Kenyan Runners Dash To Olympic Gold, And Wealth
The long- and middle-distance runners to watch during the London Olympics are from Kenya, a country with a rich tradition of producing elite track athletes. Four years ago, they won 14 medals in the Beijing Olympics.
Many of the world's best marathoners have come from a highland region above the Great Rift Valley. So why does the famed town of Iten produce some of the fastest human beings on earth?
'I Want To Be Rich'
If you drive down the main road, past vendors of mangoes and charcoal, past the Zam Zam Hotel and Mama Mercy Salon and under the arch that reads, "Iten, Home of Champions." Then turn onto an unmarked road the color of rust, and continue past fields of corn and passion fruit, you'll see them.
Young men and women in black lycra shorts and bright running shoes with zero body fat are warming up for the morning run.
A local woman who gives her name as Charity, in a pink Nike top, is asked, what's her goal?
"I want to be rich," she says. "Yeah, I want to be rich."
At 9 a.m. sharp, they're off. Four hundred legs pumping uphill in loping, relaxed, efficient strides.
These are some of the 500 to 1,500 runners at any given time who come to Iten from Kenya and around the world to train and be discovered.
Farmer Robert Toraitizh stands in front of his gate and watches admiringly.
"Actually we are proud of them running like this," Toraitizh says. "Sometimes we see them live on TV, and then after all we see them running live ... here."
Then a lone white runner, far behind the pack, passes.
Huffing and puffing, Toraitizh smiles ear to ear.
"Yes, you see a small country like that one beating the huge America, even not America but other countries, rich countries," he says.
Training The Next Champions
Kenyans are immensely proud of their athletes — and for good reason.
On these dirt roads pass some of the world's fastest long-distance runners, like David Rudisha, the world record holder in the 800-meter, Mary Keitany, the world record holder in the women's half marathon, and Wilson Kipsang, the second-fastest marathoner of all time.
Wearing a gold-trimmed hoodie, Kipsang lounges on a sofa in the dining room of a hotel that overlooks the Great Rift Valley, which appears as a misty chasm in the green earth.
Kipsang is a local favorite here in Iten because he lets aspiring young runners train with him. The slight, soft-spoken Kipsang is captain of Kenya's Olympic marathon team, which is scheduled to compete on the last day of the games.
Kipsang echoes the female runner, Charity: They want to make money. They want to live a comfortable life, buy some land, build a house, support their extended family, maybe even invest.
Most of Kenya's runners grow up dirt-poor. They see prize-winning runners buying farms, hotels and matatus, the omnipresent Kenyan jitneys. And for these young men and women, running is the only means to escape poverty, Kipsang says.
"Provided you really focus and train very well," he adds.
Altitude is another reason why Iten produces such extraordinary athletes. They train at 8,000 feet above sea level. The idea is to strengthen circulation by creating more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to muscles.
"This valley is 6 miles down. They run up these hills every single day," says Peter McHugh, director of Run-Fast, a British sports management company with a training camp in Iten.
Admittedly old-school, McHugh admires the elegant simplicity of how Kenyan runners train.
"My argument is, for instance, that if you want to build strength in your legs, you should do what the Kenyans do, which is to run up hills," McHugh says. "We are distracted enormously by heart rate monitors, by distance monitors, by very sophisticated gymnasiums, by taking blood tests, by measuring all sorts of things."
Starting With The Basics
The Run-Fast facility here in Iten is not what you'd expect a training camp for aspiring elite athletes to look like.
The muddy compound is fenced with corrugated metal. Runners live in Spartan-like rooms with the names of famous marathons printed over the doorways: San Diego, Boston, Vienna and Frankfurt. Their coach is former champion Kenneth Kibett.
"For those who've got a chance to stay in our camp we provide accommodation, provide food, provide training," Kibett says.
Run-Fast provides its team members a bed, daily training, shoes and clothes, and simple, healthy food.
Forget sports drinks and nutrition bars. Here they eat corn, beans, kale and an occasional steak.
It's pretty basic, but this is what every hungry, young Kenyan runner wants: sponsorship and a manager. Few are accepted at Run-Fast. The men must have a marathon time of at least two hours and 10 minutes.
A good example of a Kenya success story is Kibett's wife, Hellen Kimutai.
"I grow up in here a place called Simara," she says.
From a village not far from Iten, she's 35 years old with a broad forehead and braided hair. In March, Kimutai won the Rome City Marathon and the prize of €40,000. The annual per capita income in Kenya is less than $2,000 a year.
Growing up in a one-room hut, she began her athletic career running back and forth to school barefoot when she was 15.
"Six kilometers in the morning, I go to school. In lunchtime, I go for another 6. I go back 6 to the school. In the evening I go back 6," Kimutai says.
She ran about 14 miles back and forth to school everyday. That was before she ever thought about running as a vocation. Kimutai ran because she had to.
And, eventually, she ran because she loved to.