Relishing the cool breeze which swept across Kipchoge Keino Stadium on the outskirts of the northwestern Kenyan town of Eldoret, Chinese runner Dong Guojian proved his athletic mojo as he made dozens of laps on the track.
Kenya's success in long-distance running has long been sought by people and athletes from many parts of the world, including Chinese marathoners who have come here in droves to learn and train.
China's men's marathon team has arrived in Kenya to train with world record holder Kipchoge and his teammates ahead of next year's World Championships in Budapest. A total of 13 athletes from the Chinese team, including Dong Guojian, Yang Shaohui and Peng Jianhua, who attended the athletics worlds in Oregon, U.S., participated in the training.
35-year-old marathoner Dong Guojian and his peers from China's national track and field team have pitched camp in Eldoret, Kenya's heartland for marathoners, to train jointly with local icons of long-distance races.
But Dong is not new to Kenya. In 2007, his first international competition was here. "I was deeply touched by Kenyans' love for running, and I knew I would have more of a connection to this place." He told Xinhua that since 2018, he has been traveling to Kenya to train as part of the assembled team.
At the Kipchego Keino stadium, named after the legendary marathoner, Dong and his Chinese teammates run head to head with some of Kenya's biggest names in field and track.
"When you are running around world-class athletes, it brings out your potential and makes you train harder," Dong said, adding that he hopes to be in the best shape for future international events. He beat the odds at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon this July to finish 23rd, clocking an impressive 2:11:14, a historic feat for a Chinese male long-distance runner at the World Championships.
A majority of Chinese marathoners currently training in Kenya are training abroad for the first time, but are determined to improve their prowess at elite racing events.
Yan Tao, from China's marathon team, said their training in Kenya, though grueling, has also improved the athletes' endurance, focus and speed. Yan noted that by training jointly with their Kenyan peers, Chinese athletes have learned vital skills and techniques which can help them to become stars in track and field.
"The Kenyan athletes are talented, we can learn from their endurance and persistence," said Yan, adding that the joint training will also inject vitality into the China-Kenya friendship.
Three times a week, China's long-distance runners join their Kenyan peers for early morning and evening exercises in the rugged and treacherous high-altitude landscapes on the outskirts of Eldoret town. It is said that there are only four standard plastic fields in the whole of Kenya, which is certainly not an obstacle to producing top-distance runners.
The World Athletics Federation in August announced the qualifying system and performance criteria for the Budapest World Championships. Compared with the World Championships in Oregon, which was called "the most difficult in history," the 2023 World Championships in Budapest set a much higher bar. The qualifying standards for the men's marathon was raised from 2:11:30 in 2022 to 2:09:40 for the 2023 championships.
"The raise of qualifying standards has undoubtedly made it more difficult for Chinese marathoners to qualify for the World Championships. But my team are working unremittingly towards that goal," said the team leader.
37-year-old Kipchoge, a double Olympic marathon champion, hailed the impeccable performance of Chinese athletes. "Chinese athletes train very hard and are very enthusiastic about long-distance running events," Kipchoge remarked.
Xiao Li, coach of China's national track and field team, likened the joint training program to "dancing with wolves", adding that besides enduring rough terrain, the marathoners learned crucial techniques like focus, positive attitude and fortitude during their interaction with Kenya's racing icons like Kipchoge.
Gideon Kipchirchir, a 33-year-old half marathon champion, said he was delighted to train with Chinese athletes since 2018, adding that the experience has been mutually rewarding. Kipchirchir hailed his Chinese counterparts for their competitiveness, agility and drive.
"The Chinese athletes are like our brothers. I look forward to more cooperation in long-distance running between China and Kenya. I believe more and more Chinese runners are appearing in international marathons," said Kipchirchir.
According to statistics released by the Chinese Athletics Association in February, the total number of Chinese middle/long distance runners registered in 2022 reached 4,948. Among them, 16 new participants registered for the marathon, bringing the total registered marathoners to 63.