Sweaty secrets of Kenya’s Running factory - The East African

Sweaty secrets of Kenya’s Running factory

Sunday August 10 2008

Elias Kiptum, Slyvester Cheruiyot and other

Elias Kiptum, Slyvester Cheruiyot and other Iten athletes training in the mistry November weather. Picture: Jackie Lebo 

By Jackie Lebo

IT IS NOVEMBER; THE SHORT RAINS HAVE been particularly heavy this year, making Iten even colder than usual.

There is an incessant drizzle, the kind that is bearable for a short while even without an umbrella, but over a length of time soaks through to the skin, chilling you to the bone; at the end of the day, it feels worse than a heavy downpour.

Elias Kiptum and a group of athletes meet us at the Kamariny’ turning off the Iten-Eldoret road.

The ground is muddy and slippery and the athletes plan to run for an hour, if the weather allows. There was supposed to be a huge group going for Fartlek training, but the route they usually use is impassable today.

Among the group of runners is Elias’s twin brother, Sylvester Cheruiyot, who has been training for nine months but has not competed professionally yet. Though he is not as muscular as Elias, he is starting to develop the bulky leg muscles needed for those last-stretch sprints.

Elias is young, confident and believes he will be running a 2:06 marathon within a year. The world-class time is repeated often, with a mixture of seriousness and jest.

He has been competing professionally for three years, has paced champions including Felix Limo and Martin Lel in the London, Rotterdam and Bonn marathons, and this year clocked good times in various road races.

We drive behind the runners for an hour, passing houses, trees and mysterious shapes cloaked in mist. It is chilly and the drizzle increases in intensity.

The athletes nevertheless begin to shed their clothes and throw them in the car. After 20 minutes, jackets and long-sleeved shirts are off. We set the odometer to zero and go for eight kilometres then turn back at a village centre.

Training in such slippery conditions, athletes risk falling and injuring themselves, but we get back to the tarmac without incident.

Iten is a town with no centre. It has formed around a T-junction, the shops on the main street of the town lining the tarmac road that comes from Eldoret and goes to Kabarnet; the other shops line the road to Kapsowar.

From Eldoret, 30 kilometres west, the town is hemmed in by farms, from 1,000-acre tracts to small subsistence plots. The land is flat, with fertile red soil suitable for grain, mainly maize and wheat.

THE EVEN EXPANSE OF THE UASIN Gishu plateau drops spectacularly into the Kerio valley at the edge of the town. Sitet Complex, a hotel built near the cliff, offers tea with great panoramas, but its curtains are often drawn against the view.

It is testament to the fact that, until now, land value was predicated far more on productivity than vistas. Cliff land, which used to be given to unmarried women in Keiyo society, has gone up tremendously in value as hotels that cater to elite runners and foreign managers are built.

The valley is dry, with thorny acacias and people eking out a living from the thin soils, in contrast to their better-off neighbours on the plateaus above. A deep narrow gorge at the bottom of the valley holds the Kerio River.

While crocodiles sun themselves on a sandbank, the small boys with fishing rods a little way down the river seem quite unconcerned, clambering up the rocks to the roadside to sell their catch — delicious whiskered catfish.

It is said the crocodiles, familiar with the taste of vanquished warriors from old feuds, have come to taste the blood of modern feuds too.

Through most of the day, the Tugen hills on the far side of the Kerio appear blue, but the late afternoon light shows them to be green and as the sun changes position they seem to move closer; Kabarnet, on the spine of the hills, can be seen beginning at twilight as a cluster of lights.

On a clear day you can see beyond the Tugen hills, which separate the Kerio Valley from the Rift Valley, to the Laikipia plateau. The formation of the valleys pushed up the adjoining areas into high tables of land with altitude conditions ideal for training, thus the profusion of athletes’ training camps on both sides, in Nyahururu and Iten. At peak training season, there are between 400 and 700 runners in Iten.

FOR EVERY BOSTON, NEW York, London, and Vienna marathon there are many smaller races – the Würzburg 10km, the Sevenaer Run, the Great Scottish Run, the Zwitserlootdakrun — 10km, 15km and half-marathon events modelled after their more prestigious counterparts. The events are part of the host towns’ social calendars, with media coverage that attracts sponsors. The races also raise money by charging entry fees to the general public, who in turn enter for the challenge, to raise money for charity, or for just plain fun.

