In the Chiba Ekiden road relay in Japan last weekend, two Kiwis, Jake and Zane Robertson, had outstanding wins in their legs. One beat the London Olympic 5000 metres bronze medal winner, the other the Beijing 5000 metres bronze medallist. But who are these largely unknown New Zealanders, and where do they come from? In an exclusive interview on a rare visit to New Zealand by the Robertsons, Phil Gifford discovers the surprising answers.
Red dust rises in the magnificent Great Rift Valley in Kenya, the earth stirred by the feet of 200 marathon runners in training.
Watching in awe inside a smaller approaching group, headed by the world's best steeplechaser, Saif Shaaeed Shaheen, are teenage twins from Hamilton, Jake and Zane Robertson.
How two kids - bullied at school when they dedicated themselves to running, and told by teachers they'd never make it in the sport - came to live their dream in the cradle of Kenyan distance running is one of the most remarkable stories in New Zealand sport.
Today they're in an elite group, part of Athletics New Zealand's high-performance programme, on the cusp of world rankings, but, says Zane, when they decided at just 17 to go to Africa to live and train, "people might have thought it was a little crazy".
The spark for the radical change in their lives came from Jake. While representing New Zealand at a world cross-country championship, he roomed on the same floor as the Kenyan team, who dominated the event.
Would Kenya be a safe and reasonable place for him and his brother to live and train, he asked the Kenyans? He was assured it was.
To persuade their family the scheme made sense, the pair's first stop in 2006 was Ethiopia, where they stayed for a month.
"We had a New Zealand friend who was already there," says Zane. "We had accommodation, and we were met at the airport.
"Our mother was told we had contacts in Kenya too, but we basically got on the flight and went. We only knew the people from the world cross. We knew where they were and we decided we'd go and find them.
"I remember it felt a little scary, when we touched down in Kenya, and for the first time we were really alone. We knew we had a five or six-hour bus journey to Eldoret City where we spent the night, and then to the countryside the next morning to find the guys. ‘Will we find them?' It was a little nerve-racking, but at the same time I felt alive."
The town they were aiming for was Iten, where about three-quarters of the population of 5000 people are athletes. For middle and long-distance runners Iten is an athletics Shangri-La, but there's nothing mythical about the talent nurtured there. All six of the Kenyan men and women's marathon teams at the London Olympics came from Iten.
"It's 2400 metres above sea level," says Jake, "so while you're training at altitude, it's not so high you can't train with quality. There's a world-class gym, and some of the of the best athletes in the world are starting to come there now."
Although their parents helped financially, the first couple of years for the twins in Iten were brutal. They lived in one cold, stark room, what Zane now calls "the concrete cell", sleeping together on a thin, small mattress.
What kept them going? Each other, faith, and the kindness of strangers.
"Without Jake I wouldn't have survived," says Zane. "I would have given up. Having each other, when the other one was sick or down, you raise him up. In the concrete cell that kept us going."
They learned to deal with stress. "We're supportive of each other," says Jake, "but we also fight with each other. Then we make peace very quickly. We don't carry grudges."
Their shared beliefs helped too. Jake says, "Being Christians sustained us a great deal. I believe that God let us come to Kenya and stay there for a reason. Even the bad things we suffered made me a better person. Faith got us through a lot of hard times."
Zane agrees. "I'm so thankful we went through those hardships for one or two years, because going through them, the way Kenyans do, if you survive you can go through anything."
In the early grim days a local legend, Patrick Sang, took them under his wing. Sang won the silver medal in the steeplechase at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and among the world-rated athletes he now coaches is London Olympic marathon winner, Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda.
"Patrick helped us almost straight away," says Jake, "not because of performances we'd produced, but because Kenyans are nice people. Patrick was the coach of our idols, and he was prepared to help us. He never charged a cent for his work."
But although he was encouraging, Sang still doubted whether the unknown Kiwi kids would stick it out, and told them so. He still coaches Jake, and now they joke about Sang's initial disbelief.
A naive view of the way the great Kenyan athletes of the last 50 years train is that their programmes probably consist of running, more running, and then a lot more running.
In fact, says Zane, "Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes put a lot more science into their training than New Zealand athletes. We still do a high number of kilometres, but with the altitude and the terrain it can alter benefits and increase injuries if you do too much.
"African athletes do a lot of drills, and plyometrics [also known as jump training]. Things that a lot of New Zealand athletes don't seem to do a lot."
Plyometrics is designed to improve flexibility and mobility. When the twins were tested last week at the Millennium high-performance centre in Auckland, immediately after a 10-hour flight from Japan, their results in those areas were notably better than the best by local athletes.
There was never any question that the Robertsons had natural talent.
Running track barefoot until they were 14, they didn't train, but up to Waikato provincial level nobody could really challenge them, let alone beat them.
Things changed for Jake when, at a North Island championships, he found himself finishing second for the first time in his life. "I started to train properly then."
So did Zane, and the level of competitiveness between the twins reached ridiculous levels. "One evening we went out for a run," says Zane, "and I got home before him, so then I went out for a tempo run. Jake got home, I wasn't there, and he went out again. We did that four times, and by the time our mother came out and said, ‘You're not going out again', it was eight o'clock and it was dark. So I started doing sit-ups. We had an immaturity with competitiveness at the time between the two of us, which we don't have any more." Jake says, "We realised there's more competition in the world than between the two of us."
Their dedication to running did make them stand out. They basically stopped having any social life. "We didn't go to a disco or a social the whole time we were at high school," says Zane.
They were both bullied there. "It definitely picked up as I became more successful as a serious athlete," says Jake. "People like to tear down someone they sense is different."
As unpleasant as it was, Zane wonders if the bullying wasn't ultimately a good thing. "It made you mentally strong, dealing with that kind of pressure."
They haven't lived together for two years, since Zane moved to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to be closer to his girlfriend, Ethiopian distance runner Betty Desalegn, who represents the United Arab Emirates internationally. Jake has stayed in Iten.
Despite the move, it's obvious when they're together that their bond is as intense and solid as ever. They don't finish each other's sentences, but each listens intently to the other, and weighs in as soon as the conversation lapses.
"We've experimented along the way to get the balance right, to find what's best for both of us. We've got it right now," says Zane.
Driving them, they say, are the memories of two groups, whom they're happy to call the lovers (family and people who supported their move to Africa), and the haters (the people who jeered at the idea).
"I feel like I'm going to run for the lovers, and make them proud of me," says Zane. "But at the same time there's 50 per cent, especially in training, where I think about the people, and the teachers, who used to tell me, ‘What if you don't make it?' Proving the haters wrong is motivation too."
Where do they now stand in the ranks of New Zealand runners? New Zealand's distance running coach at the London Olympics, Steve Willis, says: "They have the X-factor, in that they believe they can make it to the top level. You can't train that."
So how good could they be? "If they continue to make the sort of gains they are now making in training and put it together at the right time, they could become part of New Zealand's great distance legacy."
The twins have no doubts over where they're heading. "I went into this wanting to be a gold medallist," says Jake. "Not even a medallist, but to win, and I still believe that I can win. Being in Africa has given me more belief than I ever had before. I'm living the way these guys live."
Says Zane, "That pretty much states it. We'd rather die than not try. We've done that. We've had a go. Running found us. It was as if it was naturally meant to be. It was as if God put it there and said, ‘Are you going to sit on your talent, or are you going to use it?' "
- Sunday Star Times
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