The Kenyan Experience: A journey to the Rift Valley

The extent of Kenyan domination in marathon events around the globe is unprecedented. This is even more profound when you look closer and uncover the fact that most of the dominant Kenyan runners are from a very small region in Kenya’s rift valley.

As a passionate team of runners and running enthusiasts, the chance to live, listen and learn from these super runners was an amazing one so with a travelling party of AIS Physiologist, Philo Saunders, Front Runner Coaching Manager, Ben Green (B.Sc Hons, Coach) and Physio and Sub 4 min miler, Marc See (B.Sc Physio, Technique Analyst) we embarked on a journey to the “running town” of Iten in November 2014.

Below is a quick summary of some of the insights into the culture, environment and training that we noted during our two week stay in the Rift Valley.

  • Iten is high: at 2400m above sea level the air is very thin and the altitude provides a very potent training stimulus for Kenyan athletes living and training at this height. Compared to training at sea level this made our travelling party feel particularly “heavy” on easy runs and then with faster interval efforts, significantly more recovery was required to maintain performance anywhere near sea level standards. Scientific studies consistently show that living and training at altitude is of benefit to performance and this height is near the upper limit of gaining benefit without unduly restricting the athletes ability to train with a balanced mix of intense, distance and tempo training and still recover adequately.
  • European managers and coaches: the only option for many Kenyans to race internationally is to do well in local races and be “discovered” by a European (and to a lesser extent other nationalities) manager who can arrange a visa and racing opportunities. This means there are many managers and coaches scouting talent and many Kenyan athletes working hard to get noticed and picked up for the chance of running abroad. We noted lots of these scouts out and about and many live in Kenya or have set up training camps for the athletes managed by their companies.
  • Champions were everywhere: In Iten, we were training alongside various Olympic medallists, World champions and even World record holders with remarkably little restriction. Running was a way of life in Iten and being good at it was a natural expectation for the athletes with so much precedent for success. As an example, on one easy run I saw both Asbel Kiprop (2008 1500m Olympic Champion) and Saif Saaeed Shaheen (2*World Steeplechase Champion, former world record holder) out running with their separate training groups.
  • Runners are culturally significant: Kenya has become synonymous with running success at events of great significance such as the Olympic Games, World Championships and major international marathons. This is obviously a source of great patriotism and brings significant attention and promotion to Kenya around the world. This success is promoted and celebrated throughout Kenya but particularly in the Rift Valley. Indeed, you are welcomed in Iten with an archway that announces “Welcome to the Home of Champions” and leave with a “Thanks for visiting the Home of Champions!”
  • Running Pays: One recent study suggested that runners were one of Kenya’s most significant exports. One of the first things noted is that the area is relatively poor and under developed. Aside from farming and agriculture in Iten, much of the development was relatively new and could be directly related to investment in commerce and tourism by successful runners from the region. As an example, London Olympic Marathon medallist, Wilson Kipsang has just completed construction of a training centre in Iten and our group were staying at the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC), a training camp set up by Lornah Kiplagat (former World Half Marathon and Cross Country champion). As an example of the potential income of top marathon runners, the overall winner of the World Marathon Majors (the top 6 Marathons in the world) each year receives $500,000USD; top international marathoners can only run 2-3 marathons per year meaning the very top athletes have significant demand for their services and multiple options and offers available to them. This negotiation power means that 6 figure appearance fees are often needed to secure top runners to participate in a major Marathon event. Prize money from these Marathons and other events is then combined with smaller appearance fees for lead up events, plus significant sponsorship and endorsement deals with shoe companies. This means that in a country where average earning are less than $1000 USD a year, a top tier Marathoner can earn over $1 million USD per year and set up his or her family for life.
  • There are runners everywhere: on any given time of day you will see runners in Iten, running alongside the road, on trails or walking around time in sponsors tracksuits and sneakers….apparently Iten has a population of 4000 of which around 25% professional runners!
  • Training is in packs: each Tuesday is “track day” at Kamariny Stadium about 2km from town, the track is basic red clay and we found hundreds of runners training in groups throughout the morning carrying out 400m and 1000m intervals. Thursday is “Fartlek” where groups cover between 40-60 minutes of Fartlek alternating fast and easy running over rolling terrain around Iten. Almost all sessions are done in a group making training social and the high amount of volume more palatable. At the peak times of 6.00am; 10.00am and 5.00pm it is not uncommon to see hundreds of athletes out training in packs as large as 50 runners.
  • Sleep is important: sleep seems to be a great skill of Kenyan runners and with such a high training load this is to be expected. However, the rumoured 18 hours of sleep a day for some athletes was almost unfathomable to the touring party! The famous saying is that performance gains are only made through adequate recovery and judging by the rumoured prowess of the Kenyans in this regard, they ensure that all that training is absorbed for maximum benefits to performance.
  • Food is sparse but organic and fresh: unfortunately, poverty and lack of access to food is a problem for many in Kenya. Aspiring athletes are not immune from this and thankfully, the training groups do tend to have a high sense of responsibility to supporting and encouraging each other. Of the food available, almost all the food eaten by athletes is basic and direct from local farms. Maize is used to make the famous “ugali” an inexpensive and easily accessible carbohydrate source which is often combined with a vegetable stew or occasionally meat or poultry from local farms. Kenyans also consume large volumes of “chai” and this is a very milky tea that is often left on the stove top and consumed regularly throughout the day by athletes. Western fast food options are not evident in Iten, although soft drinks and sweets for the kids do make their way to local stalls and markets.
  • Training is work: many runners were training three times per day and covering up to 250/km week. Most runners I spoke to came to Iten purely to train, leaving behind family so they could focus exclusively on preparing for an upcoming event. One particular athlete, explained to me that at home everyone works together and shares responsibility for chores and maintenance so an athlete cannot focus enough there to be a top athlete…I couldn’t help but smile when told this and relate to the juggle we all have to get enough time to chase our running goals! As most runners come from poorer, rural families, running does present a legitimate and potentially lucrative opportunity and as such it is taken very seriously. The level of discipline and work ethic shown by Kenyan athletes in Iten towards their preparation was far higher than any I had witnessed in my coaching or athletic career in Europe. Perhaps it is the immediacy of role models, visibility of spoils and riches, clear pathway to success or maybe more simply, to steal one from Frank Sinatra, the realisation that if you can make it in Iten, you can make it anywhere!
  • Creature comforts make you soft: one famous story, unsubstantiated by the man himself I may add, was that former World Record Holder plus World and Commonwealth Steeplechase champion Saif Saaeed Shaheen believed that when training hard an athlete must abstain from creature comforts. Despite owning a multi-million dollar home in a nearby town, when he was training for an event, he was rumoured to sleep on a mattress on the floor, in a room full of other runners with a shared toilet in the floor and scarcity of food. When I quizzed runners about this they explained that as soon as you lose your toughness in Iten, 10 runners are better than you the very next day. This ideology of a transient hierarchy rather than entrenched one is very important to a culture of ongoing success.
  • Empathy is alive: Most athletes, no matter how successful and wealthy now, have come from poor families and great suffering. Empathy and compassion for those around them, particularly in their training groups, is common. In discussions with Kenyan runners, those fortunate to travel and race in Europe will often have a responsibility to support and provide food and accommodation for those who they workout with and whom helped them prepare and train. The Kenyan motto “Harambee” literally means “all pull together” in Swahili and it was really nice to see this motto come to life.
  • The secret is out: it is well known that Olympic 5km and 10km Champion Mo Farah spent much of his Olympic preparation in Iten. During our stay, around 25 British elite middle and long distance runners, along with coaching and support staff were in Iten, funded by proceeds from the not for profit London Marathon. Similarly, the French team for the 2013 European Cross Country Championships and various international athletes were in town preparing for upcoming events. Italian Marathon coach, Renato Canova is based in Iten and now coaches many of Kenya’s top Marathon runners as well as American record holder, Ryan Hall, further developing Itens status at the worlds distance running capital.

In summary, I think the success we see from Kenyan runners represents a multitude of factors all coming together in Iten. The magic bullet in Iten is indeed “culture”.  Running is a vehicle for economically poor but physically robust athletes to provide for their families, gain wealth and enhance their social status. There are no short cuts to success and athletes appear to accept a survival of the fittest mode of training. By virtue of the ongoing success of local athletes globally, everyone in Iten thinks they can be the best and this is re-inforced by role models all around them. Indeed in this culture, success in running on the international stage is normal for someone who has the courage to work hard and prepare well.

Raf Baugh (Physio)

Managing Director