Ten days in Cairo with Jama Aden, Kaki, Ishmail et al

Barry Kitcher recently joined Hampshire County Council and Sport Hampshire & IOW as 2012 Coordinator.  However, in his spare time he’s  a Level 4 Athletics Coach and after 2-days at the new day job, flew out to Portugal for warm-weather training with his elite performance group.  Barry has promised to keep us up to date with his adventures…but first read about his eye-opening experience from Cairo in 2009.  This is the first installment of his educational journey.

As soon as I heard from Phil Tulba that Jama and his group would be spending April in Cairo at the Maadi Olympic centre, and that it coincided with the school Easter holidays, I asked if we could join them.  It meant that our usual group training camp to Monte Gordo in Portugal, where we had been going since 1996 would have to be postponed for a year – a pity as we always looked forward to going there. 

By April it is too hot to train in Khartoum so Jama moves his elite group up to Cairo for 45-days before moving on to his European base in Sweden.  Although the accommodation is something not to be recommended the track (despite one hole) is excellent, really soft and perfect for distance runners to train on.  Also on site are a number of gyms with a wide variety of free weights, which is ideal for the structure of Jama’s programme. 

Phillip first started to tell me about four years ago about something exciting that was starting to happen at the stadium in Khartoum on one of his annual visits to see his family.  He told me about Jama and that he was building a group of very promising young runners including a 15-year old called Kaki.  On a talent scouting trip Jama was invited to watch a schools cross country race where is noticed a skinny kid go straight into the lead eventually finishing 21st.  But what impressed Jama was that every time he was passed he bravely tried as hard as he could to defend his position.  When asked by the organisers which runners he would be interested in Jama surprised them when he pointed at the now exhausted lad, Kaki.  Phil was also very shocked to see that many of the kids were turning up without any training shoes or spikes and that vests and shorts were often torn and rather worse for wear.  Hence K4S (Kit for Sudan) was started with his then Flat mate, Becky Lyne.  In fact Kaki was one of the first recipients of the programme that now provides basic running gear for large numbers of very keen young aspiring runners. 

The main purpose of this trip for me was two fold.  Firstly, to spend time talking to Jama and secondly to watch the athletes train.  Jama is passionate about athletics and his knowledge of the sport amazed me – from his own experiences as an athlete himself (1.46.67 800m 3.37 1500m 3.56 Mile and 7.50.7 for 3000m).  He like many went to America to train under the college system and was coached by Mal Whitfield.  He can remember without any reference to his training diaries all his sessions.  In fact although he records all training in a book, one for each year.  He does not need to refer to them and can remember all the sessions and all the times for each athlete from the time when he started to coach them.  He confesses to not doing a very good job coaching Abdi Bile ( 1.43 800m; 3.30 1500m; 3.49, Mile and of course World Champion) saying that he made a number of mistakes. We spent hours talking about all aspects of distance running both foreign and British (George Gandy aside) I have never met a coach with such an in depth and extensive knowledge of his craft.

Jama is a perfectionist and a hard task master knowing exactly what he wants from each athlete in each session and as a consequence his athletes have complete faith in what they are doing.  He doesn’t however suffer fools and repeatedly said to me that athlete and coach must be on the same page otherwise it is pointless them working together.  He had to overcome incredible opposition in the Sudan when he was appointed National Coach setting up his training system among some people who did not understand very much about running.  However with dogged determination and a belief in what he was doing he has created that all important ‘rising tide’.  The legacy is clear and very impressive. 

