It's not often that track stories are told by major sports media outlets. It's so rare, in fact, that I remember clearly in 2007 or 2008, my Freshman year of college, securing prime real-estate in the campus game room to get access to a TV to watch Macharia Yuot--a lost boy of Sudan and DIII distance stud--get his 10-15 minutes of fame on E:60. That that was a big deal says a lot about the level of attention track athletes receive in the media.
Tonight is set to be another of those events where you gather all your track fan friends around a TV to watch the athletes you know and root for get their limited national exposure. The latest installment of Vice World of Sports will be featuring the story of Zane and Jake (mostly Zane) Robertson, two New Zealand runners who have spent the last nine years or so training in Kenya with the best distance runners in the world in the town of Iten.
We had an opportunity to watch the episode before tomorrow's airing and speak with Executive Producer Evan Rosenfeld. He described the project as trying to put a new spin on the story behind what is going on in Iten--the town that has produced David Rudisha and Wilson Kipsang.
Essentially, the story is usually about ITen and how the runners are born great there and what we try to show with this, what we’re trying to look into is: Is this just something you’re born with or is there something more about the area that’s more than genetics. And you learn and train like the guys from Iten are doing, can you capture some of what’s created off that. Jake and Zane took on a bit of an experiment themselves...
You see them at first and say “what’s up with these guys!?” and kind of don’t like them just based on how they look and talk and their attitude. Then, as you peel back the layers you understand what they’ve done, what they’re about, and how hard they train. What everything means to them. It makes you really get attached to what they’re trying to do and root for them. They’re special guys. ...I thought it was a story that needed to be told.
Crammed into a half-hour television slot, the story moves at a rapid pace, but the story comes out. Jake is currently injured, so the program focuses more on Zane, who will compete in the 10000m in Rio this summer. Since taking up camp in Kenya, Zane has seen a tremendous amount of success, most notable among which are a third place finish in the 5000m at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and a 59:47 half marathon performance in 2015.
Instead of telling the story of their success, Rosenfeld focuses in on the struggles Zane and Jake went through to get to where they are now:
These guys almost died a couple times. You see the election violence [following the 2007 presidential election] and they caught a parasite that you usually need to have your feet amutated for--they were drinking water from a well a dead cow was in. And they told them, 'this has happened before. Everyone who has had this has died. How are these guys still alive?' And someone said, 'you’re not drinking from that well, are you?' and they were. And they were like, 'there’s a dead cow rotting in the bottom of it.' These guys went through a lot and that’s part of what we figured out--it’s so hard to become a great long distance runner.
That sort of struggle, the documentary contends, is at least as important to the success runners find in Iten as the altitude and whatever genetic factors might favor Kenyan runners. Of interest is that the rotting-cow-in-the-well story doesn't make it into the narrow time window. However, I've been assured that omitted clips will be made available later in the week on the Viceland Youtube channel that will include this scary and funny story.
But as important as the struggle, for Jake and Zane, has been the consistency of their training, which has come from their extended amount of time in Iten, Kenya. Rome wasn't built in a day, and the success of the Kenyan runners isn't something you can simulate or capture in a brief exposure to altitude or their training methods. Rosenfeld says:
The altitude is obviously a part of it, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. And they, either by accident or on purpose ended up getting a lot of the other pieces of the puzzle in terms of where they lived, how they lived, the things they went through, and the choices they made in the moment. I don’t know that it was some part of a big plan, but they just made the choices. Now, looking back, they understand what got them there.
There's a moment in the the documentary where Wilson Kipsang captures the main thrust of the piece. Discussing the approach to training in Iten, Kipsang notes that running is an investment that takes a long time to pay off. SettingSetting the world record in the marathon, he says, is the product of 10 years of work.
And that's the main takeaway from this. Zane and Jake Robertson haven't been successful because they went to Kenya; they've been successful because they stayed in Kenya and learned from the struggles they've endured and years of training put in the bank.
Jake and Zane Roberton's story will premier on the Viceland channel tonight at 11pm and can be accessed any time after that via Viceland.com or the Viceland app. Outtakes and deleted scenes--including the Tale of the Rotting Cow--will be available on the Viceland Youtube page on Friday.
Check out the (very brief) preview of the documentary: