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The Alpha Male Tale – Goucher v Songok

There’s book which was never written, but the colourful protagonists and their adventures would make easy writing. It’s called The Alpha Male Tale – Goucher  v  Songok.

I have just finished reading Running With The Buffaloes, which followed a team of university athletes for a season as they trained for the USA Cross Country team title (they came 3rd). I should have read this book years ago, as it has gone down in the running world as a cult classic. Reading it brought forward a stark contrast of memories for me, of my time living and training with an elite group of Kenyan athletes, while they trained for the World Cross Country team title (they came 1st). The difference between how the athletes and coach behaved are profound. I sometimes wish I wrote an account of it then, but, at the time I was fully immersed, and I wonder if the note taking and interviews would have changed the experience I had.

Isaac Songok,

Songok (220), with training partners, Yusuf (20-) and Choge (206)

Adam Goucher

Adam Goucher was, by far, the fastest runner in the Colorado team. From a modest upbringing, he used athletics as a way out. An immensely talented, courageous, big strong guy, with rolling shoulders and forceful stride. Whilst racing, he wore (fake) shrunken skulls on a necklace to represent scalps taken in previous victories. He seemed to be angry all the time. His nickname amongst his team members was Groucho.

You’ve Been Gouchered

Would take issue with anything that didn’t go his way. It was so typical for him to moan about things that being ‘Gouchered’ became the team phrase for things going wrong.

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Adam Goucher, track training

Overpaid for icecream?

Had your food order messed up at a restaurant?

You’ve been Gouchered!

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Adam Goucher up against the GOAT, Eliud Kipchoge

Intensely competitive. In one infamous incident, he reduced a female teammate to tears. They had lost a relay race and he blamed her for not trying hard enough.

Constant Competition

In his training runs, he would take off almost immediately to run ahead, alone. Didn’t like it when his fellow teammates would attempt to run alongside him, would shout things such as ‘run your own workout!’. Constantly proving to himself and everyone around him that he was the best.

Would use the phrase;

Does he know who I am?

Intensely focused on winning the National Champs, never ate lunch, spoke with aggression and contempt about his rivals. Devoted to his coach, would execute the rigid training sessions through injury and illness.

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Hill training, in beat

Isaac Songok

Isaac Songok was the alpha male of the St Patrick’s stable. A squad of professional athletes that trained together under coach Bro Colm O’Connell. He was also exceptionally talented, from a modest background, and used running as a way out.

A Listener

Very good at listening, easy to smile, rarely, if ever, raised his voice. I never saw him get angry about anything, ever. Everyone wanted to be around him.

We were a group of young athletes, training very hard, living in a small space, and problems would inevitably flare-up. If it was deemed big enough, an issue would be raised with Songok. He would listen, and quite often, do nothing. If his intervention was necessary, it would be done quietly and conclusively.

Focussed on the Goal

Once, we were sitting in a gym changing room, waiting for the one shower. When it was Songok’s turn, he stood up. A stranger, not much bigger than him, pushed him out of the way and took his place. Songok smiled and sat back down. There was no argument, no fight, no anger, no “does he know who I am?”

This was too small a thing to risk wasting energy over or picking up an injury.

I have a dozen more stories of Songok like this. If something was not in the way of his goal, he would let it pass.

In the rare incidences where something was in the way of Songok and his training, a furious, enormous bull for instance, it would be dealt with (read story here).

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Songok leading out the World Cross Country

Calm and Corporate

Songok’s energy was bent towards empowering all those around him. He would let anyone run with him, ask him questions, learn from him. Wanted nothing more than to see his friends do well. Between runs, every morning, Songok would sit out on the grass, scrubbing the red dirt off his shoes. He would take his time, chatting with all those who came by. He even cleaned my trainers once, it must have left an impression, I still clean my trainers to this day (in the washing machine).

An Awful Meal and a Kind Response

One Saturday, tired of the same old meals we’d been having, I requested permission to cook dinner for the squad. I had to travel by matatu (share taxi) to the next town, Eldoret, 1hr30 round trip. Having bought all the ingredients I came home and carefully made up stir-fry with coconut rice. I put a lot of effort in, was very excited, but it was a disaster. I didn’t realise how different the beef was in Kenya. Older, tougher and leaner. Could not be fried. Everyone left their plates hardly touched, barely able to contain their disgust. I could understand why. Long run tomorrow morning, they needed that energy. I felt terrible. But Songok sat there next to me. We chewed through the meal. When he finished his plate, Songok got up, gave me heart felt thank you, and went to bed. This would be story enough, but there’s more…

The following day, we woke before dawn and set off for the long run. Somewhere in the woods, Songok excused himself for a haja ndogo (short call). We waited a long time for him to emerge. Never a word, or a look of blame, or chastisement, to me, or anyone.

What does that say about a person? I don’t know. But it says something.

