Sally Kipyego, 26, originally from Kapsowar, Kenya, established herself as a standout runner at Texas Tech, becoming the first runner to win three consecutive women’s titles in the NCAA Division 1 championships, among other collegiate distinctions. But you probably recognize her more recently as having won Silver in the 10K at Daegu. She’s something of a rarity in that she races well from the 1500 up to the 10K, and seems able to move up or down in distance effortlessly. Kipyego is also beautiful to watch, always running with a relaxed form and an oftentimes almost serene expression.
I’m curious to know why you’re running a mile and what it’s like to go from 10K on the track to a mile on the road.
I love the 1500. I do them, just for speed at the beginning of the year, just to get my legs going. But this is a great race that I’ve known about for a few years now. But I haven’t had a chance to participate. I’ve always thought it was a fantastic race and a great way to end the season. But every year, at the end of the year, I’m exhausted and don’t want to do any more racing at the end of the season. It’s a wonderful way of finishing the season, in New York City, on Fifth Avenue. It’s a really well-known, good meet.
A track 10K is 25 laps. I’ve always wondered, when you race that, do you ever lose count?
No. Well, for 2010 I made a conscious decision to not wear a watch on the track. In 2009 my watch was affecting every race, because all I was doing was looking at my watch on every lap, trying to get the splits. It really took the fun out of running. So I made that decision, not wearing a watch. So now I don’t look at the lap count, I don’t look at my watch and I don’t look at the time. I don’t look at the lap count until probably the last five laps. I just totally zone out and get into a rhythm. At the end of it, maybe around five or six laps to go, I start paying attention because that’s when the race actually begins. In the first 5, 6, 7k, I’m pretty low key and I just need to get into a rhythm.
So you’re finding that you’re racing better without a watch?
Absolutely. It’s made a huge difference. Because I’m not paying attention to the splits now. I’m competing. I compete. I race against people, not a clock. It’s difficult on your mind, when you’re trying to get specific splits. Maybe you’re one second off, but it messes when your mentality. “Oh, I’m off. I’m not running well. Or I’m running too fast.” If you’re just rolling with it, it’s not about the clock. It’s about how you feel. It’s a lot smoother and a lot easier on your mind. At least that’s what I find.
What are you thinking about when you’re zoning out for the first three-quarters of the race?
I go to my happy place. I have a mental picture. When I’m doing my easy runs, I go to a place where it’s really calm and quiet. It’s strange, but I always think of water. A fountain. Or a waterfall. It’s really calm, really quiet. Just breathing. I try to bring that picture to my mind and zone out and get in that place. When I do that I don’t even feel the laps going by. I just get really relaxed and feel really light on my feet. I’m just really calm. And when I’m calm, I do better.
Have you always done this?
No. I read this book about visualization and relaxation to do before races. I started to, for 30 minutes before going to bed, laying there and trying to calm myself down, trying to get a mental picture of a really quiet, calm place. The more I did that, the more I got relaxed. I started doing that in my easy runs. It’s a skill. Why not try it? Give it a shot and see. I found out that when I’m relaxed in a race, I perform so much better than I do when I’m tense. So if I can get into that relaxed state, it’s just easier on my body.
Do you do any other kind of mental training? Do you, for example, simulate races?
I will go through my races ten times, so many times before I run. When I’m getting to a race I’ve got a plan A and I’ll mentally play that in my head many times during my runs. During my long runs I’ll go through a race and think about how that’s going to play out. I guess that’s what you do when you’re doing 80-90 miles a week.
It’s a lot of time to think.
Do you remember the first race that you ever ran?
Yes. I raced in 1999. It was my first time racing in Kenya. It was a district meet. I probably ran some races in school. But that was [the first] proper race, so to speak, where I actually raced against people who were fast. I just ran with them. I didn’t have a goal. I just ran. I got through the finish and thought, “That wasn’t so bad.” I didn’t have a goal, I didn’t have an objective – I was just running.
Do you still race the same way? Or are things more loaded now?
There’s pressure. If it’s your professional career, you’re running for a lot more than running a race. You have sponsors. But I like the purity of running. I think it’s one sport that’s very pure. It comes with that sense of you and the track – it’s just you and the race. I love that.
So you still like running, despite all these new pressures.
I love running. The first day I came out and ran in school, I was so stressed. I wanted to perform well, and put so much pressure on myself. I didn’t enjoy running at that time. Every time I toed the line, it was about something. I either wanted to impress sponsors, or it was something else. But now I’m just so grateful that Nike gave me a chance, that they sponsored me and gave me a chance to do what I love to do, because I know now that I truly love running. This is what I love. I can’t imagine my life without running. I love the purity of it and how it makes me feel. It’s a liberated feeling and I’m grateful that I get the chance and opportunity to do this for a living.
What do you want to do when you can’t run for a living anymore?
I’ll go back to nursing. My heart is still there. Even if I don’t work in a hospital, I’d like to do something related to nursing. I would still love to do something related to health care.
How do you warm up for a road mile?
The mile is quick. 1500’s are pretty quick for me, so I’ll take a little longer to warm up. For a mile I’ll probably warm up more than I would for a 10k. I’ll do a pickup, a two minute pickup that’s a little bit faster than tempo pace. Not quite race pace, but quite high – a fast tempo pace. Just to get my heart going, get my lungs going. Just to get that feeling, where my heart rate is elevated just slightly before a race, then come down. So that when the gun goes off, it doesn’t get me off guard, my body’s ready to go.
It’s funny. Everyone I’ve asked has a slightly different warmup.
I probably do more drills for a mile than I would for a 10k. For that distance you warm up slowly, because you have plenty of time to adjust. But in a road mile, it’s a pretty short event so you have to be ready to go.