High up along the edges of the Rift Valley in western Kenya, among the hand-ploughed fields and mud huts that surround the small, chaotic town of Iten, something is afoot.
Walking around in the middle of the day, it’s easy to miss it. Iten looks like any other small Kenyan town. Cows and sheep wander freely along the roadside, tugging at tufts of grass, sticking their noses into piles of rubbish; the local buses come beeping down the bumpy track, the conductors hanging out of the doors, on the lookout for passengers.
But get up at 6am, as dawn begins seeping across the sky, and it’s a different story. In the half-light, hundreds of Lycra-clad runners rush by in every direction, like commuters in any other city, their jackets swishing, their long legs charging at an incredible pace.
Kenya’s current dominance of long-distance running is one of the most remarkable achievements in the annals of sport.
Running is the world’s most universal and accessible sport. Almost every major city on Earth has its own marathon or half-marathon, with thousands of people training for and taking part in each one. Yet last year, the 20 fastest marathon runners in the world were all from one African country, which has only two all-weather running tracks.
In 2011, while three Australians (pop: 22.3 million) managed to run the Olympic qualifying time – under 2:15:00 – for the marathon, 150 Kenyans (pop: 40.5 million) broke the same barrier. Even more remarkably, they were almost all from the Rift Valley area of Kenya around Iten.
As a keen runner in England, I’d grown up watching the Kenyans winning big races on television. I’d spent years telling people the story of Annemari Sandell, a talented Finnish athlete, who in 1995 travelled to Kenya and spent six weeks training in the lead-up to the world cross-country championships. She returned to a cold, rain-drenched afternoon in the north of England to win the world title. What had happened to her out there in Kenya? What did she find that had turned her into a world champion? Could I discover it, too? I decided to find out.
I packed my running shoes and headed off to spend six months living and training in Iten, the centre of the running world. Many elite runners from around the globe head there to train. They go for the altitude – the town sits at a height of 2400 metres – and the endless dusty trails that crisscross the countryside. The fact that the place is running mad helps, but most athletes arrive with their coaches and a fixed training schedule. Me, I was coming armed only with questions.
I was no elite runner – my half-marathon best time was 1:26. I just wanted to know why they were so good. And to see if, by spending time with them, living in their houses, eating their food and following their training regimens, a little of the magic would somehow rub off on me.
Join the gang
Despite the thousands of runners in Iten, when you first arrive there is no program you can join or centre where you can go to put your name down to start training. If you want to run with the groups zipping by everywhere, you have to do what any Kenyan hopeful turning up in Iten has to do: stand by the side of the road, wait for a group to come by, and join in.
I was told a big group set off from a junction in the town just after 6am each morning. I decided, after a week running on my own to acclimatise to the altitude, to join them. It was still dark as I arrived at the meeting point. There was no sign of any other runners, so I did a bit of stretching and jogging up and down to keep warm.
Then, after about 10 minutes, runners began to appear from everywhere, materialising out of the darkness. Within minutes there were about 60 standing around. They were mostly men, their long, skinny legs wrapped in tights, some wearing woolly hats. I suddenly felt out of my depth, panicking as more athletes bounded down the slopes or appeared from behind the trees. But it was too late to back out now.
Then, without any announcement, we started running, heading off down the dirt track. Here we go, I told myself, following into the darkness. Buckle up and hang on. The initial pace was quick without being terrifying, so I edged myself into the middle of the pack and tried to stay calm, focusing on my form, feeling the gentle pat, pat, pat of my feet skipping through under me. Up ahead the full moon lit the way, while behind us the encroaching dawn had started to light the sky, making it easier to see. The last few stars went out as we hurtled along out of the town and into the African countryside.
A few of the runners around me were chatting quietly, but mostly we ran in silence, following the red, dusty trail as it wound its way further and further from anywhere I recognised.
After just a few miles, the pace began to pick up. I felt it most up the hills and soon found myself drifting to the back of the group. I asked someone how far we were running.
“One hour 10,” he said. We must have been moving at a pace of about three minutes 45 seconds per kilometre by then, and getting faster with each stride. I was going to have to run the race of my life not to get lost.
Luckily for me, two women runners also began struggling with the ever-increasing pace and I found myself sticking with them for the rest of the run. They kindly encouraged me whenever I started to fall behind. Up one particularly steep hill near the end, as my legs finally started to rebel, refusing to match the patter, patter rhythm of the two women, one of them turned to me and said simply: “Try.”
I couldn’t help but respond and managed to stay with them until the end. We finished at the top of a hill overlooking Iten. The other runners were all standing around in the bright sunshine, joking and stretching. Some were walking home. I was exhausted, but still standing. My journey had begun.
Secret runners’ business
Iten wasn’t always the focal point of running it is today. When an Irish priest called Brother Colm O’Connell first arrived in 1976, with a three-year contract to teach at the local St Patrick’s High School, there were no runners in the town.
Although he had no athletics experience, Brother Colm started coaching the school running team. After it won the national championships, he was asked to select the Kenyan team for the first ever World Junior Championships in Athens in 1986. He picked nine runners, seven from St Patrick’s. They won nine medals, including four golds.
“It was then I realised we had something special going on here,” he tells me. Three years later, in 1989, he started the first training camp in Kenya. It was in the school holidays, and initially it was just for girls.
“I just wanted to give athletics a bit more focus,” he says. But the idea caught on. St Patrick’s went on to produce numerous world and Olympic champions, and today there are more than 120 training camps in and around Iten. Brother Colm has his own, still situated in the grounds of St Patrick’s. It is just a small house with shared dormitories, and like most Kenyan camps it is simply a place for the athletes to rest between training sessions. It might have a TV, but there are no other distractions. Among the athletes sitting in the garden when I first visited, his eyes closed enjoying the warm afternoon sun, was the 800m world record-holder and world champion, David Rudisha.
“The school’s success put Iten on the map,” Brother Colm tells me, his hat pulled down low over his eyes. “Now everything originates from here.” Over the past 35 years, Brother Colm has had a big role in the success of many of Kenya’s top athletes. He gets annoyed, however, when I ask him what the secret is behind Kenya’s remarkable running success.
“You people come to find the secret,” he says, suddenly cross. “But you know what the secret is? That you think there’s a secret. There is no secret.”
A sharper focus
He may say there is no secret, but something is going on. And the clue is in his word “focus”. The Kenyan training camps provide an intensely focused environment for running. All across the Rift Valley there are thousands of dedicated athletes who do nothing but eat, rest, sleep and train. The athletes I meet who have been training in Iten, including world 5000m champion Mo Farah and marathon world record-holder Paula Ratcliffe, all say the same thing: the great thing about Iten is that there is nothing else to do here but train.
It all leads to that simple life truth: what you put in, you will get out. It may not seem like much of an insight, but a great deal of what the Kenyans can teach us boils down to the fact that simplicity works when it comes to running. Running is a simple activity. To be good at it is simple. The problem is that being simple is not easy, especially for Western runners.
In the West, we’re told to time every run and log it in our training diaries, adding up the distance at the end of the week and analysing how we’re progressing. Some online training diaries will produce charts and graphs to help us, while iPhone apps will even do it while we run. We have heart-rate monitors, pedometers and GPS trackers coming out of our ears.
“In the West we break it all down and analyse everything,” says Brother Colm. “But sometimes by doing that you lose the bigger picture. Kenyans just take it as they see it. It’s a simpler approach.”
Western runners will often hear the mantra, “listen to your body”. Kenyans are great at this. If they’re tired or have a slight niggle, they may skip a training session, or take it easier than planned. One of the top Kenyan coaches told me that because it can be hard to get decent treatment for injuries, they are careful not to overdo things. “We ride close to the edge here,” he says, “but, when we get too close, we have to pull back.”
For Western runners, this is more difficult than it sounds. How do you know if you’re not simply being lazy when you tell yourself you’re too tired to run? In fact, if you follow this approach, will you ever go out running again? Fearful that they might not, most Western runners will instead stick to their schedules religiously, and as a result will often end up injured or overtired and unable to train.
Without all the gadgets to record and measure their training, Kenyans are used to relying on feeling to assess their fitness. It also helps that, for the most part, they’re simply not lazy. I once complained jokingly to Brother Colm’s young assistant, Ian Kiprono, himself a runner, that when I trained with a group of Kenyans, whenever we got to a hill they would all speed up, while my natural inclination was to slow down.
“That’s because they want it more than you,” he said. “When they see a hill, they see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to train harder, to work harder.” When you see a hill as an opportunity, and get so excited that you run harder, you don’t need to ask yourself if you’re being lazy when you decide you’re too tired to run.
In part, it comes down to how badly you want it. Dr Yannis Pitsiladis, a biologist at the University of Glasgow, has dedicated the past 10 years to trying to decipher what makes east African runners so fast. I ask him what, after all his research, he thinks is the key reason. He is silent for a moment, before saying decidedly: “The hunger to succeed.”
“Look,” he says. “My daughter is a great gymnast, but she probably won’t become a gymnast. She’ll probably go to university and become a doctor. But for a Kenyan child, walking down to the river to collect water, running to school, if he doesn’t become an athlete then there are not many other options. Of course, you need the other factors, too, but this hunger is the driving force.”
So, how badly do you want it? Whether it’s running a marathon in under four hours or losing five kilograms in weight, one of the biggest lessons the Kenyans can teach us is that if you really want it, you can achieve it.
