Throwback Thursday. Each Thursday we will publish a post that was previously released in our magazine. This one comes from our September 2012 issue. Level columnist Kevin Gray caught up with world champion John Ngugi.
For you new school athletes/readers, John Ngugi is a five time world cross country champion. No small potatoes. If you’re old enough and have a good enough memory, you might recall that he picked up the 1992 world title in our own backyard—in Franklin Park.
Kevin Gray: How did you come to be a runner in Kenya? As a boy growing up in Kenya, was it a tough life and did you struggle with poverty? I know that you were famous for your toughness and strong work ethic; did your upbringing contribute to this toughness? We would love to know what it was like to grow up in Kenya.
John Ngugi: First and foremost, I send greetings to all my fans in Boston and you. Thank you for taking your time to have a wide profile of my athletic career. My running in Kenya played a big role in my childhood. Most of the successful athletes that are now millionaires must have faced the real sense of poverty before their final success. In my case, my life was difficult since we only earned a livelihood through agriculture, that involved cattle rearing and seasonal harvesting. With such as the key means of earning income one was never sure of any school fees, clothing, and to some extent food due to the uncertainty that comes with farming. A good education system was a privilege of a few due to lack of school fees caused by financial difficulties.
My heroes at that time were many, for example Henry Rono. With such heroes to emulate I got the determination and courage to exploit my potential in athletics to such great heights and there after emerging a success in the athletics field.
KG: What sports did you play as a youth? Do young boys in Kenya want to emulate the famous runners that they see around town? Who were some of your athletic heroes growing up?
JN: At the time, I did not really have a clear sense of sports. Back in the days most of the games played today had not come to Kenya. We loved soccer even though we did not have any actual soccer balls (we had some made of polythene papers). We did some river swimming and the best of all was a hunting game. We would have a gathering of friends, neighbors, and relatives. We would gather all dogs in our neighborhood and involve ourselves in a hunting race. The winner would be the person who would capture the most dogs in the shortest time possible. My brother and I would always emerge victorious with as many as five catches with the others having one, two, or none. Such activities were of help to my career in athletics as they enhanced my long distance running. At that time life was good and interesting.
Most of the best runners have been emulated by the young upcoming athletes and have had them as their mentors and role models. You hear echoes of pedestrians saying they have either seen Paul Tergat, Makau, Rudisha and the rest which gives the young talents people to look on to pursue their careers in this field of athletics, which is a privilege especially given that some in other countries would wish to have such heroes to look up to but lack.
KG: As you began to have success, Mike Kosgei began to coach you and you adopted his methods of training three times a day. This began to become known as the “Ngugi Routine.” Was this incredible training regime what propelled you to be the best cross country runner in the world? How many kilometers were you running a week and how often would you do track workouts/hills or tempo runs? Can you please explain what a typical training week would like when you were the world’s best?
JN: Mr. Mike Kosgei played a big role in my training sessions and all credits go to him for making me who I am. Through him the Ngugi spirit still rekindles among our athletes. My passion and desire to be world champion increased my strength. I had to accept his tough and tedious training but the results were all to favor me. Before Mr. Kosgei came, I used to have training which to me I called “hard.” However, after his arrival with his training I did like three times of my so called “hard training.” The irony was I had longer long runs than I expected. I always wondered why the long run seemed to go by so quickly, despite being in dark hours. (Editor’s Note: Ngugi did his long runs as early as 4:30 am and for a good portion of his career he did not own a watch.)
My weekly routine had an average of 200km (124 miles). I would make sure on Mondays and Saturdays to have a daily program not exceeding 20-30k. On the track sessions, my program range was 800 meters and above. The program expected from my coach had a focus on 10,000 meters. That’s why I had the courage to do both 10,000 meters and 5000 meters at the same time in all my events. My motto was “Train Hard, Fight Easy” which made me shine in most of the appearances I made. In fact I had less time on hill work since the geographical scenery had plenty of them.
KG: You won World Cross five times, and are widely considered one of the best cross country runners ever. Which of these five victories has a special place in your heart? You are considered a legend here in Boston because of your epic run in the deep snow, taking on and beating the Ethiopian team single handedly. Do you have any special memories of your victory in 1992 at Franklin Park? If I remember correctly, the Ethiopians tried to block your progress by running four or five across up the narrow path to Bear Cage Hill.
JN: In 1992 in Boston, I only used one trick in beating the Ethiopians. I made sure I would zap the Ethiopians strength by making them run hard. As soon as the race got tough bit by bit, one by one, they slipped aside and gave me space to move on. The best thing is that in my training sessions most of the times it was rainy. The muddy and steep route was hectic but I fought easy.
