Meeting Brother Colm O’Connell The Godfather of Kenyan Running

22 Jan 17  / Pete

Saturday 7th January 2016, myself along with Gemma Hockett and coach Colin Thomas were kindly invited to the home of Brother Colm O’Connell, the coach of 800m world record holder and double Olympic gold medalist, David Rudisha. What an honour to meet the man known as the Godfather of Kenyan running and to share some interesting running chatter over a cup of tea. UK style!

Brother Colm David Rudisha
The gang meeting Brother Colm

How Brother Colm O’Connell Arrived in Kenya

For those of you unfamiliar with Brother Colm, he originally travelled to Iten, Kenya as an Irish missionary 40 years ago to work as a geography teacher. He had no experience in athletics coaching whatsoever. Brother Colm had simply taken over the athletics coaching at St. Patrick’s High School after having an interest, rather than any background from his time in Europe. This is something that BC believes may have actually helped him with his success, having had no previous input from European coaching ways and methods. He was a clean slate.

Brother Colm O’Connell’s Training Methods

Now this is what so many people are wondering about. What methods is he using to produce so many successful athletes? What training programme are his elites undertaking? Rival coaches and aspiring ones seem to think that there’s a set method or way which Brother Colm follows.

So, what is the secret to his success? The answer is… There isn’t a secret. Brother Colm certainly didn’t have any one way of training athletes. He described to us in great detail about how he takes a very personal approach with each individual.

“No one athlete is the same.” I recall him saying.

Brother Colm had a refreshing view on athletes as they come up through the ages, especially as they approach the end of high school. He mentioned how important it is to not just take a promising runner and help them become an athlete, but also how it is equally as important to allow them to have a childhood and enjoy growing up in the many ways which we all do through our teenage years. In his eyes, concentrating solely on running and creating regimented schedules too much too soon in a runner’s life will only cause them to lose their natural drive and passion for running and they will rebel in the way that many of us do at that age when we don’t have the freedom to enjoy childhood to it’s fullest.

Personally, I couldn’t have agreed more with his philosophy. Sure, you can take a kid who has great potential and give them training plans and the diet to be the best that they can be, but if you have them missing out on the fun of growing up with their friends, that ability will drown as their drive diminishes.

This personal approach does not stop once athletes become young men. Brother Colm takes the time to speak to his athletes on a personal level. It isn’t just about running. He recognised the importance of an athlete’s personal life and how it impacts on their career. He certainly seems to care about the athletes, wondering how their family is, knowing how they are feeling, wanting to know what is going on in their lives. This all seems to be more important to him than the mileage per week they are running, or the exact time slots they are achieving. Don’t get me wrong, the runners will have training schedules but I think this is adjusted regularly depending on how the athlete is feeling on a day to day basis. Brother Colm seems to be a coach who is flexible and open to change rather than just having a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Running Technology

“Technology? I was once given some heart rate monitors to help the athletes in training. I used them on my washing line!”

Being a runner who loves to run in an old school minimalist style, mostly without a watch, I couldn’t help but laugh at Brother Colm as he mentioned that he had been given many heart rate monitors only to leave them hung on his washing line! Class.

It isn’t that he is fully against technology, he accepts that as with training plans, they have their place, but he appreciates that Kenyans have been running for years without technology. Their mind is in tune with their bodies and they don’t need a beep of a watch to tell them how to run. In fact, after knowing their own bodies for so long, it could have a negative impact if they were to stop listening to their own natural instincts.

David Rudisha Brother Colm
Brother Colm with legendary 800m WR holder, David Rudisha
David Rudisha Brother Colm
This picture was presented to Brother Colm by Ross who was actually our neighbour during this trip.

David Rudisha

The success of David Rudisha will go down as perhaps Brother Colm’s finest achievement. Having sat and talked the talk with BC about coaching, he was clearly excited to not just talk about David, but also to show us his most recent Olympic victory in the 800m, where not only did he take gold but he retained the olympic medal that he had previously won in London 2012.

BC turned on his TV recordings, which has half full of David Rudisha’s races, and he proceeded to show us the olympic final from the very point of view which he had watched it live last Summer. He sat in his seat with a proud look on his face, and happy glint in his eyes. It was as if we were watching a Father replay moments of glory from his child which he was so proud of. That pride and feeling that he clearly has will be a huge reason why his athletes have been so successful. They don’t just have a coach who knows how to tell them to train, they have a man who cares about them on and off the track and I am sure that attitude filters through into their impressive results.

Here is the epic Olympic gold medal race from David that we watched with Brother Colm:

Meeting Brother Colm was an honour and a privilege. He is no doubt a busy man with plenty of people wishing to chew his ear, but he seemed to have plenty of time to speak to us and to make us a nice cuppa tea! What a bloody legend.

Thanks for listening to my ramblings as always folks! Have a good one.

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  • Christopher Murphy

    Great stuff. Brother colm features heavily in Ed Ceasars great 2 Hours book and also a book I am currently reading Running With The Kenyans by Adharanand Finn. I would recommend them both if you’ve not read them!

    • Pete Nicholson

      I should certainly give running with the Kenyans a read to see how it tallies up with my experiences. It could make it a very different read. Thanks for the recommendations and your kind comments.

      • Christopher Murphy

        You’ll love running with the Kenyans. It’s specifically about Iten, Brother Colm, Rudisha etc. Will send it to you in a week or so if you wish?