Iten town: Home of champions

Cyclists from Kenyan Riders (above) having their breakfast in camp before starting their training session. Breakfast typically consists of hot tea, chapati and bananas.

KENYA - Dawn has barely broken and fluorescent windbreakers bob up and down past herds of cattle grazing freely beside pot-holed roads.

A metal arch declares: "Welcome to Iten: Home of champions."

It refers to runners, and it is no exaggeration. Iten, with a population of only 4,000, is known worldwide as a mine of long-distance champions.

Since Naftali Temu won the 10km at the 1968 Olympics, Kenyans have dominated endurance running races.

They have brought home 23 Olympic gold medals from running events above 400m.

In 2011, Kenyans clocked the 20 fastest marathon times in the world.

Last year, they won three of the five marathon majors except for the New York Marathon which was cancelled and Chicago, which was won by an Ethiopian.

But there are no glitzy running tracks in stadiums which hold thousands of spectators.

The only track is a sandy dirt one at the Kamariny Stadium. It stretches longer than the standard 400m track because it was once a showground for cattle auctions.

This is where many Kenyan legends honed their footwork.

Iten holds an almost mythical status in the world's running community, drawing runners, researchers and the world's media all trying to uncover the secrets of this place.

Many possible reasons have been tossed up:

Descendants of pastoralists

Many of Iten's residents are descendants of the Kalenjin ethnic group, nomads who survived by leading herds of cattle across the Rift Valley.

Some believe their hardened way of life, covering great distances on foot and weathering constant wars with rival clans, helped them develop stronger bodies.

Mr Sammy Leboo, 47, comes from the bloodline of the Kalenjin. His father was a farmer who died in 1991 aged 103.

"Back then, they were very strong, and didn't fall sick often," he says.

"There was also a lot of fighting as enemies came from faraway villages to steal your cattle and they had to trek very far to get the herd back."

Milk, maize, marathons

Is the diet of the Kalenjin a secret to their success?

Kalenjin runner Julius Arile, 30, who has run a 2 hour 7 minute marathon, says: "Because they raised cattle, our ancestors survived only on milk and maize."

Maize is the most common crop in Iten, and that explains the abundance of ugali, a doughy dish made from maize flour. It is the staple food of Kenya and sub-saharan Africa.

Runners swear by its nutritious value, calling it the "food of champions".

Barefoot running

At Iten's local races where future world champions are spotted, it is common to see schoolchildren running barefoot.

Is that a reason they do so well? There is no consensus on the scientific benefits of barefoot running, which has become a trend in recent times.

American author and journalist Christopher McDougall argues in his bestselling book Born To Run that running barefoot helps develop a more natural and injury-free technique.

Fancy shoes, he insists, can be detrimental to humans' running gait.

High altitude

The main reason many of the world's best runners come to Iten to train is the perceived benefit of high-altitude training.

Iten is 2,400m above sea level. Dr Frankie Tan, head of sports physiology at the Singapore Sports Institute, explains: "When we go for altitude training, we go to an environment where we are breathing in less oxygen.

"Over time, your body will adapt to the reduced oxygen and produce more red blood cells to compensate for that."

With that temporary increase in red blood cells, the athlete will enjoy a bigger oxygen capacity when he returns to sea level to compete.

Mr Richard Muckche, 35, trainer at Iten's High-Altitude Training Centre which is owned by four-time world champion Lornah Kiplaget, says: "Your body gets stronger with a better circulation of oxygen. When you return to sea level, you will be flying."

However, the jury is still out on how long that effect can last and what the optimum period of training at altitude should be.

Uganda's 3,000m steeplechase 2005 world champion Dorcus Inzikuru, goes to Iten three to six weeks before a major competition.

She says: "It's cold up here and you can really feel your lungs open."

A lucrative career

In Iten, running is seen as a viable career option and one more profitable than farming.

Wilson Kipsang, for example, made more than US$80,000 (S$101,000) including time bonuses for winning the 2012 London Marathon.

Marathon runner Julius Arile used to work as an armed guard for safari reserves and switched to running at 24 after witnessing a colleague get shot.

"I was thinking to myself, the next person could be me. So I quit my job and started running."

The community

Runners who make their fortune, like Kiplaget and Kipsang, often return to Iten to buy homes and set up training camps, contributing to its growth as a centre for distance running.

Says Kipsang, who estimates spending about $500,000 to build the Keellu Resort lodging, which opened last October: "It is very important because it is part of showing to the community that what we are doing as an athlete is really worth it."

Brother Colm O'Connell, the renowned coach of champions, has seen Iten grow into a popular destination for top international athletes who choose from among more than 120 training camps.

Recalling what it was like when he arrived from Ireland in 1976, he says: "Then, there were no people running around the road, no professional athletes, no training camps or gymnasiums.

"Running wasn't part of the village culture."

No distractions

Top runners embrace Iten because they can live and train in relative obscurity away from the media limelight and pressures of modern society.

Says Brother O'Connell: "It's an acceptable part of the life of the people in Iten that they see athletes, Olympic and world champions, training every morning along the road and they are used to it.

"Elite athletes feel very comfortable in Iten."

No secret to success?

For Brother O'Connell, raw talent and proper training are what it takes to raise champions.

He says: "When anybody does anything extraordinary in life, people always look for a theory, a secret, or some kind of mysterious approach to what you are doing.

"When somebody says there is a secret in terms of what I do, I am happy with that.

"As long as people keep thinking there is a secret, that's to my advantage. I'm very happy with that."

ugenec@sph.com.sg


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