Training in Iten – the Home of Champions, and Thin Air

Back in July 2015, a work meeting took me to Mwanza, Tanzania. At the time I was working on a big HIV prevention programme at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I was excited to revisit Eastern Africa, both for the project, but also because I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit another programme close to my heart, in neighbouring Kenya.

Beyond Athletics is a non profit programme which uses donor funds to sponsor children to continue their education, in tandem with summer training programmes in Iten. The emphasis of the programme is not on creating the next world champion, but on opening up a future bright with choices and opportunity; equipping the next generation with the confidence, knowledge and skills to succeed in whichever avenue they choose. I had been fundraising for the programme and was keen to visit Vincent, the man in charge, and the scholarship students. At the same time, I was excited to see for myself the mythical ‘home of champions’ and watch the legends at work. This is a blog I wrote at the time, summarising my few days in Iten.

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Team ‘Rising Stars’ in training In Iten, in August

“In July 2015, I travelled out to Nairobi, and then to Iten, in the Kenyan highlands, to visit the programme. After landing in Nairobi at the beginning of the month, I delivered my suitcase full of Ful-on Tri donations, to be distributed amongst the various locations. I wish I could have stayed a little longer in the city and visited the programme in Kibera, but I had a plane to catch and a small matter of a job to do for another week in Mwanza, Tanzania.  A week later (and a gentle introduction to increased altitude; Mwanza itself sits at nearly 4000ft), I landed back in Nairobi and headed straight out to the market town of Eldoret, just south of the Cherangani Hills in western Kenya. 

Eldoret is the home to many, many elite distance runners. In fact, I learn that it is common for athletes to live in the larger town of Eldoret and to train in Iten (some 40 minutes away). At nearly 8000 ft above sea level, it provides the perfect altitude training platform. 

I stayed with Vincent and his family, in Eldoret, along with two of the programme’s young athletes, Rosie and Naomy. One of the aims of the trip is to see what kind of training the athletes undertake, and what daily life is like for one of the scholars. Also, having read much about the mythical Kenyan style of training and running, I am keen to witness it first-hand (if you haven’t read Andharand Fin’s “Running with the Kenyans” I urge you to immediately – you cannot fail to be inspired!).  

As I arrive late on the Wednesday evening, Vincent tells me that my first session will be none other than the famous Iten Thursday Fartlek session. There are multiple running groups in Iten, the town where everyone is a runner. Most days, these groups will convene at around 6am for the first session of the day. On Thursdays however, it is different; all the groups come together at 9am, for a huge mass fartlek run. Again, having read about this community event, I am excited and eager to join in. However, Vincent warily suggests I follow the session on a bike, which I agree is a sensible idea. It takes, apparently, a good few days to adjust to the altitude here, and I was advised to take it easy and not to expect too much. However, as I was only to be there for 4/5 days anyway, I decide in the end to just suck it up and join in – for those of you who know me I expect you won’t be hugely surprised by this!

We start the session – myself, Vincent, Rosie and Naomy –  by running 5k from Vincent’s shop, Runner’s Point, to the ‘End of the Road’ meeting point. I am tired after a long journey and not much sleep, but pleasantly surprised that I can at least keep up. 20 minutes later we arrive at the starting point and I have a stitch and what I am pretty sure is something seriously wrong with both legs. Still, I can’t wipe the smile off my face as we join about 200 other runners (I would guess about 80% men) nervously awaiting instructions from the coach in a pickup truck at the front of the group. I do get a few funny looks but largely people are disinterested – I am likely just another daft but keen mzungo (white person) who will be left plodding along at the back. Which turns out to be perfectly accurate! The coach informs us that we will be doing 2:1 (2 minutes hard, 1 minute easy), and counts us down. Vincent checks that I know what I am doing (no not really), and tells me to stick with the other two girls (who, by the way, are 14). I reckon I can do that.

We start off with a few minutes easy (Kenyans always start this way, terribly sneaky), before 200 stop-watches beep and I watch everyone shoot off into the distance. I manage to keep up with a few ladies for the first effort, but as the second interval hits my legs disown me and I am reduced to little more than a plod. It is worse than the worst cross country I have ever done – and I still have 6km to go. I quickly abandon the fartlek plan (ridiculous idea anyway) and resolve to just make it back. I take my rightful place at the very back of the back (with the old, the sick, the wounded, etc) and shuffle on, a smile plastered firmly on my face ☺


After a rest and some ugali we then head to the gym for a circuits session and then a swim (at the only pool in Eldoret). As bad as I am at running, it turns out that by Kenyan standards I am quite the swimmer! So Vincent and I swap roles as I attempt to pass on the coaching tips I have picked up from my many (ahem) club training sessions. 

After a leisurely start to day 1, day 2 begins with a 5.30am wake up call. We groggily head out onto the dusty road in the halflight, to meet the others in the group at one of the many junctions. By about 6am a group of about 8 has formed, and we set off at a steady jog into the farmland. Sold to me as ‘an easy 7/8km’, after about 5 minutes Vincent turns to me and advises me to take it easy, as it seems we have a track session at 9am. Excited as I might usually be by a Kenyan style track session, I must admit the thought makes me feel slightly sick. My legs are still suffering from the day before, and I am struggling to keep up with the most pedestrian of paces. Still, I am definitely game.

With 2km to go however, I manage to trip over my own feet on the rutted track, and come crashing to the ground. It’s quite a shock and it looks like I have hurt my hand quite badly as I cleverly stuck my arm out to break my fall. Back at the house I clean and examine it (boiling some water on the stove in the kitchen) and I’m pretty sure I have broken something as it swells up and turns black. But I also figure there is not a huge amount I can do about it. So we head out to the track.

I am pretty tired and in quite a bit of pain as we jog again to the end of the road and towards the next meeting point. But any negative thoughts are soon overridden by excitement at what is to come. Vincent tells me we are to be picked up by Kemboi and his truck. The Kemboi?? I think, as in multiple Olympic champion and legendary steeplechase runner and dancer?! (You have to look him up!). A large pickup truck screeches to a halt in front of us and to my excitement I see that it is, in fact, the Kemboi. All the guys (all guys, again), jump onto the back of the pickup, but Vincent opens the cab door and ushers me into the front. Suddenly dumbstruck and overwhelmed to be in such eminent company, I am not quite sure what to say to my chauffeur, 3x world, Olympic champ and record holder. I needn’t have worried however, as Kemboi gamely starts chatting away and asking about where I am from and what I am doing. I am at pains to point out to him and to everyone else that I am of course a triathlete, and not a proper runner, of course….stacking up my excuses before we have stepped out of the truck.

Luckily however, no one expects me to be anything less than completely terrible! We jump out of the truck and head off across a road and onto another dirt track towards the track. Apparently we have another 5km to go before we get there (honestly, I am really not sure why we couldn’t have just driven to the track, but I guess that would be lazy….?!). No one pays much attention to me and I am grateful as again my legs feel a bit like they are filled with lead. My broken hand throbs away.

20 minutes later (yes, ouch) we crawl through a hole in a fence and pop out onto a cinder track. It’s beautiful. I make a quick loo stop (long drop ravine) and then head over to meet Vincent and Naomy. He is talking to two ladies I instantly recognise – tiny, muscly and very beautiful – Eunice Sum, reigning 800m WC and Janeth Jepkosgei, an 800m legend and previous OC. I really have no idea what to say apart from muttering what an honour it is to meet them….and it truly was. Keen to get on with their session, I let them go and begin my own warm up, watching from the outside lane as legend after legend sprinted past me. It was quite incredible. Eunice Sum, for example, was doing 200s this week – 10 x200 with walk back recoveries in about 25/6 seconds. Wow. Even in my sprinting days I could only really manage one at that pace. It is quite stunning to watch. 

Myself, I manage 4 x 400 lagging behind the ever-patient Naomy. As terrible as I feel, I am still disheartened by the slow times I am clocking –  but I feel slightly better to learn that in fact the track is 420m, not 400m! After 4, and mindful of the return 5km run to the truck (probably to be run at my race pace)  I decide to call it a day and go watch the masters. 

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