Richard Picciuto wrote several blogs about the preparation for the Olympics. He wrote this blog two weeks before he passed away in February. With the Olympics getting closer, I thought this blog would be pertinent and relevant. It would give him great pleasure to know that his blogs continue to be enjoyed by so many loyal readers every day. Enjoy reading about the long-distance runners trained in Kenya.
“As big as we are, we have fewer people to draw on. In Kenya there are probably a million schoolboys 10 to 17 years old, who run 10 to 12 miles a day…The average Kenyan 18-year-old has run 15,000 to 18,000 more miles in his life than the average American–and a lot of that’s at altitude. They’re motivated because running is a way out. Plus they don’t have a lot of other sports for kids to be drawn into. Numbers are what this is all about. In Kenya there are maybe 100 runners who have hit 2:11 in the marathon–and in the U.S. maybe five…”
~~~Alberto Salazar – US winner of 3 consecutive NYC Marathons
Even casual sports fans know that Kenyan distance runners are ridiculously dominant. Catherine Ndereba has won four Boston Marathons. Kenyan-born men are five of the 10 fastest 10K runners in history, and seven of the 10 fastest marathoners. This country of only 30 million (0.5% of the Earth’s population) wins about half of all the Olympic and World Championship medals for men’s distance running. Top marathoners can make millions of dollars every year in sponsorships, appearance fees, and prize winnings. For Kenyan runners, many of whom start their careers by running barefoot, this income can be a big incentive. Lornah Kiplagat, a Kenyan-born athlete, and her husband Pieter founded the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, Kenya, after realizing the town’s training benefits for athletes. Perched on a cliff of the Great Rift Valley at 2,400m (8,000 ft.) above sea level, the Center draws top athletes, including world and Olympic champions, for high-altitude performance training. “The altitude here is sort of like perfect,” she says. “It’s not too high. It’s not too low. The weather is never hot, it’s warm, but there’s always a breeze. There is everything that you need. There is the gym, there is the pool, the food is good, the nature. So all these things combined, definitely has made it the best place to be in the world.”
Iten is 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. With the London Olympics later this year, athletes are training hard to get an edge over their rivals at the Games. The London Marathon organizers even chose Iten to announce the Kenyan men’s elite field. 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. Having top-end runners “attracts other athletes from all over the world,” said Kiplagat, with the small settlement of about 4,000 people seeing visitors from across Europe, the US and Africa. “The most expensive thing for them is the flight to Kenya … staying in Iten is less expensive than staying in Europe,” Kiplagat added. Children from adjoining plots gather outside the camp’s gates to stare at the wazungu (whites) stretching and lifting weights.
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. 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. However, 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. Despite the lack of facilities, foreign athletes continue to flock into the town, keen not only to acclimatize, but to learn the Kenyan way of training ahead of the Olympics. As long as athletes from the local schools make it through to the big stage, others will continue to come.