If you’ve been around the Canadian running scene long enough, you know who Thomas Omwenga is. I first met him several years ago at a local race in Toronto. Omwenga modestly stood next to me at the start line, and we chatted in the moments before the gun went off. Then he took off with a pack of fellow Kenyans, destined to win the race.
After taking over as editor of this magazine, I next bumped into Omwenga (featured on p.66) at the bmo Vancouver Marathon expo. We took the stage and chatted as a part of a pre-race elite Q and A, where again, he modestly spoke of his love of the race and his desire to remain in Canada. His ultimate goal wasn’t to continue dominating the Canadian marathon scene (he’s won more Canadian marathons than perhaps anyone else in history) all he wanted was to bring his family here from Kenya in order to live a better life. A day later, Omwenga and I ran into each other again (literally) at the finish line, with him winning the marathon for the fourth time.
I knew Omwenga had been living with a group of Kenyan runners in Hamilton, training hard and racing constantly for any race with a cash prize. Each Saturday and Sunday, the group would target a local race (or two). They’d all do battle for the precious few dollars, and then head back home together, leaving the competition on the road.
What I didn’t know was that, in addition to running high mileage every single day and racing almost every weekend, Omwenga was also working two or three manual labour jobs in order to afford living on the fringe in Hamilton. This was because every dime Omwenga won racing he sent back to his wife and children in Kenya. I also didn’t know that he hadn’t seen them in years.
In the spring, I tagged along with my wife Kelly on a run she periodically does with a group of friends in preparation for the Cabot Trail Relay each May. They usually try to do something special with each meetup. For this one, a hill session, they invited out a special guest: Thomas Omwenga. Omwenga graciously led us through a hill workout, but also provided insight into his wholistic approach to every run, and his overall philosophy and attitude about training and racing. It became evident that for Omwenga, when you train, you work with your training partners as a team. He walked us through a gradual warmup and emphasized that he begins every run – whether it’s a recovery saunter or heart-pounding intervals – at a painfully slow pace. The idea, he said, was to “bend, not break.”
When we hit the hills, Omwenga led us out, demarcating a 300ish-metre climb by feel. After the first set, he explained to us that we should form a line, and that each person would get a turn leading out the group. Traditional hill workouts you find online or in an old running book will provide even splits for each repeat, or perhaps a linear progression, ending with your hardest, fastest rep. Omwenga’s workout was the inverse of this: when you followed, you did your best to keep pace with the person ahead of you. And when it was your turn to lead the group, you became responsible for everyone else, and had to choose your pace with that in mind. Omwenga explained that when he was training with a large group in Kenya, this is how they would do a hill workout. It brought everyone together, allowing each runner to participate. “Training isn’t a competition,” he said. Standing in the line, waiting his turn to lead, was Omwenga’s 14-year-old son, Isaac, who tagged along with him for the run. He’d just arrived in Canada. Thomas hadn’t seen him in over five years. Isaac carefully and evenly ran up the hill, with the same modest and patient approach as his father.