June 13th, 2012

Paths to the Marathon in a Small Kenyan Town

The roads around Iten, population 4,000, are full of marathon runners training in the morning.

ITEN, Kenya — As Wilson Kipsang crossed the London Marathon finish line on April 22, the roughly 200 people clustered in a ramshackle theater here responded with only lackluster applause. Kipsang had established a virtually unassailable lead, so his win was anticlimactic. For Kenyans in this remote town, widely acclaimed for the marathon talent it produces, a mere victory is insufficient.

More than two minutes after Kipsang won, in 2 hours 4 minutes 44 seconds, his compatriot Martin Lel edged Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia in a full sprint to secure second place. That sent the crowd into jubilation.

“People here feel very proud; the winners are all from this region,” said Mohamed Omar Kipyego, the 28-year-old owner of the theater, called Dreams. “It means a lot to people here, even for me. Those people who participate in the marathon events, I know them very well. They are my friends.”

Resting on an escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley, Iten is increasingly gaining international recognition as the world’s foremost manufacturer of elite middle- and long-distance running talent.

The figures speak for themselves. Male and female Kenyans who train here won marathons last month in London and in Boston. All six marathoners named last week to Kenya’s Olympic team train in Iten or the vicinity. The town of 4,000 people, roughly a quarter of whom are athletes, is also becoming a popular destination for foreigners seeking to hone their skills before races.

“Iten is a very nice place to train; the altitude is high,” Kipsang said upon arrival home last week at Eldoret airport, 20 miles from Iten. The town sits 8,000 feet above sea level. “There are so many high-class athletes that train there and perform very well.”

Iten does not have the premium facilities common throughout the United States and Europe. Athletes train on a gravel track a few miles outside of town that floods quickly when heavy rain sets in, preventing training. Despite the disadvantages, Kenyans are routinely recording faster marathon times than ever. Kenyans registered 29 of the 30 fastest official times in the marathon last year.

Debate surrounds the reasons for Kenyans’ long-distance running success. Analysts cite physical attributes that are conducive for the sport. But running is also ingrained in the local culture.

Regardless of such speculation, Iten’s premier athletes anticipate increasing hegemony.

“Maybe I can say yes, other countries are strong,” Mary Keitany, this year’s female victor in London, said while noting improved Kenyan female performances because of increased gender equality in the country that enables women to pursue independent careers. “But if we continue to train the way we are, we will continue to dominate.”

Kenya boasts a surplus of top-notch long-distance runners, largely unknown elsewhere. Most are from the impoverished countryside and do not receive the chance to run abroad. The successes of local athletes in the Rift Valley region and the financial rewards they reap, however, have galvanized the population.

“We are fighting the poverty bwana,” Jackson Biwott, 24, an Iten native, said after a moderate 18-kilometer, hourlong run one recent morning. “We’re just here for money. Nothing else.”

Biwott is one of hundreds of Iten residents who in the morning stream onto the labyrinth of dirt roads and paths that feed into town. They brave the rain and relatively cold morning temperatures of April in hopes of capitalizing on the rare chance of competing internationally.

“They are motivated now,” Joseph Cheromei, a local coach, said with the heat on full throttle inside his vehicle parked on the side of a road a few miles outside of town. “It has become a job. It is work.”

As the pack of runners approached the van, Cheromei pointed out the 2009 10-kilometer women’s world champion Linet Masai, running casually among the others. “They train hard,” Cheromei said. “You see yourself, how they wake up early and run.”

Mary Keitany, near right, and Edna Kiplagat were 1-2 at the London Marathon and earned a Kelanjin tribal reception back home