by Michael Sandrock
Is There a "Secret" to the Kenyan Domination of Long-Distance Running? Yes. It's Running.
© 2001 42K(+) Press, Inc.
ELDORET, Kenya—We're halfway up a steep hill leading out of the town of Iten when our Range
Rover sputters to a stop. Our driver, Charles, climbs out and lifts the hood, and we watch
as steam rises into the deep blue afternoon sky.
"I don't know," Charles says, shrugging his shoulders. "Could be many things. Maybe a leak in the radiator. We need some water to check."
I volunteer to get some water. Some local kids have been watching us, and, barefoot and nimble, they lead me to their nearby family farm. We cross a field, slide on our stomachs beneath a fence, then clamber through some bushes before arriving at a neat, mud-brick house. A cooking fire burns in the yard, and on a plank set across two tree stumps a woman sits with her children. After explaining what we need, the kids and I grab buckets and fill them from a 55-gallon barrel.
For a minute, I don't want to leave. Here is a quiet, far-off place, where the Internet, cell phones, and satellite dishes have not yet intruded. There are no deadlines, no e-mail. The yard is crowded with fruit trees, and the woman's bright smile is framed by the green scarf covering her head. I drink in the scene. But the others are waiting, and we run back, the water sloshing back and forth in the buckets.
Back at the Range Rover, Charles pours the water into the radiator, and it streams out the bottom onto the asphalt road. "Yes, you see, it is leaking. . . ."
Sieg Lindstrom, a writer for Track & Field News, shakes his head and mutters that we are in trouble. I agree. My AAA membership won't work here, and there are no auto shops around, no service stations, no used parts stores where we can buy another radiator. "I'll hitch a ride back to Eldoret and get a car to pick us up," I say. "Or I can run to Brother O'Connell's [whose school in Iten has produced scores of elite runners] and ask for a place for us to stay for the night."
Charles shakes his head, not listening. "Does anyone have some curry powder?" he asks. Curry powder? No, don't make a habit of carrying it around. Don't have any black pepper or cumin, either.
Charles rummages around in the glove compartment. "Ah, here it is," he says, holding up a package of curry powder. He opens it and pours a bit in the radiator with some water. The water still leaks right out. Charles fills the radiator once again and adds more powder. This time, the leak slows. Finally, he tops off the radiator, mixes in the rest of the curry powder, and, like magic, no water leaks out. The radiator leak is sealed.
Charles starts the Range Rover, leans out the window and waves to the large group of locals watching us, then turns and says, "Everyone in Kenya is a mechanic."
I was in Kenya as part of a trip with several other journalists to the Fila-sponsored
training camps in the Rift Valley. Since the Kenyan domination of long-distance running began
in 1968 with Kip Keino's two Olympic medals, people have asked why this small, East-African country
has produced so many outstanding runners.
The line of greats that began with Keino has continued unbroken to this day. In 1999, Kenya had an astounding 106 marathoners faster than 2:14. The total for the United States, which has roughly 200 million more people than Kenya? Two.
Oh, it's the altitude, the genetics, the diet, the talent, people have said, attempting to explain the Kenyan success. What I found during my visit to Kenya, starting with my first morning there, is that the success springs from all these reasons, along with something more.
I woke up early my first day in Eldoret, a town of 18,196, near the border of Uganda. I pulled on my running gear and jogged up the street, past the slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town. Even at 6:00 a.m. crowds of men are lined up at the entrance. The stench from the butchering is overwhelming, and I quickly run past and up a hill to the outskirts of town, where the asphalt ends and endless miles of dirt roads begin.
In the distance, flames rise from burning fields in preparation for planting. It is quiet and cool, but even at this early hour, scores of people are walking into town. I turn and run past a small cluster of huts, then loop back to the main road. A young, fit runner is coming my way, and in the universal greeting of runners around the world, I ask, "How far you going?"
"One hour, 30 minutes," he replies. "Would you like to join me?"
