Would you move to East Africa to run? Meet the twins that did…

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Kiwi endurance-running twins Jake and Zane Robertson have spent the past six years living and training in East Africa. SPIKES speaks to them about leaving home at 17, sleeping on a two-inch thick mattress, and why it was absolutely the right decision.

Some said they were crazy, others just reckless, while friends and family viewed their plans with concern. But for the Robertson twins, leaving high school in New Zealand and moving to East Africa held the key to making the most of their talent. 

Enamoured with running from a young age, Jake and Zane, who raced barefoot until the age of 14, plastered the walls of their room with the world’s elite endurance runners, led by world mile record holder Hicham El Guerrouj, of Morocco.

The pair had spoken loosely, in their quest to become the best runners they could be, of moving to East Africa. But this teenage plot took a step closer to reality in 2006, when Jake competed as a junior at the World Cross Country Championships in Japan.

“That is when I met the Kenyans, and that’s what convinced me that we should do it,” says Jake. So off they went.

It was far from easy. They often spent time staying on the floor at friends houses and life was tough for the first couple of years.

“Our only possession was our two inch thick mattress,” says Zane. “My brother and I would wake up with dead legs because our hips would go through the mattress on to the concrete floor. We worked out the best method to sleep was top and tail, with one blanket each.”

The pair contemplated returning home on several occasions. “Every time we thought about giving up, a little bit of hope was thrown our way,” says Jake. “We were out of money at one point, but out of the blue a manager gave us a call. He said he’d heard our story and could we email him some of our results.”

Under a manager, Jake and Zane, enjoyed the benefit of better quality racing, earned a bit of money and life gradually improved as they immersed themselves in the East African way of life.

"Over here you gain so much belief,” says Jake. “You train with these guys everyday and feel at home. You are not scared to make moves. You don’t fear them.”

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Learning from East Africa: Jake Robertson before his 5000m heat in Daegu, 2011

The twins, now 23, no longer live together, with Jake based in Iten, Kenya and Zane in Ethiopia, where he lives with his local girlfriend. Zane even speaks the local Ethiopian dialect of Amharic.

Adopting an East African approach to running is based more on “feeling” than miles. The twins don’t put a strict mileage figure and “go with the flow” – training for about 80-100km a week.

“It’s not quite the figure you would expect,” says Jake. “But we train with a lot of quality. Our hard days are very hard and our easy days are very easy.”

They’ve given their talent every chance to prosper, and it’s paying off. Jake, who finished 15th in the 5000m final at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, has already qualified to run the 10,000m for the New Zealand team at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow – setting a new personal best time of 27:45.46 in Stanford, California, in April. On Saturday (July 13th), he hopes to secure qualification for the 5000m by racing in Heusden, Belgium.

His brother Zane is competing in the same race, hoping to make the Moscow B Standard of 13:20.00, a mark he was just 1.15 shy of when running in Stanford in April.

Initially seen as a “big laugh and a joke” by the East Africans, the twins have won over the locals with their attitude and commitment, not to say their talent, to the point where they’re now respected, and even feared by some.

“Over time, other athletes started following us and people would join our group because they believed in what we were doing,” says Zane. “They know we’ve learned from them and what we are doing is working. Now if we turn up to a race people walk away from our heat because they don’t want to race us, because they feel there is a chance they can be beaten by us.”  

The pair also now live in relative comfort. Jake lives in a one bedroom place in Iten, complete with a TV. Their New Zealand coach, Steve Willis, brother of 2008 Olympic silver medallist Nick, believes they are “on the cusp of arriving at the elite level.”

So would the pair encourage other athletes to follow their professional pilgrimage to East Africa?

“I wouldn’t encourage the risk that we’ve taken,” says Jake, who wants a top eight finish in the world over 10,000m. “We went straight on a flight the next day after leaving high school: that’s too risky. No, I would encourage athletes to come out, have an open mind, stay for a good period of time, like three to five months, and learn something from the world’s best.”

So what’s next?

“I suppose it the goal of medalling at the Olympics,” says Zane. “It is the fact we want to be the best runners and leave a mark on New Zealand history and world history.”

Watch a video of the Robertson twins appealing for sponsorship, starring Mo Farah: