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Coach Li on BAA 10K Victor Sambu’s Meteoric Rise

JAMES LI AND STEPHEN SAMBU – A WINNING COMBINATION
By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

BOSTON
(23-Jun) — There’s one thing that coach James Li accounts for Stephen
Sambu’s meteoric rise to success in 2014: confidence. Li, who has
coached Sambu since 2010 when the Kenyan enrolled at the University of
Arizona, has seen the 25-year-old rapidly develop his mental approach
to racing, something that has catapulted him into the upper echelon of
road racers this year.

“It’s really been a breakout year for
him,” Li told Race Results Weekly here yesterday, taking a pause for
effect and trying to find more descriptive words before settling on,
“It’s great.”

While a dozen or so members of the media circled
around Sambu following his B.A.A. 10-K victory, Li stood ten meters
away. Wearing a gray University of Arizona fleece and a proud smile, Li
watched his newest star answer question after question in stride. Sambu
had just run a world leading 27:25 to win the fourth annual event, and
also bettered the U.S. All-Comers and Association of Road Racing
Statisticians (ARRS) World Record for 8-kilometers in the process
(22:01.03), pending validation.

Speaking in his usual soft,
meaningful tone, Li was proud and happy for Sambu. Battling stride for
stride with 2011 Boston Marathon champion Geoffrey Mutai, Sambu’s
confidence was on full display, something Li took immense delight from.

Reflecting
on the last four months, Li points to March 16, 2014, as the turning
point, when Sambu went from above average racer to fearsome contender.
It was on that chilly morning that Sambu raced aggressively against
Mutai and double Olympic champion Mo Farah, finishing third at the NYC
Half in 1:01:08.

“Ever since the New York Half, I think that
was the race that gives him the confidence and knowing that he could
compete with these guys. After that every race has been really good,”
said Li.

Indeed, since the NYC Half Sambu has been on fire.
He won the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile in Washington, D.C., (45:29),
defeated 10-K world record holder Leonard Patrick Komon while claiming
the UAE Healthy Kidney 10-K title in New York City (27:39), and ran a
personal best 26:54.61 for 10,000m at the Prefontaine Classic in
Oregon, leading the field through a majority of the race and deciding
to stay on the track after his pacing duties were complete. He only
agreed to run that event two days before.

In each race, Sambu
ran out front and disregarded any notion that other entrants may have
better credentials than himself. He wouldn’t let their world
championships medals, personal best times, or lengthy racing resumes
dissuade him from challenging for the win.

“The confidence level is really high and training feels great,” confirmed Li.

Interestingly,
for all the accomplishments and great races Sambu has had this year,
his mileage is relatively low. That, says Li, is a key to his
consistency and tenacity.

“We always try to do things
conservatively,” said Li, who also coaches Bernard Lagat and Lawi
Lalang. “Consistency is the most important thing for me. But, he
understands the system and he follows it really well.” He continued:
“He would never do anything more than what we discuss and he
understands the important aspect of this whole thing is consistency. I
think it’s paid off. After four or five years training together, this
year we really get to see the results.”

Although Li doesn’t
count mileage, he estimates that Sambu has reached at the most 90 miles
a week, a modest amount when considering other elites reach the 100 to
125 miles per week level routinely.

“I think he can run a
little bit lower still. He’s still young relatively and we don’t do
much mileage,” Li said. “I think so, I think he’ll be able to go longer
and do better still. He’s an awesome runner and he’s been very steady.”

In
college, Li dubbed Sambu “Mr. Consistency,” a nickname he is fulfilling
this year. Sambu agrees with Li in that working together has provided
him added confidence and experience that has served him quite well.

“I’ve
been training with Coach Li since when I was in school, since 2010, so
I’ve been with him all these years,” said Sambu, emphasizing the word
all. “I love him so much, I thank him a lot for good training, giving
me all the time.”

Firmly believing he can race alongside some
of the best 10-K athletes ever to compete in America –including the
aforementioned world record holder Komon and Mutai– Sambu has pushed
the envelope a bit more this season.

At the UAE Healthy Kidney
10-K, Sambu made a very risky, yet decisive, move at halfway, surging
hard away from Komon. Komon had no response, losing for the first time
at 10-K on the roads since February of 2011.

Similarly, at the
B.A.A. 10-K, Sambu was step for step with Mutai through 8-K. It was
then he surged despite feeling pain and fatigue.

“After 8-K I
knew I still had to run 2-K so I thought ‘let me increase the pace’
because I was just thinking about finishing,” he said. “It’s really
good, it makes me feel good.”

That move broke Mutai, who would finish second.

Sambu
now finds himself all alone as the fastest man in the world for 10-K
this year. Next up, according to his manager Karen Locke, is the B.A.A.
Half-Marathon on Sunday, October 12. Last year, Sambu finished third at
the B.A.A. Half-Marathon, overshadowed by 2013 Boston Marathon champion
Lelisa Desisa. Desisa would win in 1:00:34, seven seconds up on Daniel
Salel and Sambu (1:00:41).

This year, with confidence and another few months of training under Li, he very well could be the odds on favorite.

“It
means a lot, a lot to me,” said Sambu, describing winning and his
recent success. “It is good, I am so happy. I feel like I’m improving.”

PHOTO:
Coach James Li of the University of Arizona and Stephen Sambu after
Sambu won the 2014 B.A.A. 10-K in a world-leading 27:25

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