My second day in Kenya begins at 7:30am with a five-mile run. I set off with Sarah Baxter and Sarah Ivory – the other two journalists being treated to a few days of Kenyan running – at a gentle 10-minute mile pace but I soon feel short of breath and fall back. It’s a Sunday – traditionally a rest day – so there aren’t many other runners about, unless you count the two three-years-olds in wellies who overtake me on a slight incline. (I’m not kidding.)
We run along an undulating red clay road that snakes through a lush green landscape dotted with small farms. The area around Iten is Kenya’s breadbasket. Many of the runners who make it big by winning European marathons come from farming families in the area. Today the locals are walking to church or heading out to visit friends instead of training twice a day.
After our run, we head out too. We’re going to visit another famous training camp in the area: Kipchoge Keino’s High Performance Training Centre in Eldoret. When we arrive at the camp, coach Jimmy Simba attempts to explain why Kenyans are the world’s best runners. “I look for three things in a runner: talent, passion and the will to learn,” says Jimmy. “If a runner doesn’t have self discipline, they will never succeed. You have to be a councilor and a guide as well as a running coach if you want young runners to fulfill their potential.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve been told that coaches look for ‘talent’ in young runners, but we’re having a hard time finding out what that means exactly. Jimmy tries to explain: “Talent means running smoothly. You can see that they already have a good running style and natural ability.” Then it’s up to the coach to improve their running style with strength training and drills, and make sure they have the right attitude and temperament to excel on the world stage.
Athletics is big business in Kenyan. It’s as popular as football is in the UK, and athletes earn similarly staggering amounts compared to the average person. On the day that the London Marathon was shown on TV here, every bar in Iten was packed with local people cheering on eventual winner and local boy Wilson Kipsang. For a Kenyan runner, winning a big marathon like Boston or London is a ticket to a better life but I want to find out where it all begins.
“The key to Kenyan success is cross-country running,” says Jimmy. “Everyone does cross country in Kenyan – even the 800m track runners. After several years running cross country, you’ve created a base of strength and stamina to build on.” Kenyan runners rarely become injured because they build endurance gradually. Jimmy thinks this gradual progression is something we fail to do in the UK because we’re so impatient to run further and faster.
He also think we make a simple sport too complicated. “Too much science and not enough basic training,” is how Jimmy puts it. His runners only drink water when they’re training, they don’t take supplements or use sports drinks but instead follow a simple diet (we had a lunch of spaghetti with a fresh tomato sauce with them), and they don’t use gadgets. Even stop watches are rare at Jimmy’s training sessions.
We ask him what kinds of sessions create world-class runners. “A classic session might be a 3K tempo run, followed by 15 times 400m repeats with a 60-second recovery between each, then 8 times 100m. If you can run 100m repeats with fatigue in your legs, you’ll be a winner. This session has everything and I encourage everyone from 1500m runners to 5K and 10K runners to do it.” That explains how the Kenyans put in brilliant bursts of speed in the last lap to win 10,000m races on the track.
Experienced Kenyan coaches like Jimmy are keen to explain their training techniques, but it seems us Europeans are slow to learn the lessons. “A lot of European runners come to Kenya to train, but they isolate themselves from the Kenyan runners and our way of training, so what are they really gaining from the experience?” Jimmy wonders. “It’s almost like they expect miracles; that running on Kenyan soil will make them faster.”
In truth, you’d have to spend several months here before you could really start training like a Kenyan, and even then you’re starting from a less solid base unless you’ve run cross-country as a teenager. But I still vow to start running cross-country when I return to the UK, and leave the stopwatch at home. I might even rope some of my RW colleagues into that tempo run followed by 100m repeats.