Healthy Kidney 10K: The Front Runners

In which I gatecrash a function meant for actual journalists

Yesterday marked by first foray into something resembling running journalism. I joined Steve Lastoe, who founded and runs NYCruns.com at the Warwick Hotel in midtown, where we met with several members of the elite field for today’s Healthy Kidney 10K run for a series of interviews.

I should point out here and now that I am totally unqualified to interview anyone about anything. I have no journalism background whatsoever. But I know how to research people, ask questions and write about the answers. I’m already flailing down this road with my Houston Hopefuls project with completely unwarranted confidence. Why stop there? I figured I’d give this a whirl for the experience.

Anyone who knows me will note that I am somewhat shy and very soft-spoken. These are not helpful qualities for an aspiring journalist, a field that tends to favor aggressively nosey loudmouths. But sometimes it’s easier to do something new when you’ve got a clear role, and yesterday I had one. I just had to remember to relax, speak up, and hit “record” at the right time.

Steve (who’d I’d never met until five minutes before the conference) and I had collaborated via email on doing pre-conference research on most of the runners who were there. We ran out of time on others, including the winner of the race, Gebre Gebremariam. I’m sure if we’d done some handicapping that wouldn’t have happened, but live and learn.

Since I started following track and field seriously a few years ago, I’ve always found its lack of popularity hard to accept. But yesterday I saw the upside of such systemic indifference: namely, that a nobody like me can turn up at something like this, offer the lamest of explanations for my being there (“I’m a blogger and I thought it would be interesting to talk to these guys.”) and still be welcomed with coffee, pastries and, best of all, unfettered access to some of the world’s top male runners for well over two hours.

In which my suspicions about elite runners are all confirmed

By and large, most runners are friendly, down-to-earth individuals. That’s why I like them. And you know what? The elites are no different in this respect. These people didn’t know me from a bucket of rocks and yet they were still willing to sit there and answer my questions, more often than not offering up smart, articulate answers.

The highlights

I’ve got well over two hours of poor quality audio. I won’t inflict that on you, but I will pull out some of the highlights from yesterday. As previously noted, I didn’t speak with the man who would go on to win the race, Gebremariam. But the five others more than made up for that lapse. My time talking with a sixth, Khalid Khannouchi — and his wife, Sandra, (who is also his coach and agent) — warrants its own post, which I’ll put up soon.

Peter Kamais (Kenya)
Kamais, 33, won the NYC Half in March by quite a wide margin. He also placed fifth in the highly competitive World’s Best 10K this year, which is always run in horribly hot and humid conditions in Puerto Rico. His time there was 27:54. This is important to note because today’s race featured a $20,000 bonus to the man who could not only win but also break the course record of 27:48. He has run 27:09 on a flat course (Tilburg, Holland in 2009). That was on the road, not the track. In other words, this man has invisible wings on his feet.

Get to know him:

  • Kamais is self coached and has always been self coached. He trains with a group in Iten, Kenya and runs with others much of the time, but he plans out his training and runs his own paces when he needs to.
  • He says he makes adjustments to his training often, based on how he feels from day to day. He does not push things on days when he’s not feeling up to doing a hard workout.
  • He loves racing hills.
  • When asked who he felt was the biggest threat in this race, he said it was Boaz Cheboiywo. But I suspect he may have said that because the man who would ultimately win today (and break the course record), Gebre Gebremariam, was sitting a few feet away within earshot.
  • His goal for the Healthy Kidney race this year was 27:45. More on that below.
  • He’s going to start training for his first marathon in August. He’s not sure which one he wants to choose as his debut race.
  • When I asked him which Kenyan marathoner he felt would be his biggest rival — the person he wanted to beat at that distance — he told us it was Paul Tergat.

Quote:
“If you’re going to run the marathon, you have to run more miles.”

Place, time, pace today:
2nd, 27:49 (4:29)

I did a run in the opposite direction so I could spot the elites (and others I knew who were running) in the early miles, then be at the finish line for the race’s conclusion. I saw the elites come through just shy of the 1.5 mark and Kamais was in the lead, but barely. Gebremariam was one step behind him and Kamais kept looking back at him.

I gather that most of the race unfolded in this fashion, with Gebremariam then making a break past the five mile mark. He came in at 27:42, besting Tadese Tola’s 27:48 and securing a $20,000 bonus. Kamais shut down in the last few strides and jogged through in 27:49. Had he not done that, he could have beaten the 2009 record, but not the 2010 time. And that was all that mattered this morning.

Collis Birmingham (Australia)
Birmingham, 25, has raced once before in New York at the 2009 Fifth Avenue Mile, where he ran 3:53.9. He represented his country in the 5K in Beijing. He’s run a 27:29 for 10K on the track, which is the current national record. He, along with his colleague, Ben St. Lawrence (below), are gearing up for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India in the fall. He considers himself a specialist at the 5K distance.

Get to know him:

  • At the Penn relays, in which he was running the first leg (1200m), Birmingham lost his shoe in the first 200. He finished the leg in 2:54.9 but then had to take a week off because he’d completely torn up his foot in the process.
  • He trains for approximately 10 weeks a year in Falls Creek, Victoria, at altitude. He’s also training in Laguna, California, near San Diego, which is at about the same altitude: roughly 6000 ft.
  • He’ll be doing the 5K at the Prefontaine Classic this summer.
  • Birmingham ran at university after a short period as an apprentice carpenter. Now he wishes he’d taken the opportunity to run for a university in the States to take advantage of the collegiate system, which is stronger in terms of runner support than what’s available from Australian universities.
  • Birmingham has gotten some help from the Victorian Institute of Sport, which offers physical services such as massage. Otherwise, as in this country, athletes are on their own to make a living aside from whatever sponsorship they can secure from shoe companies.

