We Share the Sun by Sarah Gearhart

Subtitle: Coach Patrick Sang by the Numbers


Posted on September 7th, 2023

By Olivia Baker

When you think about the best distance coaches of all time, what names come to mind? Those who have been around track and field for a while might think of names like Bill Bowerman, Jack Daniels, and Arthur Lydiard (for those real track historians) each of whose training methodologies in the early-to-mid 1900s changed the game and monumentally advanced the sport of distance running. More recent track and field viewers, might think of Frank Gagliano (colloquially known as Gags), Gjert Ingebrigtsen, or Jerry Schumacher whose consistent record of developing athletes into record-holders and strong competitors on the world stage speaks for itself. Not many would immediately think of Patrick Sang, but he deserves to be in this conversation for many reasons beginning with his record of development of elite athletes—which rivals, if not exceeds that of those listed above. Here are some numbers to illustrate this point:

· Before coaching elite athletes, he coached himself to two World Championships silver medals and one Olympic silver medal in the 3000m steeple chase—the first medals of both his athletic and coaching career.

· Since taking up elite coaching in 2002, he has coached athletes to 7 World Records (men's Marathon, 10k, and 5k, and women's 1500m, mile, 5k, and 10k), all of which still stand today.

· He has coached athletes to countless global medals over the last 20 years, but most recently, at the 2023 World Athletics Championships, held in Budapest, Hungary this past August, Sang's athletes took home 6 medals in the distance events (3 gold, 2 silver, and 1 bronze)—more than any other coach and more than any individual country.

However, beyond these numbers, Sang's revolutionary holistic approach to coaching—rooted in preparing athletes to undauntedly navigate whatever challenges life presents be it on or off the track—is the main reason that I chose We Share the Sun by Sarah Gearhart for the 19th installment of Runners Who Read. Athletes flock from all over the world to do training camps in Kaptagat, Kenya and get a glimpse of the way his team operates. Through the lens of this book, we too will get a glimpse and have the opportunity to learn, for the first time in Runners Who Read, from the perspective of a great coach.

Discussion Questions:

1. In what ways has a good coach impacted your life (whether in running or in some other area of life in which you've been coached)?

2. What are you most looking forward to most about reading this book?

Subtitle: Doing Right (mini-blog #1)

Chapters 1-8

Posted on September 14th, 2023

By Olivia Baker

During the first 8 chapters of We Share the Sun by Sarah Gearhart, we learn about Patrick Sang's humble upbringing in rural Kenya through his time as a collegiate steeplechase star at the University of Texas (Austin), his life as a professional athlete, and then the founding of the training camp he coaches in Kaptagat (Kenya). Between the stories of survival and world travel, poverty and fortune, one theme that resonates throughout his life is a strong commitment to honesty and doing the right thing.

In a world where often times people will do anything to get ahead, Sang, a man of faith in God, consistently takes the high road and does his best to surround himself with people who will do the same. When deciding who would sponsor and represent him in his professional career, he ended up choosing to be his own agent and accept sponsorship from adidas, a company that saw him and treated him as a human being rather than just a potential source of income even though it meant taking less money. Further down the line, after finishing 7th in the finals of the steeplechase at the 1988 Olympic Games, Sang was owed $3,000. By accident, his sponsor gave him $15,000 in cash after the event. Later on that evening, once he counted the money and realized the mistake, he returned the excess $12,000 he was not owed.

To this day he runs his camp, now called NN Running Team, with that same philosophy, never putting financial gain ahead of the development of his athletes and seeking to grow their character as much as their athletic ability. "'My philosophy is that what is good will always shine. And what is right will never be tarnished' he says. 'If you go the wrong way, you'll always see the consequences.' This is a principle he tries to instill in his athletes." (pg# 35) And it is from this grounding principle that he has gone on to be the primary mastermind behind one of the best groups of athletes in the world. When we choose to do right, we cannot lose. Whether we reap the benefits immediately, after a long period of time, or don't see them at all (in our own lives at least), we do the right thing because we know that such honesty always wins in the end.

Discussion Questions:

1. When have you chosen the high road and reaped the benefits of it?

2. Today's quote for discussion is a simple one from page 37. "Life is like water poured on the ground. It naturally finds its course." Do you agree with this viewpoint on life?

Subtitle: What Makes Us Great (Mini-blog #2)

Chapters 9-20

Posted on September 21st, 2023

By Olivia Baker

If you follow the top runners in the world on social media, you'll likely get a glimpse of the breadth of resources to which they have access. Athletes can be seen running on pristine tracks and soft-surface trails up in the mountainous altitude of Boulder, Colorado, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and St. Moritz (Switzerland) or on Woodway treadmills when it is too cold outside. Injured athletes have their choice of a Peloton bike, Alter-G, or underwater treadmill to maintain fitness as they get back to health. All the while, coaches are performing a plethora of tests from VO2 max testing to lactate testing, DEXA scans, and more in hopes of optimizing training to each individual. When you take the most talented and hardworking runners in the world and place them in camps rich with resources and great coaching, it can be easy to see this as a recipe for success. Certainly, many of the best running groups have seen success following this model, but the difference between being good and being great among elite running groups in a sport in which outcomes are determined by mere milliseconds comes down to a key ingredient—one that lingers in the air, which you can feel but not always see, and money can't buy. The ingredient is synergy.

