Brother Colm O’Connell: The Godfather of Kenyan Running - The Running Channel Advertisement

Brother Colm O’Connell: The Godfather of Kenyan Running

BY: Mark Dredge
21 June 2024

Kenya has produced more world class middle- and long-distance runners than any other country, and their dominance all somehow leads back to one man: Brother Colm O’Connell.

The Irish missionary went to Kenya to teach geography at St Patrick’s High School in 1976 as a 28-year old. He was supposed to stay for three months, but he’s been there ever since.

So how did an Irish geography teacher become known as ‘the Godfather of Kenyan Running’? And how did his training approach professionalise running in Kenya and help develop the world’s greatest runners?

RUNNING & THE KENYAN WAY OF LIFE

At the boys’ boarding school Brother Colm met Peter Foster, who’s brother Brendan had just won a 10,000m Olympic bronze. Peter was volunteering at the school and teaching athletics, using some of his brother’s training methods, and when Peter returned to the UK, Brother Colm took over the coaching. It didn’t matter to him that he didn’t have any experience or training as an athletics coach. In fact, that became his advantage. 

Before Brother Colm started teaching them, he had to learn from them. He observed them running, and structured the training around them, rather than making them work in a way which wasn’t natural to their way of life. 

His foundation came in the values of running, then he would nurture the talent he found, encouraging and motivating them, and guiding them towards success.

He slowed them down, and stopped them from running everything all-out, all the time. He taught them the right exercises and the right approach to training, and why this was important. He developed warm-ups and drills which are still the foundation of distance running. He simplified everything and professionalised the training environment by having his students commit to the gradual, patient processes of training, and instilling the knowledge that success only comes from discipline and hard work.

His students began to win on a national level, but Brother Colm didn’t understand just how good his athletes were until they began to run overseas, and continued to win their races. He realised that what he was doing was working, and that he was training some of the best runners in the world. 

From this foundation came training camps, now for professionals and not students. The athletes ran and lived together, and now there are more than 100 training camps in Kenya based on Brother Colm’s approach, where the structure of the training is familiar with us today: lots of easy miles, running twice a day most days, intervals and fartleks, hill sprints, weekly long runs, regular strength training and flexibility. Pushing the runners hard in the hard sessions, but never so much that they’re depleted for the next day, and encouraging lots of rest and recovery in between.

These training camps have given incredible successes for Kenyan athletes.

BROTHER COLM’S CHAMPIONS

Brother Colm has trained world champions (25, to be exact), world record holders, major marathon winners and Olympic champions.

The first Olympic gold medal from one of his students was Peter Rono’s win over 1,500m at the 1988 Olympics. The following games Matthew Birir won 3,000m gold. Brimin Kipruto won gold in the 3,000m steeplechase in Beijing 2008. But his greatest success is with two of the fastest men to ever run 800m: Wilson Kipketer and David Rudisha. Kipketer broke the 800m world record in 1997, and held it until Rudisha surpassed his time in his Olympic gold winning run at the 2012 Olympic games. Rudisha has held the world record ever since.

In the late 1980s, Brother Colm was also responsible for setting up the first training camp for Kenyan women, making it possible for women to train as runners in a patriarchal society, and enabling the great success that Kenyan women have had. Major marathon winners have come from his training camps, including Mary Keitany and Edna Kiplagat, and at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Vivian Cheruiyot won gold in the 5,000m.

Brother Colm’s success and legacy continues all around Kenya and the world, and now he’s part of a new training partnership with KIPRUN at their 42 HOUSE in Iten.

KIRPUN’S 42 HOUSE

KIPRUN’s 42 House is set up as a training centre for some of the best local runners, where the athletes get all the help they need in every part of their training.

They also get to be involved in the latest developments in KIPRUN’s shoes and clothing, working with designers, engineers and product managers, to specifically improve and innovate for their needs and the needs of runners around the world.

But it’s not just about running, and there’s a foundation of education, with a focus on career development and financial management, to set them up beyond running. 

As well as the athletes who live and train at 42 House, there is a partnership with two schools in Kenya, one of them St Patrick’s High School which Brother Colm oversees, to work as a pre-professional stepping stone for teenage runners, seeing them through their education and then helping them transition towards running full-time. 

For almost 50 years, Brother Colm has been teaching young runners the values they need to succeed in sport and beyond in, and today that legacy continues, with more future world champions learning what it takes to be the best.

MOST VIEWED

1

How To Run...

Do you want to run further but feel too tired to...
2

On Cloudmonster 2...

On Running have just dropped the second iteration of the incredibly...
3

What Happens To...

So you’re a 5k runner. Nice one! But aside from covering...
4

Nike Alphafly 3...

Nike is back. After a lacklustre 2023 where Nike’s own athletes...
5

10 Things Not...

While we always see running as a positive thing to do,...
6

The Running Channel’s...

If you’re looking for the ultimate present for the runner in...

Running News

16 July 2024

The Rise of the Strava “Jockey” | Runners paying others to run for them

Have you ever seen someone take your Strava segment in such a quick time that you know you won’t be able to do it? Well, there might be something for you: a Strava “Jockey”.
10 July 2024

Runner Arrested And Imprisoned During Cape Town To London Challenge | Deo Kato

Deo Kato, who is running from Cape Town to London, was arrested along with his driver while running through South Sudan. They were imprisoned for three weeks without knowing why they were arrested, or if they'd be released.
26 June 2024

London Marathon Ballot 2025: Are You In?!

A whopping 840,318 of us applied to the ballot to run the 2025 London Marathon, and on Wednesday June 26th the names were selected at random and the confirmation emails were sent: Did you get in?

Latest Video

Cyclists Use It BUT Should Runners? | Running Power

Running power might be one of the more confusing running metrics, so what actually is it? This is everything you need to know about running and power.
Author icon BY: The Running Channel
See more

Our Partners