Kenyan sprinter Mark Otieno Odhiambo at the 2017 World Relays (© Getty Images)
Learning to train away from the watchful eye of your coach is something many athletes have got used to this year, but for Mark Otieno Odhiambo, that’s business as usual.
The Kenyan 100m record holder lives in Nairobi, some 12,600km from his coach, Owen Anderson, who lives in Michigan, USA. And yet the arrangement works, through a combination of WhatsApps, emails and training videos flying back and forth across the Atlantic since they began working together in 2018.
But for Odhiambo, like many athletes elsewhere, his new normal is still a far cry from normality.
First, there’s the financial pressures of the pandemic. The 27-year-old may be the fastest Kenyan in history over 100m, with a personal best of 10.14, but that hasn’t been enough to sustain a full-time living.
“I work an 8-to-5 and balance it off with training,” he says. “It’s a tough lifestyle but with no sponsors, I can't solely rely on my track career to make ends meet.”
His day job is in human resources with Kenya’s national postal service but that was put was on pause for much of the lockdown, leaving him without an income until recent weeks when Odhiambo resumed work.
Still, he found what opportunity he could in a crisis. Before the lockdown he trained with his wife, Stephanie Muluka-Odhiambo, at Kasarani Stadium, but when that closed down and all gyms were declared off limits, the sprinting couple had to be inventive.
“A school near where we live gave us access to their grounds,” he says. “It's a small grass field but we were so thrilled that we had somewhere to do some runs.”
Early attraction to sprints
Odhiambo is an avid follower of the sport and he’d look on with envy at the facilities some of his peers had at their disposal elsewhere.
“They all seemed better equipped to deal with the quarantine. But I finally made a choice, picked myself up, got some money, went to a local welder and created some tools: plyometric boxes and some hurdles to use for drills. By changing my attitude I've been able to get my eyes off what I lack and actually be grateful for what I’ve been able to accomplish with so little.”
In a sense, that’s been the story of Odhiambo’s career.
He grew up in Sega, a rural area in western Kenya, and attended high school in Nairobi, where he juggled athletics with football. He tried just about every event at school, even a decathlon. “One of the most painful times in my career,” he says.
It was clear his true potential was in sprinting, which was a hard choice for some Kenyans to get their heads around. Odhiambo, though, was undeterred.
“I'm always been told my choice of distance as a Kenyan won't attract sponsors or shoe contracts. So far they've been right, but I’m not willing to sacrifice the satisfaction and joy that comes with doing the 100m and 200m. If I finish my career with no sponsors, nor shoe deals, I'll still be extremely grateful to God for the opportunity I had to pursue my dreams.”
‘Mind-blowing’ London experience
In 2015 he clocked a hand-timed 10.1 to finish second in the Kenyan trials for the World Championships in Beijing and the following year he lowered his official best to 10.39 to finish second at the Kenyan Championships. His big breakthrough came in 2017, Odhiambo clocking the Kenyan record of 10.14 to win the national 100m title in Nairobi, which booked his spot at the 2017 World Championships.
“London was mind-blowing for me,” he says. “Participating on that stage certainly changed me. Local meets seemed very easy mentally after that.”
Being based where he is, getting access to high-level races to hone his fitness ahead of major championships is a challenge.
”Kenya is known for its long-distance prowess and so most local meets are tailored to that,” he says. “As a result I only race a maximum of three races in a season before international championships. Showing up under-raced makes it hard to go past the qualifying rounds.”
For Odhiambo and his wife, the desire to succeed in sprinting has to be juggled with the financial need to make ends meet.
“The lowest moment was when my wife had to quit athletics to work a decent 8-5 job in order to help us with our living costs,” he says. “She loves the track life and it was hard seeing her shelf it. The break stalled her track dreams but I'm working with her now to help her achieve what she wanted.”
The couple take a keen interest in the next generation and through their involvement with a local church they work with teenagers, mentoring them and sharing what wisdom they can.
Lack of high profile competitive opportunities
One of the big lessons from Odhiambo’s career is do what you can with whatever you have. For him, that means often training twice a day, squeezing workouts around his job. Most of his training is done on a grass field these days and for longer work he’ll go to Karura Forest. “It's a vast forest land with low chances of getting infected or infecting others,” he says.
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His hope is that it’s still possible to race in 2020 and the big target if so will be the World Athletics Continental Tour meeting in Nairobi, which has been rescheduled for 26 September.
“I’m hoping I'll be considered for the sprint events,” he says. “There are international meets that could help, but it’s an uphill task getting an invite.”
Although the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise in Kenya, the government has begun to ease restrictions of late. “We are still going to continue with the lockdown kind of training until it's absolutely safe to go to the gym or track,” says Odhiambo. “We feel responsible for the people around us and we'd hate to be the reason someone gets infected.”
In his sole 100m race this year, Odhiambo clocked 10.27 in Nairobi back in March, faster than he ever ran so early in the season. While he admits “if anything is certain right now, it's that nothing is certain,” that time gives him great cause for optimism whenever he can get back on track.
Until then, he’s doing what he can, as best he can. The way it is now. The way it always has been.
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics