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Kenya’s brightest ‘rabbit’ sets the pace
Posted on Thursday, May 23rd, 2013 at 7:01 am
Pacemakers, rabbits, or whatever you wish to call them are the most unsung heroes and heroines of global athletics.
For the uninitiated, these are runners contracted to set the pace in major races, usually running at a controlled pace with the aim of “pulling” the elite fields behind them to pre-projected times in distance running.
On the track, these ‘rabbits’ are assigned lap times while on the roads, they cover each kilometre in a pre-determined time, the chief reason usually being to inspire the elites to records times.
As you would expect, Kenya has produced as many world leading ‘rabbits’ as the distance running champions.
The ‘rabbits’ made their famous debut in athletics sensationally in 1954 when Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway set the pace for Briton Roger Bannister’s first sub-four minute mile (3:59.4).
University of Arizona alumnus, Martin Keino, is, perhaps, Kenya’s most celebrated ‘rabbit’, pacing seven distance running world records clocked by Ethiopian legends Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Kenya’s Daniel Komen.
But one ‘rabbit’ who has stealthily paced himself to enviable achievements is 31-year-old Stephen Chemlany, the 2011 Berlin Marathon silver medallist.
While we recall Patrick Makau cruising to a marathon world record time of 2:03.38, most of us can hardly remember who came crossed the famous Brandenburg Gate in second place.
Well, Chemlany only realised he was second after crossing the line and saw Makau celebrating his landmark achievement.
“I had been contracted to pace the second group, because of my rather poor personal best time of 2:14 which I ran at the Dalian Marathon in China. This group had runners like Mariko Kipchumba and Felix Limo,” Chemlany, a masters graduate from the Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, recalls.
“We were told to pace the group until the 30-kilometre mark, on a 2:06 pace (targeting a winner’s finishing time of two hours and six minutes),” he explains.
“But at the 30-kilometre mark, I decided to go for a finish. I had already indicated to the race director that I wanted to finish, and being my first big race in Europe and on course for a personal best time, I told myself ‘make hay while the sun shines’ and went all the way to the finish.
“Mariko followed but the pace was too fast and he, along with other athletes, failed to finish…
“I didn’t know I was second overall until I crossed the finish line and saw Makau celebrating and people cheering – I was chasing a good time but I didn’t know that I was also chasing Makau!
“I was really proud to be part of a world record race. Although I was a bit far behind, I was proud to have been part of that race… perhaps I even contributed to Makau’s time by chasing him from behind,” said the Kakamega High School old boy who clocked a personal best 2:07:55 in the Berlin race.
Chemlany is married to fellow athlete Emily Chelanga and the couple have a seven-year-old daughter, Faith Chepchumba.
While Chepchumba is back home with her dad, Chelanga, whose alma mater is Tambach Teacher Training College, is pursuing undergraduate studies in economics and taxation in New York.
After completing his maters in computer science in New York and a brief stint as a professional club runner at Westchester Track Club, Chemlany returned to Kenya in 2009.
“I decided to return because the Kenyan athletes who were running well in the US trained at high altitude in Kenya,” he explains his decision.
“In the US, one needs to work alongside training to survive because it’s too expensive, especially in New York, and I wanted to focus on my training and so I came back and started training in my home in Kitale, and that’s what led to my big breakthrough at the Berlin Marathon in 2011.”
Chemlany’s focus now is to gradually improve on his time and run a 2:05. “And to do that, I must train as a professional athlete,” he explains his decisions to put his career in computer science on hold.
Why not attack Makau’s world record, or a sub-2:04 time for that matter? “It has to be gradual,” he quips. “Some guys have never recovered from that Berlin race (in 2011) because the pace was simply too high and caused some injuries.”
Chemlany says he wants to keep on running and running before eventually diving into a career in computer science.
Name: Stephen Kwelio Chemlany
Date of birth: January 1, 1982
Home town: Kitale
Personal best: 2:07:55 (Berlin, 2011)
Other marathon times:
2011: Dalian Marathon, 1st, 2:14:15
2011: Tiberias Marathon, 1st, 2:10:02
2010: Macau Marathon, 2nd, 2:16:22
2010: Dalian Marathon, 1st, 2:13:10
2010: Tiberias Marathon, 6th, 2:13:23
2009: Country Music Marathon, 4th, 2:16:14