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World-Class Runners Flock to Kenyan Town

  • Jill Craig

Kenyan marathon runners are world-famous.

And so it should come as no surprise that foreign athletes are flocking to Kenya to learn their secrets. At 2,400 meters above sea level, Iten, a small town about 350 kilometers north of Nairobi, is fast becoming a training hub for serious runners.

Lornah Kiplagat is a Kenyan-born athlete who has won marathons throughout the world and holds several world records.

She and her husband Pieter founded the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, Kenya, after realizing the town’s training benefits for athletes.

“The altitude here is sort of like perfect," she says. "It’s not too high. It’s not too low. The weather is never hot, it’s warm. But there’s always a breeze, there’s a breeze always. There is everything that you need. There is the gym, there is the pool, the food is good, the nature. So all these things combined, definitely has made it the best place to be in the world.”

Movie stars, famous long-distance runners, and amateurs all come to train in Iten.

The London Marathon organizers even chose Iten to announce the Kenyan men’s elite field.

Some of those athletes include Wilson Kipsang, Emmanuel Mutai, and Patrick Makau, all household names in the marathon world.

Top marathoners can make millions of dollars every year in sponsorships, appearance fees, and prize winnings. For Kenyan runners, many of whom start their careers by running barefoot, this income can be a big incentive.

Regina Cherotich is a runner from Iten. She is participating at the annual Discovery Race, where young Kenyan runners showcase their talents, and can even obtain sponsorships.

For Regina, this money will allow her to pay her daughter’s school fees.

“I like running because, if you run well, you get money, to support the families. My daughter and the whole people,” she says.

Once they become famous, many Kenyan runners build homes in Iten and make it their training base. For them, the altitude of 2,400 meters above sea level is normal.

But for foreign athletes like Swedish runner Charlotte Schonbeck, it’s a bit different.

“When I came home last time, from high altitude training, the first few days, it felt like I was running on pink clouds. It was just soft and easy to run at home. So that’s the effect I want to feel when I get home next week.”

This training regime is not for the faint-hearted. The altitude, combined with the steep hills of the Great Rift Valley, make for an intense workout.

“When you’re on the sea level, you can come to a certain level by just doing the sea level training and everything. But at one point, you need something extra. And then, I think it’s good to start with the high altitude. But you need to be strong on sea level before you go up here.”

And for these serious runners, Iten is indeed still the home of champions.