KG: Switching gears a bit, you were known primarily as a runner who excelled in the bush, but you also won a gold medal in the 5000 meters in Seoul. Can you please bring us through this race?
JN: This was my best run, the one that bears a special place in my heart at the Seoul Olympic Games. My mind recalls each and every step of that day. At that time, most of the athletes underestimated my efforts and I had to prove them wrong. If you have a look at that clip, I almost lapped the 2nd finisher. I wish I had a chance to speak to him, and he would claim the same.
KG: It’s a great thing to see that you have decided to give back to the less fortunate children of Kenya through your foundation. Can you please talk a bit about the the mission and purpose of the group?
JN: Having had a good platform, it’s best for me to have a foundation known as The John Ngugi Foundation. Our key mission is to identify young Kenyans who have sporting talent and build them into responsible adults and world champions.We have received numerous sponsorships from all our partners. For some time, we have been offering sponsorships to the needy and poor families. In this year we launched a shoe campaign process which we intend to distribute to most of the less fortunate talented youths here in order to enhance their running capability. We have also been working all along with Mt. Kenya Development Talent Centre, a charitable organization with a similar mission and objectives which is giving aid to the less fortunate underprivileged talented youths. Most youths here have talents but all go to waste due to abject poverty, lack of training facilities, and people to monitor such talents. It’s so bad to see such young people get wasted to drugs, HIV/AIDS, lawlessness, and other societal ills.
Our main purpose is to have a sponsorship program where we can assist the young upcoming but less fortunate athletes and to make their athletic dreams a reality. Abject poverty coupled with lack of proper training facilities has been a major contributing factor to loss of would be world athletic heroes. It’s our belief at the John Ngugi Foundation and our affiliated charity, Mt. Kenya Talents Development Centre, that should these young talents be hosted in a camp and be provided with all necessary training, that we will have some new Ngugi’s in the athletic world. We wish to reduce this loss of talent and have good sportsmen and women.
KG: Can we talk about the explosion of Kenyan marathoning over the past five years? The times have just become unfathomable, and as seen recently, the Kenyan Athletic federation probably had the hardest job in sport picking only three athletes for the Olympics. Any thoughts as to what has led to this utter domination? From what I’ve read, young athletes may have copied your training regime in the camps, training multiple times a day and really just honing an already strong work ethic.
JN: Athletics Kenya had a hard time in making their decisions on the issue of the Kenyan athletes to feature in the 2012 Olympics. The worry was who would be the successor to the late Samuel Kamau Wanjiru who I knew from his early runs. (He even once came to my training camp at Nyahururu Central County.) But keep in mind that if there were 3 Olympic Games at the same time, the Kenyan spirit would still dominate the best. Critics argue that every Kenyan runner is a champion due to tough competition. This utter domination has been caused solely by advanced training that has come up even to some extent on having foreign coaches training our athletes. In addition to this, many Kenyans have also come to the reality that athletics is also a major income source. Still, most train hard all in the name of wanting to secure that chance to represent the country.
KG: Do you regret that you never had the chance to excel at the marathon or were you happy with your success at the shorter distances?
JN: The little efforts that I attained were worth the success in that short period. I have no regrets at all since I broke a record of being a 5 Time World Cross Country Champion.
KG: You are Kikuyu, and not many people realize that within Kenyan culture, there are 42 distinct tribes. The Kalenjin are usually known as the “running tribe.” Were you a pioneer, one of the first Kikuyu who proved that you could be a champion? Does this rivalry exist amongst tribes in Kenya today?
JN: Let me say I adore my tribe as a Kikuyu. The rivalry tribes do exist among some athletes. One of my friends just disclosed to me a secret he kept for more than 20 years on how they used to play tricks on me. Their worry was I never stood up in either of their game plans. In some sense the Kalenjin still dominate. Athletics to them is like going to school. The majority of athletes come from there and most of their children must have started early practices as from 5 to 10 years of age. That’s why they shine.
KG: What are some of your interests outside of running? How are you enjoying retirement?
JN: I am enjoying my retirement. These days I do offer some training sessions to the youth. I am also the director of coaching at Mt. Kenya Talent Development Centre. In 2009 I was selected to be the Peace Ambassador of our country. I spend most of the time in meetings regarding peace forum. When I am out of business, I spend my times with my two sons, Stephen Kamau Ngugi and James Wahome Ngugi. They give me hope, strength, and encourage my heart. I believe they will follow my footsteps. They are doing extremely great and making remarkable progress. Thank you for having your precious time on my profile. Thank you and God bless you.
Kevin Gray is a regular contributor for Level Renner.