Marathon training with the Iten Town Harriers
“It’s like we’re going to war,” jokes our coach, Godfrey, as we pile out from the back of the pick-up truck and start stripping down to our shorts and T-shirts. My wife, Marietta is scooting around taking photographs, while my children watch sleepy eyed from the truck cab, piles of water bottles on their laps, a bunch of bananas up on the dashboard.
At the end of my six months in Kenya I’m going to run the Lewa marathon. Whenever I mention it to runners here in Iten they shake their heads and say: “That is hard.”
The race is hot, hilly and is run along dirt trails. Oh, and there are lions and cheetah roaming around. To keep the wildlife at bay, the organisers send out helicopters to circle the route, but there’s not much they can do about the heat, the hills and the uneven terrain. It’s not a fast course.
To help me prepare, I’ve managed to find myself a team of top Kenyan runners who also want to race in Lewa. We’ve christened ourselves the Iten Town Harriers and this morning we’re off on our first training run.
The rainy season seems to have ended early and the early morning air is crisp and fresh. Runners and small buses pass by as we stand on the side of the main tarmac road in Iten while Godfrey gives us a little prep talk.
“No racing,” he says. “Take it nice and easy.” And with that we’re off. The plan is to run a steady 30km, although I’ve already told them I’m likely to bail out at 20km. The truck, with Godfrey and my family in it, will follow us along the way, giving us five km time splits and handing out water if we need it.
I’ve never been a great organiser, so I’m amazed this has all come together. My approach is usually to have an idea, put it out there and then hope that someone will come along to help me put it into action. In Kenya, it’s not a recipe that usually gets me very far, but somehow today it has worked.
Our team’s star runner is Chris Cheboiboch, who has the fifth fastest time ever in the New York marathon. He’s a smooth operator who travels everywhere in his low-slung car, his Rolex and big grin hanging out of the window. He is largely responsible for everything coming together this morning, especially as he managed to find a truck we could use for the day.
Godfrey, our big-hearted coach, got me worried when he rang me up the night before the run to tell me there was a change of plan. This usually means he has double booked himself, or he’s somewhere on the other side of the country, but fortunately he was just calling to say he would be 15 minutes late.
Kenyans are infamous for bad timekeeping, but I’ve found that every training run I’ve been on has started exactly on the dot. If they say 6.10am, they’ll be gone if you turn up at 6.12am.
Godfrey is bringing over a young runner called Shadrack, who he keeps telling me is going to win Lewa, for sure.
“Are you kidding me,” he says. “This boy is good.”
Shadrack himself is quiet and gentle, like most runners out here. His friend and training partner, David Barmasai, has just won the Dubai marathon, the world’s richest race, and I get the feeling Shadrack is feeling a bit left behind.
Also on the start-line for our morning run is Josphat, a friend of Chris who has been running for years. There is much debate about his age, although his official Lewa entry form says he is still only 34. He doesn’t say much but instead likes to stand quietly in the background with a knowing look on his face.
The last runner is one of my neighbours in Iten, Japhet. A young man of 24, he lives in a humble wooden shack without any electricity. His shoes are torn almost to pieces, which gives him a constant string of niggling injuries he treats by massaging himself.
Despite his hardships, Japhet is a full-time athlete – even though he has never actually made a single Kenyan shilling from running. He’s a talkative, friendly person who is constantly smiling and saying: “It is good.”
The run sets off at a gentle pace (we go through the first five km in 24 minutes), and I run at the head of the group with Chris, the two elders leading our troop along.
After about ten minutes the truck drives past us along the main road, the children waving, Marietta crouched in the back snapping away.
It’s a beautiful morning as we turn off the road and head out through the lush patchwork of fields. The dirt road meanders gently through small homesteads, clusters of round mud huts dotting the landscape like huge kilns or chimneys for an network of underground houses.
At ten km the truck stops and Godfrey and my eldest daughter hand out water bottles, which we grab on the run as Godfrey shouts out that we’ve run the last five km in 22 minutes.
As we run on, Chris suddenly ups the pace. I don’t know if he’s trying to show his authority, but suddenly the talking and joking stops. The truck keeps passing us by, but I’m having to focus too hard to wave back now. I’m not sure how long I can keep this up.
Chris turns to me with a grin.
“You OK?” he asks.
Surprisingly, I am. I’m quite enjoying the new pace, even. But I feel as though I’m pushing my luck. Chris’s question sends doubts, excuses pinging around in my head. Before I’ve fully made the decision, I’m blurting out: “I’m just going to run 15K.”
“Sure,” says Chris. I feel like I’ve given him the answer he was expecting. “We’re nearly at 15K,” he says. “Just two more corners.”
I should go on, but the pronouncement has been made. Once you decide where you’re going to stop, it takes a reckless surge of energy to overrule yourself. Up ahead I see the truck stopped at the 15km point.
It feels good to stop. My daughter runs to meet me, handing me some water. Marietta is crouched down, still snapping away. A group of children stand in a muddy field staring at us dumbstruck as though they have just witnessed an alien spaceship landing.
The others run past, and on, following the dusty road disappearing into some trees.
“That last five km was just under 20 minutes,” Godfrey tells me. “That’s fast.” It’s not bad, but I can’t help feeling I bailed out too early.
I clamber into the back of the truck and sit down on the spare tire next to my youngest daughter. She’s looking up at me as though she’s only half sure who I am.
Chris, after pushing the pace, ends up hopping in the truck at 20km, complaining of a twisted ankle, while the others plough on to 25km, where they all stop (the last 10km is run in 38 minutes).
Godfrey hands out bananas and we take a group photograph. Then we jog the last one km back to Iten for a warm down. Inspired by watching the run, or perhaps just fed up with sitting in the truck, my eldest daughter joins us, skipping along up and down the banks at the side of the road like the Kenyan children who usually like to follow the runners.
By the end she’s feeling very pleased with herself. Godfrey drops us all off in town and we head our separate ways, resolving to meet up again for another group run in a few weeks. The Iten Town Harriers are up and running.
• The book Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn will be published in 2012
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