translated by Brett Larner
Hiroshima's Sera High School has made the National High School Boys Ekiden 38 times with 5 wins and 27 podium finishes to its credit, making it one of the greatest distance running high schools anywhere. One of the chief engines for the school's current success is third-year Kenyan exchange student Bitan Karoki, 18. At the April 29 Oda Memorial Track and Field Meet in Hiroshima, Karoki ran a 5000 m PB of 13:32.79 against a field of the best professionals in Japan, foreign and Japanese alike. He finished 3rd. In high school races his power is, in his eyes, "unrivalled."
After coming to Japan in the winter before his first year of high school started in April, Karoki ran 13:47 in June as a first-year, then 13:38 in October. As a second-year his abilities continued to develop as he improved his best time to 13:33. To cope with this talent Sera head coach Masami Iwamoto talked with a range of professional team coaches and others to make sure he could create the best training environment for Karoki. Nevertheless, so far Karoki has come up empty-handed at the National High School Track and Field Championships. As a first-year he peaked too early and did not start, and again last year he was injured and withdrew. "I didn't think about quitting [running], but it really wasn't much fun," he remembers. Now in his final year of high school, he says with the cold fire of a champion, "There's no question I'm going to win."
It's rare to see a foreign athlete competing for a public high school. In 2001 Sera High School, its alumni association and the town formed a 'Committee for the Advancement of International Cooperation.' The committee asked a Japanese businessman in Kenya with a connection to a Kenyan track and field club to introduce promising young athletes to them with the idea of giving the runners an opportunity. Karoki is the third Kenyan to run for the school since then. The committee pays for his living expenses, but, Coach Iwamoto says, "Karoki' has to study and go to classes the same as any other student. He doesn't get any special treatment." Karoki enjoys it, smiling as he says, "School life is fun."
Karoki's training menu is also the same as others on the team. Two or three times a week he runs 12-14 km on a nearby cross-country course in the mountains. Speedwork is the pivot on which his training turns, but "he doesn't do a high volume of speed training," reveals Coach Iwamoto. One element that catches the eye is that at 5 a.m. each day the team jogs and then eats breakfast together. The practice serves to help the team bond and form an identity. When Karoki acts as pacemaker in workouts he adjusts his speed to match that of the Japanese athletes. He wants to help them understand that "the ekiden is something you can't do with just one person. Everybody has to use 100% of themselves." Such thinking informs Karoki's approach to his training.
Karoki's targets for this year include breaking the national high school record of 13:22.58 while winning the National High School Track and Field Championships and leading Sera to its first National High School Ekiden title in three years. Big goals, but Karoki thinks they are within reach. Hailing from a small village, this exchange student now feels the Japanese public eye upon him.
Translator's note: Bitan Karoki is rumored to have already signed with Tokyo-based Team S&B and will go pro immediately after graduating from Sera in March. If the rumor proves true it will be another boost for S&B, which seems to be rebuilding its stable with its recruitment of Wasesa University's Kensuke Takezawa this year and Chuo University's Yuichiro Ueno in 2008.