Quote:
“We’re not afraid of the hills.”

Place, time, pace today:
14th, 29:16 (4:43)

Ben St. Lawrence (Australia)
St. Lawrence, 28, also considers himself a 5K specialist, although he was 2nd in the Australian 10K championships last year. He ran 13:25.9 at Mt. SAC last year as well as 28:05.8 on the track, also last year.

Get to know him:

  • Upcoming races include the 3K in Ostrava, Czech Republic (his debut European race), followed by 5Ks in France and Sweden.
  • St. Lawrence ran while at university, but then decided to take a year off. That year turned into 5+ years. He got back into the game about four years ago.
  • He works full-time for ING in the HR department. The company has given him 10 weeks vacation this year to accommodate his racing schedule.
  • Does a fair amount of training on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). He enjoys trail running and says he could be interested in doing a trail race or ultra marathon, but the race season for that conflicts with the Australian track season, so he hasn’t pursued it.

Quotes:
On why he got back into competitive running:
“I guess to start with, it was just to get fit and healthy again. And then I was actually a spectator at our last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and saw a few Aussies out there running and just decided that I’d rather be out there running than sitting in the stands spectating.”

On whether they ever see wild animals on the PCT:
“You see a few coyotes. And turkeys. Sometimes we’re a little worried about the turkey hunters.” [Pauses in a moment of reflection.] We don’t look like turkeys.”

Place, time, pace today:
7th, 28:36 (4:36)

Bobby Curtis (USA)
Curtis, 25, was the 2008 NCAA 5K champion and has placed well at the World Cross Country Championships (37th in 2009 and 48th this year), considering the formidable competition from Kenya and Ethiopia. He hit his personal best at the 10K (27:33.4) just two weeks ago on the track at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Stanford.

Get to know him:

  • Thinks that running can potentially offer greater financial success than other, more traditional avenues might. If it doesn’t go well, he still considers that he’d have gotten an enriching experience from the competition and travel.
  • Has a master’s degree in public policy from William & Mary. He’ll probably go into finance, having gotten a job offer in that area, should pro running not prove lucrative enough. But he also hopes to make contacts in running and do something with that professionally when he’s done racing competitively.
  • He was realistic about his chances in the race today, acknowledging that the pace guys like Kamais would likely set would have him running outside of his current capabilities.
  • In terms of his future racing “wish list” he thinks perhaps a NYC marathon might be in his future, along with some Diamond League meets and perhaps the Great Ethiopia Run where “shopkeepers in Ethiopia run something like 27:50.”

Quote:
When asked about Josh Cox doing Comrades and whether he considers taking on an ultra race:
“I guess if you’re into something like that, that’s the best race to do it. It’s a very prestigious race. Best of luck to him. But you’ll never see me out there.”

Place, time, pace today:
22nd, 30:39 (4:56)

Patrick Smyth (USA)
Smyth, 23, bears a striking resemblance to Adam Ant (without the makeup) and is probably too young to know who Adam Ant is. His track 10K PR is 28:25.9. He placed 2nd in the USA Half Marathon championships in January with a time of 1:02:01. He trains with Team USA Minnesota/Nike.

Get to know him:

  • Smyth felt like an underdog in college and continues to feel that way. His focus is now on making a name for himself by, as he put it, “surprising people in road races.”
  • He loves the half marathon distance and wants to move up to the full marathon distance, as that’s where he feels his future is.
  • Didn’t get signed on for sponsorship out of college, so he was all set to start grad school in Chicago for a master’s in social sciences, with a focus on history. Then he started to flourish in road races last fall and has ended up deferring entry in that program until such time as it becomes obvious that professional running isn’t going to work out. So far, that hasn’t happened.
  • He’s making a living, much of it off of the US road championships (20K, 10 mile, etc.). It keeps him on the radar and keeps the money coming in. But he also can’t pick and choose. He has to compete and try to win money in order to stay afloat; that means sometimes making compromises in terms of how he’d ideally like to lay out a training cycle.
  • Smyth leaves Minnesota in the winter for the friendlier climes of Albuquerque. He has trained at altitude for the past three years and says he’s seen the difference it makes.
  • He enjoyed the NYRR Emerald Nuts run on New Year’s Eve, despite the bad weather, noting the novelty of racing with fireworks going off overhead. Although it was odd to wait around all day to race at midnight and presented logistical challenges, such as figuring out when to eat.

Quote:
When asked about the sudden drop in 10K times amongst Americans like Dathan Ritzenhein and Chris Solinksy and whether it’s changed his outlook on what he can do:
“It’s really more what I have to do to get to that level. That race (Solinsky’s 26:59.6 at Payton Jordan) really kind of objectified where you need to be to be in the mix of guys who are going to make an Olympic team or a World Championship team. So now I’ve got to just set about getting there.”

Place, time, pace today:
12th, 29:03 (4:41)

[Edited: I promised a Khannouchi profile this weekend as well, but I’m going to take some time with that one, so it could be another week or so before I post about him. For now, I’m back to working on my interviews project for the women’s 2012 trials.]

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