NEW YORK — This city is extra. Being born and raised in New York City, it feels weird to say but I said it to Patrick Sang and Geoffrey Kamworor as we walked down Sixth Avenue at 6:30 in the morning on Friday. Sang, Kamworor and four other staff members of the NN Running Team (a management team professional running collective of athletes from around the world) were getting ready to go for an easy 50-minute run. While I was thinking about how long I’d try to last, Kamworor and Sang were captivated by the buildings and cars that were out.
“Everything here is always open,” Sang says as we passed a diner. “That’s crazy to me.”
“Too many cars,” Kamworor says.
Welcome to New York. Kamworor and Sang are in town on a business trip and that’s to win the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon for the second consecutive year.
The 25-year-old is one of the most talented distance runners in the world and not just at the marathon. Running 25 laps on a track? Kamworor has a silver medal in the 10,000 meters on the track from the 2015 IAAF World Championships. Hills and mud? He loves it and has back-to-back world cross country national championships to show for it. He can win, but can he go fast? He owns a 2:06:12 personal best from the 2012 Berlin Marathon and if you’re curious about how fast he can go for half that distance, he’s run 58:54 and won three world half marathon titles.
So how ‘easy’ was this easy run going to be?
Once we got to Central Park, Sang peeled off for his morning walk because we all have an expiration date and an easy run with his athletes isn’t so easy anymore for the 1992 steeplechase silver medalist from Barcelona. The group started off with a 10:08 first mile and this was the slow jog that I had heard that many Kenyans use on their easy run days. If this is how we were going to run for the full 50 minutes, I would be OK. The New York City marathon course is contested entirely on concrete but Kamworor wants to run on the dirt surfaces so we ended up on the bridle path around the Central Park reservoir and the pace slowly quickened. The next two miles were run in 8:40 and 8:13 before his agent, Valentijn Trouw, and physiologist, Joost Vollard, peeled off after the first loop. Kamworor wanted to run one more so I challenged myself to hang for as long as I can. I survived for 41 minutes and a total of five miles with the final one in 6:44. That will wake you up in the morning.
Kamworor kept going for about 100 more meters so I’ll joke and say that I’m convinced he was simply trying to drop me before finishing up with six quick strides and drills. Even on a humid morning with a full jacket and tights, he barely broke a sweat. It comes easily to the best.
Many consider Kamworor as the next great marathoner, which is interesting to think of so soon after Eliud Kipchoge shaved 78 seconds off the world record with his 2:01:39 at the Berlin Marathon. Kamworor and Kipchoge are training partners and friends in Kaptagat, which is more located at more than 7,200 feet of altitude in Kenya. Because of race scheduling, they do not match up for every workout but meet for recovery runs and some long runs.
“These are guys who believe in the sport and are very focused,” Sang said. “When they’re in the business of training and they do it the way it’s supposed to be done. They understand themselves very well and don’t kill each other. It’s fun for me to watch them train together because it’s the teamwork that’s taken them this far.”
After Kipchoge set the world record, there was no conversation between Sang and Kamworor about being the next person to do so. Kamworor isn’t ready to say if or when he will be able to go for it. He’s “optimistic” about his future and would look forward to racing Kipchoge before the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where Kamworor will go for gold and Kipchoge possibly looks to defend his gold medal if both are selected to the Kenyan national team or opt to pass on lucrative fall marathon appearance fees.
There are not very many athletes that have accomplished as much as Kamworor at this age and in this stage of his career.
“He’s just growing into the marathon,” Sang said. “Coming to New York gives him a championship-style experience and scenarios that will be good when he goes full-time to the marathon.”
It’s natural to be curious at his age. It can be a challenge for Sang to try and satisfy and match Kamworor’s training for three surfaces. Kamworor loves cross country and wants to continue racing it. He’s not ready to give up on a return to the track. Everyone wants to see how fast they can go on the roads.
While laying on a massage table in his hotel room with his favorite Kenyan gospel music playing lightly in the background, that curiosity came through in other ways.
Kamworor has only been to two places in the United States: Eugene, Oregon to race at the Prefontaine Classic and New York City for a Diamond League track race and the marathon. Kamworor and Vollard were trying to guess what state in the U.S. had the most people and Kamworor guessed California. They asked me to confirm it and he was right. It’s a simple fact but he’s a smart guy. When he finished secondary school in Kenya, he wanted to be a lawyer and so he applied to schools in the U.S. and heard back from a school in southern Alabama. He never visited and decided to stay in Kenya to train full-time as a runner after being discovered by Sang’s training group.
“What is in southern Alabama?” he asked me.
“I’ve never been there but not much I think,” I said.
“And where did you go to school?” he asked.
“I went to Marquette University. It’s in Wisconsin, which is in the middle part of America. It’s cold. They have lots of snow. Have you ever seen snow?” I said.
“Last year in Holland,” he said.
I was surprised that he had not contested a cross country race in the snow and so I joked about how coming to the United States to run in the NCAA would have been too easy. He wondered why and I told him that cross country in the United States is a lot of times contested on manicured golf courses and he laughed.
That was the same reaction he gave Thursday when someone described New York City’s course as 'hilly' but Kamworor clarified it is “somewhat challenging but like how we train in Kenya.”
Repeating as champion won’t come easy against a field that includes four men with personal bests faster than him. However, his race plan for Sunday is to remain with the leaders and group whether it’s a fast start or slow start. Sang says Kamworor’s speed can be applied at any point in the race. Last year, he unleashed a 4:31 for the 25th mile to drop anyone left in contention for the win. He showed flashes of that again in March's world half marathon championships when he ran 13:01 from 15K to 20K before winning gold. Like any good support crew, there’s belief among his camp that he can do it again and maybe even go faster. If he does, good luck to anyone trying to keep up. I tried on an easy run. It’s hard to respond when Kamworor chooses to go.