The long- and middle-distance runners to watch during the London Olympics are from Kenya, a country with a rich tradition of producing elite track athletes. The country won 14 medals four years ago in the Beijing Olympics. Many of the world’s best marathoners have come from a highland region above the Great Rift Valley. There, the famed town of Iten produces some of the fastest humans on Earth. Down the main road, past vendors of mangoes and charcoal, past the Zam Zam Hotel and Mama Mercy Salon and under the arch that reads, “Iten, Home of Champions,” there’s an unmarked road the color of rust.
If you turn on it and continue past fields of corn and passion fruit, you’ll see them: young men and women with zero body fat in black Lycra shorts and bright running shoes warming up for the morning run. One of them, a woman in a pink Nike top, gives her name as Charity. What’s her goal? “I want to be rich,” she says. “Yeah, I want to be rich.” At 9 a.m. sharp, they’re off, 400 legs pumping uphill in loping, relaxed, efficient strides. These are some of the 500 to 1,500 runners at any given time who come to Iten from around the world to train and be discovered.
Farmer Robert Toraitizh stands in front of his gate and watches the runners admiringly. “We are proud of them running like this,” Toraitizh says. “Sometimes we see them live on TV, and then, after all, we see them running live … here.” Far behind the rest of the pack, a lone white runner passes, huffing and puffing. Toraitizh smiles ear to ear. “Yes, you see a small country like that one beating the huge America, even not America but other countries, rich countries,” he says.
Kenyans are immensely proud of their athletes — and for good reason. On these dirt roads pass some of the world’s fastest long-distance runners, like David Rudisha, the world record holder in the 800-meter; Mary Keitany, the world record holder in the women’s half-marathon; and Wilson Kipsang, the second-fastest marathoner of all time. Wearing a gold-trimmed hoodie, Kipsang lounges on a sofa in the dining room of a hotel that overlooks the Great Rift Valley, which appears as a misty chasm in the green earth.
Kipsang is a local favorite here in Iten because he lets aspiring young runners train with him. The slight, soft-spoken Kipsang is captain of Kenya’s Olympic marathon team, which is scheduled to compete on the last day of the games.
Kipsang echoes Charity: He wants to make money.The runners want to live a comfortable life, buy some land, build a house, support their extended family, maybe even invest. Most of Kenya’s runners grow up dirt-poor. They see prize-winning runners buying farms, hotels and matatus, the omnipresent Kenyan jitneys. For these young men and women, running is the only means to escape poverty, Kipsang says. “Provided you really focus and train very well,” he adds.
Altitude is another reason why Iten produces such extraordinary athletes. They train at 8,000 feet above sea level. The idea is to strengthen circulation by creating more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to muscles. “This valley is 6 miles down. They run up these hills every single day,” says Peter McHugh, director of Run-Fast, a British sports management company with a training camp in Iten.
Admittedly old-school, McHugh admires the elegant simplicity of how Kenyan runners train. “My argument is, for instance, that if you want to build strength in your legs, you should do what the Kenyans do, which is to run up hills,” he says. “We are distracted enormously by heart rate monitors, by distance monitors, by very sophisticated gymnasiums, by taking blood tests, by measuring all sorts of things.”
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