Larry Eder notes on this story by Cathal Dennehy:
After his magnifiscent win in London, my queries to Eliud Kipchoge regarding his coach, his training regimen and his training group were met with a wide smile. “I am confident because of my coach, my training and my training group.” noted Eliud. When I asked him the size of his training group, the smile continued, and he said, ” Big.” It was quite clear, from this amazing athlete, that Patrick Sang plays a huge part in his success. Any coach suggest 1000 meter repeats, but Eliud Kipchoge loves 13 times 1000 meters! His ability to cover every move in the 26.2 miles of the London marathon is a special talent, which has been nurtured by Patrick Sang, perhaps the finest, or if not that, one of the finest coaches in the world.
Patrick Sang would never suggest that he is the finest coach in the world. We let Cathal Dennehy say it in the following feature.
Question: Who is the world’s greatest coach?
If you’re into team sports, then perhaps Pep Guardiola, Steve Kerr or Bill Belichick popped into your mind. If track and field is your thing, then the names Glen Mills, Alberto Salazar and Dan Pfaff are probably on your shortlist.
However a man you may not have considered – one who quietly plies his trade 8,000ft high in Kenya’s Rift Valley – has long been staking his claim to coaching greatness.
His name is Patrick Sang, a 52-year-old who once upon a time was a very, very good athlete, but is now a truly great coach.
Last Sunday, his star protégé, Eliud Kipchoge trounced the field to take victory at the London Marathon, running the second fastest time in history – usurping, as it happens, his training partner Emmanuel Mutai, another of Sang’s athletes.
As the champion crossed the line in 2:03:05, something happened in the media centre I’ve yet to encounter at any other marathon, or indeed any other race. The assembled media – not an easily impressed bunch – broke into applause, the entire room taking time out from their work to offer a moment of appreciation for a display of pure sporting perfection.
Little did most of them know, but minutes later the architect of that performance was moving among them, humbly going about his business, seeing no need to hog the limelight from his star protégé, who has been at the top of his sport for 13 years now.
How, I asked Sang, has Kipchoge managed such longevity in a sport so attritional?
“The unique thing about Eliud and all great athletes is they really love the sport to begin with,” he said. “When you love something, you always do your best. It’s like a parent who loves their children: the children will turn out to be good people. Because he loves his sport, he has always tried to do his best for the sport.”
If you thought Sang’s nurturing of Kipchoge into a world-beater may just be a rare anomaly – that Kipchoge is an athlete so talented and durable he would succeed under any coach – you would think wrong.
For many years now, Sang has churned out champions with the frequency of a well-oiled production line. It was he who coached Emmanuel Mutai to the second fastest marathon of all time (2:03:13) back in 2014 and to London Marathon glory in 2011.
Last year he coached Hyvin Jepkemoi to world championship gold in the 3,000m steeplechase, an athlete he believes typifies the characteristics needed to succeed.
“She’s not the most talented athlete, but she’s well focused,” says Sang. “Some athletes are so talented but they don’t give their best. I always try to tell the athletes to give their best, no matter what level – always give your best.” When Sang offers that advice to his athletes, he commands instant respect, for he’s been there, done that, and got the medals to prove it.
Sang won back-to-back silver medals in the 3000m steeplechase at the world championships in 1991 and 1993 – beaten on both occasions by Kenyan great Moses Kiptanui – and in 1992 he won an Olympic silver medal in the same event.
As an athlete, he was an exception to the norm, coaching himself and gradually learning the lessons he would apply to his athletes over a decade later.
“I coached athletes before I was ever an official coach,” he says. “Then from 2000 until 2005 I went for official training to become a coach.”
Since then, his roll of honour as a coach is highly decorated – there’s reigning Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich, former Olympic steeplechase champions Brimin Kipruto and Reuben Kosgei, former world 5000m champion Richard Limo, Chicago and London Marathon winner Felix Limo, and many, many more.
While Kipchoge is currently his best athlete, there seems little doubt who will inherit that mantle in the future. It’s the man who will pose the biggest threat to Mo Farah at the Olympic Games this summer, the 23-year-old Kenyan who is world cross country and world half marathon champion: Geoffrey Kamworor.
It’s a testament to Sang’s style that Kamworor has already developed a wisdom which belies his youth, a professionalism moulded in no small way by Kipchoge, the man Kamworor calls his role model.
“They are good friends,” says Sang. “I saw the messages they were writing to each other before the race. They learn a lot from each other, especially with the motivational aspect.”
At the heart of Sang’s approach is a common-sense approach to training, a willingness to embrace and adjust according to an athlete’s individual requirements. “Every athlete has their own strength,” he says. “You have to see each athlete on their own merit.”
At Sang’s training base in Kaptagat, there are no frills, very basic housing, but a horde of athletes work extremely hard under his guidance. “Material things are immaterial when it comes to excellence in athletics,” says Sang.
Though he directly coaches just a handful of athletes, up to 100 will often seek his advice and turn up to sessions, and Sang is happy to oblige them once they don’t get in the way of his stars.
Sang recruits and trains talent primarily for two management agencies: Michel Boeting’s One4One Sports and Jos Hermens’ Global Sports Communication.
“We have a small group of athletes, but they live like a family, and they motivate one another a lot,” says Sang. “It’s based on trust. I started coaching Eliud from youth level all the way until now and he has never asked me in his life: why are we doing this? He does it exactly as it is and you can see the results. If you don’t have that trust with your athlete, it’s always difficult. You have to win that trust.”
And before Kipchoge’s historic run in London, what final words of advice did he offer his protégé?
“I just told him to relax,” said Sang. “I didn’t tell him so much. I believe in my training. The way we train our athletes is to be self-dependant, instead of relying on us. We try to build self-confidence, so when it comes to the race, they’ve developed it as part of the training.”
Given Kipchoge appears to have the marathon world at his mercy, and Kamworor the same at the half marathon, I ask Sang if he believes the younger of his protégés can finally be the man to topple Mo Farah later this summer.
“He beat Mo already this year!” says Sang with a smile. “If all goes well for Kamworor, though, I think he is the athlete to beat at the Olympics.”
And if he can achieve the impossible – if Sang can coach Kamworor to beat the unbeatable Farah in Rio – then his name should enter every debate about the identity of world’s best coach.
For too long, he’s been an anonymous creator of champions, but no more. It’s time to acknowledge the greatness of Patrick Sang who is also the CEC Youth & Sports in Nandi County.