Race organisers work with agents and managers to secure places for the Kenyan runners, who set credible race times, and whose formidable reputation brings a certain prestige. This has led to the creation of a whole class of middle-tier athletes who run, not to represent the country in the Olympics or world championships, but to make a living. They are journeymen with no illusions — in other words, true professionals.

These middle tier runners live and train in Kenya, spending up to three months a year in Europe. They stay in small apartments with other runners under the same management, driving from town to town to races every week.

The popular perception of running, of course, still centres on elite runners who dominate the news. In reality, a talented, but not necessarily outstanding athlete with training and the right connections to get into the right races, can make enough money to live on, or in some cases to supplement their incomes. This in itself is not an amazing discovery.

But there exists a whole system to support this industry, from the athletics governing body that oversees the relations between agents and runners, to athletic visa guidelines in the Nairobi embassies of host countries. This is a widely known practice among officials and other sports professionals, but not in the general public consciousness, where running is still a thoroughly nationalistic sport.

WE TRAVEL TO MOI University’s Chepkoilel campus to see what separates a journeyman from a champion. Felix Limo has won the Chicago Marathon twice, in 2005 and 2006, and the London Marathon in 2006. In 2007, he was third in a spectacular sprint finish in London (at the last mile with the finish line in sight, it was still a four-way race) that has gone down in history as the biggest talent pool ever assembled at a marathon start line — including then and current record holders Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie.

When we arrive, Limo and his group they are already on the track. Other athletes’ groups, including Elias Kiptum from Iten, are also on the field. Speedwork does exactly what the name suggests, building speed. The athletes run at full speed for a kilometre —two and a half laps — then rest for two minutes, walking back to the starting point. Coach Chelimo and assistant coach Patrick Sang (Barcelona silver medallist, 3,000-metre steeplechase) watch closely as the athletes repeat this sequence 12 times; by the end of it they are breathing hard, soaking in sweat with their clothes plastered to their bodies.

They put on warm-up suits at the end and sit down to talk with their coach, who provides critical feedback and plans corrective measures for their weak points. Coach Chelimo prefers to wait for the end to provide feedback, unlike the Italian coach in the centre of the track alternately shouting at his team to slow down or speed up. The athletes finish with the coach and enter the van waiting to take them to camp.

The camp is in Kaptagat, a lushly forested area about 30 kilometres south of Iten. There are two long buildings forming an L-shape around a square grassy lawn, with a kitchen in the back. Inside, a corridor runs around the L, with small rooms opening off it on either side, each with two narrow beds. There is a huge pile of expensive running shoes airing in the courtyard and all manner of training clothes hung on the fence.

We have a simple breakfast of tea and bread, after which a few athletes start cleaning out the building, soapy water trickling down the steps – apparently, there is a cleaning duty roster. It looks like a school dormitory or military barracks, the conditions martial, not much thought being given to comfort — just the bare necessities for sleeping and eating between training sessions.

The training is all-consuming. The day begins at 5:30am and by 6am the athletes are gathered at the starting point of their morning run, which lasts 45 minutes to an hour. They return, have breakfast, rest, and then prepare for the main training later in the morning.

At 9:30 or 10, they have day-specific schedules for six days of the week. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, an easy to moderate run, Tuesdays, speedwork at Chepkoilel track, Thursdays alternated between hill-work and Fartlek training and Saturdays, a long-run of 30 to 40 kilometres. Sunday is the only day of rest, with most of the athletes going to church and the family men leaving, perhaps once a month, to visit wives and children in other towns.

Felix Limo is at his Eldoret home 100 days in the year, races about four weeks abroad, and spends the rest of the time, the larger part of the year, in camp. “You should be at the camp to focus… very important to focus.” He looks around, “You can’t be thinking about the rain coming… the cows needing pasture… You have to be away. So that they can be independent. So that they can think for themselves.” The “they” he refers to are his family — his wife, children, and the other inhabitants in his home.

