It is coming up to a year since I left for a stint of training in Kenya but I hope the words I wrote then will still be of interest:
After a 24 hour journey from my home in Barnstaple, I arrived at Iten, Kenya, otherwise known as ‘Home of Champions’. The small town on the edge of the Rift Valley has more than earned this title having given birth to countless world class runners. There are many factors which contribute to the success of the locals; one I hoped to take advantage of, is the altitude. Iten sits 2400 meters above sea level providing less oxygen to those who reside, to better cope in this environment the body increases its oxygen carrying capacity which gives a competitive advantage on return to sea level.
I was expecting more of notable difference when arriving at altitude, but walking about and completing other such undemanding tasks seemed no more straining than at sea level. After being shown to my room I was pretty drained from a long overnight journey but was keen to get the legs moving so head out for an easy run. I set out on my first run at altitude: As expected, the pace was significantly slower than a run of equivalent effort at sea level, but because it was equivalent effort it was still an easy run, just slower! It was interesting to feel the effect it was having on my performance and therefore the beneficial adaptations my body will make.
All of the running is done on surrounding roads and dirt tracks, everywhere is littered with locals who often wave, sometimes stare but mostly just go about their business. The children though, are incredibly friendly and speak english too, well maybe not, but they can say ‘How are you?’ which is shouted by about 75% of the kids we run past! I reply with ‘great! How are you?’, which is replied to with a giggle and sometimes a wave. Many of them also put their hands out for a high five, which I must admit is bloody fantastic and would definitely brighten up running in the U.K too. I also once spotted a girl who was very young (around 4) who was walking along the side of a busy road alone carrying a machete(!). For the first kilometre of a morning run I was joined by boy who I estimate is around 8 years old and was wearing jeans and what looked like flip-flops. His biomechanics were absolutely flawless, and he kept up comfortably with our albeit slow pace. He most definitely wasn’t running like the frantic kids I’m used to seeing at the local track. On another run we past a school shortly after it finishing, and were joined by around 10 young boys with books poking out of their backpacks. They ran by our sides smiling until one by one the pace became too much and they fell off the back shouting ‘BYEEEEEE’.
After a few days of easy running I was feeling more comfortable and got stuck into a track session of 3 times 4x400’s with 40 second jogged recovery after each 400 and 5 minutes jog/ walk between the sets. I used the famous Kamariny dirt track today, it was unbelievable the amount of quality running being done by the Kenyans. I arrived at 0930 to what I estimated to be around 100 people using the track, apparently it’s this busy all day though. It was mostly locals running in groups but also groups and individuals from around the world making it a colourful array of people. The Kenyans start each repetition in single file on the inside, starting their effort when crossing the line which is a very simple solution to the barrier formed when people use the curved start for repetitions as it allows others to continue their work around them. There was a group of locals who started the session with 40 people! However only 10 made it to the end. The altitude meant my session, which was run conservatively, was considerably slower than at sea level, the day was concluded with more easy running.
It was absolutely amazing living amongst so many people whose sole focus is to run and train. There is a lot to be learnt from running with the Kenyans, none more so I believe, than their attitude towards rest. You see even full time athletes in the western world occupy themselves with many activities between training. But in Kenya, if you are a runner, then that is it. Hundreds of Kenyans are supported by their families whilst they pursue running, it is seen as a noble choice. Against the odds they are inspired by the small percentage who make it big on the world stage. To do anything with their day which would compromise recovery, would be a waste. Which is why many people in Kenya spend their days running and resting, and nothing else. Their running is inspired by potential wealth and adoption of a western lifestyle, yet I can’t help envy their simple lives. It is somewhat ironic the amount of westerners dreaming of the life of a professional athlete and yet here they are living as a professional athlete dreaming of a western life. I appreciate that they're certainly not living the seemingly lavished life of a western professional, but when you look at the intangible inspiration that running is their occupation, then they are fundamentally the same.
Although saying that I’m envious is more than a bit hypocritical given that I stayed with western athletes in a centre equipped with a pool, gym, library etc and only 100 metres away are the residence of people whose average monthly income equates to the daily rate in here. I have seen 2 very nice houses however and I wonder if they belong local runners who have escaped poverty through running. Similar to my accommodation at the High Altitude Training Centre, which belongs to elite Kenyan athlete Lornah Kiplagat. As a guest, I was allowed access to a fully equipped synthetic track, otherwise rates for the track rival those in the U.K, which makes it unavailable to locals. A massive shame really when you think that anecdotally, running is more popular in Kenya than anywhere else in the world. It seems harsh enough putting a state of the art facility in their backyard and not letting them use it. But then for them to have to watch it being left so quiet, and used occasionally by westerners (who by Iten standards are only average at best), must be rather frustrating. A symbol of success and wealth in Iten is to own a cow, if an athlete comes into some money from winning a race abroad then I am told that they will often purchase a cow on their return. Saves the walk to the shop to buy milk! The only thing I seemed to spend money on in Kenya is avocados and mangos. At 15 Kenyan shillings (about 12 pence), the mangos are especially good.
After a week or so in Kenya I felt far more comfortable training, times were still down on sea level sessions but I was feeling stronger than I had on arrival and was really enjoying Iten as a place to train. Sheep, goats and even a calf graze around the track, a very efficient use of the surrounding land I must say and certainly brightens up a session. Even without kids to high five, local runners to chat with, or livestock to hurdle, the scenery alone is enough to keep you entertained on a run. When exploring the maze of dirt roads I often ventured into the surrounding forests, which look over the Rift Valley for some of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen, and that’s how life went of for me for a month. Apart from a minor malaria scare (not malaria in the end), which set me back a couple of days I got in a consistent block of training at altitude which I managed to carry though to a successful track season. As well as this though, training in Kenya was an unforgettable experience and I highly recommend a trip to anyone passionate about running, regardless of your ability. I very much hope I can get out there again at some point.
About this Athlete: My name is Jack Hutchens, and I am currently training for triathlons alongside my seasonal job as a beach lifeguard. Since an early age my main sporting focus has been middle distance running, but after finishing the 2016 track season I decided to leave the running spikes behind and add swimming and cycling to my races. I have background in swimming and have always complimented running with swim training as well as the occasional ride, but 2017 will be my first year racing triathlons.