How Kenyan Athletes are Training in the age of COVID-19

It’s a chilly morning. The small village of Kanjeru in Kikuyu town, about 20 km south of Nairobi, is still asleep. This is not the usual scenario for a Tuesday morning. Every Tuesday is market day and most people in the town wake up early in order to get an early start at the market. Tuesday is also track day here, like almost everywhere in Kenya. On this particular day, though, the town is eerily silent as everyone is at home and no runners are out running. I have just arrived at the gate of the Henry Wanyoike Foundation Training Camp to meet Coach Paul to catch up on how things are going at the camp. Paul is a guide to the legendary triple world record holder and Paralympic champion, Henry Wanyoike. They’ve been training and racing together for over 10 years now.

With no contact for obvious reasons, we exchange greetings. Paul has just come from doing a few laps alone around the camp’s dirt track. While keeping the distance, we walk into one of the open offices and sit down to chat. It’s quite cold outside.

Hii mambo na corona imekuwa noma sana na sisi.” This corona situation has made things tough for us, says Coach Paul as he gazes at his calendar that has date 5th of April circled repeatedly with a blue pen.

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Coach Paul and Henry just before winning the 2019 Run of Spirit 10K race in Johannesttift, Berlin.

While I try to figure out what’s so special about the 5th of April, Paul looks back at me and continues, “Mentally, we already saw ourselves grabbing the trophy this year. 2020 was going to be our debut Berlin half. We were all ready to make it the first of our biggest wins this year. Morale was high up there.” He points to the roof. “We’ve got a very diverse and solid training crew here and everyone had high expectations for the year. I think we just missed our perfect Lapatet moment with the postponement of this and every other race we were upbeat about.”

5 April clicks in my head, the day of the Berlin Half. Canceled like every other race this season.

“With the camps closed, all the athletes train at home right now. Each one of us has had to find what works for them as the goal is just to remain in shape, just keeping the body active. Of course, we still get to catch up on our WhatsApp group every morning. The conversations are more about overall well being than workouts and race updates, which normally used to flood the group. We’re finding ways to support each other — our families, not only in keeping fit you know.”

“I think ours is probably one of the most diverse training camps in Kenya. From a group of young and fast runners to a group of young at heart runners, we call them ‘wazito,’ ‘heavy-weights’ in the context of age. We don’t refer to the older runners among us as old because they will definitely show you who’s boss when you’re out on the tracks racing against them! The youngest at heart is Caroline Nduta now in her 70s. Caroline has won the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon-RAK half marathon twice in her age category. In 2019, she came in second in her age category at the Bangkok Marathon.”

Elsewhere, these runners are classed as the masters, but at 70 Caroline is practically a class of her own. Perhaps we should get World Athletics to name the category wazito.

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Caroline Nduta during the 2018 Nairobi Standard Chartered Marathon.

Paul continues, “Most of the wazito are not on Whatsapp so I have to call them and just check on how they’re keeping up with fitness at home. I’ve been so religious with the calls now more than ever. I think those calls help relieve me somehow as I also find some sort of escape from just sitting at home after workouts.”

Training

“Despite being the coach and always trying to lead by example, personally I’ve struggled to step out lately. There is obviously no obligation to do so right now, that’s what I keep telling them. I’ve had to make several adjustments too. This situation doesn’t mean people should stop training or running especially if you have the opportunity to do so.”

“While we’ve always done between 150–200 km every week, right now most of us are just doing 100 -120 km a week, and that’s at a very low intensity. Others are going for 70–80 km a week. It was easier to do it as a group but like I always say, find what works for you. While some consider it training because the body is used to some routine and mileage, I have encouraged everyone to just keep it safe and stay fit whenever possible.”

Hearing Coach Paul refer to 70–80 km per week makes me blush a little. Like many amateur athletes, I’ve actually increased my running in the age of work from home and social distancing. But my weekly total is still only half of their reduced schedule.

Paul then turned his thoughts to his training partner. “Henry has been the hardest hit of us all. He is mostly at home doing a few workouts but not stepping out for a run, perhaps just a walk. We tried doing a 1-meter rope but it just can’t work! Since we’ve always run together in a very coordinated rhythm, it was practically difficult.’’ Henry is blind.

“How does it feel to train without Henry beside you lately?” I interject.

“I miss running with him, I think mentally I still feel like we’re in it together each time I’m out running. It is a completely new experience but we keep trudging on!”

Henry had already qualified for the now delayed Paralympics. But with the changes and new challenges to his training, it remains to be seen how well he’ll be able to prepare. Hopefully, he’ll be able to get back in form on time for 2021.

The Henry Wanyoike Foundation works to benefit persons with disabilities, youth and children in education, sports and socio-economic empowerment. The foundation is currently running a COVID-19 fund campaign towards caregivers of persons with disabilities and disabled children.

You can donate towards this initiative via -https://secure.changa.co.ke/myweb/share/39479

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