One of my favorite reasons to have David Hunter write for RunBlogRun is that I learn something new everytime I read one of his features. David wrote this piece on Gerard van de Veen, one of our sports most prominent coaches and trainers. It is interesting that one of Gerard’s fine athletes, Daniel Wanjiru, broke the course record while winning the TCS Amsterdam Marathon just a weekend ago. And another of his athletes, Wilson Kipsang, battled Kenenisa Bekele through the streets of Berlin on September 25.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And Miles to go, before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep…” to quote the famous poem by Robert Frost (Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening). It could be used to describe the diligence of Gerard van de Veen.
Gerard van de Veen with Wilson Kipsang
Gerard van de Veen: Cultivating Road Talent
Dutch Manager Handles The Greats
October 9th, 2016
The spectacle of international road racing at the elite level is so grand as to sometimes be overwhelming: picture several dozen exquisite and exactingly prepared thoroughbred men and women, positioned on starting lines in front of huge teeming fields of tens of thousands and prepared to race for life-changing prize money over the streets of some of the world’s greatest global capitals. Against this backdrop, it is often easy to overlook a key player in all of this: the elite athlete’s agent or manager, the person who toils alone in anonymity to ensure that all non-racing aspects of the athlete’s life run smoothly, that the annual race calendar is wisely assembled to include the proper progression of races against the appropriate opponents, and that the overall trajectory of an athlete’s career is arcing properly to pinnacle, career-capping – even world record – performances. It is a daunting task which requires superior multi-tasking skills, an engrained knowledge of how to select and develop road racing talent, a nuanced yet important relationship with the athlete, and a keen sense of mother wit. Many aspire to become managers on the road racing circuit, but only a select few truly excel.
One of the more successful managers who presides over a stable of world-class road racers is Amsterdam-based Gerard van de Veen.
You can’t be a world-class manager without world-class athletes – or at least athletes with the potential to become global-quality performers. “You can find talent in different ways,” explains van de Veen who began his managing career in 2005 and who represents some of road racing’s best current performers. “Sometimes I am by myself in Kenya watching races and you can discover some new talent. Another possibility is sometimes our own athletes give us a tip and I subsequently take a look. We have some people that scout for us in different ways to find talent.”
van de Veen – who scours East Africa and has much success in identifying athletes with road racing potential – has developed a talent search approach that works for him. “What you can see with most of the athletes who have talent you already know because they have already produced good results in races in Kenya. That’s what you follow,” he reveals. “And then when I see a man who has come back several times in races, I ask myself, ‘Do we know this guy? Have we come in contact with him?'” he further adds. “And then I want to meet this new athlete to look into his eyes and to see what is his motivation. Is he disciplined – yes or no? Because discipline is essential. When I am convinced this is the right guy then you can contract him.” But the Dutch manager – while comfortable with how he tracks down talent – knows his technique is not foolproof. “But you never know how he will do until he’s out there. You can’t get too much information about an athlete. And based on the information you gather and the talk you have by yourself with the athlete, I make the decision as to whether – yes or no – I’ll contract this guy or I don’t contract this guy. Aware that his process is sensible but not perfect, van de Veen concludes, “For me, that is the only way I know how to work.”
For van de Veen and the athletes he manages, the professional road racing journey is quite often a progression of development that ultimately leads to the marathon. But the savvy manager knows that to be successful this pathway must be a gradual and planned development that introduces the athlete to the grueling 26 mile 385 yard grind through controlled exposure. One of van de Veen’s most gifted young athletes is Kenyan Violah Jepchumba – a road racer who demolished a talented field in last spring’s Prague Half Marathon by splitting the opening 10 kilometers in a then-world leading 30:29 on her way to victory in a world-leading 1:05:51. Deflecting the clamor by some for Jepchumba to tackle the longer race, van de Veen has called for patience and a gradual introduction. “What we try to do is she is thinking about the marathon – but is waiting until 2018 or 2019.” For the manager, this isn’t about delay; it is about proper preparation. “What we try to do is to look around next year – or even this year – for some half marathons. Or maybe next year a 25K pace-setting role in a marathon with the idea of slowly, slowly working up to a marathon.” And in a pronouncement tempered by experience, van de Veen declares, “The key is not rushing – but working slowly by slowly, step by step.”
