Umoja. Eliud Kipchoge says the word quietly. So quietly Ott Tänak and Pierre-Louis Loubet lean in. The explanation’s coming, they don’t want to miss it.
The 38-year-old Kenyan is the slightest of men, but his words are toweringly powerful. He’s a man who runs alone, he runs with the world behind him and a community and a country on his shoulders.
For the World Rally Championship, this week’s all about Africa. It’s all about endurance and speed.
Kipchoge is more familiar with both than anybody else in the world. He’s the first person ever to run a marathon in under two hours. And he didn’t just scrape it, he did it with 20 seconds to spare.
A handful of hours ago, M-Sport Ford stars Tänak and Loubet were five miles high somewhere between home and Nairobi. It’s the Sunday before Safari and as soon as they landed from the long trip south, they turned around and headed north.
To meet Eliud.
North to Kaptagat, where the world’s fastest marathon man had the perfect antidote to jet-lag waiting for them: a high-altitude run.
“He is,” smiled Tänak, “quite a quick guy to go for a jog with.”
Today’s about more than running. Today’s one of those life lesson days you simply don’t forget.
As well as being the first person ever to crack 26 miles 385 yards in less than 120 minutes, Kipchoge has launched his own foundation to help build a safer, healthier and better educated future for children. At every level, he’s an awe-inspiring person.
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine what Tänak and Loubet can take away from today, in terms of raising their own games.
In Tänak’s words, he and Pierre-Louis are part of a team, they’re the end of the chain.
Kipchoge appears quite opposite. He laces his shoes, he runs faster than anybody else in the world for 26 miles. He goes it alone.
Except he doesn’t. He very much doesn’t.
“They work as a team,” said Kipchoge, nodding towards the Puma Rally1-driving pair. “And on our side, we work as a team as well. Running is not an individual sport. We have so many people behind us and if you kick out these people behind you then you cannot run anymore.”
Everybody here is an elite-level athlete in their own right. Tänak and Loubet are two of the very best drivers in the world, but what the guy sitting alongside them does is really beginning to hit home.
In fact, Loubet’s known for a while.
“My cousin is a runner,” he said. “Honestly, this guy Eliud is a big hero in my house and for my family. To meet him is a great honour.
“Physically, we cannot compare what they are doing with what we do; it’s from another world. When you speak with him, what he is able to do with his team… it’s completely crazy on the physical side what they do.
“But on the mental side we have a lot of things close and in common. When we speak about the team and all the people around him, it’s close like all of the people we have around us. It’s a similar attitude, very interesting.”
There is, however, a depth of thought to Kipchoge’s reasoning that only comes from stretching every sinew of your physical being.
“We talk about teamwork,” said the double Olympic champion. “We talk about the team we have and the team around us, but it’s trust that makes the teamwork. It’s always about trust.
“Teamwork is a group of people, but trust is what brings the team together.”
Understandably, Tänak and Loubet plenty of questions, but the one that resonates is the one about keeps you going: How do you run through the pain and just keep putting one foot in front of another when it feels impossible?
Kipchoge considers his response.
“The critical part,” he said, “is the mind. When the mind tells you, you are training really hard and you can’t relax, you are done. If you control your mind, it’s easy to train [but] if your mind goes outside the course, you need to bring it back immediately.”
Teamwork is a group of people, but trust is what brings the team together.Eliud Kipchoge
From the training camp, the party moves towards a classroom – a part of the Eliud Kipchoge Foundation. They’re going to plant trees. Educating children in a classroom surrounded by trees, delivering knowledge in the sanctity of a forest is so important to Kipchoge.
“I’m really honored to have them come and plant trees with me,” he said. “We want to make our country clean and planting these trees in our camp makes the world more fruitful. Who is to say the children from our classrooms are not going to be the next marathon runners or the next best drivers. Who knows if they come from our class?”
Tänak and Loubet are both moved by the reception they receive.
“I’m sitting here turning the steering wheel,” said Tänak. “Yes, we have some challenges, but nothing like this. It’s been incredible, such an incredible experience spending the day with Eliud. I’ve learned so much about their team, about the work they put in and how they stay strong and stay humble and positive.
“The atmosphere here is mega, but how these people stay connected and work together. It’s what makes them strong.”
Umoja. It’s Swahili. It’s the community, it’s the little things everybody does to look after each other: neighbours, friends, strangers.
It’s the trust in the team.
Kipchoge sees the recognition in the faces of the WRC stars. He gets that they get it.
But there’s still time for one more piece of advice.
“If you want to be free? To be truly free? Then run.”