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Songok being Songok

Win When it Matters

Songok liked to play volleyball in the courts just by our camp. He always lost. I think he lost on purpose, just to let everyone have the opportunity to say they beat him. He would do just well enough to keep the ball in play and keep the game fun. He made this funny noise when he hit the ball, ‘PAH!’ and would lose with a big smile on his face. Although I had seen him jump like a springbok in his morning drills, he would never jump high in volleyball, saving his energy. Everyone wanted to be on his team, even though he always lost.

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Songok in green (1500m – 3.30, 5000m – 12.48)
Lucas Rotich in grey (5000m – 12.55, 10,000m – 26.43)
Vincent Kipruto in white (Marathon – 2.05.13)

He would never lead training on the easy runs, was quite content to be near the back. Always trained in a group, so those around could learn from him, see what he was doing, see how he did it. The only times he led in training seemed to be when he could no longer help it. He would rise, slowly, through the session, until his superiority would shine through. Then, his coach would be there, gesturing with his hand, keep a lid on it.

Songok at Home

On one rare trip to his home village, he took me along for the ride. Such an eye opener. A tiny little village, in the throes of extreme poverty. Songok’s income was seemingly holding the whole place together. I couldn’t believe the reception. This quiet, young man, who never betrayed an ounce of self-import. The village had somehow got wind of his arrival, dozens of people lined the streets to see him. It was slow progress moving the vehicle through the throng. Some wanted money, but often, they just wanted to touch him, greet him, thank him.

To get past the crowd, he would tell people;

I am coming back on Wednesday

Then he would quietly confide to me, grinning;

I said Wednesday. I didn’t say which Wednesday

Guest of Honour

We visited a primary school where he was welcomed as the guest of honour. The whole school assembled to hear him speak. I thought to myself, this is going to be embarrassing, I had seen enough times how painfully shy and awkward he was in post-race interviews conducted in English. But here, he was an enigma, he roused the whole school to a chorus of cheers and Swahili triple-claps. I later found out it was his money that was keeping the school afloat after the government had abandoned it. Songok never told me this.

Cross Country

In Kenya, Cross Country is pride of the nation. The National Championships is the most fiercely contested sporting event anywhere in the world. World Class runners can routinely find themselves finishing outside the top 100 places. The event is on TV and makes front and back page news. If Songok felt this pressure, he never showed it.

Everyone in Kenya knew who he was. But it was not until the gun would fire, that he would show it. The only time he would ever display his true power and aggression. He never ran to splits or tactics, he ran off a hunger that I could never fully comprehend. His hunger, his family’s hunger, and the hunger of his entire village.

Never flaunted wealth or did anything to put himself higher than anyone else. Never spoke or looked down on anyone. Would give equal time and attention to the milk delivery boy and the school kids running beside him.

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Songok right, with training partner Man’gata left. Some nobody in the middle

The Alpha Male Tale – Goucher v Songok

I am not trying to judge or waylay Goucher’s character. I’m only peering into a tiny snapshot of his life. I have enormous respect for him. He went on to be an exceptional athlete, producing, in my opinion, the greatest cross country race by any American male ever (see below). After retirement, he transferred his passion and energy into selflessly campaigning for clean sport.

Goucher himself, looked back on the book and called himself ‘intense’ and an ‘asshole’.

I also only have a snapshot of Songok’s life to go by. Who knows what he is like now? (he’s still a lovely guy). I want to shine a light on the Alpha Male that might not make a successful book, might not interest many, but who has just as many lessons to teach:

Lessons we could all do with hearing, me more than anyone:

  • Ego gets in the way. Let it pass. You don’t need to prove yourself. Remember what is important, save your energy for the very few things that you really care about.
  • You don’t have to be selfish to be a high achiever. There is enough room in the world for you to succeed, whilst helping everyone around you to succeed too. Your aspiration can inspire everyone around you, and, if they surpass you, their success is your success. They won’t take your place, they will cement it.
  • Your attitude affects everyone around you. Are you making things better or worse? You can change the culture around you to be more positive and encouraging by the actions you take.
  • You can give more, and you can do it without being an asshole. We in the West have no idea what ALL IN means. I’ve never met anyone living in the Western world who is all in. Even Goucher, the most devoted of his teammates, would fit training around his studies and Matchbox20 concerts with his fiancée. It helps to know that there is someone out there choosing to sacrifice those things, for ten years at a time, and they are doing it with a smile on their face.

A Goucher v Songok Race

If you are so inclined, Songok and Goucher clashed once, in an epic race, Fukuoka, Japan. The last time the World Cross Country hosted a 4km race. They were both at the very peak of their powers, and up against the greatest cross country runner of all time, Keninisa Bekele. Brilliant race. Click below to watch.

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Songok (220). Goucher, just visible, behind the guy in blue

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Russell Bentley
Russell Bentley
Track runner. Trained in Kenya, Won the Snowdonia Marathon 2018, PB Berlin Marathon 2:20:20

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