We begin running together. He tells me his name is Daniel. We talk as we run over the small hills, the soft dirt feeling good beneath my jet-lagged legs. The conversation ebbs and flows with the rising and falling of the hills, and as we run, I look out at the distant mountains, the lonely acacia trees, the broad fields, and I think of the history of the Rift Valley.
Fossil skulls discovered last year in the Republic of Georgia provide evidence that our ancestor, the mysterious Homo erectus, left Africa, perhaps somewhere near where we are running, roughly 1.1 million years ago. According to news reports, those first humans, armed only with a few primitive stone tools, started a dispersal across the globe that eventually led to you and me, reading and writing, running and relaxing.
As Daniel and I run along, I listen to our rhythmic breathing. When we travel, I think, we too take our primitive tools (pen, paper, a pair of running shoes) and go on our own migration around our city, state, nation, and world. In that, we are driven by what must have driven those first Homo erectus. Like them, we explore our world, and when we visit a new country like Kenya, it is as new for us as it has been for all who have come before.
It was here in East Africa, the great mythologist Joseph Campbell explained, that the ancestor of the Homo erectus, the australopithecine, emerged. In his lecture series Transformation of Myth Through Time (Harper & Row), Campbell provides an artist's rendition of australopithecine running across a field that does not look much different from the fields we are now passing through. "He has picked up a tool and is running, but the important thing is the legs," Campbell writes. "Apparently the first essential development of the hominid, distinguishing him from the arboreal ape, is this kind of running leg, which released the hands."
Apes, Campbell says, walk using the knuckles of the front legs or arms. "It used to be thought that the brain enlargement was the main distinction; not so anymore. It was the legs. This left the hands free for manipulation, and then the brain increased."
When we run, we are tracing that evolutionary development. Watching the sun rise in the distance this African morning, I feel an empathy with our lineage of ancestors, australopithecine, then Homo hablis, then Homo erectus. I don't imagine them being cautious creatures, creeping through the grass. No, that is not how our ancestors would move. They were runners, our first human ancestors, just like you and me. They ran across these same plains, I think. Maybe those first runners chased antelope or wildebeest to get food, or maybe they were chased by lions or leopards that hoped to make them food. Either way, when they were done chasing or being chased through this valley, I have the feeling that our first ancestors would then run for the sheer joy of it, simply because they felt like it. Just as we do sometimes.
But, ah, what heartache, what suffering, what unforeseen disasters Homo erectus unleashed with those first steps out of Africa. A few miles down the road, Daniel asks me what I am thinking. I explain all this to him and tell him that perhaps it would have been better if Homo erectus had stayed put in the Rift Valley, had been content to hunt and be hunted and not to have populated the world. "Maybe if we had not become erect, thinking people . . ."
"Why not?" he asks.
"Read the paper any day," I say. "You want to shake your head in shame and cover your eyes to avoid knowing what humans do to each other."
Yesterday's Daily Nation newspaper, I continue, had an editorial titled "The God of Women Is Dead," in reference to another terrible incident in Nairobi. "That is what I mean."
Daniel listens and is quiet for a stretch. "No," he finally says. "I don't agree at all. I think there was no way around it. When our ancestors' brains grew bigger, their dreams grew bigger as well. They wanted to explore, to see what was beyond that mountain range, that river, that forest. That is what all of us want to do. That is why I am training every day. I want to see the world. I want to have a nice home, a nice car, like the good runners here. I will be running the Discovery race on Sunday. Can you introduce me to [Fila coach] Dr. Rosa there?"
"I don't know him well, but I will try," I say. "What are the races like?"
"You are running strong," he tells me. "I am sure they will let you enter. That way you can see for yourself."
That is how I found myself standing with two-time Boston Marathon winner Moses Tanui at
the Fila Discovery Cross-Country 12K race on a hot Sunday morning late last winter. The others
in my group were sitting in the shade, sipping some cool drinks and chattering with the myriad
world-class runners who volunteer to help at the race.
"Are you certain you want to run?" Tanui asks.
