How To Win Marathons
By Jeremy ClarkeJuly 19, 2012
Hint: It doesn’t involve fancy footwear. It helps to grow up running away from leopards, but there are other lessons from the tiny town in Kenya where running talent is developing so fast, even the current world record holder could not make this year’s Olympic team.
Before sunrise along the main street in Iten, Kenya, you can hear the runners coming through the dark. They stir a slight breeze as they zip by unseen and the sound of dozens of feet pounding the road retreats up the hill with barely credible speed.
Light creeps into the chilly mountain town and runners flash in and out of view as they glide through the thick fog engulfing the street. They look like clones of each other, all with impossibly long, thin legs, shaved heads and identical, almost robotic, strides.
Dim shop lights begin to flick on revealing hand-painted signs. One of them invites the faithful to worship at the Deliverance Church of Iten.
A group of more than 50 runners appears. They bunch tightly on each other's heels, panting in unison, in bright pinks, greens, yellows and reds, men and women together, the same focused expression on their faces, out for a long training run at the same speed a fit individual might take on the 100-metre dash.
Bleary-eyed schoolchildren in matching grey uniforms spring out of their slow march to class and join the runners in a quick scamper. They manage to keep pace for just a few metres, lugging their school bags and giggling as the runners vanish over a ridge.
Steep hills cause no change to their gait. The pace is relentless. They lean into their long climbs and their heels seem not to touch the ground but snap up behind them almost to the level of their waists. Their slender legs are a circular swirl, calling to mind cartoon characters who have overrun a cliff.
This is the finest gathering of long-distance runners anywhere in the world. Their day begins in tiny one-room huts and mud-brick houses and takes full flight in a freezing morning mist more than two kilometres above sea level.
Iten is a small, remote Kenyan village in the rural western highlands. It is six hours' drive from the capital, Nairobi, culminating in a serpentine progress up a perilous escarpment of thick, green vegetation to a small plateau that has become the Mecca of the marathon world.
The pre-dawn runners finish their 20-kilometre sprint — it's the only word for it — in not much over an hour, seemingly impervious to the thin mountain air. They come to an easy stop under a large sign on the edge of town, which reads, "Welcome to Iten, Home of Champions".
Kenya's preeminence in long-distance running is beyond dispute.
The great Italian athletics coach Renato Canova, who first came to Iten in 1998 to learn its secrets and see if European training models could take Kenyan athletes to even greater heights, puts it this way:
"Last year we had 151 athletes in the world running under two hours, ten minutes (for the marathon). In this 151, 121 were Kenyans."
In 2011, the 20 best marathon times recorded were all run by Kenyans. Kenyans are the current champions in most of the world's top marathons: Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York. Last year some 70 Kenyan athletes ran faster marathons than the fastest European athlete was able to manage.
Canova and I speak overlooking a breathtaking Kenyan vista, standing at the edge of the plateau where the green mountainside drops away through a layer of clouds. Below us we see glimpses of a valley floor cut with distant lakes and rivers. Athletes who see Canova as they pass wave and call out, "Coach, Coach!"
"We don't need to do much basic training because Kenyans already have it. Boys and girls maybe are walking and running five or six kilometres every day," he says.
"This is what is not understood in Europe. The normal life here for children is running, hours every day. They become strong, stronger than Europeans who don't do anything during the day. A European and an American needs more time (to build), but don't have patience and look for a shortcut. They begin training without a foundation and expect results. For Kenyans running is already natural."
Experts estimate Kenyans have run 10,000 more miles than their Western counterparts by the time they hit their mid-teens.
Recruiting happens by word of mouth, Canova says. One athlete mentions another young runner in his village who is fast but has never run to a program. He comes to Iten and can become one of the best in the world. Canova says he has seen this happen.
There are other factors. The natural build of many Kenyans is advantageous, as is the renowned high altitude at which training happens — but these are not as crucial as many would have you believe, says Canova. He think instead it is the combination of childhood running, economic incentives for poor Kenyans, communal training in large, elite groups and a sense of personal independence that drives the Kenyan success.
"I had athletes in the national team in Italy that after 15 years come to me asking what I have to do to warm up, it was ridiculous. Here it is exactly opposite, we have all athletes that want to be mentally free," says Canova.
On financial benefits: "A yearly salary for a (Kenyan) soldier is about [USD] 2,000 per year. Every athlete of a good level, if he is clever and is able to find a good manager, can easily make $15 to 20,000 a year," he says, adding this was just for track athletes, whereas marathon runners could do even better.
On group training: "Here we create a group around the best athletes … It pushes the best to be faster and reveals talent in the young athletes."
One such potential champion is Johana Kariankei, 20. He comes from the Maasai tribe and learned to run far and fast at a very early age.
"I used to graze my animals, I started when I was seven years old taking care of about 40 cows and also plus goats. I had to chase them. The lions were there, leopards, elephants, so you have to watch all the time and you have to run very fast."
Johana lives in a small room with a single bed behind a sheet. His clothes are strung outside on a makeshift line where two cows are grazing. He sells Massai bracelets at "Olympic corner" — as one junction in Iten is known — to pay his board.
