The Blog

Isaac Songok And The Bull

When I first stayed with Brother Colm O’Connell in 2001, he had yet to cement his now legendary status as a coach. His stable of athletes at the time were drifting a bit. The Chirchir brothers (Cornelius and William), very talented but easily distracted, would often disappear for long periods. They never fulfilled their potential. Brother’s main sponsor died unexpectedly, making it very difficult to raise the funds to support the athletics camp.

Enter, Isaac Songok

Isaac Songok came from extreme poverty, was spotted by Bernard Lagat (2nd fastest 1500m runner of all time), who was from the same village. Lagat brought him to Bro’ Colm. He was a very shy guy, not very well educated, spoke little English. But Songok almost single-handedly transformed the culture of St Patrick’s camp.

Songok And The Bull 2

His work-ethic and devotion to Bro Colm were absolute. Songok’s bravery and aggression in the provincial races made him a local hero. He was utterly fearless, taking off from the front, completely disregarding the world’s best runners as they choked in his dust.

The Lure of Songok

It was around Songok, that Brother Colm managed to rebuild his squad. Augustine Choge was being chased by many agents with promises of riches but admired Songok enough to commit to St Patrick’s. He went on to be Commonwealth Games record holder, with one of the greatest ranges in athletics history from 800m to 5000m. Others followed, including a young and gangly 400m runner named David Rudisha. Most of you will have heard of him, the World Record holder for 800m, his win in the London 2012 Olympics was voted by many as the performance of the entire games.

The Enigma of Songok

I imagine very few of you will have heard of Isaac Songok. His race tactics did not suit the rounds of major games, and he never won a track global medal. But Songok was the leader of the squad. Around the dinner table, he talked little, never lost his temper or raised his voice. But when he spoke, everyone listened.

Without Songok, there may never have been a Rudisha or Choge.

Songok And The Bull 3

The Story of Songok and The Bull

3 guys are running along a dirt road in Iten. Bro Colm, their coach, is driving along behind in a pickup truck. When he beeps the horn, they speed up, when he beeps again, they slow down.

These guys are the last remaining survivors of a fartlek session. The rest of us have all fallen off the pace and clambered onto the back of the truck to watch the rest of the session.

Songok is infront, pushing the pace. Choge and Yusuf Biwott are in formation slightly behind, one on either side. All have run 5000m in sub 13min. On the last stretch before the session ends, Songok has put the hammer down and is running around 4min miling. Choge and Yusuf are the only ones who can live with this.

When you see these guys running so fast, you feel a mixture of emotions; jealousy, awe, disbelief. To see humans move at this pace, commit to a training session in this way, your heart is in your mouth, it is quite incredible. But my gaze is averted to further up the track.

Directly ahead, smack bang in the middle of the road is a bull. Bulls in Kenya move around freely from birth, so are mostly very good-natured and calm. But they are still massive, with enormous shoulders and horns. Very rarely someone will get gored and killed as a bull sees red. The bull in front of us is completely out of control. The single track has worn into the earth over time and there are 6ft dirt banks on each side. 3 shepherd boys are trying and failing to get control of the bull with ropes and sticks.

These shepherd boys are no fools. I once tried to wave off a cow that was dozing on lane 1 of the track. It reared up against me and charged me straight up a tree. There I stayed until the shepherd boys finally stopped laughing enough to chase the sow away with sticks.

But here the boys are scrambling up and down the dirt banks petrified. They are like buzzing flies against this enormous creature. It is spinning and charging and stomping a massive swirl of red dust into the air.

When Bro Colm sees the bull he instantly beeps the horn to stop the athletes. Yusuf and Choge start to back off, but Songok does not slow the slightest bit. He continues head long toward this bull which is now only around 100m away. The half dozen of us in the back are transfixed, we are in complete silence. Yusuf and Choge look at each other, and then close back up onto Songok’s shoulder. The bull, meanwhile, seems oblivious to the runners approaching and is continuing in his rage, thrashing his powerful neck and running in circles.

I have no idea what Songok is thinking, there is no way he does not see this impressive animal in full display of its power. We all watch on, helpless, as Bro Colm follows. Songok is running full steam ahead, not flinching or betraying any sign of fear. There is no way around this bull, and nowhere for the bull to go. This can only end badly.

When Songok is only around 20 meters away, the bull is in such a fury that the shepherd boys have given up trying to control it and are taking cover on the banks. We can hear the snorts and bellows from this animal over the noise of the pick-up.

Just as it seems Songok is going to crash into this thing and swiftly meet his demise, the bull makes an almighty sniff, and without looking at the oncoming runners, performs a terrific leap up one of these 6 ft banks and runs off into a field.

Songok. Doesn’t. Flinch. Doesn’t even look at the bull as it escapes, but carries on until the session is over, as if nothing happened.

All of us in the back of the pickup stay in complete silence until we get back to the camp.  What can you say about something like that? I have never seen such an incredible display of human force and will. Such an utter conviction and self-belief. Can you imagine how absolutely inspiring it was for us to witness this first hand? Can you imagine the devotion and reverence we all shared for Songok after that?

Imagine being one of the shepherd boys seeing that happen. How inspired they must have been. This man, not so different from them, from a nearby village, faced down a raging bull, and won. If they didn’t already dream of being a professional athlete, they certainly did now.

The Mind of Songok

To my shame, I did once try and bring this up with Songok, asking him what was going on in his head that day. How did he know the bull was going to give way? I regretted it even as the words came out of my mouth. It was like trying to ask a lion why he is a lion. Songok didn’t even seem to remember the event. He just smiled and nodded, and went back to drinking his chai.

Want to find out about the time Russell Bentley raced Mo Farah? Read it here

Share this Article
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Russell Bentley
Russell Bentley
Track runner. Trained in Kenya, Won the Snowdonia Marathon 2018, PB Berlin Marathon 2:20:20

Was this post helpful?

Need inspiration?

Do you need motivation and wisdom from those ahead in the game? Subscribe here and receive inspiration in your inbox.