"Sure." I am in pretty good shape, I tell him, having run 27:52 for five miles at altitude recently and averaging about 10 miles a day with people like former world-record holders Steve Jones and Arturo Barrios. I tell him taking part in two Discovery races will be a good way to learn what grassroots running in Kenya is like.
"Are the races tough?" I ask.
Tanui smiles, a kind of Cheshire cat I-know-something-you-don't-know smile. "You will find out. I think you are in for a big surprise," says Tanui, who has a personal best of 2:06:16 in the marathon, third fastest ever. A few months later, Tanui would place third at the 2000 Boston Marathon, in that race's closest finish ever. Elijah Lagat, who won the 2000 Boston in a thrilling homestretch sprint, as well as 1999 winner Joseph Chebet are, along with Tanui, part of a unique training camp system set up in the Rift Valley by Fila, the Italian sports manufacturer.
After arriving in Nairobi, I was eager to get to western Kenya as soon as possible to see the depth of Kenyan running firsthand. "Hmmm. You are an interesting tourist," says Simon Mukuna, head of Sights of Africa Safari Tours in Nairobi, when I tell him I don't have time to go to the Masai Mara game preserve because I am in a hurry to get to Eldoret. "Most mzungos come to Kenya to see the Ôbig five' animals. But you come to see the big-name runners."
And why not? Many of the biggest names in long-distance running are in Eldoret. It starts with Keino, now head of Kenya's Olympic committee. Keino also runs an orphanage and an IOC-sponsored training camp for young runners from around sub-Saharan Africa.
Tanui leads 30-plus runners at his Fila training camp at Kaptagat, 10K from Eldoret, while an hour's drive north up some 4-wheel-drive roads is Kapsait, where Chebet trains at 10,000 feet at a camp headed by two-time Honolulu winner Eric Kimaiyo. And 20K south of Eldoret in the Nandi Hills is another Fila camp headed by Lagat, who sports a 2:07:41 marathon best.
"Yes, there is a rivalry among the camps," says Tanui, "but when we are all running Boston we will be hoping everyone runs their best."
Each camp has its own personality and its own leaders, but what they have in common is a superabundance of talented athletes with the dedication, discipline, and drive to make it to the top of the running world. In addition to Chebet, Tanui, Lagat, and Kimaiyo, runners training in these camps include 2:06 marathoners Fred Kiprop and Josephat Kiprono, 2:07 marathoners Simon Biwott and Japhet Kosgei, Los Angeles Marathon winner Simon Bor, and two-time Rock'n'Roll Marathon winner Philip Taurus. In fact, five of Track & Field News' top 10 marathoners of 1999 are here. And rushing up quickly behind them are scores of lean and hungry sub-2:11 marathoners.
"People in America often ask what is the Kenyan secret of running," Bor says. "Please tell them there is no secret. Some people say Kenyans are good because we are more talented. No, no; it is because Kenyans put their interest mostly into running and not into other sports. It is a very hard job, and it is all about training."
It is also about identifying talented youngsters and giving them the opportunity to train so that they can develop into champions. That is how many of the Kenyan runners dominating races around the world got their start, and what Fila is doing with its two Discovery races.
The first, the Rift Valley cross-country race, features roughly 1,800 children and young adults in six races. The second is the Eldoret Discovery half-marathon road race a week later. Those showing promise in these races are selected and sent to one of the training camps, with their lodging, food, travel, equipment and—in some cases—school fees all paid for. The idea is that after a couple of years training with the best in the world, these new runners will join the ranks of the international elite.
Both Discovery races are underwritten by Fila and organized by Tanui, with help from a Who's Who of track and field, including Olympic gold medalists Peter Rono and Paul Ereng, five-time World Cross-Country champ Paul Tergat, former 10,000-meter world-record holder Yobes Ondieki, Chebet, Lagat, Kiprop, and a host of others. This is how basketball fans must feel when attending an NBA all-star game: At every turn is a World Championship or Olympic medalist or another elite runner.
