In Iten, Kenya, we come to St. Patrick’s High School grove of champions. Any alumnus who sets a world record or wins an Olympic or world championship has a tree planted here in his honor. The oldest tree is for Mike Boit, a medalist at the 1972 Olympics, the youngest for 2003 world youth champion Isaac Songok. Songok’s tree and the one for 800-meter world-record holder Wilson Kipketer are a lot smaller than most of the rest. “Do the athletes get to choose their trees?” I ask. “Not anymore,” Colm O’Connell replies. “The groundskeeper demanded that we plant only shrubs from now on. He said a forest was forming.”
The 55-year-old O’Connell is a member of the Patrician Brothers, a Catholic order founded in Ireland. He came to St. Patrick’s in 1976 for what was supposed to be a two-year assignment teaching geography. Within a year of arriving on campus, he became the school’s track coach despite having no background in running. O’Connell, who resembles a sun-splotched Dick Cheney, has never worked out.
St. Patrick’s isn’t your ordinary high school. Since O’Connell started his coaching gig, the alumni list has turned into a track geek’s fantasy team—Kipketer is only fifth on the school’s all-time list at 800 meters. During his first few years at St. Patrick’s, O’Connell’s students usually won in meets against other local boarding schools, but that’s where the competition stopped. When St. Patrick’s students won two events at the 1986 world junior championships, the coach figured out he was in the deep end of the genetic talent pool.
When the St. Patrick’s runners started to prove themselves internationally, Kenyan sports were in disarray. Olympic boycotts in both 1976 and 1980 had disillusioned a generation of runners, and the national athletics federation was hopelessly corrupt and inept. O’Connell took it upon himself to identify and nurture talented young runners and not just those who happened to be St. Patrick’s students. (The school is for boys only.) To do so, he invented what has become the defining characteristic of Kenyan running: the training camp.
O’Connell held the first training camp at St. Patrick’s in 1989. Thinking that female runners needed more training help than males, he brought together eight school-age girls for three weeks of intense training. Like any good coach, O’Connell is as much a psychologist as he is an athletic trainer. During that first camp, he cared more about directing the girls’ attitudes, convincing them that it was OK to devote their lives to athletics. He also used that first group to seed future success. At the end of the camp, he gave all the girls a training program and told them to share it with other girls in their villages.
The training camp concept spread quickly, and so did the Kenyan onslaught. Today, most top Kenyan runners live ascetically in group houses. During peak training, married men return to their wife and children only a few days a month. O’Connell now conducts two junior camps a year. The one I attend has 31 boys and 29 girls, 10 of whom have already represented Kenya in international competition. Each student goes on three runs a day and takes meals in the St. Patrick’s dining hall. In between, the runners have little time or energy for anything beyond napping and washing their gear. Entertainment consists of watching videos of track and cross-country meets before and after dinner. By 9 p.m., the dorms are dark and quiet.
Although he has retired as headmaster of St. Patrick’s, O’Connell remains the school’s track coach, and he still lives on school grounds. He is something like a benign Mafia figure who doles out favors with no return expectations. O’Connell pays the secondary school fees for runners whose families can’t afford a few hundred dollars for tuition. He also dispenses pocket money, shoes, gear, even jars of honey, to runners in need.
Last year he started coaching three professional runners—Augustine Choge, Isaac Songok, and Rebby Koech—who share a tiny house behind his. I sit shotgun as he monitors his runners from the driver’s seat of his old Toyota. O’Connell drives with a stopwatch in one hand and one eye on the odometer yet never breaks from one of his trademark monologues on Kenyan culture.
Despite living here for nearly 30 years, the coach still keeps all Kenyans at arm’s length. His social life revolves around other members of his religious order and visiting Westerners. In a society that places so much emphasis on community, O’Connell takes almost all of his meals at home, where they’re prepared by a Kenyan servant who passes the food from the kitchen and then makes himself invisible. It’s not unusual for a young athlete hoping to talk with O’Connell to wait for hours outside his house, only to see him emerge, say “come back tomorrow,” and drive off. “You will find it’s important to stay removed,” he tells me early in my visit. “Otherwise you can very easily get sucked in by the Kenyan culture and lose control over your life.”