A building block to the marathon that Jepchumba may well embrace would be a long-awaited showdown next spring against Peres Jepchirchir – another talented Kenyan road racer who is the reigning IAAF world half marathon champion and who recently successfully defended her half marathon title in Usti nad Labem, clocking 1:07:24 despite pulling up to address a shoe problem – an unplanned stop that prevented her from breaking her own course record. Might this square-off take place next spring? “It’s possible. I know the race in Prague is there [the April 1st Prague Half Marathon.] Let’s see if Violah wants to do it,” the manager advises. And with a smile he adds, “And then we’ll see what will be ‘The Race.'”
Currently, the Dutch manager has several marquee thoroughbreds in his stable that include two-time defending Prague half marathon champion Daniel Wanjiru, former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang; and current marathon world record holder Dennis Kimetto. When asked, van de Veen pauses only momentarily before identifying the greatest athlete he has ever managed. “I think that when I look at his results and the consistent career of the athlete, then I think that Wilson Kipsang is the greatest [I’ve ever represented],” van de Veen declares. In discussing Kipsang, his manager doesn’t hide his respect for his prized athlete who set the world record of 2:03:23 in Berlin three years ago and captured the ’13-’14 World Marathon Majors crown. “I knew that we were ready to attack the world record again because after New York last year I asked him [Kipsang] what his plans were for next year. And he told me, ‘I want to go to Berlin because I want to run that race,'” explains van de Veen as he reflects on his athlete who pressed the pace in this fall’s epic road battle between Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele on the streets of Berlin. “I knew that he had good preparation and he was convinced to run a fast time. That was his goal. The prior world record holder really wanted to run a really fast time – and that’s what he did. He improved his personal best by 10 seconds. After the race, they [the media] asked me how I saw the race and I said, ‘Kipsang raced the race, but Bekele won the race.”
Like virtually all involved in the sport, van de Veen is quite concerned about the proliferation of doping and is realist about the practical limitations constraining managers from being totally effective against athlete use of banned substances. “First of all, as a manager or a coach, you never have 24 hours a day control over our athletes. So what we did, we arranged a meeting in February this year in Kenya with all of the athletes on our team to talk about what is doping, that we want a clean sport, and we educate our athletes and we give them a paper with all of the forbidden substances,” he explains. “And we tell them when you have an injury or you are sick and need medication, before you start using medication, you must let us know what kind of medication that the doctor is prescribing you. Then we consult with our doctor in Holland to see if it is a medication we know. After that, if we can, we say OK, it is good. That’s the way we are working with this issue.” The Dutch manager knows complete supervision over an athlete is not possible – a reality that is nonetheless frustrating. “The problem is that you cannot control an athlete 24 hours a day. You cannot see what they are doing, if they are going to a doctor, asking for something. That’s not possible. How can you control that? The only thing you can do is lead your athlete to do right. When you use that approach – knowing that you lack control – your task is complete. That’s the only thing you can do.”
Acknowledging that the future of international road racing is difficult to predict with precision, Gerard van de Veen nonetheless cites continued financial support as a critical ingredient for its future success. “I think [that how road racing will look in 3-5 years] is difficult to predict. Everything depends upon money,” he predicts. “The better the money, the better the races, the better the participants. I think when the economy is going forward, then I think for sure in 3 to 5 years we’ll have a situation where we’ll have several pinnacle road races, I’m sure.” Van de Veen also points to doping reform as essential to restore the sport’s credibility, participation, and corporate support. “Of course, that is very important. If the sport can get going in the right way, then I am sure that in 3 to 5 years we will have a lot of road races in the world.”