Before the cross-country race begins this Sunday morning, Tanui stands like a general among hundreds of little Kenyan kids. He barks a command, and the children line up obediently. Kenyan schools are very strict, and that discipline is apparent here. There is no slouching, no baseball caps worn backward, no talking back. Tanui lines them up, and the runners set off. Beginning with 500 meters for the under-10s, each race unfolds the same way: Every runner in the field sprints as fast as he or she can for as long as he or she can. The winner is the one who slows down the least, which often is not much. Caroline Talam, 11, takes the under-12 girls 1K in a very fast 3:19. Peninah Jelanga, 13, runs 3K in a remarkable 10:06.9, leading 15 other young girls under 11 minutes.
Here, at 7,000 feet on the old polo grounds of the Eldoret Sports Club, it is easy to see why Kenyans dominate road and track racing. The depth of talent in the Discovery race is staggering. Just to finish in the top 10 in any of these races is an achievement. The talent of the Kenyan runners is seen in the junior girls race. Alice Timbilil, 16, wins by one second, clocking 21:22.6 for 6K, followed closely by Sharon Jerop (21:23.4), and Vivian Cheruiyot (21:25.2). Seven weeks later, Cheruiyot will win the IAAF World Cross-Country junior 6K race, leading Kenya to the team title. Second at World Cross will be Timbilil, who last year ran an amazing 32:02.2 for 10K on the track, at altitude and barefoot. Timbilil also ran in the finals of the Sydney Olympic 10K, placing 14th—this time wearing shoes.
You could take any 7 of the top 30 girls in the junior race, enroll them in college, and have a team that would win the NCAA cross-country title. For nontrack fans, we can frame the Discovery race like this: It would be like going to a children's basketball camp in a Los Angeles neighborhood and finding hundreds of kids good enough to start for major college teams, along with a dozen players as good as Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan. The depth of Kenyan talent at this race really is that staggering.
Timbilil lives in a mud hut near Moiben, not far from where Bor grew up. It is a land that reminds one of the American Southwest: rolling hills and hardscrabble mountains, dry fields, cactus, and tough people. When Bor talks about his childhood in Moiben, the pattern that underlies the early life of many of the Kenyan greats appears. Bor's primary school was about 5K away from his home. There are no buses to bring children to school in the Rift Valley, no parents in SUVs picking them up. Children have only their own feet to walk and run over rutted, rocky roads and fields.
"You walked to school?" I ask Bor.
"No, no. I did not walk. I ran."
"Why? Did you like running so much even then?"
Bor shakes his head and smiles. "No. Not that. I ran so I would not be late to school. Because if you were late, you got pinched or beaten with a stick."
"Did that ever happen to you?"
"Yes, very many times," Bor says. "Sometimes I would come home for lunch and find that the food was not ready. So I had to wait before returning."
Bor ran to school in the morning, back home for lunch, back to school after lunch, then walked home in the afternoon. That means each day during his childhood, he was covering at least 20 hilly kilometers, at nearly 8,000 feet elevation. "You see, I was training for the marathon even though I did not know it at the time," Bor says. "That is how it is for all of us."
And that is how the Kenyans build up a strong aerobic base over the years, a fitness base that is the foundation of future success. All the childhood running and walking strengthens their joints, tendons, and ligaments, allowing them to put in the high mileage necessary to run world-class marathons without getting injured.
As I await my turn to race, Kip Keino comes by. "Do you have any advice?" I ask him.
"There is nothing I can say to help you if you are not already well prepared," Keino says. "All I can tell you is 'Good luck.'"
Ismael Kirui, a top international runner whom I met in Boulder a few years ago, sits in the shade of a cedar tree. "You are going to run? Man," he says, shaking his head, "it is going to be very painful. This is not like the joggers' [citizens'] race in the Bolder Boulder. It is going to be terrible for you."
And it is. It is noon, and the equatorial sun beats down on us like a heat lamp turned up full-blast by the time we line up. After a false start, the gun is fired, and the runners sprint off as if we are running 800 meters, not 12 kilometers. Immediately, a runner falls in front of me. I jump over him. Another runner goes down on my right, and another is pushed into the Fila banners on my left that line the race course. I try to hold back but still run the first kilometer in 3:10, and the mile in 4:55. It feels very strange to be running that fast in a race with 500 people and being nearly dead last.
