Runners’ Mecca: Iten is like magic

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Halfway through the 30-kilometer run, I had a revelation: I was the front runner.

Let me be clear. That never happens. Ever. I mean, never ever.

By the time I processed this, order was restored. Other runners started passing me. Phew.

Is there something mystical about running in Iten? It would explain my sudden burst of speediness.

It’s been two weeks since I set foot in Iten. I meant to write something earlier. But I couldn’t.

Iten was magic, man.

I’m not sure I can explain the feeling I had the morning we set out on our long run. Heck, I’m not sure I can explain what it was like to get out of the bus on the High Altitude Altitude Training Centre grounds.

Perhaps it was the greeting by Willy Songok and Richard Mukche, both accomplished elites in their own right (Mukche was our coach for the weekend). Or maybe it was the arrival of Lornah Kiplagat, world-class runner, and her husband, Pieter Langerhorst, while we were eating dinner. Or maybe it was the casual mention of which rooms Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah normally used.

Bring it on

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Speaking of the rooms, they’re Spartan. But, somehow, I felt validated when my head hit the pillow before 10 p.m. Whatever. I’d say getting up for a 30-kilometer run at 7 a.m. excuses old lady behavior.

The original plan was to run through a forest. A forest!!! Music to my ears.

But it rained that night, in bursts of intermittent downpours and light showers. The forest run had to be scrapped – mud runs are fun, but mud in Kenya is like nothing I’ve ever run on before. It’s like running through molasses. That is, if you don’t slide and bite it on a polished smooth spot just waiting to take you down. There is no traction.

So, no forest run.

In the morning, we trooped outside and met the lean, lanky elites who are part of an estimated 800 or so training in and around Iten. Their job for the day: pace us.

Let me put this in perspective for you. One of the guys running with us was a pacer in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Olympics.

In other words, we weren’t going to be hard to keep up with.

We set out on a run that would take us through the labyrinth of dirt roads around Iten.

Iten, the surreal

I’ll be honest. There are a lot of details I usually don’t remember about long runs.

I do remember the gradual clearing of the clouds and the liquid morning sunshine peeking through. I remember the lush green hills and the red dirt roads stretching in front of us. I remember the sight of other Kenyan runners out for their long runs, their smooth, long strides eating up the terrain. I remember the quiet peacefulness, broken only by the sound of footfalls hitting the ground in a rhythmic cadence.

The mystique isn’t hard to conjure.

But maybe it isn’t about mystique. The night before, Willy Songok, Mukche and other staffers talked about the Kenyan Way.

The Kenyan Way is hard. It’s not about fancy gear, highly engineered super food or the next big thing that will boost performance.

It’s about the discipline to literally eat, sleep and breathe running. It’s about getting up, no matter what kind of weather is outside, lacing up the running shoes and putting in the kilometers – all before heading off to school or doing the day’s chores on the shamba (farm). Then, later on, you put the shoes on again and rack up more kilometers.

It’s about the rhythm of a regimented week: Tuesdays: fartlek workouts; Thursdays: speedwork; and Saturdays: long runs.

It’s about only counting it a good training run if it was hard – when you push yourself and then you push yourself just … a … little … more.

At one point – about the time I realized I was mystifyingly leading the pack and then said pack began reeling me in – I asked my pacer, Nick Rotich, a question.

“So, when do you hit the wall?”

You know? The wall? That period of time in almost every run when I ask myself, “Why the h*** am I doing this?”

All I got in reply was a blank look.

Well, that answers that question.

Surreal, say hello to reality

Many of the runners toiling away on that Saturday morning will never make it to the next level. Not just many – hundreds, even thousands. That includes some of the elites pacing us – perhaps, even Nick.

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Nick is tall and has what I estimate to be zero percent body fat. In his late teens, he just wants to run. He has the pedigree. Apparently, his family includes some of the current and past greats in Kenyan running. I’d include links, but I’m pretty sure I’d miss one or two – or eight.

It’s sobering. These runners run because they need to. There is passion, yes, but there is also a drive that goes beyond emotion. I’m not sure any fancy training program can quite capture that.

