When Joshua Cheptegei made history to wipe 1.99 seconds from Kenenisa Bekele’s world 5000m record in Monaco in August, it generated an outpouring of ecstasy in a mild-mannered Dutchman situated some 9000 kilometres away in Uganda.
“I’d been following the race by livestream and after he set the record I was leaping around the house, I was very happy,” explains Cheptegei’s coach, Addy Ruiter.
Yet despite the inevitable nerves Ruiter experienced that night, he was also very optimistic.
Some four weeks earlier, Cheptegei completed a track session on a far from standard grass oval track in Kapchorwa which filled his coach with confidence.
“That day, Joshua showed me he was in 12:30 shape (for the 5000m) and at a much higher level than Bekele’s 12:37 (5000m world record),” he said. “Knowing he was that much further ahead of the world record was important because we knew the likely hot conditions he would face in Monaco would slow him down a little.”
Still aged just 23, the world cross country and 10,000m champion appears armed with all the qualities to become the dominant distance runner of his generation.
After taking down Bekele’s world 5000m record his next target is the Ethiopian’s 15-year-old world 10,000m record of 26:17.53 which he will attack on 7 October in Valencia.
Some ten days later the Ugandan sensation will make his eagerly-awaited debut over the 21.1km distance at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 in Poland where he will look to claim his first world road title.
‘Coaching was in my blood’
His potential looks limitless, yet behind every great athlete is always a great coach and there is little doubt the avuncular Ruiter ticks all the boxes as a knowledgeable and innovative foil for the super-talented Cheptegei.
Born and raised in the small city of Papendrecht in western Holland, Ruiter was a handy schoolboy athlete but with a curious nature he was quickly drawn to coaching and recalls guiding a number of runners as a high school student.
“Coaching was in my blood,” he says.
Yet running and coaching back then could not dislodge his passion for travel. With an interest in the world around him and a desire to experience different cultures, he would spend periods of time working to save enough money to visit many far flung parts of the world.
He travelled extensively through Asia, spent prolonged periods in Australia and in total has visited 97 countries around the globe.
The Dutchman re-engaged with running for a short period of time around the age of 30. He trained hard and whittled his 10km personal best down to 30 minutes. Then the travel bug took over once again.
“I was someone with a talent but not enough of a talent to train so for a long period of time,” he adds.
A growing passion to help others fulfil their dreams
Yet around the age of 40 he had an epiphany of sorts.
“I’d seen many beautiful places in my life but I think I’d reached a time in my life when I wanted to give back to others,” he explains.
“I had fulfilled my dreams by travelling, I thought it would be nice to fulfil the dreams of others. I was always interested in the theory of coaching, I’d read about it from a young age. I thought I had the knowledge and the skills for it, and that’s how my coaching journey started.”
His initial coaching foray some 17 years ago was guiding his girlfriend who at the time was one of the Netherlands’ leading triathletes. Ruiter earned some success as a triathlon coach while his athletics coaching adventure started to take off after coming into contact with a young 15-year-old athlete Roy Hoornweg. Under Ruiter’s guidance the Dutch athlete has developed into 13:31 5km runner and today acts as a regular pacemaker to Cheptegei.
Relocating to Uganda
Around eight years ago he began focusing exclusively on athletics coaching, and, enjoying a growing reputation, was presented with a dream opportunity five years ago by Jurrie van der Velden, manager at Global Sports Communication manager.
“Jurrie was the manager of Roy Hoornweg when he asked me if I wanted to write the training programmes for the Ugandan athletes he managed,” explains Ruiter. “I had a good feeling from the beginning, I had already seen Joshua win 10,000m gold at the 2014 World U20 Championships, and because the job would also combine my other passion of travel, I accepted.”
Dividing his time between the Netherlands and Uganda, his experience of sampling many different cultures unquestionably smoothed his transition into the role.
His accommodations in rural Kapchorwa sometimes lacked water and electricity, but the cosmopolitan Ruiter found it was no hardship drawing water from a well or spending his evenings reading by candlelight.
“All the travelling and experiences I’d had, helped me fit into life in Uganda,” he explains. “I’d always been one to respect other cultures, and I think that helped win the athletes respect.”