The pace slows the second lap, and I begin catching a few runners. However, each time I come up behind someone, the crowd yells and the runner drops out, embarrassed to be passed by a mzungo. I pass several runners slumped over in the grass. There is no glory of finishing in this race. It is all about racing fast and being discovered. Clouds of red dust arise from the stampede of runners in front of me, and by the end of the third lap, I am hot, dizzy, and exhausted. I pull out and find some shade to sit under. An official approaches and pulls off my number. The leaders run by, but I don't look up. I bend over, catching my breath, just one of the hundreds of runners who will not be discovered this day.
That night I walk into the bar at the Hotel Sirikwa in downtown Eldoret. Keino, the man
who started it all with his Commonwealth and Olympic gold medals and stirring victory over
Jim Ryun in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic 1,500 meters, is there watching a soccer game on
TV. "Can I buy you a beer?" he asks.
We talk about running and life in Kenya. "When I was racing, our hill workout was very important in the early stages of training, before we started doing track workouts," Keino says, keeping one eye glued to a Kenya-Uganda soccer match on the television. "Near Thompson Falls we have a one-kilometer hill we call Agony Hill and another two-kilometer hill in Kiganjo. It is gradual; you build up as you run up the hill. The last 100 meters you go very fast and are hurting. My record was 18 times up the hill. Then Ben Jipcho broke the record when he did it 20 times."
As in Keino's time, hill training remains key for today's Kenyans. Tanui has his own special workout called the Fluorspar Hill, a 21-kilometer climb with 23 turns that goes from the bottom of the Rift Valley to the top of its escarpment at 8,850 feet above sea level. "I discovered this hill in 1990," Tanui tells me. "Of course it is hard. It is building all the muscles at the same time. It opens up your chest. When I am training for Boston or Chicago I run Fluorspar once a week."
A few days later, I am running up Fluorspar, having started ahead of Tanui and the Kaptagat training group. I run steadily, feeling good as I climb up out of the Rift Valley. The road winds back and forth, and with each curve the valley appears farther in the distance below.
I pass some sheep, then an old woman. All at once she breaks into a jog and begins running easily alongside me, chattering away in Swahili. I pick up the pace, but she stays with me. I surge again; the woman's chattering stops and her breathing becomes labored. "This is ridiculous," I think. "I'm trying to drop a barefoot old woman who is carrying a bag of fruit."
As if by reflex, I look around to see if anyone is watching. Not seeing anyone on the steep slopes, I slow down into a slower rhythm and start enjoying the run with the woman. Green hills with streams tumbling down rise in front of us. Once in a while a mining truck rumbles by, scattering the sheep and cows heading up the road. Suddenly, the old woman waves good-bye and jumps down a slope. I follow her along a grassy trail, feeling free as we leap across a stream. She laughs, and I laugh with her, and I leave her with her family at a cluster of small houses.
There is a pleasing rhythm to life in the Rift Valley; people here in rural Kenya have not yet been separated from Mother Earth. They are still in close contact with the ebbs and flows of the day, the rising and setting of the sun, moving up and down the hills, walking and running, carrying water, milking cows, planting seeds, harvesting beans and maize. This is, I think, watching children carrying buckets of water home, how our earliest ancestors must have lived. Good, honest work caring for crops during the day, going to sleep when it is dark, arising with the sun's first light. Running light-footed across fields and hills, not to lose weight or relieve stress, but to get from one village to another.
The record for the Fluorspar run is one hour and 21 minutes. Tanui's best time is 1:24; today he finishes in 1:31, about a minute behind Chris Cheboiboch. No matter. For Tanui, it is winning marathons that counts, not winning training runs. "One of the hardest things in training is not to rush, not to compete all the time," Tanui says. "You have to wait. My training is not to push all the time. It is to have energy for everything. You see, there is a time to run very hard and a time to rest. Training goes together with rest."
