on his toes

Patrick Sang with marathon champion Eliud
Patrick Sang with marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge. PHOTO | DAN VERNON | GSC 

Some people just do not fade from the scene. When their star dims, they reincarnate to burst back with more vigour. As the world speeds by and their fellows are buried under the rubble of vague memories, this lot re-emerges to rewrite their stories. Because, well, they live off a staple of conquest.

Patrick Sang, a retired athlete and now Eliud Kipchoge’s coach is one such person. On this man’s lean, athletic shoulders, he carries the weight of history and several world records.

He may have hung his running boots 18 years ago, but at 55, Sang barely looks his age: he’s maintained his agile 5’’9 physique and is as fiercely competitive as ever. Isolating him from tens of patrons seated by the poolside at an Eldoret hotel is effortless.

Beaming, he rises to shake my hand, a wooden grip of a ritual, telling me that he’s just been training for six hours at Kaptagat, 30 kilometres south of Eldoret. Sang runs between 45 and 60 kilometres every week.

The king of steeplechase in his heyday, Sang won gold in the 1987 edition of the All-Africa Games in Nairobi and silver in the World Athletics Championships in 1991 and 1993.

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The highlight of his career though was during the Summer Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona where he was the silver medallist. What does he remember about the race 28 years ago? The carnival atmosphere in the packed stadium, he says, appearing transported back to that moment of glory.

“When I was doing the victory lap cheered on by more than 90,000 people in the arena, I realised the magnitude of taking part in the Olympics and winning a medal. I’ve never been prouder as a Kenyan,” he says.

Elite athletics though has evolved a lot since Sang left the track.

So, what stands out for him?

“When I was active in the 80s and 90s, track and field was an amateur sport. There were few endorsements here and there from shoe companies and clubs,” he recounts.

Without the pull of money, Sang and other athletes of the time ran for honour and as a bridge to opportunities abroad.

Sang himself is a beneficiary of an athletics scholarship from the University of Texas in the US, where he studied city planning. He holds a Master’s degree in the same field — although he has never practised.

Today, multibillion-dollar sponsorship and endorsement deals define sports.

Athletes are also the world’s highest-paid personalities. Does he think that the sport has been over-commercialised?

Sang argues that any genuine window for financial breakthrough is welcome.

“Athletics pays well. Money is a big element. This explains why so many young people are training on courses across the country,” he says.

Sang took up coaching as a legacy plan. “Besides my achievements, I felt I needed to make an impression on others. I was discovered and supported by many people throughout my career,” he says.

“A teacher trains children to become better than himself. I walk with an athlete from infancy to world conquest.”

Walking with an athlete from infancy to global stardom best captures his relationship with Eliud Kipchoge, who he calls Eliud.

Coincidentally, the duo hail from the same village in Nandi County. They crossed paths in the early 2000s. Sang was then an athletics administrator and coach in the Rift Valley while Eliud, an ambitious 17-year-old amateur athlete, had just burst into the scene.

“Eliud knew me but I didn’t know him,” Sang recalls, consumed with a mixture of delight and nostalgia. “He came to me one time during a competition and asked for a training programme. Without much interest, I scribbled something and handed it to him.”

After two weeks, Eliud was back. Still, Sang wasn’t keen to know who the young man was. After all, he had tens of other budding athletes under his wing. “The next encounter happened during the Rift Valley regional championships. Again, he came to me and asked: ‘what should I do between now and the national championships?’ His confidence struck me.”

Still, there was nothing remarkable about Eliud. The teenager went on to win not just the region but the national championship as well. It’s then that Sang took note, and had the first-ever meaningful conversation with him.

“Thereafter, he participated in the junior race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2003, and won.”

With these conquests, it was hard for Sang to ignore him.

“That moment hit me very hard in Berlin in 2018 when he broke the world marathon record,” he remembers, his eyes now watery.

“He ran to me for a hug. I shivered. Supposing I had dismissed him?”

Sang admits that comprehending the earth-shattering events of the last two years hasn’t been easy. I ask him if the Berlin record was his best day in office.

“It was a day of reckoning for me. Every human being has his day in the sunshine. That was our day in the sunshine,” he says with elation.

“I’ve offered Eliud many lessons during our long journey together. That day he taught me a life lesson: never, for whatever reason, take anyone for granted.”

Did they envision a world record in Berlin?

“Having run in 2:00:26 in a flat course in Monza (Italy), I didn’t have any doubt about that. He’d demonstrated that the human potential in terms of mental strength hasn’t been exploited to the fullest,” he says.

So, what is it like to coach a record-breaking athlete, an idol? What is his character, discipline, work ethic like?

“Eliud is one of the few athletes who put total trust in people. For the years we’ve been together, he has never questioned my training instructions.” “His discipline is crazy. When you have an appointment with him, he will always be there 15 minutes earlier,” he adds.

In 2015 in Berlin, after running for 800 metres, Eliud’s insoles came off. He ran the entire marathon with flaps, enduring blisters, finishing with a personal best of 2 hours 4 minutes.

Nike came up with the concept of breaking the two-hour marathon barrier in 2017. Eliud was among the athletes selected to participate in the project.

“Eliud ran with the idea. I was struck by his enthusiasm,” says Sang, who was retained as Eliud’s coach.

“I thought the organisers and sponsors would bring in a new team of technical experts. Working on this project for me was a validation of the work I’d been doing, not only with Eliud but other athletes as well.” Thanks to his exploits, manufacturers of top-of-the-range footwear and textiles have come in to sponsor him. Add to that a team of specialists in medical, physiology, nutritional and exercise. It is a highly effective system that works with clockwork precision, with the athlete at the centre of the equation.

“I belong to the technical bench that’s responsible for his strength training, endurance, speed building and rest and recovery,” Sang explains.

Then there’s the management team that oversees endorsements and sponsorships and enters him into races. What does a normal day look like for them?

“We have weekly individualised training plans. Out of these elements, I monitor three. At the end of the season, the team sits down to assess performance working from the goal backwards.”

With this kind of support, Sang notes that limitations are fewer, adding that technology has also played its part. Controversies surrounding the abilities of some footwear brands have escalated in recent years with claims widespread that athletes, especially those sponsored by leading manufacturers, have an undue advantage over others.

Patrick Sang who coaches Eliud Kipchoge, a

Patrick Sang who coaches Eliud Kipchoge, a World Marathon Record Holder, in Kaptagat, Elgeyo-Marakwet County. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG

Does Sang think that there’s unfairness at the elite level of running?

“We are living in the era of technology,” he says.

I turn to the now-famous Ineos 1:59, interested to know: what was he thinking as Eliud paced the streets of Vienna that chilly October morning last year, with the world following virtually breathless?

If the world was breathless, Sang was in wild hysteria, he tells me.

“The event was well organised and communication on social media managed well to minimise interference with the athlete,” he says.

The enormity of the historic run dawned on Sang when a private jet was sent to fly them to Vienna. Then followed President Uhuru Kenyatta’s call on the eve of the race. When Deputy President William Ruto and a host of governors confirmed attendance, the height of expectations went from fervent to riotous.

“All the necessary precautions had been taken to keep him healthy. We had even isolated him to avoid risks. I kept thinking: if this guy falls sick, what will happen?”

“In a normal race, the race will continue even when an athlete is unable to proceed. But this one is a solo affair, it would all end if he developed any complications,” he says, his voice trailing off.

“This was the most terrifying part for me.” Only the race sponsor, billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, was allowed to see Eliud a day before the showdown.

“But even with the isolation, how do you turn down the call from State House?’’

When the race started, Sang was suddenly helpless. He could now rely only on information from the pacemakers to know how Eliud was coping.

“Before setting off, I’d tell the captain of every group: ‘just get a feel of how he’s doing. Find out if he’s breathing normally. Try to make eye contact with him’.”

This, he says, kept him vaguely sane till the end.

The science, the planning, the pacers and the control were all managed with split-second precision for a historic run. Some quarters though have branded it an “assisted” race. His thoughts?

“Still, a human being was running,” Sang says.

So, does he think it’s humanly possible to run a sub-two-hour marathon without such an elaborate arrangement? “Yes,” he says with conviction. “In ideal weather conditions, it is.”

When I turn to the subject of doping, Sang shifts in his chair. It’s a question that unsettles any official. It’s even more disconcerting coming at a time when Kenya is in the crosshairs of international observers for almost runaway cases of doping.

To put the monster into context, more than 50 Kenyan athletes have been banned for violation of the anti-doping rule so far. Others have been stripped of their medals.

Today, Kenya has been clustered in category A together with Ethiopia, Ukraine and Venezuela, denoting a high risk of cheating.

So, where did the rain start beating us? Is the pressure to perform so high? Is it greed? I ask.

“That’s to oversimplify it,” Sang replies before staring into space. “We have to look at it in a bigger context of our value systems as a country.”

He argues that the society today hero-worships young people with money irrespective of their character, and that counsel from veterans is often ignored.

“No amount of pressure should compel an athlete to take such risks and shortcuts. Think about the humiliation that comes with doping. You embarrass not just yourself but your family, country and the community of sports as well.”

Are Kenyans being unfairly targeted in this war? Sang does not think so.

“Everyone in the athletics arena is telling us to watch out. The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), International Olympic Committee (IOC) and our own Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK) are all concerned about us. All these entities can’t be wrong,” he says.

On whether Kenya is winning the doping battle, Sang believes the country is ‘’heading somewhere’’.

“Now there’s serious awareness being undertaken by different government agencies. There’s also ongoing legislation to criminalise doping.”

On life after the track, I ask him why some athletes fall into destitution soon after their high-flying careers. Incidentally, the older generation of athletes is faring better than today’s lot. Is it a case of poor management? Sang likens winning athletics jackpots with charity.

“You need to grow gradually to be able to handle success, fame and money. Some athletes are strong enough to manage this, others are not.” He observes that it’s cold at the top and young athletes often struggle to meet dizzying societal expectations.

“Everybody is suddenly asking you for money. There’s no reliable support system or institutions to help athletes to cope with this pressure.”

Sang argues that a manager’s role is to get endorsements for the athlete and to sign them up for competitions. It’s upon the people closest to the athlete to guide them to do the right thing.

Attributing his success to exposure early on, Sang says that he’s invested in real estate, farming and offshore banking.

“You learn a lot when you hang around the right people,” he says.

“When I was running in Switzerland, my money was paid to an account from which I’ve never withdrawn a penny. I’m only allowed to spend a maximum of $5000 (Sh500,000) per month.’’

His asset value is also growing, and his two sons’ college education is sponsored through the account, which is also his pension plan.

His advice to upcoming athletes and young professionals on managing wealth? Maximise your peak years, invest wisely and always have something to fall back to, Sang says.

“Don’t invest all your money in assets, for instance. Doing so only turns you into a pauper,’’ he warns. “Always put a portion aside to get you going.”

Would he rewrite any chapter in his life? None, he says. Sang is content with every decision he’s made, the risks he’s taken and their outcome.

Until more Kenyans have taken up running, not professionally, but for fitness purposes, Sang doesn’t think his legacy is secure.

“An active life of daily exercise routine and running reduces the risk of health complications by 30 per cent. I’m looking to promote a healthy nation that exercises faithfully,” he says.

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