A tiny borough in Kenya’s Rift Valley is turning out the world’s best marathon and long distance runners and attracting global devotees in droves.
It’s barely dawn and the nesting yellow collar lovebirds have yet to send out their first call, when their reverie is broken by the sound of steady footfalls echoing across the escarpment.
A few stray goats scatter out of the way and in the distance a sleepy leopard watches the approach of a group of long, lean, loping silhouettes that cast soft shadows against the red earth and sky.
As the sun rises, it reveals Iten, a lush, green town 8,000 feet above Kenya’s Rift Valley that’s home to 4,000 people, mostly peasant farmers existing on a small-scale subsistence level.
In any other country, Iten would be a sleepy, rural hamlet yet each day this magical place pulses with life and movement, drawing thousands of foreign and Kenyan visitors each year – every one of them an elite athlete eager to soak up the ‘Iten’ secret.
Its dusty trails are uneven, untreated and uncompromising yet they’re packed with focused athletes performing their grueling training regimens on the slopes; taking advantage of the equatorial latitudes that create an ideal climate for sustained outdoor activity – comfortably warm days, cool nights, low humidity.
Many have attributed Kenyan runners’ success to the local high altitude which delivers aerobic benefits for the runners as they push through trails that sometimes climb more than 3,000 feet, where oxygen is precious and a cruel wind slices across the face of the hills.
The question though has been asked – if high elevation is the key, why are there no world-class distance runners in Bolivia? And if poverty is the driving force, why no representation from countries such as India? And if genetics and geography are so significant, how come Ugandans from the same Rift Valley region have had much less to celebrate?
The biggest factor to the Kenyan dominance in long distance championships is the runners’ unbelievable training and discipline.
“Athletes at Tanui’s Kaptagat camp rise at dawn and run up into a forest of ancient pines and spreading Okun trees, a world so dense and chilled that steam emanates from the sweating runners. Only after 12 miles of brutal uphill running does the sky appear whole and the mountainside fall away into the Great Rift Valley below.”
For as long as three months at a time, while preparing for marathons, many of the runners live in monastic isolation, sleeping two in tiny one-story concrete barracks with a corrugated metal roof and no electricity or running water. They eat meals cooked over a wood fire in a common room, fall asleep each night amid a black, consuming darkness and awake to roosters from surrounding farms.” (Layden)
The strict regimen is non-exclusive – even world class and wealthy runners who live in mansions with luxury automobiles attend these camps to train for upcoming races.
The pace is relentless; all the athletes run in packs, constantly pushing each other to go harder, longer and faster, that sometimes in Iten it sometimes seems that everyone can run the marathon in under 2 hours.
Many athletes, including David Rudisha, the first Kenyan ever to hold the 800m world record (2011), and world champions Edna Kiplagat, Florence Kiplagat, Lornah Kiplagat (not related), Linet Masai, and Mary Keitany have made their homes in Iten town and Gianni DeMadonna, one of the world’s major athletic’s agents, has a training camp based here. Today Iten is said to house over 500-world class athletes.
Ioannis Magkriotellis (l.), a Greek marathoner, trains with Kenyan Johana Kariankei, in hopes of improving his time to make the Greek Olympic squad in 2012.
The runners themselves have been quick to capitalise on their fame, and that of Iten itself. Training camps run by Olympians have sprung up all over the escarpment which offer an irresistible combination – one of the world’s premier training locations and expert coaching advice, with a unique opportunity to look inside the lives of the world’s greatest runners and Kenyan culture.
As well as expert training advice, guided runs and coached workouts, those under training receive motivational talks and practical workshops all with an emphasis on doing it ‘The Kenyan way’.
The High Altitude Training Centre owned and managed by 4 times World Champion long distance runner Lornah Kiplagat and her husband Peter Langerhorst, is one of the most well known – for its state of the art gym, facilities and restaurant that serves up healthy and nutritious food.
Shoe and apparel companies like Fila, Puma International, and Saucony that are looking invest in up and coming runners, also fund running camps in Iten; hiring current professional runners to run training programs.
Countries with substantial Olympic running teams have also set up camp here. The British camp in Iten is marshalled by UK Athletics and the organisers of the London Marathon, and passionately endorsed by the UKA’s head of endurance, Ian Stewart: “This is just a massive endurance enclave,” he said. “You don’t see any long jumpers here. It’s motivational for all our athletes and that’s a big reason why we come here.”
The endurance, pain and sacrifice of Iten’s athletes has truly inspired the world, so much so they seem god-like; modern versions of Philippides – Greek’s famed marathon messenger to Sparta – bringing honor to themselves and their craft.