The smell of Africa hits you the moment you take your first steps into the fresh air. It is neither a good nor bad smell but one that says “Welcome to Africa” a continent I have enjoyed visiting over the last 10 years and one I always yearn to spend more time in for the same simple reasons we are here today….to look, to listen, to learn and in doing so grow as a human being and get better at life.
On this trip I am with Tom and Rob who yes work for InnerFight but more than that are friends who share the same passion for both life and running. Our destination is Iten, “The home of champions” and for many the Mecca of running. We have an opportunity on this trip not only to achieve my points above but also add to those the opportunity to know each other deeper as well as take something back to our family, friends and athletes in Dubai…….knowledge and experience that we hope to gain around running and the constant quest to answer the question many have tried… “What makes them so fast.”
Dan picks us up at Eldoret airport and informs us that its a 1 hour drive to our guest house in Iten, this will conclude our 14 hour journey from Dubai which for would have been less mayhem bar the 6 hour transit in Nairobi. Such is life.
Petan Guest house is our home for the coming 6 nights, it’s everything we wanted it to be, just off the main road through Iten and super basic. It has 3 beds (well 2 on arrival but a few hours later a third) running water of which some is hot and it even has a gas stove in what is referred to as the kitchen so we can make coffee in the morning. Honestly what else do you need. Star wise it is hard to give it a rating that would resonate but for us it feels like 5. Go try it one day and let me know.
Kenyas rich history in running can easily be seen at any Olympics or road races around the world. They have been dominant for a number of years and of course the man that has changed running forever after he ran sub 2 hours for the marathon Eluid Kipchoge is also from Kenya. We have a small link into what is quite a tight knit community of runners in Iten for a number of reasons. Rob’s father lived and worked here in Iten in the 70’s as a school teacher just before and for a year during (what has become quite a household name) “Brother Colm” first touched down here. Fast forward 40 years and Brother Colm is known as the godfather of Kenyan running. This week his assistant Ian Kiprono is not super busy and will make sure we……run! What a true honour! Ian comes to visit us on our first afternoon and after the pleasantries informs us that tomorrow mornings session will be “Fartlek” and as he does so smiles in a way that immediately lets me know we are in for a ride. He leaves us with the instructions that we need to be by St Patricks school at 8:30am and we will run together to the start of the session.
5km at an “easy” pace sees us arrive at the start around 8:45 with the morning session due to kick off at 9. Over the 15 minutes dozens of runners arrive, all of them very smiley and welcoming of the 3 of us. Just on 9 which is impressive for Africa a gentleman starts making announcements in Swahili occasionally throwing in some English words of which “1,1,20” pops out. We look at each other knowing that’s the session, 1 minute hard, 1 minute easy x 20 sets! A group of over 100 of us start to roll across the “red carpet” which seems to have 3 distinct properties: 1. It is incredibly uneven, 2. It is never flat 3. People run very fast on it. Around 45 seconds into the session someone lets out a cry which seems to signify the start of the first rep and all hell breaks loose. Remember we have everything from world champions to us three “Mzungu”, athletes looking to race in the 1,500m right up to the marathon and it seems today’s session is a case of “go all in until you can not..” What a way to start our running careers in Iten.
The normal post run chat over a coffee and some pancakes unfolds but what is more interesting than how our lungs and legs feel at this altitude is to share what we noticed about the Kenyans, the way they moved, the lack of watches for most of them, how they handled the session. Our geekiness is on overload as we throw around numerous ideas that link back to our reason for being here. Debrief over, back to our 5 star to rest and recovery before lunch, some more rest and our afternoon “easy run.”
Easy run turns into exploration which brings all of us a lot of fun. We are kids, big kids you may say, we love to play, we don’t mind getting lost and as you probably know we quite like running. Tom finds a route which takes us to the old athletics track which sadly now is in disrepair. I always get chills down my spine when I visit places like this where champions are born, records smashed and hearts and dreams both filled and broken. From there we head fully off piste, meet the occasional farmers who do not seem to care that we are essentially running through their properties, as is often the case they welcome us with big smiles and a fist pump. What a great way to finish our first day here in Iten, we are tired, smiling and you could probably say have very full hearts.
4:59 the alarm sounds as we have been told to be under “The Champions” sign at 6am to run with a group. We have no idea who we are meeting, the distance or the pace, neither of which bother us at all. We are on day 2 and going running with the Kenyans, if that does not excite you then not much will. There are various groups moving around as we wait by the sign and as we have no clue who we are looking for we head over to one which has another Mzungu in it and ask if they mind if we run with them. If you are polite and ask they are very friendly and welcoming. A smile and some good manners goes as well here as it does in life.
Around 30 athletes are gathered which we would later learn are packed with anything from 3,000m runners to 2:08 marathon “pacers”. The coach starts his brief in Swahili and then looks at us smiling before he announces to the group, “18km, max 3:45 pace.” We just look at each other and smile. He then consoles us that “you will be ok there are some ladies here.” A bit harsh I think but the reality is at this stage they are still not as fast as the men, so he feels we should be able to hang with them. Their longer runs start easy for the first few KM, this one around 4:30 pace and then the rhythm builds and with it the pace. Our biggest take away from today is rhythm and the importance or running in a group, it’s a big subject which we debate pretty much for the rest of the day together trying to figure out how we can take it back to our athletes, but it is the key and it is reaffirmed to us later in the day.
18km pretty much threshold for us and we are taken for breakfast at “the place the local runners eat” by our new friends Angus who seems to know his way around. We are fed a very tasty scrambled egg mix along with a chapatti and some sort of donut which the boys wash down with a milky tea, I stay black! A guy we met at yesterdays fartlek session which we nick named “The Loch Ness monster” as he wore a t shirt from the Loch Ness marathon joins us for breakfast. He is a sports therapist and we agree to meet him later in the day for some care for our fast fatiguing legs. Some good chats about running and adventure mixed with some great Kenyan music and we are set for the day. $8 for breakfast for 5 of us and we leave full and happy.
We have decided to move hotel in favour of a place that has more space for us to relax between runs and as we check into Keiro View hotel we not only find a great place to relax but as the name suggests the view is something else over the Rift Valley. This is the hotel that a lot of the international athletes call home for a number of months of the year as they live and train here in Iten. It is set up well to handle what we need and we are more than happy with our new home along with it’s slightly longer commute to the start of the runs, only a bonus for more miles in the legs.
Our afternoon session from Ian is termed as “easy run with some exercises.” As I mentioned earlier we have stopped trying to gauge what “easy run” means and as we wait to start at the St Patricks school we have a chat with our new friend Solomon who tells us his preferred distance is 10,000km and his current PB is 27:33. Trying to stay causal I ask him what distance we are running this after noon to which he responds “maybe 5-6km…..but easy” to which we all simultaneously reply, “your easy or Mzungu easy.” He laughs and says “maybe 6 min pace but nothing faster than 5 min pace.” Sounds resonable we think and as Solomons friend Robert arrives we head out for our easy run, privileged to be guided by these two elite runners. They both speak great English and although we have many questions we try and respect that this is also their training session and do not want to be annoying. I check with Solomon what running he has done so far today and he casually says “10km but moderate pace…” “Which is?” I reply. “35 mins” he tells me. We all laugh and say “moderate.” Yes we are dealing with the best in the world, these times they are throwing around are what we have all perhaps seen on websites or at championships but to be running with these guys is just another universe for which all three of us are insanely grateful. The easy 5km is followed by 30 mins of simple exercises, more simple chat with Solomon and Robert and then we are out of there. Choosing to return to our hotel on the back of motor bikes to save our legs and to not go into more energy debt that quite frankly on the end of day 2 with 4 days left we can not afford.
Our new hotel does a great dinner, everything on African time of course but we need fuel and it has some decent options. We also need to sleep but just as we finish up dinner around 7:45 an absolute legend walks into the restaurant to have a chat with us. It’s Brother Colm! Suddenly we find energy to listen and to ask questions. I am immediately surprised at how freely Colm sits and shares his story, one that no doubt he has shared in this room thousands of times before. He has a quick zoom call with Rob’s father back in the UK and throughout the time we spend with him continues to give praise to Rob’s dad about the foundations he laid in Kenya which brother Colm built on. Brother Colm first took athletes to the Olympics back in 1984 and has had numerous world and olympics champions across various distances since. He is rightly know as the god father of running and as he openly answers our questions you can see why. He is very humble and blames his success on the work of others rather than of his own 40+year investment in life here in Iten. It is fascinating to listen to someone who has a grasp of so many years of top level running. We talk everything from why we are seeing so many of the Kenyans running in track suits when it is a beautiful 24 degrees to returning to the real reasons to run which he brings down to fun and community saying that if you get these right as the base then great things can happen. From some of his comments you can tell that he does not love the way running has gone in the last 15 years with everyone thinking they are so good that they need their own coach and their own program. He brings everything back to simplicity and in answering one of Tom’s questions pretty much sums up why the Kenyans are so good in three points: 1. They are keen. 2. They work very hard and 3. They know how to relax. Of course there are other factors which he shares with us but contrary to what many have suspected it is not down the the “Ugali” and there is no “running gene”, stories of researchers that have been over to see him flow with laughs on these two points and a few more. In simple summary many have come looking for “the secret” but of course like most things in life there is no real secret and if I could sum one up after this great time with brother Colm it would just be simplicity and hard work. Thank you brother Colm for your time, incredibly inspiring.
The alarm rings at 4:59am but Rob informs us that he has a message from Ian that we should run Fartlek again at 9am. Part of me is relived as we get some more sleep and the other part is nervous as Tuesdays Fartlek was carnage and I am sure today will be similar. But that’s what we are here for, to train, to experience, to learn. A nice steady 5km to the same start point as Tuesday and whilst there are perhaps 50 or so runners it is noticeably quieter than Tuesdays session. It’s not long before the coach calls everyone in and quite amazingly the runners somehow start to debate with the coach what the session is. Some are shouting 2/1 whilst others 3/1 before 1 guy chips in out of nowhere with 5/1. Some back and forth in Swahili unfolds before the coach makes his final decision 2/1/18. I check with Tom as to if he thinks that’s 2 on 1 off x 18 or 2 off 1 on x 18, he says the latter and before we know it the session has started. As was the case on Tuesday the start is carnage, well there is no real start nor signal to say we are in the first effort, the field somehow just speeds up and I hit lap on my watch, 60 seconds later I lap it again and start my 2 mins easy. Of course I am close to the back but still have a couple of the Kenyans that we ran to the start line with alongside me for a couple of intervals. Strangely on the 4th interval as I lap the watch they keep going a long with a French guy I ran with on Tuesday, I leave them to it all be it a bit confused. I am suffering and putting all my energy into getting my heart rate down whilst keeping my recovery pace respectable and do not think too much about what everyone else is doing. 8 sets in I need a piss and this strange thought of “ I hope I am not last” crosses my mind, as I pull over on the side of the trail and look back I see no other runners. My heart sinks but is filled at the same time. I am being absolutely destroyed by these guys but am so thankful for it, it powers me for the coming intervals as the legs become heavier as does my breathing. I am having flash backs to my 2019 race in Kenya where the track goes up hill and you feel like you are putting in an almighty effort just to keep moving forward at a very mediocre pace. Part of me says just run easy to the end as we know that when the Kenyans can not keep the pace this is what they do but my stubbornness says “no the session is 18 efforts.” Its weird and perhaps one thing I need to do more thinking about in the days and weeks after this trip, could this be my biggest learning? Why do they pull up when they can not sustain the pace? I know why and it’s because the intended stimulus of the session if you like is not being achieved, there is a reason why you can not hold that pace, it is because you are smoked so be cool to run easy to the end. My mind sees it different and I feel I get more mental gains from powering through, the easy option is to run easy. Is this a mental or physical workout….to be continued.
I see Tom on the other side of the road outside a shop with some water for me, I can see he can see I am destroyed. I have done 15km but only 12 efforts. I sit with him and stop my watch. The fact that he has ended the session and the look on his face when he sees the state I am in confirms I should stop. As we chat I quickly learn that actually the session was 2 on and 1 off and not 1 on 2 off as I did……the number of sets I guess is now not relevant as I had done a totally different session. We smile and head back for breakfast. Everyday is a school day.
Rob and I head out for lunch as we have managed to get an appointment with a sports therapist at 2 so we duck into our breakfast joint from day 2 to see what they have on offer for lunch. Ugali of course, we are happy and full as we go to settle the $3 bill we have run up between the two of us. It’s 50/50 how you come out of a session with a sports therapist, specially one you do not know, specially when you have a fair few miles in the legs. Regardless we have the afternoons entertainment booked with our South African tour guide Angus as we set out on what he describes as a “nice 12km trail loop.” We came here with no real expectations and have very fast learnt not to read anything into what people say a session is going to be, we rock up and get started. The first 1km is carnage downhill, Angus is rapid, our new friend “Masai” blurts out every 10 seconds “polepole polepole” (Slowly slowly) as he falls for the second time and me for the fourth or more. The trail is insanely steep and narrow, we are having a great time. We are led through some narrow paths that wind their way through numerous farms, a few sheep get in the way but aside from that everyone we see is very friendly, from farmers to young children they smile and greet us with their best English which they are almost proud to use, we reply with our very limited Swahili but with a big smile. Smiles meeting smiles. Epic.
We land up at a pretty awesome waterfall and Angus is straight in. Once we are done taking pictures of this awesome location we drop in and continue to take pictures. Beautiful fresh water doesn’t need to invite me twice. Our fun is cut somewhat short when our Masai friend strikes up a conversation with some local ladies who are doing something close by the waterfall and they inform him we should get out as someone recently was in there and got sucked away. We are not convinced but not wanting to challenge their word with our actions hop out pretty quickly. I spend the next 30 minutes running next to and chatting with my new Masai friend. He kicks it off with “can I have your shoes when you leave” which is not uncommon as we have been asked by children for our watches and money since we have been here. They are very polite about it which sounds strange but they are never aggressive and you never feel threatened or unsafe, it’s quite unique. I ask Masai what size he is to which he is quick to respond… “same as you.” This is clearly not his first time of asking. He is a 16 year old school kid who moved from the Masai to Iten in 2017 when he could not speak any English but was a good runner. He has Olympic dreams for the 3,000m or 5,000m but with a current time of 8:20 for the 3,000 and 15:12 for the 5,000m he has some work to do. He seems confident and knows that he is in the best place on earth to make his dreams a reality.
As the day draws to a close we get an epic sunset and through the trees and finish up our 12km 2 hour trail party in near darkness. I make space between myself and the rest of the group to soak up this special moment and really this special day and time of my life. Gratitude and just a moment alone gives an amazing sense of calm and happiness. I remember Holly and my family and silently thank them and the guys that are just ahead of me for being in my life.
We make a group decision to wake up at 5:44 today and spend the first 45 minutes of our day having a coffee and watching the sun rise over the Rift Valley. Our hotel is perfectly located to do so, it seems a waste not to watch Africa be blessed with another day of sun whilst having a nice coffee and a decent chat with your mates. To accommodate this we pre arrange a 7:30am start time with our sports therapist friend Isaiah who has agreed to join us for an “easy 15km”. Ref my above point on expectations! Isaiah is a 2:12 marathoner so of course his easy and my easy are quite different and it’s not long into the run that we all know this is not going to be 15km. What makes running here quite unique are the people you see out running who for the most part share a smile. Isaiah smiles and shares some words with a runner just 1km in who he congratulates. As he passes I ask him what he did. “59 minutes in Milan last weekend.” That deserves a congrats I think to myself. Yes 59 minutes for the half marathon….only good enough for second. After a nice easy 6km with a bit of chat back and forth with Isaiah our guide for the day my stomach feels horrific, it’s almost like everything is just washing around. The next 14km whilst across some amazing African red carpet and through some of the nicest scenery we have run on are somewhat uncomfortable for me which I guess you could say in a positive way ensures I only run easy. These sorts of gut issues generally get worse before they get better and at just under 20km on the watch I decide to hit stop and walk the last 2km back to the hotel stopping from time to time wretching. This obviously leads to some interesting breakfast chat between the three of us on the load we have put through our legs, how we have slept, what we have eaten and the effect the altitude may have on us. These conversations are some of my favourites with Tom and Rob as they are incredibly intelligent and are athletes themselves who put out some very impressive numbers in endurance sports. There is of course no one size fits all as Tom checks his blood sugar through a Bluetooth attachment he has embedded in his tricep and proceeds to sprinkle sugar on his pancakes. Any which way I still feel like shit but crack on with some breakfast in the hope I will start to feel better before we have to head to Eldoret to get a PCR test done for our flight back on Sunday.
With our day trip to the big smoke and 90km in our legs since we have been here comes a unanimous decision that this afternoon there will be no running but rather a recovery afternoon. Of course on the way back to Iten in the car we all start to discuss what run we should do tomorrow morning which will be our last day of running as we have to leave early on Sunday to catch our flight. Rob sends a message to Ian and as he does we all concur that whatever he tells us the session is it will probably be something different and we will do it anyway and have fun. Seems the favourite option is some more fartlek!
I spend the afternoon mainly staring out across the Rift Valley and letting my mind wander a bit, not getting too stressed about any thoughts that come into my mind but at the same time reflecting on our time here so far, my own personal running, the running of the people I coach and the running of human beings in general. My findings I shall save for other posts as they are not yet conclusive and it would make this one very long indeed. I wrap it up with the thought as to when my next visit will be. My rule for as to if I want to revisit a place is that I have to still want to revisit it after I have been there for a few days so the buzz of just arriving has worn off and my thinking is a bit clearer but as I sat there on that Friday afternoon with nowhere to go and nothing to do but think I could clearly say that this would not be my last time in Iten. I will be back that is for sure.
As day breaks we rise and get ready for something we are all quite excited about. We have a track session at Kipchogee stadium with the same guys we ran with on day 2. Anything goes in Africa so we are not surprised to find the car that is taking us the 30 minute journey at the side of the road at 5:55am with a flat tyre. Our driver is going about changing it like it happens everyday and just after 6 we are on our way. Amazing mindset.
Track is of course going to be lightening quick and as we depart tomorrow it will be (maybe) one of our last hard sessions. The team rock up and just start running laps at a very gentle pace, we head over to the coach to ensure we are following the right etiquette and he just tells us to do some “light jogging, before the exercises and then we start.” We do not question him and continue doing laps. After about 15 mins Rob asks one of the guys how long we do this for to which he replies “maybe 20-25 minutes, I don’t know.” So we keep going. Ends up being just over 20 minutes before we break into some warm up drills during which half the 25 strong squad are taking it seriously and the others are joking between themselves. It seems like the first part of the session is over as all the athletes head over to their bags, strip off their tracksuits and put their faster shoes / track spikes on. We mill around awkwardly waiting for our next instructions which take the form similar to school sports where different athletes are split into various groups by the coach. After splitting most of the group the coach looks at us and politely asks if we want to run with the “ladies group” which actually does have 2-3 men in it, we of course oblige but are still uninformed about the session we are supposed to do. We hear the coach tell one of the groups to do 5 x 2km but fail to catch the pace or the rest period. The next group he tells to run 10 x 1km at 2:40 pace….wooooosh. He then turns to us and says 10 x 1km 3:05-15. No rest mentioned. Waaahaaaaaa. We quickly ask our group what the rest is and learn its 60 seconds. Haaaaa. This is going to be carnage. I make an agreement with myself to run as hard as I can with the group for as long as I can. I kept the deal but lose the pack after about 800m and end the first interval breathing like an elephant. Unsure what’s going on and if I can actually make the second rep I head to the start line after 60 seconds. I make it round 400m and decide I need to rest. My heart, lungs and legs are all exploding. My session has changed. I drop out a 45 second rest and smash out 4 more 400s and surprisingly I start to feel a bit better so move things up to 1km efforts again for another 5. No where near the prescribed 3:05-15 pace but I get it done and in doing so get to have a truly unique running experience.
