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Samuel Wanjiru Shares the Secret of Training to Win

originally published in the 2008 Fukuoka International Marathon program

translated by Brett Larner with editorial assistance from Mika Tokairin

Click here for a Spanish-language translation of my English translation of the original Japanese article.

Translator's note: Fukuoka-based sportswriter Akio Harada of the Asahi Newspaper conducted this excellent interview with 2007 Fukuoka International Marathon winner Samuel Wanjiru prior to the 2008 race. Wanjiru, who lives part of the year in Fukuoka, won Kenya's first Olympic marathon gold medal in an Olympic record time of 2:06:32 in Beijing this past summer. Merry Christmas.

Q. You won Beijing by running an incredibly fast pace.

This was only my third marathon, so I thought I would just try to run it the way I've done the others so far. My first marathon was Fukuoka in December, 2007. The second time was London in April, 2008. In both of them I'd planned to run about 3 minutes per km, so I thought I should just run Beijing with the same idea in mind since this is a comfortable pace for me to run. I thought the best thing to do was to run a pace I'm used to. If the pace is too slow then I can't get into my rhythm and my body doesn't move properly.

Q. Unlike Fukuoka and London, Beijing was a summer marathon and one without any pacemakers. Weren't you worried at all?

Up until the day before the Olympic marathon I hadn't decided whether to go fast or hold back a bit and run a little conservatively. However the first half went, I wasn't sure what would happen in the second half and I was afraid of it. I couldn't sleep well at all the night before the race, and I discovered that I had forgotten my race shoes in Kenya. I had to run the race in my warmup shoes, but it was OK because they were marathon shoes too. Looking back now, I think I had a lot on my mind and was pretty nervous, but as soon as I started I forgot about it all. The only thing I thought was, "Who cares, let's go!"

Q. In the women's race Catherine Ndereba (Kenya) was too far behind and came 2nd because she didn't realize eventual winner Constantina Tomescu (Romania) was ahead of her.

I was travelling at the time so I didn't see that race. I heard about it later, and sure, it was on my mind that that kind of thing could happen, but I'm not the type of guy who runs behind someone else. I was going to run up front no matter what the pace was.

Q. After your race people said, "The summer marathon is never going to be the same."

That makes me happy to hear. I think the Olympics and World Championships are going to be high-pace races from now on. Athletes before now were probably too worried about heat and high humidity. Kenyans haven't won gold up until now because they've been too worried about just winning, too, and have let races become too slow-paced. Africans have the strength to run fast in the heat, and I think they learned from my race that running too slowly is bad. It's all mental. It was a big thing that I went over this wall.

Q. You ran world record pace until 25 km. Do you think you were able to do this because you're a daredevil?

No, of course I have fear. I didn't have any intention of running that fast. I planned to hit halfway in the 63-minute range, but we actually did it in 62:34. When I looked at my watch I thought, "That's a bit too fast," so I dropped back to the rear of the lead pack. I just wanted to rest and check out the other leaders, but Deriba Merga (Ethiopia) started pushing the pace again and so we ended up hitting 25 km in 1:13:58. That was 5 seconds faster than Gebrselassie's world record pace at the time, but when we were running I had no idea.

Q. Were there any tough points?

It got pretty hard after 37 km. I tried to get out on my own, but Jaouad Gharib (Morocco) just wouldn't go away. I watched a DVD of the race afterwards and saw that I looked back many times.

Q. The Olympic marathon was on August 24. What was the final phase of your training like in July and August?

OK, I'll give you a rough idea. I was just doing this kind of thing:

(1) July 9: 38 km cross-country at a slow pace around 4:30 per km
July 10: easy day
July 11: speedwork (400 m x 10)

(2) July 20: 30 km pace run on flat ground in around 1 hour 34 min.
July 21: easy day
July 22: easy day
July 23: speedwork (3000 m x 3)

(3) July 30: 38 km cross-country at a slow pace around 4:30 per km
July 31: easy day
August 1: speedwork (400 m x 10)

