LONDON -- This was the beginning of the season, months before he would run an 800-meters world record 1:40.91 in the Olympic final -- without a pacesetter -- in a performance that managed the impossible: it made Usain Bolt's 200-meter gold the second most memorable performance of the night.
It was a warm February day, and the Maasai warrior was sprawled on the couch. In jeans and a t-shirt, slouched back in the cushions, his long legs unfurled across the floor. Out back was the "weight room," which was actually a patch of grass with one single metal bar that had been dipped on either end in concrete. This is where it all began for David Rudisha. Here, in Iten, Kenya, with Brother Colm O'Connell, on an altitudinous ledge along the Rift Valley. That morning, Rudisha -- along with a few other athletes -- had delivered to Colm a gleaming white SUV. The gift looked wildly out of place in rural Kenya, dominated by shambas -- small, subsistence farms; not to mention under the steering of a 63-year-old Irish, Patrician brother who had first come to Kenya in 1976 as a teacher.
Maybe that's when it all began. O'Connell came to Kenya -- and to St. Patrick's High School in the training hotbed of Iten -- with no background in track and field. It just so happened that one of the other teachers who coached at the school was Peter Foster, brother of Brendan Foster, the British distance runner who would take bronze in the Olympic 10,000-meters just months after O'Connell arrived in Kenya. O'Connell's interest was sparked, and he started watching what Peter Foster did. Ultimately, O'Connell would become the headmaster of St. Patrick's and the track coach, and the school itself -- a boarding school -- would become the center of the greatest concentration of distance running prowess in the world. Consider that five American high school boys have run a sub-4 minute mile ever, and that "Brother Colm," as he's known in Kenya, says that St. Patrick's had four sub-4 milers in school at the same time.
At St. Patrick's, O'Connell coached Wilson Kipketer, who held the 800-meter world record for nearly 13 years before Rudisha first broke it in 2010. And Rudisha doesn't even hold the St. Patrick's school record. That distinction goes to Japhet Kimutai (1:43.64), who was also coached by O'Connell. Suffice it to say, the Brother knows a good two-lap runner when he sees one, and he saw something in Rudisha right away. Rudisha, whose father won a silver medal in the 4x400-meter relay in '68, attended a school nearby to St. Patrick's, and started competing as a decathlete at age 16 in 2004. He was OK. But, boy, could he run. He once told Toby Tanser, a runner and author who has written extensively on Kenyan running: "I did not struggle. I realized I had talent and enjoyed the sport very much."
O'Connell saw the legs that seem to take up three-quarters of Rudisha's body, and his long stride, and suggested he give the 800 a shot. So Rudisha entered an 800-meter race at Kamariny Stadium in Iten. (In truth, Kamariny is to a stadium as a mobile home is to the White House. It's a dirt oval, and sheep often graze on the infield while runners are training.) In that very first race -- his first 800 -- Rudisha won in 1:49, over a rutted dirt surface. To watch someone run 1:49 in his first race (on dirt, no less) would be like telling a teenage basketball player to dunk for the first time and watching him do a 360.
"So, is this the man you have to blame for ruining your decathlon career?" A visitor says to Rudisha, while gesturing to O'Connell. Rudisha flashes a shy smile, and then tilts his head back -- as if upon further thought -- and lets out a hearty and sustained laugh. From O'Connell's house in Iten, he would leave to start his travel to Melbourne. There, he would begin the greatest season an 800-meter runner has ever had, and one that would make him the most dominant athlete of 2012 in any sport in the world.
The race itself, the Olympic final, what more is there to say? The race is best told, perhaps, in 16 letters: WR, NR, PB, PB, PB, NR, SB, PB.
The race was magic, and the magic was Rudisha. These days, world records in any event above 400 meters are set only with pacesetters. Just a month ago, Rudisha said that a pacesetter would be needed to set a new record. Instead, he became the pacesetter for the field, in which every man behind him but one ran a personal best -- and that one ran a season's best -- and two set national records. In the slipstream of greatness, bizarre things happen.