An agent I speak to attributes a big part of Felix’s success to his strategy of limiting the events he participates in. He races sparingly, attending only four events a year – two half-marathons and two marathons. “I normally call this half-marathon a tune-up race. I have to go see... test. I go there one month before the race [marathon]; when I come back, I have to evaluate. Where was my weak part? Was it endurance? Was it speed? So I have to work on my weak part so that during the race I know that I am comfortable.”

Commentators at the half-marathons have mistakenly written off his performances, not understanding their purpose in his overall strategy. He often talks about running being as much strategic as physical. He returns to “prepare for the real war now.” His keen tactical sense is only matched by a fiercely competitive spirit.

“You should be thinking about how you are going to win it, and you know winning is money. I am not saying I am not after money. I am after money, but I don’t put money on my mind because it will destroy me during the race. What I put in my mind is winning.”

WHILE MUCH HAS BEEN made of the base advantage of Kenyan runners — high altitude, the lack of modern amenities that have them running long distances to school or to fetch water or on cattle raids, the great amounts of milk drunk and unprocessed foods eaten — what really happens to ensure that the country produces a seemingly infinite pool of middle and long-distance athletic talent? What cocktail of historical, environmental, cultural, genetic, training and belief factors comes into play?

Kenya entered international competition in 1954 in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, when Nyandika Maiyoro was fourth in the three-mile event, Lazaro Chepkowny’ was seventh in the six-mile race and the Kenyan team was fourth at the 4 x 400 metres relay.

In the Olympics in Melbourne two years later, Maiyoro was seventh in the 5,000-metres race. By the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where Abebe Bikila won East Africa’s first Olympic gold medal in the marathon event, Maiyoro was sixth in the 5,000 and Seraphino Antao and Bartonjo Rotich reached the semi-finals of the 100 metres and 400-metres hurdles respectively.

At the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Antao, a sprinter and not a distance runner, won Kenya’s first golds in the 100- and 220-yard sprints. The Perth games also saw the first appearance of Kipchoge Keino, who would go on to become Kenya’s most famous runner of that era.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics saw Kenya’s first Olympic medal, a bronze earned by Wilson Kiprugut in the 800 metres. At this time, Kenya was fielding athletes in both long and short events and had not yet emerged as a long-distance powerhouse.

It was at the 1968 Mexico Olympic games that Kenyan athletes came into their own, winning 11 medals including gold medals by Amos Biwott in the steeplechase, Naftali Temu in the 10,000 metres and Kipchoge Keino in the 1,500 metres, cementing the reputation of Kenyan running in the world and heralding its athletic dominance in successive decades, continuing until the present day.

The numerous great athletes that have been in the spotlight over that period include Kipchoge Keino, Naftali Temu, Ben Jipcho, Henry Rono, Mike Boit, Paul Ereng, John Ngugi, Julius Kariuki, Julius Korir, Billy Konchellah, Yobes Ondieki, Douglas Wakihuri, Ismail Kariuki, Moses Tanui, Moses Kiptanui, Paul Tergat, Benjamin Limo, Ezekiel Kemboi, Catherine Ndereba, Isabella Ochichi and Janeth Jepkosgei. And this is to name only a few.

There are pockets of the world where explosions of athletic talent occur, where one country or area contributes a disproportionately large number of world-class athletes. Brazil is one such place. The football phenomenon started with Pele, Tostao, Garicha and Rivelino, then came Zico, Socrates and Falcao. The 1990s saw the rise of Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and now the emerging stars are Kaka, Adriano and Robinho.

Russia is another. Champion women tennis players include Elena Dementieva, who shot into the spotlight in 2001. She was from the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, a place that is spoken about in tennis circles the way St Patricks High School Iten is in athletics circles. Then came Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kutnetzova, Nadia Petrova and the retired Anna Kournikova. By 2007, Russian women from Spartak were dominating tennis with five out of the top 10 players in the world.

All these countries offered limited opportunities in a climate of pervasive poverty. So what happens when one person rises to fame and riches through sport? Do more young people emulate him/her in the belief that that athlete had nothing they don’t themselves have? Does this grouping reach a critical mass, with successive generations automatically believing that they are the best at a particular sport in the world? Or is it merely a pooling of genetically predisposed people just waiting to be discovered?

K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, has studied why people become good at anything, and co-authored what has come to be known as the expert handbook. At almost a thousand pages, the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance posits that deliberate practice geared toward specific goals, coupled with ruthless critical feedback to correct weakness, are the determinants of expertise, whether in the arts, sports or sciences.

Meanwhile, neurology is yielding some new answers into how we acquire complex skills through the study of myelin. Myelin is the substance that insulates neurons; for many years, it was thought to be a passive actor, but is now known to interact with the neurons it protects. Neurons transmit impulses that control everything we do — breathing, walking, running. But neurons transmit in fractions of a second, which doesn’t explain how long it takes to learn a complex skill.

IT HAS NOW BEEN DISCOVERED that deliberate practice, in the same way that it builds muscle, also builds myelin by thickening and strengthening it. The myelin controls the speed and accuracy with which neurons transmit signals, and the thicker and stronger the myelin, the faster and more precisely the neuron transmits the signal. So a person with hours of practice has the advantage of both muscle and myelin, and motions become hardwired in the brain.

The running camps in Iten have training schedules that can seem mind-numbingly repetitive to the outsider. But repeated over weeks, months, years, each session ensures the motions get hardwired into the runners’ brain circuits and become as much part of their existence as breathing. When Felix Limo does a half-marathon practice run to see what his weak parts are, he is seeking critical feedback to correct weakness.

Proximity also plays an important role. Felix and Elias Kiptum are from neighbouring villages in Nandi. Elias considers Felix one of his heroes and role models and believes that, with the same training and determination, his own career could equal or even surpass Felix’s.

Meanwhile, seeing the success his brother had had, Elias’s twin Sylvester Cheruiyot started running, believing he too could be a champion. It goes on. Janeth Jepkosgei, current 800 metres world champion, comes from the same village as Wilson Kipketer, 800-metres world indoor champion.

Running has became an integral part of the community, drawing young people to the sport because it is the most lucrative opportunity open to them, because the infrastructure to make their dreams a reality exists, and also because the champions winning medals, marathons and making money are not remote figures, but people they know from their own villages and towns. The observable is far more awe-inspiring than the mythical.

Large reserves of mental strength are required to face the cold Iten mornings, along with laser-like focus to overcome the tedium of daily training sessions, and the endurance to take the punishing physicality of the sport. The question of why people excel at anything is more and more convincingly answered with the perfection of a skill through vigorous training. Of course, some people are more athletic, and this may be the role inheritance plays, but without the years spent training they would never have become the champions they are today.

AT THE MOMBASA WORLD Cross Country Championships in 2007, Lorna Kiplagat, the Kenyan-born Dutchwoman, beat Tirunesh Dibaba and the Ethiopians in one of the biggest wins at the event. Just before the finish, she picked up a Dutch flag, draped it around her shoulders and crossed the line wearing the colours of her new country. Her Dutch husband, Pieter Langerhorst, was waiting for her. It was great moment for them, this gold medal win, because Langerhorst is also her manager.

The crowd cheered and clapped. She is viewed with great affection, because the perception is that she changed nationality for love and not for petro-dollars. Among fellow runners it is no big deal — Kenya has more athletes than can be placed and making the national team is a cutthroat affair.

For those at the boundary of Kenya and Uganda, it is easier; after all it was an arbitrary colonial border decided by some European clerk more than 100 years ago and families found themselves having different nationalities. The Ugandan team was made up of names such as Kiplagat, Kiprotich, Kiprop, Busienei, Kiprotich, Kipsiro. But those who seek opportunities in the Gulf states are viewed as traitors.

What is it about running that is so nationalistic? Footballers play in countries other than their native ones all the time and nobody bats an eyelid. Perhaps it is because the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships are organised along national lines so it is hard to separate a runner from their country, while football is more flexible, consisting both of teams based on nationality and professional clubs that draw from various countries to fill their rosters.

ON THIS HOT SATURDAY, IT seems half of Eldoret has come to shop for groceries at Tusker Mattresses Supermarket. The parking lot across the road is full. People are streaming out, from whole families laden with paper bags branded with the supermarket logo to lone women balancing bags on their heads and braving the blistering sun on their long walk home.

Tusker Mattresses occupies two floors of the five-story Komora Centre, a large building in the middle of town that covers almost an entire city block. It is owned by Moses Kiptanui, the runner who dominated the 3,000-metres steeplechase for about five years in the 1990s. Kiptanui broke world records, won awards, and the only thing that eluded him was the Olympic gold, which he lost by a razor-thin margin to fellow Kenyan Joseph Keter in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The steeplechase is special. Even more than other middle- and long-distance races that have brought the country fame, because Kenyan steeplechasers have won all eight times they entered during the past 10 Olympics. In 1976 and 1980, Kenya boycotted the Olympics. It is fitting that Kiptanui, one of Kenya’s most successful athle-tes, is now one of the largest athlete-investors in Eldoret.

Eldoret is experiencing a property boom, with growth rates of almost 8 per cent, three times the national average. The changing skyline shows the continuing investment of runners in commercial real estate. There is a new hotel belonging to Moses Tanui at the edge of town.

And the two adjoining buildings of Sakong House in the middle of town belong to Sammy Korir, who clocked the third fastest marathon time ever. As I tour the town with young runners who are just starting out, they point to the properties with the acute realisation that if they keep at it long and hard enough, they have a chance to build the kind of solid prosperity their predecessors have built.

This is why many people have turned to running. The barriers to entry are low. All you need is two pairs of training shoes and sports clothes, easily bought at the mitumba second-hand clothing vendors that line the streets of every town and centre in Kenya. The aspiring athletes flock to the numerous training camps within a 40-kilometre radius of Eldoret and begin the rigorous training regimen with hopes of earning a living from sports.
Not all of them will become elite athletes, but with enough training, they stand a good chance of finding an agent and breaking into the lucrative European circuit. After four, five years on the circuit, with average earnings of one million shillings a year, an athlete can build a house, buy a farm and join the mainstay of the area — agriculture. Or they can start a business with their winnings that, if managed properly, can sustain them and their families for the rest of their lives.

Eldoret was for many years a farming town and many enterprises are farming-related — the feed and fertiliser shop, the seed shop, the tractor shop. One of the young runners I meet is in the process of buying a small farm, an eighth of an acre, with the winnings he earned on his first year on the European circuit. But he is also looking for other ways to keep and grow his earnings.

The word of the moment is “investment,” and the younger athletes talk more and more of putting their earnings into shares of companies traded at the Nairobi Stock Exchange. At a recent investment forum organised by Keino Sports Marketing (a sports management company run by Martin Keino, a professional runner for 10 years) and Fine Touch Communications (a company run by Paul Tergat, former world marathon record holder) and facilitated by one of the biggest investment firms in Kenya, 100 runners attended to learn what they could do with their money.

At stake is the approximately Ksh500 million ($7.57 million) a year that is earned in athletics prize money abroad, in Europe, Asia, and America, and comes back into the local economy. The exact beakdown of how the money is spent once it comes into the country is not known, but going by what can be observed, a large portion goes into real estate and agriculture.

Apart from investing in farming or real estate, other athletes have put money back into running. Kip Keino’s Training Centre, located on several hundred acres of farmland that the legendary runner owns just outside Eldoret, is setting new standards in training facilities. The centre is listed by the IAAF (International Association of Athletic Federations) as one of seven High Performance Training Centres in the world. It represents an investment in the third and fourth generations of Kenya running.

In contrast to the camps scattered around Eldoret and Iten that focus on road running, the centre focuses on developing middle- and long-distance track champions. Another notable training facility is Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Centre in Iten. It offers opportunities for aspiring women athletes to succeed by sponsoring them at the centre and providing food, accommodation and a state-of-the-art gym so they can focus on training.

Kenyan running continues to evolve into an increasingly professional sport from its nationalist beginnings in the 1960s. This has turned running into a viable line of work, and an alternative to the university education leading to middle-class professionalism that was desirable and for many years thought to be the surest way to achieve a successful life.