After the run, we drive to Tanui's camp, where a huge pot of chai, the sweet Kenyan tea, awaits us. I tell Tanui that being a camp director and race director is not the best way to prepare for the Boston Marathon. "Don't worry. I will be ready for Boston. The camp is not a big problem," Tanui says, shrugging and sipping his tea. "I have lots of energy. What we are doing here is good training. The way to attack a marathon is not simple. It is very, very difficult. I want to see our future continue when I go out of running. That is my dream."
Tanui has been working for nearly a decade with Dr. Gabriele Rosa, the Italian doctor and coach who established and oversees the training camps. "I think he is the best coach," Tanui says. "One thing that makes Gabriele good is that he follows the athlete during training, one, two, or three hours. Every time he is there to see how you are running. He knows what he is doing, and he is learning from the athlete."
Kaptagat, Tanui's camp, is several flat acres laid out in a rectangle and surrounded by a fence and a border of trees. Kapsait, where Chebet trains, is much different. Traveling there is like going to a Tibetan monastery, for it imparts a feeling of sitting high in the sky, far removed from the quotidian affairs of men and women. Every step is either up or down.
And that is the idea, Rosa says. "It is good for our training because we have dirt roads, mountains, birds, and clean air. This is my dream. To go for endurance here, then later to a flat area for speed. This might be the best place in the world to build endurance. I am 100 percent sure. Our rule when we train is to start slowly, but then we need a fast pace during the run, with the last kilometer very fast. It is a progression during the run. That is my idea."
The trip ends with the Discovery Half-Marathon in downtown Eldoret. "I was discovered
here," says Lagat, who won the race in 1997. "In 1993, I was very fat. I started running
for my health. I was sick, with serious stomach pains and had difficulty breathing. The
doctor advised me to start jogging. Not for competition, just for fitness."
"We were all discovered together," adds Bor. "We received equipment and good coaches; this is a way that allows people to train. It is a very good program and has discovered many other athletes."
Unlike a road race in the United States, there is no joking around at the start. There are roughly 400 runners, all fit, all serious, all ready to race. I stand in the shade of a large tree to escape the sun. After my cross-country experience, I am wondering how far behind the pack I will be.
Very far, as it turns out. When the gun goes off, it is as if we are running an all-out mile, not a half-marathon. I pass the first, slightly downhill mile along Uganda Avenue in 5:08. That time would put me near the front of many U.S. road races. Here, I am dead last, running along behind a barefoot guy wearing ragged pants. I look at him and think, "No, he is not going to be discovered." By three kilometers, passed in 10:31, I have moved past about a dozen runners.
The Eldoret Half-Marathon is not, I think as I struggle with the heat, altitude, and fast pace, a typical road race. It is seven laps of a 3K loop. Deep crowds around the course offer encouragement with shouts of "Go mzungo! Good job!"
My goal was simply to see how far I could get before getting lapped and pulled out of the race. It is humbling to pass 5K in 17:50 and be bringing up the rear. On the third lap I see that two runners have broken away from the pack and are rapidly catching me. I pump my arms and accelerate into the fourth lap. The crowd cheers as I make a sharp left off Uganda Avenue and run through the commercial district of town, near Kip Keino's sport shop. Soon the leaders come by and for a brief instant I sprint and match pace with them. I am running with the Kenyans. Then, just as quickly, they are gone up a short, steep hill and I stop as an official pulls off my race number.
After the race, Chebet, Lagat, and the other elites relax in the Hotel Sirikwa, talking with Rosa. The runners have plates piled high with fruit, rice, potatoes, beef stew, and ugali, the mashed maize that is the staple of the Kenyan diet. After all the runners have met with Rosa, they get up to leave, ready to go back to their farms or the training camps. Bor drains his tea, then stands as we shake hands. "I have to return to my family now," he says, walking away. "Good-bye; I hope to see you in the United States."
Then he stops and turns. "You were the only mzungo in the race today. That showed courage. If people ask you about Kenya, tell them that with courage and good training you can do great things. . . . Maybe that is the secret."