Athletics Athletics

Mud-track runners in Kenya’s global athletic “capital”


ITEN, Kenya, January 11 – It’s a far cry from the high-tech gymnasiums athletes are used to in Europe or America, but this sleepy Kenyan farming village has become an unlikely global training hotspot for Olympic champions.

Perched on the dramatic cliff edge of the great Rift Valley at 2,400 metres (7,870 feet) above sea level, this remote village draws top athletes including world and Olympic champions for high altitude performance training.

With the London Olympics later this year, athletes are training hard to get an edge over their rivals at the games.

“Iten is a great location, due to the altitude and the environment,” said Lornah Kiplagat, a Kenyan-born Dutch runner who won the world half-marathon in Udine, Italy in 2007, but who now runs a specialised hotel for athletes in Iten.

Recent athletes to have trained at Iten include the British Olympic team, led by the women’s world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe and the double European 5,000m and 10,000m champion, Mo Farah.

Every dawn the village comes alive with the pounding feet of dozens of runners, as they train along the winding mud tracks through the quiet countryside, dodging the chickens and goats that share the route.

Having such top end runners “attracts other athletes from all over the world,” added Kiplagat, with the small settlement of some 4,000 people seeing visitors from across Europe, the USA and Africa.

“There are hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads to train on,” Kiplagat said, adding the 72-bed hotel she runs is regularly fully booked with athletes.

Two-time Linz marathon champion, Kenyan runner Elias Maindi, moved to the town four years ago to seek success — saying the altitude and clean air have all helped him achieve recent victories in several European marathon races.

“When you want to run a good time, you have to train the hard way,” said Maindi.

Exercise at high altitude increase an athlete’s oxygen-carrying capacity, encouraging a better performance later in races at lower altitude.

“You have to train at high altitude to really boost your speed and the level of the blood cells in your body, so you can really run fast when running at a lower altitude,” said Maindi.

Local Kenyans travel to Iten in the hope of joining the potentially lucrative ranks of the top athletes.

Irish Brother Colm O’Connell, a Cork-born lay brother who has trained several world and Olympic champions in Iten for the past 35 years, believes it is only the high altitude that keeps his runners at the front of races.

“This is a very little, isolated village in the highlands of Kenya, away from the big city or town, so there are no distractions, people can just concentrate on their running,” said the 63-year-old O’Connell.

“The fact that so many world champions, Olympic champions and world record holders come to train in the Iten area is a great role model for the younger kids growing up — the kids even join in the running,” he added.

In the past decade, Iten has grown with land prices tripling in value as athletes build houses for when they use the village as a training base.

But despite the taxes the athletes who live here contribute, there are few facilities.

The only sports gymnasiums are privately run, and too expensive for many of the runners who have yet to find fame and fortune.

The town’s athletic stadium is in desperate need of repair — the mud track is too slippery to use in the wet — but the local council says they don’t have enough money to instal a proper track.

“We want to ask the government if they can help the council improve the stadium, because the council cannot do it by ourselves, because we do not have enough,” said Mary Ruto, Iten’s mayor.

Despite the lack of facilities foreign athletes continue to flock into the town, keen not only to acclimatise but learn the Kenyan way of training ahead of the Olympics.

“The most expensive thing for them is the flight to Kenya…staying in Iten is less expensive than staying in Europe,” Kiplagat added.

And while other towns in the Rift valley offer similar high altitudes and rural settings, none have produced so many successful runners.

As long as athletes from the local schools make it through to the big stage, others will continue to come here, regardless of where they have to run.