A dirt running track with goats grazing on the infield, the noonday sun beating remorselessly down from an impossibly blue sky, a tight group of lithe runners sprint down the homestretch, puffs of dust rising from each footfall, sweat streaming down their faces, every muscle strained to the limit…
The Kamariny Stadium in the sleepy little town of Iten nestled high up on the side of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya is truly a field of dreams. It is in the vicinity of this town and this dirt running track that countless elite Kenyan runners have prepared for their onslaught on the diamond league circuit, big city marathons, Olympic Games and world records.
In Beijing this year, Kenya topped the medals table for the first time in the IAAF World Championship history with 7 gold, 6 silver and 3 bronze to beat athletic giants USA and Jamaica. Last year, of the 150 elite male runners who ran the marathon faster than 2 hours 10 minutes, 84 were Kenyan and of the top 10 fastest marathoners, 7 were Kenyan.
Why are the Kenyans so good at running? Do they have bigger lungs, more blood, faster muscle fibres? Do they have some unfair advantage that leaves the rest of the world gasping in their wake? According to sports physiologists and researchers, the answer is no. Over the last two decades, several studies of elite Kenyan runners have failed to show any significant difference in physiology or genetic makeup that sets them apart from their elite Caucasian contemporaries or gives them an unfair advantage.*
What is it then that allows the Kenyans to have such a stranglehold on running that for instance, in the 3000m steeplechase no non-Kenyan born athlete has ever won a gold medal at the Olympics since 1984 or at the World Championships since 1991?
Statistics are stark numbers, black and white. They don’t tell the story of the sweat and the pain, the joy and the anguish, the countless training sessions which are behind each success. The image that most people have of Kenyan runners is ecstatic arms raised as one more Kenyan breasts the tape in a new course record; “who cares, it’s just one more Kenyan off the endless production line, pass me the sugar please.”
I must confess that I used to have the same attitude until a friend invited me to his home. I want to share that singular experience which changed my preconceived prejudice forever.
The story begins with a charity road race in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, where I introduced myself to one of the elite runners who had finished the race in half the time I had taken to cover the same course. Over a couple of months we became quite close friends and I invited him over to my place. He reciprocated by inviting me to visit his home in Eldama Ravine, a town in the Rift Valley very near Iten where he also spends a good amount of his time training with other elite runners.
I was intrigued. I wanted to experience firsthand what it felt like to live and eat with elite Kenyan runners. I wanted to see the production line for myself. I wanted to learn their secret of success if there was any such thing as a secret.
A three hour journey by public means left me at the rendezvous point, a group of ramshackle buildings on the outskirts of Eldama Ravine. There was no one in sight. There was no mobile telephone network coverage even if I had thought of calling. After some minutes of uncertainty a young man, obviously a runner, dressed in a faded tracksuit with matching trainers emerged from behind the buildings and approached me with an open smiling face. He explained that my friend had sent him to show me the way.
After a half hour walk through cornfields and along a path lined by wild flowers we arrived at the house or shelter, better said. It was a low rectangular building made from log off cuts with a corrugated iron roof. Off to one side was another structure that seemed to be the bathroom behind which was a lean to with smoke rising from a cooking fire.
I was led into the main building and ushered into the sitting room which was simple but tastefully furnished with a couple of chairs and a sofa. Tacked to the wall were numerous newspaper cuttings of athletic stories and various pictures cut out of runner’s magazines. A small blackboard hung in a corner with the days training schedule neatly written out in chalk.
After a few minutes my friend came in and after animated greetings and small talk we sat down and over various cups of chai (traditional tea boiled together with milk, ginger and sugar) he explained to me the ´secret´.
The camp had about 20 athletes. They ranged from 18 to 25 years old and were all from Eldama Ravine or close by. They lived together in the camp and each had a small individual room with a cot and space to hang his clothes. The meals were cooked by their sisters or cousins who took turns to come out to the camp to help. The general house cleaning and washing was up to the athletes who had a roster to divide the chores.
The training schedule was mind numbing. Every day, Monday to Friday they would be up at 5.45am and by 6.00am they would be on the roads for the morning run which would last between an hour and an hour and a half. Back for breakfast and morning chores, they would be out again at 11.00am. This time they would do interval workouts along a straight road that they had marked out at 100 metre intervals using poles driven into the ground. Depending on the day and the schedule they would do anything between 15 to 25 400 -metre repeats. The target would be to do them in 60 seconds with a minimal recovery period in-between. Other times they would do 1000 metre repeats in less than 3 minutes.
Back for lunch which invariably was local fare consisting of maize meal or potatoes and vegetables. Meat was a treat. Always there were steaming mugs of chai. Meals were a bonding session with cheerful bantering to and fro and comments on local news or weather forecasts or upcoming races. After lunch some would go into Eldama Ravine to get supplies or meet friends while others stayed at camp doing chores. A 10 kilometre evening run at 5.00pm capped the day. After dinner all watched the local television news channel and by 9.00pm there was only the chirping of crickets to disturb their sleep.
Saturday was the day for the long run. This would be between 30 and 35 kilometres along a forest track winding up and down the countryside. Sunday was the day for rest and the boys would don their Sunday best and head into town for church services and to visit their families. The training schedule would typically go on for uninterrupted stretches of 4 to 6 months at a time building up to an important race. No shopping malls, no video games, no parties…
All the athletes were there on invitation only. The waiting list was all the other boys in Eldama Ravine. Once in camp they had to abide by the simple rules that governed the place. Discipline, cleanliness and consistency in training. In turn they would have a place to eat and sleep and a chance to train with world beaters.
I asked who paid for everything. He explained that the camp belonged to a retired athlete who wanted to help young boys escape poverty and crime. He put up the land and the structures and supported them until they could win some races and start making their own way in the world. Without exception, these young athletes would invariably share their winnings with the camp to keep it going knowing they would be helping others in turn.
The ´secret´ of the camp? It was looking me in the face. This was the once in a lifetime chance for these boys to escape grinding poverty or worse still, a life of crime and delinquency. You could see the hope, the quiet determination in their faces as they went about the camp or talked about their plans. They had a goal. They had a future.
Doping? My friend raised his eyebrows quizzically. Where would they get the money to dope in the first place? He asked. Looking around I had to admit that in these humble surroundings far from the hustle and bustle of modern civilization, one did not need to dope to become the best. Hard work, sweat and the determination to do the best you can with the God-given talents you had received was all that you needed to make it in life.
Paul M. Kioko is a medical doctor in Nairobi.
* Henrik B. Larsen, “Kenyan Dominance in Distance Running,” Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. Part A, Molecular & Integrative Physiology 136, no. 1 (September 2003): 161–70; Glen E. Foster et al., “Pulmonary Mechanics and Gas Exchange during Exercise in Kenyan Distance Runners,” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 46, no. 4 (April 2014): 702–10, doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000161; Nicole Prommer et al., “Total Hemoglobin Mass and Blood Volume of Elite Kenyan Runners,” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 42, no. 4 (April 2010): 791–97, doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181badd67.