Breaking 4 minutes for the mile on grass the Kenyan way

Collins Cheboi stole the show at the 2011 Stawell Gift running 3.56.67 on grass in the Herb Hedemann 1600m: not quite a mile, but after you read the full circumstances of the run, you’ll agree it was a truly extraordinary achievement.

Sometimes running throws up surprises. This one happened at an Australian Rules Football ground called Central Park in Stawell, a small town inside the state of Victoria in south-eastern Australia. Every Easter, the cream of Australia’s athletic talent descends on this modest town of 6000 residents to enjoy the Stawell Gift Athletics Carnival. Most famous for its Sheffield Distance (120m) handicap sprint race, the so named “Stawell Gift” – a race that carries over $60,000 Australian dollars in prize money.

This year the organizers had managed to attract 2003 world 100m champion Kim Collins to race in that event. However, the run that stole the show was the 3.56.67 performance of Kenyan Collins Cheboi in the Herb Hedemann Invitation 1600m. As the starter marshaled the runners few were expecting the Cheboi charge that followed.

For the uninitiated, the Victorian Athletic League (VAL) organizes a series of events – all run on grass tracks over the course of the Australian summer.  These culminate in the Easter weekend where traditionally Stawell has been the last and most prestigious of the athletics meetings held.  This footrace has history stretching back 130 years into the gold rush days when now tiny Stawell harbored a population of 200,000+ fortune seekers.  This year as the famous town hall clock began to chime out 1pm, a select field of 25 national standard and more than handy sub-elite 1500m runners stood spread out over their allotted handicaps for the Herb Hedemann invitation 1600m.  These runners were chasing prestige as much as the chance of winning a brightly colored silken sash and novelty sized cheque, for the prize money was a modest $5000, with $2,250 allocated for the winner.

Almost all races organized by the VAL are handicapped by distance; with slower runners afforded a head-start on faster competitors.  It makes for entertaining racing and gives more than a sporting chance to those of humbler abilities.  In fact, often runners try to outfox the handicapper by deliberately underachieving or running dead, until they are allocated what they perceive to be a winning mark.  Runners known for their surprising ability to produce stunning improvements to win a race at Stawell have also been seen cleaning out the bookmakers with dramatic last-minute betting plunges.  This all adds to the intrigue of racing at Stawell over the Easter long weekend.

It’s worth noting that in this race, the competitors were of a high standard – about 4 minute or faster 1500m runners with many times on the record available for scrutiny, so the handicaps were about as fair and transparent as possible.  The front marker was given a 110m head start on Kenyan Collins Cheboi, the owner of a 3:33.82 1500m personal best.  The front marker would run 1490m, whereas Cheboi, running from the 0m scratch mark, would complete the full 1600m journey.  Also in the field was Brenton Rowe, the third place getter in the 2011 Australian 1500m championships with a personal best of 3.39.68, running off 25m and Philo Saunders, a former winner of “the Herb” and a consistent National 1500m finalist over the past 10 years, with a personal best of 3.41.22 – Saunders running off 35m.

Earlier in the weekend Cheboi had blown up spectacularly after reeling off a 53 second lap during a chase for victory in the back-markers mile, so a few of the wise old heads about town considered he didn’t have the racing nous to chase down the seasoned group of competitors entered in the Herb Hedemann 1600m.  Handicap running is all about expending your energy as wisely as possible.  Over the years at Stawell I’ve seen a few national standard distance runners, sporting the back-marker’s red vest, out-kicked by a runner of lesser ability.  Such is the nature of handicaps by distance; the back marker not only has to run faster, but also cover more ground.  This can leave the men in red vulnerable in the closing stages as they have expended all their energy to make the catch, leaving little in reserve to raise a kick in the run for home.

Collins Cheboi is clearly a fast learner, because this time he expended his energy more wisely,  peeling off a slightly more conservative 1.54 for the first 800m!  Running is such a sport of relativity, a runner of Cheboi’s class was making some very good runners look pedestrian as he began working through the colored jerseys of some solid citizens of the mile.  A 60 second third lap looked explosive as the field settled down, Cheboi running around the field was good enough to hit the front with 400m to run.  His courageous style of running had the crowd on their feet and the commentators struggling to find the right superlatives to describe what was quickly developing into a very special piece of middle distance running.

As the final lap unfolded Cheboi looked for a moment as if the chase had caught up with him, as he slowed slightly and Brenton Rowe threatened with a well-paced run, but to the delight of his adoring fans, Collins Cheboi managed to summon the energy to kick home for a comfortable win.

While 1600m is a short mile, consider three factors that make this an exceptional run.  Running wide and in traffic for much of the race would have to mean that if Cheboi didn’t run the full 1609.344m, he must have come close.  Peter Coe suggests that running on the outside of the inside lane is equivalent to running an extra 1.6m per lap – so we’ll give Collins at least an extra 5m for the first three laps when he ran wide on the bends, sometimes three or four abreast. Further, the psychological impact of chasing on performance can’t be underestimated, seeing runners spread out over 100m ahead of you is bound to get the blood pumping and force you to expend more effort than needed in the early stages.

The slower second half of the race and Collins Cheboi hitting the lead with 400m to run is a testament to this phenomenon.  And I didn’t mention, that at Stawell and in professional foot racing, runners are not allowed to wear a watch, therefore judging pace becomes a critical element in handicap racing.  Finally, running on grass tracks must be something of a shock to the system for runners accustomed to the energy returning properties of modern rubber athletics tracks.  However, given the cross country pedigree of most Kenyan runners, perhaps this wasn’t as much of a barrier to Collins Cheboi as to some of the local runners.

I hope Collins Cheboi comes back to Stawell in 2012, his fearless, swashbuckling running was entertaining to watch and something that few who witnessed it will be likely to forget.

Watch Collins Cheboi storm to victory on YouTube courtesy of OneHD and Jump Media Marketing.

Watch on YouTube

For a close to the ground perspective, inclusive of dodgy camera work, watch it on Running Technique TV.

Watch on Running Technique TV

Running at Stawell must be good for you, Collins Cheboi has twice lowered his personal best over 1500m since this race. His PB now stands at 3.32.45

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