Sudan's Abubaker Kaki, Rudisha's top challenger -- he last beat him in '09 -- gave valiant chase, as he always does, but was left in tatters, fading back to 7th, but still with an outstanding time of 1:43.32. Rudisha's only loss since one to Kaki in '09 -- after which he decided always to run from the front -- was in September last year, to 18-year-old Ethiopian Mohammed Aman. Aman, too, gave chase early, and faded late, but set a national record. The two Americans, Duane Solomon (1:42.82) and Nick Symmonds (1:42.95) ran the races of their lives, the second and third fastest by Americans ever. After the race, Symmonds confessed that he ran faster than he thought he would ever be physically capable of in his career, and could only smirk, bewildered that it was only good for fifth place. (Solomon was fourth). "Redefining my own limits," Symmonds said, "which is really what the sport is about."
The 800 is a capricious event. It is the shortest race in which competitors break from their lanes, and is the most tactically unforgiving of events. It is, then, perhaps understandable that not once before Rudisha had a reigning 800-meter world champion managed to win the Olympics.
There has only been one other season in the history of 800-meter running like Rudisha's 2012. (And never mind that Rudisha has plenty of season left, and was planning to break the world record with a pacesetter next month.) In 1997, Kipketer -- Kenyan born, Brother Colm trained, ran for Denmark -- went 17-0, indoors and outdoors, and ran under 1:42 three times.
Nobody knows better what it's like to run behind that than American Rich Kenah, who hit his own 800 peak in '97. At the '97 world indoor championships in Paris, Kipketer ran a world indoor record (1:42.67) and left those who chased him on the first lap so crushed that Kenah blazed past them for bronze in the final gasps of the race. Afterward, Kenah called home. "'Hey, I got good news and bad news,'" Kenah told his father, who had been an 800 runner. "The bad news is, I'm four seconds behind the winner. The good news is, I got bronze.'"
The great thing about running in the era of such an athlete is that he will get the best from you. He will squeeze every ounce of effort and pain. The bad thing is that, "unless you're a 1:41 guy," -- or a 1:40 guy, now -- "it obviously takes away opportunities when you have a guy like him in the race."
Rudisha is only 23. Kipketer peaked at 24, but he contracted malaria the following season. And while he returned to be world champion, he was never better than in '97. The question for Rudisha, now, is how fast he can go? And, for the rest of the world, how is anyone going to beat him?
He is 6-0 in 2012, and 8-0 counting preliminary rounds in London. Can he be undefeated for years, like Edwin Moses? Is that even possible in the 800? No one knows, because Rudisha is in uncharted territory. And he is making it up as he goes along. In June, before a meet in New York City, Rudisha noted that he always runs 1:43 when there is no pacesetter. "I can say when it comes to championships it's a tactical race and normally you don't have a pacesetter who can set a pace for fast times," he said. "That is why you see that obviously we fall around 1:43 because that is the most favorable one can run from the front." And then two days later he ran 1:41.74, with a pacesetter, but one who he caught just past the first lap. After that, Rudisha seemed to change his mind, and suggest that perhaps he could set the world record in an Olympic race without a pacesetter.
On Thursday, Rudisha broke the record in very much the only way that it has been broken in recent history. Unlike longer races, where athletes often run the latter part of the race faster than the start, in 26 of the 28 800-meter records ever set, the runner has run slower in the second lap. The last time a world record was set with a faster second lap was Dave Wottle in 1972, when he ran 52.9 and then 51.4. Since then, the records have dropped specifically because the runner runs a faster first lap. It would seem that at the beginning pace it now takes to challenge the record, no man can help but slow down, and by 2-3 seconds in the best-case scenario. (Rudisha ran 49.28/51.63). Sebastian Coe, Kipketer, and Rudisha simply ran the first lap faster than the men before them. (This chart, courtesy of physiologist Ross Tucker, shows the decline in first lap times in world record 800 performances on the left, and second lap times on the right. Notice that second lap times have stagnated.)
So how low can Rudisha go, particularly on that first lap? He has 45-second speed in the open 400, almost certainly faster than Coe and Kipketer. Prior to the Olympic final, Rudisha said that 48.9 to 49.1 is "a suitable pace" for a record. But now he's done that. Would he consider going out in 48-low, or even 47-high? "If you try to say 47, I think you'll have gone a little bit fast for the first lap," he said, "and the last lap will be a little bit difficult for you to maintain the pace."
Then again, he said all that before last night.