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Iten, Home of Champions

by Simon Turnbull

Iten archIt is 7.15am on a Saturday morning and the slowly rising sun is glinting off the red-painted metal arch above the potted tarmac road from Eldoret. “Welcome to Iten, home of champions,” the sign says.

On the ochre-coloured dusty trail alongside the road various clutches of locals are going about the business of their morning runs, assorted champions in their midst no doubt. There are dozens of groups, most of them shifting along at a fair lick. Step onto the edge of the trail and you are in danger of being mown down, motorway-style.

This is the super highway of global distance running. Along these hard-packed earthen paths, winding through the hills overlooking the Great Rift Valley at 7,875ft above sea level, you will find many of Kenya’s champion marathon and distance runners putting in the hard yards that add up to their winning weekly mileage.

All six of the World Marathon Majors races last year were won by Kenyan men, all in course record times—including Patrick Makau’s world record 2:03:38 in Berlin and Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 on the Boston course that does not qualify for world record purposes. In all, a staggering 81 of the world’s fastest 100 marathon men in 2011 were Kenyan. Most of them come from within a 50 mile radius of this tiny, 4,000-population hill-top town of wooden and tin shacks and smiling, friendly, modest-living people.

One of the locals limbering up for a Saturday morning spin approaches, intrigued by the sight of a Muzungu—the Swahili for “white man”—standing at the side of road and trail clutching notebook and pen. He introduces himself as James Kemboi Lelit.

“I am from Iten,” he says. “I have run 2:18 for the marathon. I want to go to Europe to run but I need to run 2:10. My dream is to run in the London Marathon. Maybe I can do it in two or three years.”

And off he zips, past a red shack with a sign saying, ‘London Marathon Store’ and on by the first of two arches—one on either side of town that mark the route of the upcoming Arch to Arch races. Donated to the city by the Virgin London Marathon, the arches are designed to inspire future generations of Kenyan athletes, and also other global runners who travel to this mecca to train.

Runners at the start of the Arch to Arch racesAs it happens, some of the athletes who have come to train in Iten, have jogged up the hill from the High Altitude Training Centre run by Lornah Kiplagat, the former world cross country and half marathon champion, and her husband Pieter Langerhorst. Their morning run has been scheduled for later and they are keen to catch the sight of 200 local schoolchildren taking part in the Arch to Arch races.

Quite a spectacle it is too. Some kids are running in trainers. Some are barefoot. A few have spikes on, crunching into the tarmac. Some have every day shoes on. Most of them are fast and naturally poetic in motion. The winner of the 11-15 year olds’ race is one Duncan Kiprop. He is followed across the line by the barefooted Alice Kimutai. It is worth noting the names. We may well be hearing of them again.

The Virgin London Marathon team and a group of British journalists are not just in town to see Iten’s champions of the future—and to drop in on the British athletes training here, Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah among them, at a high altitude training camp jointly funded by the London Marathon and UK Athletics. We are here for the announcement of the elite men’s field for this year’s London race, to be held on Sunday 22 April.

In the grounds of the Kerio View Hotel, looking out on the Rift Valley, hawks circling above, Brother Colm O’Connell takes it all in with a thoughtful, smiling expression. Sitting in the restaurant, he reflects: “I was looking down on the group, saying to myself, ‘Am I dreaming? Is that what I started all those years ago.’ I wish Peter Foster was here, so I could say, ‘Pete, look what you’re responsible for’.”

A start in the Arch to Arch racesThe genesis of the remarkable Iten success story, and the wider Kenyan distance running boom, can be traced to the day the avuncular Brother Colm arrived at St Patrick’s High School for Boys in the town, joining Peter Foster on the staff. “It was in July 1976, the very same week that the Montreal Olympics opened,” Brother Colm, an Irish missionary from Cork, recalls. “Pete’s brother, Brendan, was running in the 10,000m and we listened to the BBC commentary on Pete’s beaten up old radio.

“It was Pete who got me involved in the athletics programme that he was running at St Patrick’s. He was here working for another year and he wanted me to take over when he left. That’s how I became a coach. I came on a three year contract and 35 years later I’m still here.”

In that time Brother Colm has been largely responsible for the relentless rise of Kenyan distance running, tapping into the vast wealth of natural talent from the Iten and Eldoret area that has passed through the doors of St Patrick’s.

