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Marathoner From Kenya Tunes Up for Olympics in '88

May 16, 1985|PAUL SMITH | Times Staff Writer

If Dick Ongaga Isaboke wins the marathon in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, don't be surprised if marathon runners start singing Swahili folk songs as part of their workouts.

Singing, according to Isaboke, is the key to training for the 26.2-mile run. "When I'm running, I'm singing. The songs remind me of all the good days when I was winning all the competitions. They're just traditional songs that bring the best memories to my mind when I'm getting stressed out."

Isaboke, who is finishing his first year as an assistant track coach at Santa Monica College, came to the United States from Kenya six years ago. He graduated from Long Beach City College, where he was on the track team. He later attended U.S. International University.

Trying for the Olympic Games is not a new goal for Isaboke, but the marathon is a change of pace for him. He competed in the 3,000 meter steeplechase for Long Beach and was hoping to run in the steeplechase event for the Kenyan national team in the 1984 Olympics until he banged up his knee in a motorcycle accident. His best time in the steeplechase at Long Beach, he said, was 8:35.

Still Bothered

The knee injury still bothers him. "I'm building it up with knee exercises," he said, "but it's not stopping me from running 115 miles a week."

The 32-year-old athlete said he is changing running events because he thinks the steeplechase is an event for younger runners. "I am getting older, so I have to move on," he said. "I can do better in the marathon."

Isaboke ran the Long Beach Marathon earlier this year in 2:40 and admits that was not a competitive time. "I wasn't ready for the race," he said, "so I just ran it like a Sunday morning run." But he insists, "If I had pushed it I would have run 2:12 or 2:13."

He said his time at the Long Beach event has not discouraged him and that he planned to compete in either the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon next year.

Took Paying Job

Before he came to Santa Monica College, he was an unpaid assistant coach at Long Beach for three years. LBCC is ranked as one of the top track teams in the nation according to the J.C. Athletic Bureau, but Isaboke left when Santa Monica offered a paid position on its coaching staff.

"I need to be where what I'm doing is respected," he said of his new position.

Isaboke said SMC head track coach Tommie Smith, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist, "is not worried about me taking over the distance program. He's given me a little bit of power to shape a running program."

While the SMC men's track team did not have a winning season, Isaboke is proud of the performances he has gotten out of his freshman distance runners, including Terry Goods, who finished second in the 800-meter race with a time of 1:51.72 at the Southern California preliminaries.

Ambitious for Athletes

"I want to see my athletes get where I am," he said. "I devote more time to my athletes than I do to myself."

The time Isaboke gives to his own training is considerable. Mornings consist of 15-mile runs. Afternoons are given over to sprints. Three mornings a week he runs the hills of Palos Verdes.

But he resists the idea of submitting to someone else's coaching. "I have always been an independent person," he said. "I've always trained alone. Back home (in Kenya) most African runners don't have coaches."

Isaboke said there are other differences in training between Southern California and Kenya. "Here I have to stop and wait for the traffic to go by. In Kenya I can run all day and never see a car."

Meanwhile he continues to sing while he runs. "I'm teaching my students to sing, too. While they're running they should put the best songs in their minds."

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