As a schoolboy, Julien Wanders studied the dominance of Kenyan distance runners, leading him to make a life-changing decision at the age of 18. Four years on, it's finally paying dividends.
“It’s a strange life,” says Julien Wanders, almost 6000km from home as he breathes in the fresh, high-altitude air of Iten, Kenya.
“But you have to be a bit crazy to be a good runner,” he adds. “In every sport you have to be inspired by the best and in athletics the best are Kenyans and Ethiopians, so the best thing is to come here, see what they’re doing and learn how to become a champion.”
Having spent the majority of the past three years among Kenyans, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Swiss 22-year-old has started to run like one. Earlier this year he broke the European U23 and Swiss half marathon records, clocking 60:09 to finish second in Barcelona. Ahead of this weekend’s IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia, that makes him a leading player.
But who, exactly, is Wanders? And where did he come from?
Student of the sport
His journey from the bustling commercial city of Geneva to the most talented running town in the world, Iten, began when Wanders was 17 years old.
He was in his last year of high school, and for one of his final projects he was given free rein to choose an essay topic, so being the running nut he was, he asked: ‘Why do Kenyans dominate distance running?’
The previous year, Wanders made his international debut at the European Cross Country Champs in Belgrade, grimacing through the pain of a broken bone in his foot to finish 54th in the junior race. It was the kind of experience that either makes or breaks an athlete, and for Wanders it sparked a flame that has never gone out.
“Something happened in my mind,” he says. “I became really focused after that. I was eating really well, only focusing on training, recovering and sleeping a lot. I decided I want to become a professional athlete.”
Wanders has been in the sport since the age of six, trying his hand at everything from long jump to javelin before settling on running at the age of 15. Back then, the longest he’d ever run was 10km, but when he pushed the envelope of endurance, his coach Marco Jaeger saw the teenager’s true calling.
“The longer it is,” says Wanders, “the better I am.”
Wanders lonely in the clouds
After finishing school, Wanders set off on his own to spend a month at altitude (2400m/9000 ft) in Kenya. The 18-year-old wanted to see for himself why the place produced champions with the speed of a well-oiled production line.
He had one contact in Iten, a friend whose house he crashed at as Wanders ran himself to a new level of fitness. But his eagerness backfired, and he soon wandered right over the edge of the overtraining cliff.
“The first times were really tough,” he says. “On the easy runs I was struggling every day, but I was always doing some really good sessions. The problem was I couldn’t go for a full week consistently.”
He returned to Switzerland with his body fried, but his mind re-invigorated. A better result at the European Cross Country that year – 16th in the junior race – and a 5000m PB of 14:06.28 helped him secure funding and a professional contract, enough to allow him to uproot to Iten on a full-time basis.
“I saw that everything was perfect for me so I came back for longer,” he says. “The life in Kenya is really cheap when you rent a house – the only expensive thing was the ticket.”
But foregoing university to chase a running dream in the Rift Valley – how did that sit with Wanders’ parents?
“I had to try hard to convince them,” he admits. “They wanted me to do university, but I told them it’s not possible to do both and be professional.”
His parents are both professional musicians, so despite their hesitation they could empathise with the level of application needed for Wanders to master his trade.
“I’m really lucky they understand,” he says. “Their life is similar to athletics professionals and they understood if I wanted something, I have to work hard for it. It’s not a normal life, but they accept it.”
For the past few years, Wanders has based himself in Iten from September until May, then returned home to Switzerland and trained in St. Moritz over the summer. In 2015 he lowered the Swiss junior 5000m record to 13:48.21, and the following year began to shine on the roads, clocking 28:22 for 10km.
In March last year, he made his half marathon debut and clocked an eye-catching 61:43 in Milan.
A member of the NN Running Team – a team of runners from various nations who are managed by Global Sports Communication – Wanders does not train with some of the group’s biggest stars like Eliud Kipchoge or Geoffrey Kamworor, instead following his own programme and running with Kenyans of a similar ability.
His coach has never been to Kenya, something he plans to change later this year, but Jaeger emails the training plan to Wanders at the start of each week and they talk on the phone after every session. The schedule will be followed religiously by the group of 10 to 15 runners who train with Wanders.
“There is no big names, they are like me – improving,” says Wanders. “They are 61- or 62-minute half marathoners and we have a good spirit. I try to make them understand we can progress together and then we’ll have an opportunity.”
Wanders is able to teach them certain principles about training, though in most areas he’s usually the one learning from them. Over the past three years he’s come to understand the reasons for Kenya’s dominance a lot better than he did as a student writing that essay.
“First, it’s the teamwork,” he says. “When you join a group it’s special, and in Switzerland I could never find a group like this.
“Then, it’s the mentality of the Kenyans: they don’t fear training hard, they don’t even think about what training is, so running is very simple and it helps you not to think too much. I think most of the Europeans are not training hard enough and thinking too much about recovery, the pace they have to go, but to get to the top you have to train really hard and sometimes just forget about the pace.”
Then there’s the lifestyle – the absence of distractions to sap his energy between sessions.
“When I’m in Geneva I’m really stressed and have a lot of things to do, even if I don’t want to,” says Wanders. “Here I am not stressed at all. When I’m finished training I relax, eat and sleep. It’s a life I really enjoy and now I have a girlfriend in Kenya so everything is good. I’m really happy.”
Over the past four years he has increased his training in small increments, enough that he’s now well able to handle the weekly load of 160-180km. As he prepares to take on the world’s best this weekend, he hopes it will be put to good use.
“I’m not looking for a time, just a good position,” he says. “I will tell myself to go for the win and see what I can do. I’ll try to keep up with the top guys and if I can get a medal, it’s good, but if I can get top 10 it’s good, too.”
The marathon, he figures, will have to wait another three or four years, and after this weekend Wanders will turn his attention to the track, where he hopes to double up over 5000m and 10,000m at this summer’s European Championships in Berlin.
And as for the future, his path will adhere to the principle that’s been present throughout: the further he goes, the better he gets.
“I know endurance comes with age, so I’m not worried about the future,” he says. “I think when I move up to the marathon it will be…not bad.”
In time, that should prove to be a drastic understatement.
Words: Cathal Dennehy
Photos and video by Thomas Gmür/ATHLE.ch