Brother O'Connell and the 800m world record-holder, David Rudisha,
being interviewed by Irish TV. Photograph: Adharanand Finn for the Guardian
'The secret is that you think there's a secret'
Adharanand Finn meets Brother Colm O'Connell, the man behind many of Kenya's greatest runners.
At the heart of Iten sits St Patrick's high school. Set up in 1961 by Irish Patrician Brothers, it is in many ways a typical Kenyan secondary school. In other ways, though, it is a quite remarkable school.
Along one wall in the large, dimly lit dining room, beyond the rows of long benches and tables, is the school's wall of fame. It's full of framed photographs of runners. If you look closely, you'll spot an incredible array of Kenya's most celebrated athletes. There's the former St Patrick's student Wilson Kipketer (three-times world champion and former 800m world record holder) planting a tree in the school grounds, while Richard Chelimo and Matthew Birir sit on a sofa showing off their medals after the 1992 Olympics. Another grainy shot shows the 1988 Olympic gold medallist Peter Rono hurtling around a dusty track.
I'm sitting at one of the tables under the pictures, eating jam and Blue Band sandwiches with a red-faced Irishman. Brother Colm O'Connell is a living legend here in Kenya, although he's reluctant to admit it.
"Ah, the legend is bigger than the man," he says smiling.
He joined St Patrick's as a teacher in 1976 and became headteacher in 1986. But it is his role in athletics that he is most famous for.
"I didn't know anything when I started out," he tells me. "But I learnt from watching the athletes."
Brother Colm started coaching kids at the school in the late-1970s and had a lot of success at national level, so in 1986 he was asked to pick the Kenyan team for the first ever world junior championships in Athens. Despite only taking nine athletes, mostly from the local area, the Kenyan team won nine medals.
"It was then I thought, there's something here," says O'Connell. So a few years later he started the first Kenyan running camp. Today there are over 100 camps in Kenya and most of the top athletes live and train in one. But back then it was a novel idea.
Initially his camp was just for schoolgirls and it took place in the school holidays. Today, sitting on the tables next to us, are about 15 teenagers quietly drinking tea and eating dry bread. They're here for the Easter camp.
"They don't like jam," says O'Connell, reaching for another sandwich and then leaning back against the peeling wall, his feet up on the bench. "So these are just for the coaches."
Despite the fact that O'Connell is no longer a teacher at the school, he still lives on the compound with four senior athletes whom he has coached since they were juniors. Among his small ranks are the former Commonwealth champion Augustine Choge and the IAAF world athlete of the year and 800m world record-holder, David Rudisha.
Rudisha has a wife and young daughter in the nearby town of Eldoret but he lives in O'Connell's camp in order to remain completely focused on his training.
We sit for a moment in silence, munching on the sandwiches, the sound of pots clanking in the kitchen, huge vats of beans being prepared for lunch. O'Connell has been interviewed and written about so often that there's not much else to ask. "It's all there if you Google it, or whatever it is," he says. He has also seen his fair share of scientists and academics coming to discover the secret of the Kenyan runners.
"We even had one man from Sweden who wanted to analyse the ugali," he tells me. Ugali is a simple, doughy food staple made from maize flour. "I told him to [take] some of the flour home to test it, but he said he needed to cook it at altitude, in Kenyan water, in a Kenyan pot." O'Connell is incredulous at the idea.
Did he discover anything? I ask. "Absolutely nothing," says O'Connell, almost spitting in delight.
"People come to find the secret, but you know what the secret is? That you think there's a secret. There is no secret." I haven't mentioned a secret but he's fuming now, his arms folded across his chest.
Sitting opposite him, as serene as a poet, is his young assistant, Ian Kiprono. He suggests we join the rest of the athletes who are outside doing drills.
The athletes run around the sports field while O'Connell and Kiprono watch over them. O'Connell says he is interested to see which athletes have good rhythm. Form is a vital part of O'Connell's methodology. One popular theory is that Kenyan runners are so good simply because they train harder than everyone else. However, O'Connell's athletes seem to spend a lot of time working on their running style, gliding around smoothly, one behind the other, at a comfortable pace. They also do yoga and pilates every morning, as well as exercises designed to improve their form.
It's all a far cry from the daily rush of athletes I'm used to joining in with, hurtling up and down Iten's hills like a troop of warriors charging in to battle. What does O'Connell think about all those guys?
"Well, it's better than sniffing glue in Eldoret," he says. "But my runners are elite athletes. They're not running their hearts out in a vague hope that someone will notice them and send them off to a race."
And with that, suddenly, he's gone. His young athletes, including, no doubt, many stars of the future, finish their strides and slowly amble away across the grass back to their dormitories. The late morning sun is getting strong now, shining in my eyes. I head off down the dusty track into town, back to the masses, the scores of non-elite Kenyan runners, the mere mortals, each one a hundred times faster than me.
• The book Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn will be published in 2012.