Add altitude to attitude
Of course, the hunger may be the driving force behind their success, but many other factors play a role, too. As well as their simple approach to training, the runners from around Iten have a big advantage in the area’s high altitude (see Altitude training in Australia). There is a broad scientific consensus that training at altitude helps endurance athletes to run faster by increasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen around the body. Almost every international distance runner will include spells of high-altitude training in their schedules. The Kenyan runners, however, are born and raised at altitude, which gives them a big advantage.
Food also plays a role. In the Rift Valley, everyone grows up eating a simple staple diet of beans, rice, ugali (a dough made from maize flour and water) and green vegetables. Occasionally, the runners will eat meat or drink milk for protein, and it is very rare, in Iten at least, to find cakes, ice-cream, cheese, burgers, pizzas – all those fatty things we love so much in the West. They just don’t exist.
Dr Louise Burke, head of sports nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport, says that the Kenyan diet, rich in carbohydrates and fibre and low in saturated fats, forms a good basis for an athlete’s diet, but she stresses that it is far from perfect. Her main concern is the runners’ low intake of protein – although the regular cups of milky tea Kenyan runners drink may help – and also the lack of variety they have in their diet. “We generally promote dietary variety, especially from vegetarian sources,” she says, “to provide a large variety of phytochemicals, which are newly discovered compounds with health-promoting properties.”
Pitsiladis, meanwhile, tells the story of a group of German scientists who wanted to study the Kenyan physiology, but rather than conduct the research in Kenya, they brought some runners back to Germany. “The interesting part for me,” says Pitsiladis, “is that after just two weeks in Germany, they all put on 5kg.”
It’s an intense, almost monastic life for athletes in the training camps of Iten. One thing that helps them maintain their dedication to training is the companionship of other runners. It’s easier to get up at 5.30am if there’s a group of friends waiting for you outside. In Iten, the conversations between most young people in the cafes and on the streets is not where they are going out on Friday night, but where they will be training on Saturday morning.
One former runner, Simon Biwott, who came second in the marathon at the 2001 world athletics championships, told me that the thing he missed most about running now he had retired was the experience of training in a team.
“The way we ran, all striking the ground together, it was very enjoyable,” he said with a smile.
Once I returned to the UK after my six months in Kenya, the most marked difference was how lonely running suddenly became. Where was everyone? I’ve since managed to cajole work colleagues into lunchtime runs and have joined a local athletics club, which all helps to bring me back into that space I inhabited in Kenya, that all runners in Iten inhabit, where running is simply a normal part of daily life.
Another thing Kenyans do well, which again sounds simple but is something that in the West we find hard to do, is rest. Kenyan runners spend most of their day sitting around talking to friends, watching television or playing cards. Sleep is also an integral part of their training. Former half-marathon world record holder Lornah Kiplagat famously spends 16 hours a day in bed when she is in serious training.
This dedication to resting is just another part of the Kenyans’ simple, intuitive approach to training. If you ask a Kenyan athlete why he sleeps so much, he won’t quote you the recent paper from Stanford University that found its basketball players ran faster in time trials and had a nine per cent improved shooting accuracy after increasing the amount of time they spent sleeping. No, he’ll tell you that he needs to sleep more when he’s in training because his body gets tired. Simple, folksy wisdom, it may be, but it seems to be working.
Perhaps, if you want to emulate the Kenyans, rather than sitting up late plotting your latest training on your distance chart, you might start by turning the light out and going to sleep.
So did it work? After six months of early nights and early morning, high-altitude runs, trailing along behind the great Kenyan athletes, bursting my lungs to keep up, did I improve?
I arrived as a 77kg, 1:26 half-marathon runner. Both statistics were embarrassing in Kenya. I was forced to tell little lies when athletes asked me my times, but even those couldn’t save me.
“I’m hoping to run under 80 minutes next time,” I’d say, avoiding the question.
“Seventy minutes?” they’d reply, incredulous, as if that was what I’d meant. “That’s a girl’s time.” If only I could run even close to 70 minutes.
When I told people I weighed 77kg, they were astonished. The heaviest Kenyan athlete I met was a beefy 59kg. By the end of six months, however, I was a streamlined 69kg and had calf muscles for the first time in my life. Before returning home, I battled my way around one of the toughest marathons in the world, running past lions and elephants, across the scorched high-altitudes plains of Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, helicopters hovering overhead in case the animals got too close, the heat sapping my brains, the soft dirt trails turning my legs to jelly. It was my first ever marathon and it took me 3:20. Quick enough to make me the first non-Kenyan runner home – beating a team of British Army runners and a host of running tourists from around the globe.
Then, a few months later, I reached halfway in the New York Marathon at 1:23 (a half-marathon PB by over three minutes), feeling strong and easy, and slowing only slightly to finish the race in 2:55. Out of more than 47,000 runners, I finished in the top 700. In just over six months, I had been transformed as a runner. It really did work. As Brother Colm once remarked to me, as we stood watching a team of his athletes charging repeatedly up the long hill leading to St Patrick’s: “This is the bit people miss when they look for the Kenyan secret.”