The various groups doing their various sessions are literally a joy to watch. The way they start the effort, the way they run in a line together and in time and the way they are so consistent with the pace they have been told to run at. These are some of the best guys on the planet, some of them already have world championship titles to their names and others are still working toward their dreams. As they sail past me I admire the way that they do it and feel honoured to be running on the same track as them. During their test times they encourage me and the other runners, it is of course inspiring. The coaches say nothing to me during the session but once we are done one of them comes over and gives me a high five. I thank him for the session and apologise for my pace. Surprisingly he tells me I am running well and says I must have some special power to be able to run 30 marathons in 30 days. How does he know this I think to myself, then I look to Tom who smiles, he has just told him. The coach continues by saying “if you tell those guys that’s what you can do they will laugh, they will think you are crazy, there is no way they could do it.” Some consolation and brought a smile to my face. Much like our track sessions the mood when the work is done is more jovial and we spend a short time chatting to some of the runners. One of them challenges me to a Uglai eating competition whilst him and his friend tell me that rice is useless without me even asking the question. They have big smiles are friendly and just want to have fun. This is their job and their livelihood but they are happy we are here which is a nice touch.
Some days of your life you get to have lunch with people that may just change the way you think about something and in turn may just change a certain part of your life or the lives that you influence. When Ian Kiprono suggested we had lunch today you didn’t have to ask either of us twice if we were keen. Ian freely gave up close to two hours of his Saturday that he could be spending with his family to sit around and have lunch with us three that he really doesn’t know at all. Not only that but I am sure as was the case that he knew he would be getting peppered with questions the whole time. All be it as bit late (African Time) he showed up and gave us his undivided attention and honesty. What a true legend of the world. As you have read till this point everyone we have talked to and see talks about simplicity, rhythm and fun as being the key components to running, Ian is of course on the same page. Rob kicks things off in a great direction asking Ian what the biggest challenge as a coach is? After 10 seconds in silence Ian says “Success” and goes on to say “when the athletes start winning they think they have made it and they quickly forget the small things that got them that success, it is the small things that make the difference. Many coaches can make training plans but not many coaches can coach an athletes mindset, this is the difference.” Bang straight out of the blocks and we have not yet ordered lunch, this is going to be gold. We cover all their normal topics such as pacing, athletes that have done well, doping, agents and many other things that it is interesting to hear his take on. Tom invites him to do an Ironman with him but he sternly tells us you will never see a Kenyan doing an Ironman. I shoot him the idea of training a Kenyan to run an ultra to which he has two replies, 1. Why would you want to do that and 2. If there is money then they will run for it. Classic! We are not surprised at all when he tells us he never checks an athletes heart rate but are very intrigued by his response to what he is looking for. It is obvious he knows what’s up and his track record with athletes winning medals speaks for itself. Ian now only coaches 10 athletes but they are some of the best in the world and you can see why. Thanks for your time Ian you are a true gentleman and the fact that you have never run over 35km does not take away from the fact that at your best you ran the half marathon in just over an hour.
As we leave Iten headed for our flight back to Dubai my eyes are transfixed on the path that runs parallel to the road, it’s almost like they put red carpet everywhere to remove any excuses not to run. There are still some morning runners passing by, some of them actually running easy and others clearly having a good crack at things. My mind as it has been all week is on overdrive. I came here to look, listen and learn and I feel like I have overfilled my running and life hard drive with the things I have seen and the thoughts it has inspired. Rob, Tom and I have shared some amazing moments and some incredible discussions about what we can do with the experiences we have had here as we go back to our “jobs” in coaching in Dubai and also our lives as athletes. There is way to much to share on this post and a lot I have already etched out above, some needs direct action where some things we have seen and discussed need more time to incubate.
If I could sum the trip up in one word I would have no issues in doing so. FUN. Yes the running for the most part was hard but we did most of it with a smile on our face literally having the best days of our lives. The chats we had between the 3 of us were always fun and anytime we conversed with the locals there was a smile and a sense of fun involved and of course 2 of the best running coaches on the planet and all of the elite runners we had the honorary of running with talked about FUN.
Running is something so natural to us, it is so powerful, I truly feel if more people could change their mindset towards it and understand the fun you can have with it then it would help more and more people to get better at life which is what we are all about.
Thanks for reading…..go for a run!