(4) August 10: 30 km pace run on flat ground in around 1 hour 34 min.
August 11: easy day
August 12: easy day
August 13: speedwork (3000 m x 3)

Numbers 1-4 are just examples of the 10-day cycle I use which mixes long distance and speedwork. Long runs are for getting rid of fear of the distance and for building your legs, so I do them slow. In Japan people usually do 40 km long runs, but 38 km is enough. It's no problem to keep going another 4 km in the real race. The really important point in doing this run is to do it at around 2400 m altitude somewhere like Goan in Kenya. Your body gets used to altitude without you noticing it. When I'm in Japan my hemoglobin count is around 13, but when I'm at altitude it goes up to 15. All this was what I did before I ran 2:05:24 at the London Marathon, so I wanted to do the same thing in the same place before Beijing.

Other than that, I run about 15 km at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning before I have breakfast. I'd say it's like jogging, or a buildup to something like a pace run. I start around 4 minutes per km, drop it down to 3:30 in the middle, then end up down at about 3 minutes 5 seconds. I always want to finish thinking, "Aaaaah, that felt great. I had a good run." I never do any strength training. You can get enough strength from running on cross-country-type courses. Sundays are off, and if it rains I also take the day off from training. If you train too hard in the summer it's bad for your body.

Q. Is that really it? Japanese runners train much more than that.

That's right, they do. They train way too much. For example, if they have a time trial scheduled and it's raining they do it anyway. If I were them I'd take the day off and wait to do the workout on a nice day. Doing it that way you can run a better time and leave with a better feeling about the workout. Japanese people are too serious about everything and don't like change. If training doesn't go 100% according to schedule or they don't run the times they are targeting they get all out of whack. When they go to do altitude training they try to do exactly the same training menu as when they're on low ground, too. It's bad for your health. At altitude you should run with a slower pace or just less. You should also train less in the summer and do it somewhere as cool as possible.

Q. Do you think Japanese runners can still compete at the world level?

If they train well then no problem. Japanese marathoners are tough. I know it all too well. Before Beijing I thought my biggest competition for the gold medal was going to be Atsushi Sato (Team Chugoku Denryoku). He's got speed, racing skills, and I thought he was good at summer racing.* There are some good university runners too. I can't wait for Yuki Sato (Tokai University) to start marathoning. He's fast and knows how to race.

Q. What are you planning after this?

I'm taking it easy until the end of the year. In terms of the marathon, I'm going to go for the world record either in London in April or Berlin in September. After that I'd like to run Fukuoka again sometime.

*Translator's note: Atsushi Sato finished last in the Beijing Olympics marathon in 2:41:08.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Thanks for posting this fantastic interview! I can't believe that his strategy was still up in the air as late as the day before. I agree that summer marathons will never be the same, although I'm not sure there are many athletes capable of carrying out the same strategy.

One question: in what language was the interview conducted?
Brett Larner said…
You're welcome. The original interview was in Japanese.
Billy said…
I can't stop reading this interview - fantastic to know that Sammy's human and has the same fear/respect for the distance as us age-groupers. Sure coulda fooled me by how he's been running lately..

Thanks again for posting.
Rebeca said…
Samuel Wanjiru, the Olympic marathon champion and World record holder for the Half Marathon, is the top attraction of the sixth edition of the Fortis Half Marathon Rotterdam on Sunday 13 September.
Unknown said…
Wanjiru runs for the right reasons.
It is like Bikila once said: "Don't do it because you want to be glorified, do it because you love it and the glory, winning and rewards will come by themselves." If you are to serious and focused it can become a bad thing.
Anonymous said…
Is this right, that Wanjiru only runs 100 to 125 km in a week?
Anonymous said…
100 to 125km in a week is too low.
First you should know that every morning he had a 15km easy run. Many Kenyans don't run on Sundays so that makes it 6 days a week easy 15km between 7 am to 8 am. Now that makes a total of 90km per week before any other training runs.

That means he was doing about 200 or more km/week but his training was based on a 10 days cycle rather than a weeks cycle.

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