I was crammed with 14 other passengers into a matatu van travelling from Eldoret to Iten this week, listening to one of my coach’s favorite songs “After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young on my iPod. It is composed of three verses which relate to the medieval past, the present and the impact of our actions on the future world. If I could place my surrounding North African landscape within the verses of this song, it would have to be a transition between the first and second verses.
Slowly, the rural town of Iten is becoming a modernized area. A few of the hotels, including Lornah’s camp, have Wi-Fi access, one of the pubs has a flat screen TV and more and more roads are becoming tarmac. I’m mixed in opinion over this last development. The locals understandably want safe roads like the western world, where there aren’t unsafe rocky surfaces or pot holes every 100m. However, Iten owes the vast majority of its wealth to that accumulated by professional runners who have used the red dirt roads to their advantage. Simply put, lower ground reaction forces from softer running surfaces means less force transmitted through the body and lower risk of injury. Anecdotally, I know I feel a lot more banged up if I run too much of my mileage on the road or pavement. So I wonder what will happen when all the roads of Iten are tarmac and the sidewalks all-concrete. Will there still be the gold rush of medals out of Iten?
I felt strangely at home doing my session around the “Camareen” dirt track, having seen so many pictures of the world’s elite train there. Last week I asked around for a group running 1km reps and started near the back of the pack of 15 guys. Immediately I was in the deep end. After the second rep I realized marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang was sitting in 4th place in the pack. While I was digging deep he looked like he was just jogging around with us, and after 5 reps he called it a day explaining he has a race next weekend. In typical Kenyan confidence all 15 said they were doing 10 reps at the beginning but only 5 ended up completing this (I stayed for 8). Maybe it was just coincidence but whenever I would overtake someone they would soon drop out of the workout.
I have never been so acutely aware of my Caucasian appearance than this week. I remember when I saw my first giraffe here in Africa. It is a similar reaction I continually get from local children pointing and screaming “mzungu!” (white person). Even adults sometimes address me by my appearance at the track or in the town centre. I do have to accept that I am a guest in their country, and that I do look different to the majority, but I have quickly learnt to explain in Swahili “Jina langu ni James” (my name is James). I have also found it strange that if you have Kenyan appearance or at least have African heritage and speak Swahili, you will always be charged “resident price”, whilst foreigners are often openly charged more for goods and services. For anyone looking to train here the Kenyan way of doing business is something you just have to accept and that Kenyans are well and truly living in the past in this aspect of equality.
As noted by a probing Athletics Kenya official in town the other day “there are more and more of you white guys around Iten at the moment”. Tuesday the 14th of January I joined Zane Robertson (New Zealand), Arne Gabius (Germany), Richard Goodman (England) and initially a pack of 40 Kenyans for 20 x 400m reps. These guys have all been to Iten extensively over the last 5 years and have raced very successful after their time here. By keeping company with my international counterparts I hope to do the same myself. Continuing with the theme from last week a group of only 9 remained by the end of the session (inclusive of ourselves). As I get closer to the start of my Australian domestic season I will begin to use the newly built Iten tartan track. To the dismay of some of the locals, the track will be exclusively for guests at Lornah’s place, some Kenyan Olympic medalists or those with personal agreements with Lornah.
In some respects it’s very much a cutthroat world for Kenyan distance runners. The top 3 men and women Kenya sends to a major championship per distance event are almost always finalists, and frequently medalists. It’s not surprising considering the vast talent pool that I have been privileged to run with in Iten. There are literally over a thousand locals living as full time athletes and trying to become the next Olympic champion or major marathon winner. This is not an exclusive lifestyle for the athletic elite like in Australia, where maybe only 10 of our best can live off their athletic success. I have met Kenyan men that run 15 minutes for the 5000m trying to make it as professional athletes. However, it is relatively common for Iten locals to live off $40 a month inclusive of rent, food and transport – try doing that in the western world! Their incentive to train can be prize pools in excess of $100,000 for major marathons. With the wealth of elite runners spread around town in front of them and highly favorable risk return ratios of dedicating their lives to being a full-time athlete, it’s easy to see why Kenyans are so successful at distance running.
There are plenty of ways to skin a cat (or goat) when it comes to running fast over long distances. It’s such a contrast at the track to see Kenyans “old school” approaches, combined with their laid-back culture, juxtaposed to westerners. For example, on Tuesday most Kenyans didn’t care if they took 60 or 80 seconds recovery between each rep, that they were wearing jogging shoes for 200m track reps or whether they completed the full session or not. Compare this to the visiting English athletics team, completing reps with their iPods in-ear, wearing heart rate monitors, an exercise physiologist taking blood lactate samples between reps and a dedicated sports physiotherapist on hand.
Iten is a changing place, one of continuous contrasts as major marathon winners driving 4WD Lexus’ overtake tractors on the wrong side of pot hole ridden roads, men wearing full suits walk miles to work through red dusty sidewalks and Olympic champions train alongside those just starting their running careers. If Neil Young just happened to be talking about a rural town in East Africa in the final verse of “After the Gold Rush”, singing “They were flying Mother Nature’s Silver seed to a new home in the sun”, I’m sure he would have been referring to utilizing this great landscape to win radiant gold coloured medals. The culture in Iten definitely has much of its roots in the past and I wish all who train here a golden future.