His first success was Ibrahim Hussein, who won the New York City Marathon in 1987 and proceeded to notch a hat-trick of victories in the Boston Marathon. His first Olympic gold medal winner was Peter Rono, the surprise 1500m victor in Seoul in 1988. There is a tree dedicated to Rono in the grounds of St Pat’s, as there are to the other four Olympic champions, the 25 world champions produced by Brother Colm.

Remarkably, the 62-year-old—whose latest star pupil is David Rudisha, the formidable 800m world champion and world record holder—has never been an athlete himself. He can recall the barren years, between 1972 and 1984, when Kenya had no Olympians. The country boycotted the Games of 1976 and 1980. At the World Championships in Daegu last summer Kenya won 17 medals, all in endurance events. Ten of those medallists came through the system at St Pat’s.

Brother Colm O'ConnellBrother Colm smiles at the mention of the Swedish sports scientist who arrived in Iten in search of the secret to Kenya’s distance running success, bringing with him the gift of a heart rate monitor. “It’s still in my drawer,” he confesses. “I come from a background of not being very technical, or having very basic facilities. Like other traditional coaches, I like to keep it simple.

“I think most of the Kenyan athletes here will tell you that their approach is not very scientific—in terms of heart rate monitors and measuring blood and lactic acid, all these factors you have in the west. Coming from a poor background, science and facilities were never going to be big factors in their training or lifestyle.”

So what, if anything, is the key—if not the secret—to all this still-burgeoning Kenyan success? Is it the altitude? Is it the work ethic?

“All sorts of research has been done in order to isolate a specific reason,” Brother Colm says. “All sorts of experiments have been done—into physiology, climate, altitude, diet, genetics - and nobody seems to have come up with a satisfactory conclusion.

“I think it’s part of the running culture in the area that has been created. It’s the fact that, when the sport became professional, so many athletes came back to this area to train here. So the kids could see their role models and successful athletes around the roads and pathways of Iten. And now you see that so many kids are running and coming up through the system.

“So I don’t think it’s one factor—in terms of diet or altitude or anything—because any of those factors you can find in other parts of the world.”

Might the obvious poverty of the area be a factor too? “Yes, and motivation,” Brother Colm replies. “Poverty is in other parts of the world as well. So any one factor you pick has a similar situation somewhere else. I think it’s all those things brought together in one place in the right mixture, in the right balance.

“You have the motivation. You have the altitude. You have the role models. You have Iten, which is a quiet, peaceful place to train—no distractions, little or no malaria, because it’s too high.

“You can compare it on another level to soccer in Brazil, ice hockey in Canada or basketball in Philadelphia. It is a way out of poverty, correct.

“But, also, let’s not forget how hard these athletes train. They train incredibly tough, and there’s a lot of work to be done. They’re prepared to make the sacrifice, so motivation is high.

“If you look around here, you see all the small subsistence farms. If they have a kid who has a talent for running they’re going to really exploit it and support it. And the kid sees it as a way out of poverty, a way to get on in life.

“They see the successful athletes in this area. They build houses. They drive big cars. They buy farms. They educate their siblings. They help their parents. They come back and build hospitals, schools—all sorts of facilities for the community.”

British 5,000m champion and future marathon man Mo Farah, who has been training at a high altitude camp jointly funded by the London Marathon and UK Athletics has his own personal view on the Kenyan running atmosphere noting that “What opened my eyes was seeing how disciplined they are and how hard they work. It explains everything when you come here and see it for yourself. If I want to compete with these guys I have to be doing what they’re doing.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that Farah has not only started to catch up but beat the best of the Kenyans after four years of mixing it with them on training trips in and around Iten—and spending some time before that living and training with a number of them at their European base in Teddington, south west London.

Farah was not the first Great British distance runner to venture to the home of champions. As Brother Colm recalls: “Charlie Spedding came here to train with us in Iten way back in the early 80s’. He won the London Marathon in 1984, of course, and an Olympic bronze in LA.

“Mo first came here from a British background three years ago. In a sense, by our standards, he came as a fairly mediocre athlete—just a good performer by world standards. But gradually he has just nibbled away at any myths or beliefs he might have had about the superiority of Kenyans or the way they train. He has kept at it and I think he has worn it down.

“What he has benefited from in being here is a lot more than training. It’s an attitude. It’s a feeling. It’s a confidence. It’s a realisation that, ‘I can do it too; if I’m put in the same environment, under the same conditions, I can do the same thing.’ He’s proved it can be done.”

Something Kenyan men and women continue to show at World Marathon Majors—and something they are willing to share with athletes who dare to join them running the red trails under the Arches in this home of champions.