Monday, 2 June 2014

Training in Kenya: the low-down

I still remember the smell in Nairobi airport, and the excitement I felt when travelling to the centre of Nairobi, on my first visit to Kenya in 2005.  The next day I would be travelling by bus along the edge of the Rift Valley to Iten, the heart of the most successful distance running community in the world, and I could barely contain my excitement.  Back then I still had big dreams in athletics.  I had competed for Ireland at the World University Cross Country Championships the previous year, and now that I had my PhD out of the way, I wanted to reach the next level in the sport.

Things rarely work out as planned.  My athletics career never took off.  But unknown to me then, that trip to Kenya planted the seeds for a much greater adventure, and in ways I could never have dreamed of, led to successes away from the track.  Almost nine years later, I published a book on altitude training venues around the world, which was inspired by that first trip.  I developed a love-affair with Africa, and have been back numerous times, expanding my world view, and a developing a relaxed attitude to life that has since served me well.  This piece will look at why Kenya is such a great training venue, and why runners of all levels can be enchanted by the country’s simple beauty and friendly people.

Accessibility to athletes
If you want to train among the stars, Kenya is the place to go.  Though Ethiopia often challenges Kenya on the medals table at major championships, Kenya’s medals are generally distributed among a greater number of athletes.  When it comes to middle and long distance events, no country has more world medallists.  And in few countries are the athletes so accessible.

Over the years I have trained in the same gym as David Rudisha, been introduced to Saif Saaeed Shaheen, and met Sammy Korir, then the second fastest marathoner in history, without even being aware that he was a world class athlete.  That’s not to mention all the current and future stars that I’ve watched train on the dirt tracks at Kamariny and Chepkoilel, and been passed by on the trails around Iten.  And it’s not just the Kenyans that train here.  Double world and Olympic champion Mo Farah spends long stints training in Kenya, as do a number of Europe’s other top distance runners.  More recently, American distance runners have been sampling what Kenya has to offer.

Despite their success, there is no pretension among the majority of Kenya’s best runners.  They all know that they are only ever one bad race away from being a forgotten name, as the next talented teenager takes the spotlight.  They come across as humble, and are always encouraging of visiting athletes of all levels.  If you happen on a Kenyan athlete on a recover run, they are likely to run at your pace, but don’t expect them to show any mercy during a workout.  If you’re really lucky, you will get to know the athletes a bit better, and may even be invited to share ugali or chi in their homes.

Endless dirt roads
One of the highlights of training in Kenya is the seemingly endless choice of dirt roads to train on.  Most roads are not paved – a welcome respite to injury-prone legs – and even those that are, have a dirt trail running alongside them.  The terrain is mostly undulating, with long challenging drags and small hills, but not mountainous.  Many towns around Eldoret have dirt tracks, which are great for low impact workouts, and short recovery runs when you’re looking for relief from the hills.

Most of the Rift Valley area north of Nairobi is situated at a moderate altitude (1,600 m to 2,400 m), the ideal elevation range for inducing an altitude training response.  You don’t have to be an elite athlete to benefit from altitude, and runners of all levels will find it easier to run when they return to sea level.  Visitors should aim to stay for at least 3-4 weeks, and reduce the volume of training for at least the first 10 days.  Training too hard is the most common reason for not responding to training at altitude.

Cultural experience
It’s not just the running culture that you’ll get to sample – Kenya is a great place to go to experience everyday African life.  From taking a trip in a matatu to visiting a local market, the simplest of daily tasks can provide a wonderful insight into the Kenyan way of life.  Try grinding corn and making your own ugaili, attempt to get your shoes as clean as the locals do, and marvel at the core stability required to cycle a bike stacked high with cases of coca-cola, a few chickens and large bunches of bananas.

Where to visit
Thanks to the successes of past students of the local St. Patrick’s High School, Iten is probably the most famous of all the Kenyan training bases.  Athletes from all over the Rift Valley flock to the town in the hope of becoming the next champion.  Lornah Kiplagat’s world renowned High Altitude Training Centre (HATC), has hosted athletes from right across the world, and has a well equipped gym, swimming pool, and the most recent addition, a 400m Tartan track.  Kerio View is also a good place for athletes to stay, and the 400m dirt track at Kamariny is where all the athletes train.

The nearby city of Eldoret is also home to hundreds of aspiring and accomplished distance runners.  It has a greater choice of shops, restaurants and services than Iten.  Athletes can usually be spotted around Kip Keino Stadium on the east of the city, where a lot of local competitions are held, and at Chepkoilel track on Chepkoilel University College Campus approximately 10 km east of the city.

Athletes also live and stay in other towns around Eldoret, including Kaptagat, Kapsabet and Mosoriot.  Mosoriot, located in the Nandi Hills, 30 km west of Eldoret, is a recently developed option for western athletes looking to train in Kenya while getting the authentic village experience.  The Rift Valley Running Center, run mainly by Run for Life volunteers, opened there in 2005.  Visitors stay in basic, but adequate, accommodation at the centre, eat traditional Kenyan food at the adjacent Cafe Milka, train on the dirt trails around the centre, do workouts at the nearby Mosoriot Teachers Training College, and do weights sessions in the centre’s gym.  The centre is located close to Eldoret Airport

College or university students can volunteer to be part of one of the many projects operated by Run for Life in the area.  Visitors can choose to run the Rift Valley Marathon, half marathon or team relay which takes place nearby every March. Runners of all levels are welcome at the centre, and, in association with Run for Life, we’re offering one lucky middle or long distance athlete the chance to stay at the Rift Valley Running Centre free of charge for 6 weeks during winter 2015.  The winner will be responsible for covering their own travel and food costs during the stay.

Competition entry is now closed.  Winners will be announced shortly. 

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