Big things are expected of Johana. He is yet to become an elite runner but has already featured in a running magazine, such is the emblematic power of Iten's young stars, and he credits the town itself with bringing him so far.
"Being so close to the world champions brings my dreams so close. I see them on the television, I cheer them, then two days later I see them and we talk and we train," he says. "I can see how they train and how they run and I can do the same with them … I know I'm very close now.
"I came to Iten when I was still in high-school. This is my third year in fulltime training. I have improved so much."
Johana can run 21 kilometres in 64 minutes. He says he runs about 90 kilometres a week in training, as well as sets of hill sprints and track sprints, and in spite of the many theories about Kenya's running supremacy, he says it's just good old-fashioned hard work that divides Kenyans from the rest. "We train every day, we are so focused."
Johana's friend Elias Kiptum, 32, who is a multiple marathon winner living in Iten, says running is the Kenyan way. "We were born on hard ground, we would run to school from a very long distance, everybody is a runner by themselves."
Iten is a running town. There is a constant shimmer of runners on the periphery of your vision, on paths between houses or disappearing down a slope. One resident estimated there are between 700 and 1,000 competitive athletes in Iten —"more than 50 per cent of the population".
This is a place where health and achievement are dominant creeds. In Iten it is extremely difficult to buy cigarettes, which are a staple of small stalls on every street corner in the capital, Nairobi. No one here seems to smoke. And the restaurants seem used to catering to the appetites of supreme athletes — my dinner arrived with 14 roast potatoes on the side.
Yet it is a town of elites that displays no sign of elitism. And the training is remarkably informal. Even rank amateurs can check into the cheap hotels, set their alarms for 5am and go running with a collection of the greatest marathoners ever seen — for as long as they can keep up. The athletes enjoy it, and some of their affectionate impersonations of inefficient "white running" are memorable.
Not surprisingly then, Iten draws top runners from around the world, who come to study its methods. Paula Radcliffe, Britain's champion and the women's marathon world record holder, came to Kenya to run on the muddy tracks and steep mountain inclines of Iten.
Janet Achola, 22, is a middle-distance runner who grew up in Uganda's north, the part of the country torn to pieces by Joseph Kony's war. Her family was not spared the conflict and she has been left alone to care for her brothers. (Tragedy is often at the heels of African triumph — the reigning Olympic marathon champion, Kenyan Samuel Wanjiru, died last year at 24 when he fell from his balcony in mysterious circumstances.)
It was from school friends that Achola first heard about Iten in nearby Kenya.
"It was 2009 and they said all the best athletes in the world go to Iten, so why don't you go there because I was a runner. I first came in 2009 and then for two months before the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Last year I broke the national 1,500-metre record.
"It is the altitude and the coaching that helps me so much, I think," says Achola, who is coached by Canova. "I know I can run even faster."
All eyes are now on the London Olympics later this month, and tiny, green Iten — without reams of computer analysis, a proper hard track, or any army of nutritionists and psychologists — is almost certain to garner a swag of medals. All six marathoners selected to represent Kenya train in or around Iten.
Indeed, such is the Kenyan talent in the marathon, the current world record holder, Patrick Makau, who set his record as recently as September, 2011, did not make the Olympic team.
Kenya's number one is now Wilson Kipsang, who won the London marathon this year. He is nonchalant and gentlemanly, wandering in and out of the main restaurant and bar in Iten, shaking hands and meeting with coaches. At morning training he merged into the elite pack of runners, becoming indistinguishable, among the hundreds who shared the muddy track that was occasionally blocked by wandering sheep.
The last morning I was at the track the athletes were doing one-kilometre runs at about two-and-half minutes each. They completed 12 with only a few moments rest between, then they changed shoes and jogged the 30 minutes home for breakfast.
Kipsang is the favourite for the men's Olympic marathon gold, as is Iten's Mary Keitany for the women. One of Mary's trainers told me the champions' preparation has been perfect: "They are so relaxed, and the food here is so fresh, everything is natural. Really I have no doubt of gold."
Now, as the Olympics approach, Kenyan Athletics has cottoned on to the money-making potential of their best athletes. Journalists are being asked to produce USD1,000 to talk to the champions, and some international agencies are rumoured to have paid it.
One Olympian I spoke with asked me not to publish his quotes because he said authorities could make trouble for him, even change the team, though he smiled as if to say he was joking when he added that last comment.
I asked other Iten runners about the cost of interviews with champions and they said they hadn't seen any of the money. One said, "Why do you have to pay money to talk to people?" Another answered with a wry smile, "In Kenya we all know that politicians need new shoes and houses." Everyone laughed.
According to Canova, African dominance of long-distance running — which already seems unmatchable — will only increase. "Just wait when other countries like Uganda and Ethiopia organise like the Kenyans … and see when Kenyans take an interest in other events."
Marathons and football come first in Kenya. But Iten is no longer home exclusively to runners: a team of Kenyan cyclists has set up a camp in the mountains.