In the middle chapters of We Share the Sun by Sarah Gearhart, we get an inside look at Patrick Sang's training camp (formerly called Global Sports Communication training camp and now NN Running Team) through the lens of Faith Kipyegon, Geoffrey Kamworwor, Eliud Kipchoge, and others as these athletes prepare for the Kenyan Olympic Trials and 2021 Olympic Games, and what immediately stands out is the simple and modest, yet cooperative nature of camp setup. Everyone lives in gendered dorms, two to a room equipped with two twin beds and a small table not unlike a US college dorm room. Together, the athletes divide the tasks necessary to keep the camp running with different groups taking on responsibilities ranging from cleaning duties to managing the food budget. At the track—a slightly over 390-meter loop that was mis-measured and abandoned before the running camp purchased the land on which it lays—runners workout in their respective groups, taking turns pulling each other along through the workout at the gentle behest of their coach. Afterwards, they take turns cleaning the dirt off of their shoes and clothes in buckets of water and taking ice baths. Later on, some will receive physiotherapy.

This setup, one in which the athletes work together both on and off the track to keep things functioning smoothly in the camp with a no-nonsense discipline that Sang expects from his athletes and models himself, lends itself to creating the type of synergy that raises the level of everyone in the camp. Whether you are the Olympic Champion and world record holder or the 17-year-old unproven talent ready to put in the work, you have the same responsibilities, are treated the same by coaches and fellow athletes, and get to benefit from the synergistic nature of the group all the same. "The camp's unpretentious setting has a unique ambience, sacred like some sort of energy vortex," (pg# 58) Gearhart describes, doing her best to put words to what it feels like. What makes this group great is not only the talent, or the resources, or even the coaching necessarily, but the bringing together of a group of people and cultivation of an environment that is optimized to bring out the best in everyone.

Lastly, as with many things in running, the environment that makes Sang's group so successful represents a microcosm of the environment can help us be our best in life. The people with whom we surround ourselves at work and at home, in friendships, acquaintanceships, and beyond profoundly impact how well we are able to pursue our own goals and help others along the way. This week, let's take stock of our environment and make sure that we are placing ourselves and others in the best position to succeed.

Discussion Questions:

1. Who in your life, whether it's a friend, spouse, acquaintance, co-worker, helps create an environment in your life that is conducive to success in pursuing your goals in running and in life?

2. What other factors do you believe are necessary to create this environment?

Subtitle: The Real Wheat

Chapters 21-30, Afterword

Posted on September 28th, 2023

By Olivia Baker

Throughout the final chapters of We Share the Sun by Sarah Gearhart, we get to observe Coach Patrick Sang's relationship with some of his athletes through the lens of competitions or brief periods of training written into the book as short chapters filled with athlete backstories and sage advice from Sang and punctuated by a race. In these moments we learn about the art of coaching and the ways in which he molds his athletes into (and the ways in which they already are) what Sang describes as 'the real wheat'—"what's left after the husk and impurities like dirt and stones are removed. The grain is what you want." (pg# 66).

Many in the Global Sports Communications Camp are like Laban Kipngetich Korir, a 2:05 marathoner grinding to break into the top ranks but having to figure how to make ends meet while he pursues his goal. He is not technically a part of the camp and does not live there because he has a full time job, but he shows up to the 6 weekly practices and puts in the work every day. As long as he keeps showing up, Sang continues to "help" him as he does with an estimated 80% of the runners he coaches. He reminds Korir to keep his motivation clear and that "money cannot develop character" (pg#171), it is rather just the icing on the cake when it comes. In this instance, Korir does not perform well at the Amsterdam Marathon for which he was training, but, despite having nothing to lose by walking away he does not quit, relentlessly believing in himself and his coach when most would have given up—the real wheat.

Selly Chepyego, a mother of three as she trains just months after giving birth to her third child. The unique struggle of being a mother is one she shares only one other runner in the camp, Faith Kipyegon. Knowing that she would constantly need to attend to her kids and care for them at home, she sacrifices watching her children grow up to live at camp and make sure that she is recovering well enough between workouts to regain her fitness both mentally and physically. Sang encourages her to treat her mental comeback like healing from an injury and reminds her that the mind is everything in this sport. She would go on to crush a critical 40k training run, locked in despite any doubts about her fitness, the weight of missing her family, and the immediate inconvenience of her pacer dropping out with 12k to go—the real wheat.

Eliud Kipchoge prepares to race the marathon at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The defending champion and king of modern marathoning at this point in his career, Kipchoge has a target squarely on his back. Yet, by halfway through the race, Kipchoge shows no fear in running out front, displaying that target for everyone to chase. True to his consistent form, he grinds the pace down in the heat and humidity, dropping his competitors and never looking back all the way to the finish line, defending his Olympic title. In a race taking place under brutally hot conditions and in which nearly 30% of the racers dropped out, Kipchoge endured both the pressure and the conditions to win the race—the real wheat.

Sifted through the trials that inevitably come in pursuit of goals, "the real wheat" is what remains. Whether it is his process, the trials they endure, or something within the athletes themselves (it is likely a bit of all of these things) that grinds out the impurities, Sang's athletes consistently show that they are the real wheat on and off of the track. In the end, it is not the money, fame, or fast times, but development of his athletes into the best that they can be in life. For Sang's elite athletes but also for those who partake casually, running represents another sieve through which character can be developed, grinding those who choose to participate and bringing out the best in us should we allow it to do so.

Discussion Question:

1. In what ways has running, walking, or jogging grinded you into "the real wheat" like Sang's elite athletes?

2. What trials, circumstances, activities, etc. have grinded or do currently grind you into "the real wheat" in life?

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