For those of you wondering why Kenya ?
Attending a Training camp in Kenya was always something I wanted to do. I have raced with the Kenyans on many occasions, be it on the track, road or Cross Country and I was always curious as to why they dominate the world of distance running and what they did differently from the rest of us. So after my marathon in November last year, a race that I had spent 13 weeks of following a rigorous training program, pushing my body as far and as hard as it would go. After finishing the race in a time of 2:35, I was ecstatic as I finally proved to myself that I could do it. In typical athlete fashion, I immediately thought of ways that I could improve on my performance. I knew that I needed to go the extra mile, which for me was going on an altitude training camp. I have personally experienced the benefits of altitude training as I ventured to Saluuta, Ethiopia at the beginning of last year as part of a study to do some altitude training at 2800m above sea level. This time round I wanted to experience some place new and where I will be challenged and motivated. I decided to call up my good friend Caroline Wostmann and invite her to join me on a quest to become better athletes.
In part 1, Caroline shared our experiences in the first week and gave you insight into mainly the lifestyle of the Kenyans. In part II, I will focus more on the training aspect, as we try to understand/uncover what the running culture is like. Iten, a town located along the road between Eldoret and Kabarnet, was our home for four weeks. In this town you will find so many Olympic and World Champions it’s unbelievable.
Our first week of training in Kenya was just an incredible experience, as we were acclimatising to the altitude; we were only doing easy runs and were quite enjoying exploring different routes and adventuring into the unknown. It’s amazing how on any given day, you will see runners training in Iten and not just one or two runners casually running but big groups always working together and helping each other. Some days we would wake up around 7:30am and do our first run and as we head back to our home, we would pass by big groups of runners heading out for their second session, as many of them do three sessions a day. After a few days we decided that because we were on different levels of fitness; Caroline had just returned from an injury and I was in fairly in good shape, that we would each follow our different programs. On day six, I was very excited to start my first high intensity session, which just happens to be one of my favourite training sessions and certainly very popular one in Kenya. I had “fartleks” high on my to do list and I was looking forward to running with the Kenyans.
So as Caroline set off on her morning run, I made my way to the meeting point at St Patricks School. The school has produced world class long distance athletes under the leadership of the legendary Brother Colm ‘Oniell. We met brother Colm at the Cross Country over the weekend and we were so in awe of him as we stood in his presence. Known as the “Godfather of Kenyan athletics” he has coached World Champions including David Rudisha, Edna Kiplagat and Mary Kietany to mention a few and yet he was very humble. He warmly greeted us and invited us to come and join his training group for sessions, which we delightedly accepted.
Brother Colm’s training group gathered at the school before they jolted off on a warm up run to the start of the fartlek session, which was 4km away. As we waited to hear what the session was from Ian (assistant coach), I was asked by the group of females if I was from Ethiopia and as I broke out into a smile I wondered if it my new hairstyle or my skin colour (which turned a shade darker due to my sun tan). I replied: “No, I am South African but wish I could run like and Ethiopian” (lol). Seems like the Kenyans were not the only people to mistake me for an Ethiopian runner, the Turkish athletes assumed I was Ethiopian too when they offered me a lift back to Iten after my track session in Tambach.
Brother Colm’s group was a small group of elites, when we set off for the 1 minute fartlek session I was in a group with five other girls and hanging off the back of the group. At around the 3km mark they opened up a gap and I found myself detached from the group. I was not too concerned about this as I did not want to push my body too hard on the first hard session. I heard that there was another group doing fartleks on Tuesdays and Thursdays and apparently this was the massive groups. I then decided that I will join that group the following week just to get a different experience and WOW was I blown away. As we made our way to the starting point, you could see many runners heading in that direction, there was even a TV crew passing by on a motorcycle to catch a glimpse of the runners making their way to the fartlek session. When we arrived there, I was stunned as there must have been over one hundred runners. As I glanced around, fascinated by what I was witnessing, I noticed that 80 percent of the runners were males, as I was particularly interested to see how many females there were. I was nervous and overwhelmed at the same time, to me it felt similar to a race setup and as I tried to focus I could not stop these thoughts going through my mind “will I be able to keep up, how tough will it be and I wondered how far they would be running”. One guy standing on the side addressed the group, shouted “17 x 2min hard 1 min easy” and then GO! And off we went. I was in the middle of the pack, due to the excitement I went out too fast and a sea of runners coming from behind swallowed me in and spat me out the back. At least I had found a group of woman whom I ran with for the session. It was my toughest session yet, as the one minute rest felt like 20 seconds!! It’s amazing how quickly one minute can pass by when you doing fartlek.
A few days after we arrived in Kenya , we were informed of the meeting place for morning runs from our two fellow South African runners. This was when we discovered the bigger training groups. Every morning they would meet at 6:00 (when it is still dark), do some stretching and then start the run at 6:15. The routes around the area are quite tough as there are many hills. If you want a flat course you would need to travel 15km out towards Eldoret, this is where runners go to do their tempo runs. On my morning runs I would have around 6-10 hills; some being log gradual climbs of up to 800m and others steep around 150-200m’s. So not only are you getting a general run in but some hill work as well, which I think is great because it toughens you up. Occasionally I would be joined on my run by the “mini Kenyans”. They would see me approaching and then start running next to me, breaking out into giggles as they tried to see who could hold out for the longest. I must say I quite liked their optimism and joyful chanting as they waved goodbye or greeted you “How are you” when passing by. Now I see why the culture of running in Kenya is so prominent. They kids are inspired by what they see, everyday they are exposed to runners, they see running as a way of life.
I was quite impressed by Caroline as she perfected the Kenyan runner’s lifestyle of REST. In fact I was quite jealous at times as I struggled to sleep, perhaps I was just too excited and energized, or I was just struggling to get out of my normal routine at home. The thing that struck me about the Kenyan running methods is that they are all so simple. They focus solely on their training and giving 100 percent in the quality workouts and rest all day and then run again. At home our schedules are so busy as we try and balance work and running that we don’t even have time to dedicate 20 minutes to stretching after a morning run, let alone take a moment to appreciate our running. There are also so many distractions and social commitments that it was actually nice to just get away from it all and be a full time athlete for once.
As much as my Kenyan experience has been a real eye opener for me in terms of approaching my running more professionally, it is also a very humbling experience. You don’t need all these high tech ,fancy equipment , just do the smalls things right, train hard but smart and ensure you get enough rest!
There are many reasons why I would encourage runners to come and train in Kenya. Here are my top 10 reasons:
- High Altitude- 2400m above sea level
- Plenty of running routes.
- Gravel surface- great for injury prevention, so you can train more consistently.
- Cost of living is very cheap- We had a 90 minute sports massage and only paid 250 Kenyan Shillings (equivalent to R27)
- Organic and Fresh Produce- Fruits and vegetables are fresh and takes great.
- Group Training – Easy to find a group to train with and they all make you feel welcomed.
- Weather conditions are perfect this time of the year. Temperatures are between 18-25 degrees comfortable to run in.
- Very safe – I have never felt unsafe or scared at any time even when I got lost while running.
- Relaxing and calm atmosphere
- The Kenyan people are friendly, welcoming and always willing to help.