I have been to Kenya and I have trained at altitude in Iten, the distance running capital of the world. I have seen at first-hand how so many Kenyans dedicate themselves to running. They’re also pretty good at it! And yes, I have been running with the Kenyans.
In this, the first part of my Kenyan blog, I want to share something of the experience of being in Kenya and of seeing how the Kenyans live and train. Their lifestyle, struggles and motivations. For this was as much a part of the experience as the training was. The second part will focus on the training itself.
Of course, this wasn’t my first trip to Kenya. In early 2019 I had made the same journey, only to be forced to fly home a few days later after picking up an injury on my first run. After the depths of that disappointment, I am glad to report there were no such dramas this time round. Just the most amazing experiences that will live with me forever.
My interest in making this trip began back in 2015 when I first read Adharanand Finn’s excellent Running with the Kenyans. In it, he recounts his own time in Kenya and his attempt to uncover the secret of what makes the Kenyans the best long-distance runners in the world. Is it their diet or the altitude? Is there something in their genetics or history? Is it the years of running barefoot to school or the training? My trip, expertly delivered by The Kenya Experience, sought to give us a taste of all these things, as well as the opportunity to go running with the Kenyans. It was a two-week trip, based at Iten’s High Altitude Training Camp, one of the top training facilities in Kenya.
Throughout our stay we had the opportunity to meet and talk with Kenyan runners and their coaches to understand something about their lifestyle and their motivations. One of the standouts for me was just how much the phrase eat, sleep, run applies to the Kenyan running community. Even the top athletes running 100kms or more a week will find that training only takes up a fraction of the hours in the day/week. The rest of the time is dedicated to rest and recovery. This will include eating and maybe some massage, but will be dominated by sleep and rest. And when I say rest, I mean complete rest. Not sitting reading or watching TV or catching up on emails/social media. But just time doing absolutely nothing.
There is also something very relaxed and laid back about life in general, which is in stark contrast to our busy, western lives. That’s not to say that people don’t work hard and struggle to get by. But everything runs on ‘Kenyan time’. If you’re meeting at 3pm then don’t get mad if someone turns up at 3:59, because it still starts with a 3! The only time when this doesn’t apply is with training. Be late for a run, and you’re playing catch-up. Which is a tough gig when you see how fast the Kenyans run. This more relaxed way of life definitely did me as much good as the training. Once I was over the long journey, I felt able to truly relax and leave all the stresses and worries of home and work behind me. It’s been many years since I felt quite so relaxed and peaceful.
We were fed well at the training camp, with plenty of freshly prepared, organic food. However, it was surprising how heavily loaded to carbohydrate it was: porridge, bread, pasta, rice and ugali (a maize-based dumpling often thought to be the superfood that powers Kenyan runners). There was not much in the way of protein, although meat once a day was more than most local runners got, and no fats, refined sugars or dairy (due to the lack of refrigeration). But lots of very tasty homemade soup. The result was very filling (I never had so many pancakes and chapattis) and yet I also lost weight and became leaner. How long it stays off now I’m home remains to be seen, but it makes me think that a higher carb diet is not necessarily a bad thing, providing it’s the right sort of carbs (i.e. not sugars).
Our coaches and guides were able to share with us something of the background into why the Kenyans, and in particular the Kalenjin tribe, dominate distance running. Historically, the Kalenjins were pastoralists, roaming through the Rift Valley with their livestock. This nomadic and athletic existence must have contributed to the development of a lean and powerful physique that makes them look like they were built to run.
Education and schooling have also played a big part in the development of Kenyan running. Many primary school children will run 60-100kms per week to and from school, often barefoot. It is in high school where they first experience inter-school competition, which for the very best can take them to Nairobi and even across east Africa. In their teens they will often get their first running shoes, receive some structured training and experience the rewards associated with performing well (visiting a big city, or maybe just a prize of bread and soda). The lucky few (if they work as hard at their studies as they do at their running) may end up earning a scholarship at a top US college athletics programme.
St Patrick’s High School in Iten is probably the most famous and influential ‘running school’ in the world. Home of Brother Colm O’Connell (the ‘godfather of Kenyan running’), who arrived in Iten in 1976 with no formal athletics training, but who has coached and developed thirty world and Olympic champions, including Mary Keitany, Peter Rono, Wilson Kipketer and David Rudisha. Visiting St Patrick’s was a real highlight, including seeing athletics honours boards that many countries would be proud of. The school also plants a tree in honour of every champion and world record holder they have, and it was quite something to wander around a true forest of champions. Kenyans continue to be inspired and motivated by the achievements of their running heroes. In 1968, Kipchoge Keino became the first Kenyan Olympic champion and inspired a generation who would go on to conquer the world. Today, it is Eliud Kipchoge, based in nearby Eldoret, who is inspiring a new generation with his super-human marathon feats.
The main motivation for most Kenyans when it comes to running, however, is to be successful enough to be able to transform the lives of their families and communities. This means being able to travel to races in Europe and the US and win prizemoney that can be invested in homes, farms and even schools back in Kenya. That is why they come to Iten in their thousands. That is why you see huge groups out training on the hilly, dirt roads every morning and afternoon. We train hard to be the best we can, maybe even to compete in races or make regional/national teams. For them, it is all about seeking a better life. That is their motivation and it is incredibly powerful. Maybe that’s why we struggle to keep up when we’re running with the Kenyans.
We had the honour of meeting Simon, a local athlete who lives with his mother and ten siblings in a tiny two-room shack on the outskirts of Iten. I’m not sure what was more humbling, seeing the conditions the family lived in, or the fact that they seemed overjoyed by our visit. Simon runs so that one day he can provide more for his family. In 2018, he won a local half marathon, with prizemoney of around $3,000; a life-changing amount of money in rural Kenya. Corrupt race officials refused to pay him, and despite 18 months of local campaigning it seems Simon and his family will not see a shilling. It was heart-breaking to hear their story and to see the pride that Simon had in the newspaper cuttings of his race win and his small collection of medals.
Fortunately, all is not lost for Simon and his family. A local charity (the Gathimba Edwards Foundation) is supporting the family, and later in 2020 will be building them a new home. We visited one of the charity’s projects and saw first-hand the difference that having a proper homemade: separate rooms for the children; water, electricity and toilets; and land to grow produce. I know that Simon will continue to work hard at his running dream, but at least life should become a little easier for his family. Maybe time for us all to reflect on what motivates us most in our running.
As you can see, my Kenya experience was so much more than just about the training. Yes, I did go running with the Kenyans (more about that next time). But I also got to experience so much more of what running life in Kenya is all about. And in many ways, I think that will live with me far longer than the effects of two-weeks hard training.
Eat, sleep and run well. And I’ll see you at the start.