“Step by step” he has slowly transformed the culture of the athletes based in Kapchorwa, offering a clear explanation for every training session and helping instil a greater sense of discipline among the 15 or so athletes he coaches there.
Yet from the early days in the camp, it was clear Cheptegei was the star pupil.
“He was an exceptional talent from the moment I started working with him,” says Ruiter, who also coaches several Ugandan athletes in Kampala including world 800m champion Halimah Nakaayi. “He always listened carefully and followed instructions. He was very flexible in his approach and his body responded well to the training.”
Challenging training conditions a ‘blessing’
Ruiter has never viewed coaching in Kapchorwa a challenge yet the training environment is far from ideal.
The group have access to a bumpy and undulating grass track which measured at around 405 or 406 metres. It includes a sharp 50 metre downhill section, a flat 100 metre stretch and a gradual 250 metre climb.
Longer runs from the camp rarely include any flat stretches with some of the runs including climbs at a 25 to 30% gradient.
Ruiter isn’t complaining. He believes the training environment, which is situated around 2000m above sea level in eastern Uganda, is actually a blessing.
“Maybe one of the reasons the athletes are so good is because of our training environment,” he insists. “The slightly undulating track means the athletes are never running at the same rhythm and that is why for my athletes a change of rhythm is not much of a problem. Our training environment is also much more stressful on the neuromuscular system. A system that, in my opinion, does not get the attention it should receive in the training theory. One of the running sessions we do every week in certain periods is fully focused on this and is essential for the running economy of the athlete.
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My last special session before NN Valencia World Record Day. With the help of my team mates I succeed. Program was: 2x1000m 3x800m 4x600m 5x400m 6x150m Count down, just 12days to go. @vcrunning @nnrunningteam #worldrecordattempt #valenciacity #runner #squadgoals #Ugandarunners🇺🇬🇺🇬
“The easy long and short recovery runs being so hilly gives them strength both physically and mentally. The impact of running slower up the hills is not so great on their legs and it helps develop their heart and lungs.”
Ruiter has also played around with Cheptegei’s periodisation programme, which allows the Ugandan to peak not just once or twice a year but multiple times as evidenced last year, when he won the world cross country title in March, the Diamond League 5000m crown in August and the world 10,000m title in October before he broke the world 10km road record in December and world 5km record on the roads in February.
While naturally a little coy to give away too many secrets as to his precise approach to periodisation, Ruiter adds: “For the past two years we have succeeded in every big goal we have set. The simple reason for his success is he has been in the best shape to deliver when it matters most.”
Stationed in Uganda during lockdown
Possessing a naturally positive persona, Ruiter also believes the global Coronavirus pandemic has presented ”advantages” for him and the training group.
After the borders began shutting down in the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, Ruiter was forced into making a decision to return to the Netherlands or remain in Uganda. He chose the latter option and he believes working day in and day out with his athletes has proved invaluable.
“To be able to give Joshua support for the past eight months is one of the reasons he is at the level he is,” explains Ruiter. “He is still a young athlete, so to have that daily support is still important. It has also allowed me to adjust the training sessions, where necessary.”
The pair enjoy a close relationship and you get the sense that Cheptegei is only in the opening chapters of what could be a very special career.
“Joshua says he wants to be the best athlete in the world and with his talent and motivation, it makes my job so much easier,” Ruiter says. “He achieves some incredible things but in his mind they are maybe not as big, because he has more ambitious goals in mind.”
On Gdynia: ‘he is capable of winning’
That next target is the world 10,000m record followed by his half marathon debut in Gdynia. There will be huge expectations around Cheptegei, but Ruiter is slightly cautious.
“It was sad they were forced to postpone the original race back in March because we had enjoyed the perfect preparation,” he says.
“In recent months we have been preparing to run the 5000m and 10,000m world records, so this time it has not been a perfect preparation. But even without an ideal build up he is capable of winning the race.”
In the longer term the priority is the track climaxing with the 2024 Paris Olympics, from which point the road and the marathon will be the main priority and of all surfaces, Ruiter believes the road is the one best suited to the Ugandan.
“The strength of Joshua is his running economy, he is so smooth,” he says. “And that is especially true on the roads. I think in the future he could run a sub-two hour marathon.
“Remember, his desire is to be the best runner ever. Joshua will be the athlete to bring distance running to a new level. He will be the new standard.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics