Sports Nut

The Tiny Farming Town That Produces the Country’s Greatest Champions

Kenyan runners Kandie Bushendich (left) and Douglas Kiptoo
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Kenyan runners Kandie Bushendich (left) and Douglas Kiptoo

At 7 a.m. in Iten, Kenya, overladen trucks and tractors putter down rutted dirt roads. Cattle and sheep roam randomly, some followed by 5-year-old boys in Simpsons T-shirts. Navigating around this chaos are groups of four, five, and eight runners, all borderline skeletal by American standards and wearing tights and jackets despite the warm weather. Under the heavy clothing, I can make out ideal frames for distance running—short torsos, high waists, narrow hips, inverted-teardrop thighs, nearly nonexistent calves. As I plod around in a T-shirt and shorts, I feel less like the 132-pound runner that I am than a fleshy, squat 40-year-old with cankles getting in a few miles before work.

Even casual sports fans know that Kenyan distance runners are ridiculously dominant. Catherine Ndereba won her fourth Boston Marathon April 18, and Kenyan-born men are five of the 10 fastest 10K runners in history and seven of the 10 fastest marathoners. That dominance is even more awesome when you consider that “Kenyan running” is really “Kalenjin running.” Nearly all of Kenya’s world-class runners are members of the Kalenjin tribe, an ethnic group that makes up 10 percent of the population.

Although the Kalenjin live throughout Kenya’s western highlands, the running culture is centered in Iten, a farming town of 3,000 overlooking the Great Rift Valley. According to Godfrey Kiprotich, a former international runner who now manages athletes in town, Iten’s base population is supplemented at any time by 500 runners capable of winning money in a European or American road race. Some of the runners in town during my visit include the world’s top-ranked male marathoner, the defending Boston Marathon men’s champion, and the men’s and women’s 10-mile world-record holders.

Why Iten? At 8,000 feet, it’s optimal for altitude training—high enough to boost oxygen-carrying capacity, but not so high that it’s impossible to run quickly. The climate is also ideal for running: It’s seldom colder than 50 degrees or hotter than 80 degrees, it’s never humid, and there are 12 hours of daylight throughout the year. Once the word got out about Iten, the influx of runners allowed for much stronger group training, which led to workouts that are near-impossible on one’s own, which led to more success in overseas races, which attracted more runners, and so on. The displays of wealth here also entice genetically gifted locals to give running a try. If you see an SUV here, count on the driver being able to outrun you.

Training runs start at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., and 4 p.m.; heads turn when someone runs by at any other time. Non-runners know the schedule well—a community field that’s full of sheep at 3:30 is clear for runners doing form-and-flexibility drills by 4:30. In the last five years, hotels, restaurants, and a resort have sprung up, most owned by runners investing prize money won overseas. Kiprotich’s group employs cooks, massage therapists, and cleaning ladies who wash runners’ clothes and shoes by hand when they get caked with Iten’s red volcanic dirt. (Most runners in Iten can’t afford this service and soak their shoes in buckets between runs to keep them reasonably clean.)

Many of the infrastructure improvements cater to the increasing number of foreign runners who come to Iten for long training stints. Most Europeans stay at a facility owned by Lornah Kiplagat, a Kenyan who now runs for the Netherlands. Foreigners who arrive in Iten together tend to segregate themselves. They take all their meals at Kiplagat’s camp, train only with each other, and go into Iten primarily to check e-mail at the post office. Children from adjoining plots gather outside the camp’s gates to stare at the wazungu (whites) stretching and lifting weights. Those who arrive singly more often train and socialize with the locals, usually via the introduction of an Ethiopian refugee who has lived at Kiplagat’s camp since it opened in 2000.

Westerners who immerse themselves in Iten’s running culture don’t learn new methods of physical preparation—every elite international runner pretty much knows how to train. What they do absorb is Kenyans’ monomaniacal dedication. The locals I train with marvel at how Europeans and Americans are in constant need of stimulation and entertainment—they can’t believe that I run twice a day and spend the time in between walking around town, interviewing people, and going to other towns. Kenyan athletes spend an amazing amount of time sitting around doing nothing. The runners I know do nothing else during the day but run and rest up for the next run.

Just after dawn one morning, I see two runners sprinting up the long, steep hill just outside the gate of St. Patrick’s High School. Despite the altitude and the hill’s 10 percent grade, their form remains relaxed, their faces impassive. After several more sprints, they introduce themselves as Kandie Bushendich and Douglas Kiptoo. The training partners share the same goal—to escape a life of subsistence farming via running. By 5 that afternoon, they will have run up the hill twice more.

When I join Bushendich, Kiptoo, and their training partners for morning tea later in the week, I ask why they’ve left their families to train here. “Everyone knows that when it is your time to shine, this is the place,” says 18-year-old Simon Kiptum. “We are not shining yet, but maybe next year we will be, and someone will fly us to other countries and show what we can do.”