Running with the Kenyans: part one

A few months ago more than 54,000 runners lined up for the start of the Great North Run in Newcastle. Squeezed in at the head of the huge mass of runners stood the elite athletes. When the hooter sounded for the start of the race they hurtled away at breakneck speed, a few kamikaze locals in hot pursuit. The man on the PA could be heard joking that some people were trying to keep up with the Kenyans.

In a running context, the very word “Kenyans” conjures up a mystical, awesome group of runners. The people who run away at the front of big races. The fact was, that on that cool, damp morning in Tyneside, there was only one Kenyan in the race. But we’re so used to them winning everything, we assume anyone at the front is a Kenyan.

Despite this impoverished African country’s endless dominance of one of the world’s most popular sports – along with its neighbour Ethiopia – an air of mystery still surrounds Kenyan runners. Very few people in the UK can name a single Kenyan athlete. Who are they? Why are they so good?

I’ve packed up my my home in Britain, handed back the keys, and together with my wife and three small children I have flown out to Africa on a six-month mission to discover the heart of Kenyan running.

As a keen runner myself, I’ve packed my running shoes. I’m not yet sure how I’m going to keep up with the Kenyans long enough to find out anything, but I’m going to try.

We plan to spend most of our time in a small town called Iten on the edge of the Rift Valley. It is here, along the red, dirt roads, that most of the country’s great athletes live and train. So many runners come to the town that the taxi drivers complain that they can’t do their job. The roads are too clogged up with runners, they say.

Travelling to Iten is a big leap into the vast unknown for all of us. We’ve never been to Africa before. I asked Uma, my four-year-old daughter, what she thought it was going to be like.

“Hot,” she said.

“And what else?” I probed.

She pulled her thoughtful face, looking up at the ceiling. “And not cold,” she said.

I don’t know what we’ll get up to, or how it will all work out. But hopefully we’ll find out something about what makes the Kenyan runners tick. I want to discover more than just what training sessions they do, but also what life is like for them in Iten.

Why of all the places in the world does this small town, which doesn’t even have a proper running track, produce so many incredible runners? By sampling life behind the scenes, I hope I’ll find the secret to their success.

So, farewell English winter and plodding jogs around frosty lanes, we’re off to spend some time in the sun with the fastest runners on earth.

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