The athletes train twice a day, each session lasting between 2-3 hours. When I asked Kaki what time the morning session was he very clearly said 6am sharp (as Muslims they are up at 5am each morning for prayer). After about a 30min warm up Kaki and Abdalla (who looks equally as good as Kaki) did 6x1000m off about 75 secs rec with 5 in 2.48 and 1 in 2.46. They then changed into their spikes and after about 15mins ran 400 (200 jog rec) 200 x2 (7mins between the sets in 52/25 and 51/25.  After this they completed a number of drills, strides and exercises.  When the session was over I looked at my watch and saw that it was 9.20am.  My thoughts immediately were about British athletes and their views about how hard they train! Phil was then down for the afternoon session of 3x1000m 3×400 3×200 with Ishmail (Olympic 800m silver in Beijing), Adnan (an Iraqi who lives in Sweden and a 1.48 Egyptian 800m runner.  Jama was very precise with the expectation the 1kms had to be in 2.45 the 400s in 60 and the 200s in 28. Each rep was off 200 jog recovery and each athlete had to take it in turns taking a rep and if they did not pace it right then they would have to take the next rep.  As a consequence they were very clearly focussed.  The ks were in 2.45, 2.44 and 2.43 then Ishmail ran 2 x 400s in 55 with the 3rd one in 60, the others did 58 59 60.  Ishmail then complained about a niggle in his left calf but Jama would not let him come out of the session (he never does but as he says they never ask to no matter how bad they may be feeling as I was to see with Kaki later in the week).  The session was then completed with the 200s in 27/28. 

Those who had trained in the morning had been for their 50min run and were at the track supporting their team mates and keeping locals from wandering into lane one as they frequently felt the need to do.  But I also watched Kaki and Abdalla do an extensive workout with a medicine ball.  As well as track workouts, which on average they tend to do 2-4 a week – although one of these workouts is Jama’s version of fartlek, which they tend to do on a Friday 10-12 x 2-3mins off 90secs rec – the athletes are regularly in the gym using weights.  This is key to Jama’s approach as he believes in making his athletes very strong.   This in turn enables them to accept and handle the very high training loads.  He says his athletes tend not to get injured (watching the exercises I can see why) after all he says we have no physios in Sudan! They also don’t have proper weights having to use concrete blocks instead…oh how they would love the British High performance centres!!!  This training is underpinned by a lot of steady running.  Kaki as an 18 year old was regularly running 70-80 miles a week with his longest run being an hour.

The next day we were back on the track with Ishmail running 6 x 120 in about 13 secs just to see that his calf was ok he was then off to the gym to hit the weights. Whilst Jama was supervising this and other sessions I timed two 17 year old girls Ehssan (4.08 1500m in Doha this year) and Amina doing 20×200 off 200 jog rec (approx 2mins) in 27/28 ! The last session that I saw was again with Kaki and Abdalla which took place at 5pm on the Friday, the day before we were due to leave.  The session was a mile/600/400/300/200 off 7mins recovery.  What Jama was looking for was to see how this session would compare with that of a year ago before kaki ran 1.42 in Oslo.  This time Kaki was ill with a very bad stomach bug, but he had no intention of cutting the session and made frequent visits to the toilet during the recovery periods.  His face said it all as he was clearly in pain.  Despite this the mile was in 4.03 the 600 in 79 the 400 in 52 the 300 in 38 and then after 3mins the 200 in 26 overall better than a year ago which was some consolation for a crumpled Kaki, who was just about to disappear to the toilet again! 

On our last night kaki took us out to his favourite restaurant, McDonalds ( a treat for him as he is not allowed to0 many of these), and when we returned to the hotel we sat with the whole group outside and talked.  I kept thinking back to the UK and the ‘Facebook/Generation X Factor’ athletes that many of us as coaches have in our training group.  As we drank soft drinks – they do not drink alcohol – they wanted to know what I thought about what I had seen and what I thought of each of them as athletes.  I said that I had had my eyes opened and had learnt more in the short period of time that I had been with them, than on any coaching course.  I was impressed with their attitude and focus and commitment and that British athletes could learn a lot from the group of teenagers that were sitting in front of me, pointing out that there are too many in the UK who want to be successful but who are not prepared to embrace the lifestyle required to achieve it.  When I spoke about them individually they were very humble, especially Kaki.  We agreed to meet again in Berlin at the World Championships and having just spoken to Jama we hope to see them before as he has invited us again to the DN Galan Grand Prix in Stockholm. 

What was very clear to me was that if Ian Stewart wants British vests in finals over the middle distances in London in 3 years time, then he would do well to have a very serious conversation with Jama as I saw an answer to the acres of pages of criticism that we constantly read in the media about British distance running.

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Posted on 14/04/2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Super awesome writing. Honest.

  2. You have done it once again. Incredible writing.

  3. Jama was my assistant coach in college and is the REAL DEAL.

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