Off the starting blocks

“Mzungu!” shouts a small boy as I run by, flanked by two much shorter, leaner Kenyans. The road has little traffic on it at this hour of the morning, but the wide, dirt verges are already full of life: children in school uniform, adults in torn clothes carrying huge bundles, groups of smartly dressed people waiting for the bus, and runners. Lots of runners.

I’m in Nyahururu, a small town in Kenya’s central provinces. We’ve stopped for the night on our way from the Lewa wildlife reserve, where we’ve been staying with my sister-in-law, to Iten, the main centre for running in Kenya.

We’ve been invited to stay at the town’s most exclusive hotel, the Thomson’s Falls Lodge, by the owner, who is keen to market the area to foreign runners as a place to come and train. The area has some decent credentials. Sammy Wanjiru, the current Olympic marathon champion and former London marathon winner, is from Nyahururu, as was John Ngugi, a former Olympic 5000m champion.

The fact that Wanjiru is currently on trial for threatening to kill his wife and possessing an AK-47 isn’t great PR, however. The lodge itself, built beside the impressive Thomson’s Falls by European settlers in the early 1930s, has also seen better days.

The lodge employs a coach, John Ndungu, to take guests like me out running. Ndungu is an interesting athlete. For years he worked as “house boy” at the lodge. He squeezed his running in around 16-hour shifts, working seven days a week for just US$60 a month.

Then, last year, at the age of 36, when he must have been losing hope of ever forging a running career, an Australian guest at the lodge decided to sponsor him, through a charity called African Equity, to travel to Australia and run some races.

He won one race and finished 6th in the Sydney half-marathon, earning himself US$6,000 in prize money and a job promotion to running coach at the lodge. The dream, at least in part, had been realised.

Ndungu offers to take me out for an early morning run and we agree on 7am, which I get the impression is a little late for him. I must be nervous about going out on my first run with a real-life Kenyan athlete, because I keep waking up in the night and checking the time on my phone. At seven, Ndungu turns up with an 18-year-old runner from his village called Lucas Ndungu.

As we jog out along the hotel drive, two baboons ambling across the lawn turn to watch us briefly, before scuttling away. The security guard on the gate gives us a salute as we turn onto a dirt track and head up into the town towards the main road.

Lucas tells me has a best 10K time of 30 minutes and 18 seconds, which is pretty fast, and he is serious when he says his aim is to run in the London Olympics.

He says, giving me a pointed look, that he is hoping to get sponsorship to race in England. He tells me that he has just finished school and doesn’t have a job.

Along the way we pass streams of serious-looking athletes coming in the opposite direction, and it’s easy to see his problem. With so much competition, and so little money around, it’s a tough road to success. One good race abroad can change your life, but getting there is the hard part.

In the end, the run feels surprisingly gentle, considering we are at an altitude of over 2,300 metres. We jog for around 30 minutes, with the pace picking up slightly over the last mile or so. Afterwards, I’m just congratulating myself for keeping up when they tell me they have both already run six miles from their village to meet me, and that they plan to train again a few hours later.

“You?” they ask.

I’m not planning on running again for a few days.

“I’m still adjusting to the altitude,” I say. “I don’t want to overdo it and get injured.”

After we warm down they ask me to pose with them for a photograph. They say the lodge has a professional photographer, as a shifty looking man in a big overcoat pops out of a nearby hedge. He’s holding a small point-and-shoot digital camera and he tells us to stand together beside the lodge. The picture costs 200 shillings, about £1.50, which I somehow end up paying for.

Nyahururu feels like a place down on its luck, but as the highest town in Kenya it has lots of potential for runners seeking altitude training. I may stop by again before I return home, but for now it’s time to get everyone back in the car and to continue the journey to Iten.

The book Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn will be published in 2012

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