A theory I heard is that the best Kenyan runners often come from the toughest circumstances. That’s not hard to imagine. It means they aren’t afraid of hard work – the kind that separates the serious runners from the not-so-serious ones. It also means something more practical – if your body isn’t used to getting a lot of food, it’s more efficient with less.

Our pacers didn’t drink water during the run. Nick said his method is to drink a lot of water the day and evening before. That way the body is well hydrated before he laces up his shoes. While a number of us had snacks to fuel us later in the run, they ran without any food. No GU for them.

Remember me in front of everyone?

Yeah, well, not long after that the combination of hills that always seemed to go up, stomach cramps and perhaps the altitude (although it didn’t seem to affect me as much as I expected) slowed me down. The next morning, I woke up to sharp pains in my foot. It’s sidelined me for most of the past two weeks.

No doubt. Iten isn’t a picnic. But, man, it’s fun.

I ran with Lornah Kiplagat – and for a brief time, I was even beating her (not really, but I’ll let myself think that). This is a woman who has said she’d like the 2016 Olympics to be her final race. I met a number of up-and-coming Kenyan stars. I had great conversations about running and the state of athletics with Lornah, Pieter and others at the center. I spent a weekend focused on running.

The combination of the foot injury and upcoming weeks of intensive work might mean Lewa is a pipe dream at this point.

No matter what happens though, I’ll never forget that weekend at Iten. Maybe, in the future, I’ll be able to come back – they say you need at least a week there to learn what it really takes to run like a Kenyan.

Let me go check my calendar.

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Lornah Kiplagat and me / by Mercy Mureithi

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9 responses to “Runners’ Mecca: Iten is like magic

  1. Well crafted piece reliving the memories if Iten! As Mukche & Songhok put it, “….it is not training unless it hard.” I keep reminding myself of this when I am doing the Saturday runs with the swaras.

  2. Well captured Rebecca. It was reading like a short true story novel. Photographs spectacular. Iten has a lot of memories for me when I was there. It is a unique running and training ground. Missed this time, but God willing shall be there next year. SURINDER (MK) – PATRON URBAN SWARAS

  3. It is amazing to read your detailed encounter of Iten, thank you for reminding us about the memories of Iten. I joined the group to co-ordinate with Susan and i was really not going to run since i had been battling with an achilles tendon injury for the last 6 months. I started as a photographer, but the run became more interesting and since we ran with Lorna and it was a privilege to run with her. She was recovering from a 5months injury. During the run we were able to ask a lot of questions which in ordinary circumstance you don’t get an opportunity to run with such an accomplished runner like her and Peter who provided a lot of support by being at every 5kms water point and also finding out wether you needed a ride or first aid. We received many running techniques and she advised some of our runners who are aspiring to venture into full marathon in the next 6months training programme that they only need 2 long runs of 30kms and rest should just be normal runs, speed work, hill work and core stability training. Even the elite runners do their long run on saturdays from Eldoret to Iten which is 32kms. This brings us to the drawing board that there is need to engage a Coach/Trainer once a month who can join us during our saturdays runs. Otherwise we shall keep on running the same way all the time. What is the point of being exposed and advised by the professionals and we don’t take the advice. We have visited Iten twice and Lornah arranges for talks with some of the best renowned elite athletes. I think its the high time we adopt other methods of training and become good runners with less injuries and better PB or breaking record. In this way the club can reward the best improved runners in all categories and encourage most of our runners to venture now into full marathon, since this year the Nairobi Standard Marathon may only have full marathon category

    Did you know that when you are training hard you have to sleep about 10hrs a day, Some of countries like Russia give elite runners sedatives to sleep more hours e.g 14hrs to 16 hrs for better performance. I think some else can pick up from here and disseminate more information to the group.

    Thanks to the Entire staff of High Altitude Training Centre, Elite runners who joined the team as pace setters and lastly Rabecca for the wonderful write up and experience of training the Kenyan way. Tata

  4. a
    A journey of a thousand mile starts with a step.. keep up the good work and train hard. thank you we are still expecting you back. God bless you

  5. Pingback: Lewa Marathon: Acing one last test before I leave Kenya | from the writer's notepad·

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