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Long-distance Land

The dominance of Kenyan marathoners begins with countless miles in the hills of home


By Tim Layden

"Athletes from other countries fear hard training. They run alone, away from others. They are cowards."
--Moses Tanui, Kenya
Third-fastest marathoner in history

  Click for larger image The competition was keen for Julius Bitok as he hoofed it near Eldoret. Heinz Kluetmeier
The runners gather in a lush hollow beside the Kipteber River, far into the rural precincts of western Kenya and more than 50 miles of paved and dirt roads north of Eldoret, the home city of Kip Keino and cradle of this small nation's towering distance running heritage. Nearly 30 marathoners are in the group. They have been driven down from their training camp at the top of Kapsait Peak in three battered pickup trucks to this shaded glen, where early morning sunlight is filtered through waterside trees into golden, slanted beams.

They begin to run, a boot camp squadron climbing out of the valley and into the Cherangani Hills, back toward the mountaintop dormitory where they were awakened at dawn. In an hour and 40 minutes they run more than 15 miles over uneven red clay, dodging small herds of cattle and donkeys laden with sacks of potatoes. They jump wide, washed-out ruts in the roadway, and more than once they are joined by children in school uniforms who run alongside them for 100 meters or more, laughing.

The route climbs more than 3,000 feet, from an elevation of slightly more than 6,500 feet at the river to nearly 10,000 at the peak, where oxygen is precious and a cruel wind slices across the face of the hill. In the parlance of the athletes, today is an "easy" day, yet at the top, runners are bent at the waist, staggering to find stability in their legs. "Big push at the end," says 31-year-old Erik Kimaiyo, a 2:07:43 marathoner and two-time winner of the Honolulu Marathon.

 
Miracle Miles
The secret to the marathon training program that Dr. Gabriele Rosa has used to help Kenyan runners dominate the event over the past four years? Hard running and more hard running. Rosa's plan calls for 150 to 175 miles per week, and, he says, "it's not in our mentality to run easy." Here are three weeks of training during a marathon buildup, most of it climbing at altitude on uneven surfaces, making stopwatches irrelevant.
WEEK ONE
Monday: One-hour, 10-minute run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Tuesday: 25 intervals, alternating one minute fast, one minute slow, in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Wednesday: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Thursday: Twelve 1,000-meter repeats, with 90-second recovery between each, in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Friday: One-hour, 10-minute run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Saturday: 35-km (21.7 mile) run on flatlands in morning. No evening run.
Sunday: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
WEEK TWO
Monday: Six 2,000-meter repeats, with 90-second recovery between each, in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Tuesday: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Wednesday: Hill session. Run up Flourspar hill, 21 km (13 miles), with 48 switchback turns. No evening run.
Thursday: One-hour, 10-minute run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Friday: 25 intervals, alternating one minute fast, one minute slow, in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Saturday: One-hour run in morning. One-hour runin evening.
Sunday: Four 3,000-meter repeats with two-minute recovery between each, in morning. One-hour run in evening.
WEEK THREE
Monday: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Tuesday: 38-km (23.6 mile) run in hills in morning. No evening run.
Wednesday: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Thursday: Twelve 1,000-meter repeats, with 90-second recovery between each, in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Friday: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
Saturday: 30-km (18.6 mile) run in hills in morning. No evening run.
Sunday: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.
At the finish of the run is the village of Kapsait, a cluster of small mud houses in tall, fluttering Nandi grass. For as long as three months at a time, while preparing for marathons, this is where many of the runners live, in monastic isolation. They sleep two to a room in a one-story concrete barracks with a corrugated metal roof and no electricity or running water. They eat meals cooked over a wood fire in a common room, fall asleep each night amid a black, consuming darkness and awake to roosters from surrounding farms.

After this morning's workout the runners file through a low doorway into the camp courtyard, where they sit on wooden benches and eat chapati, the doughy, maize-flour tortilla that is a staple of the Kenyan diet, and drink sweet, milky tea. Because there are visitors, a special breakfast is served, the roasted ribs of a sheep slaughtered that morning. Pink meat is hacked from the bone with a dull knife and washed down with gulps of tea.

From breakfast until late afternoon they wait to train again. Their lives are stripped of all diversion and most of the comforts that Western athletes consider essential. "It is too simple a place for white runners to live," says Dr. Gabriele Rosa, the 58-year-old Italian cardiologist who coaches more than 150 Kenyan runners and administers several similar training camps with funds provided by Fila, the Italian shoe and apparel company. "But for many of the Kenyan runners, it is one of the best places in the world to train."

Among those runners is David Ruto, a 5'7", 120-pound 23-year-old from Kaptalamwa, 20 miles northwest of Kapsait. Ruto has run 1:00:44 for a half-marathon, and next year he will make his marathon debut. "This camp is very nice," he says. "There is competition. There is food. It is perfect."

The effects of this spartan life will be felt in far-flung cities on some of the largest athletic stages in the world. On April 8 at the Paris Marathon, Simon Biwott, one of Rosa's runners, led a Kenyan sweep of the top three places. At Monday's 105th Boston Marathon Bong-Ju Lee of South Korea placed first to snap Kenya's 10-year winning streak, but Kenyans still took six of the top 12 spots, led by Joshua Chelang'a, a product of the Fila camps, who finished third in his debut at the distance. Catherine Ndereba, who last year became the first Kenyan woman to win at Boston, took her second straight women's title. On Sunday Kenyan runners will saturate the top of the finish list at the Rotterdam Marathon, and in London, the world's largest marathon, five-time world cross-country champion and two-time Olympic 10,000-meter silver medalist Paul Tergat, a man with seemingly unlimited potential in the event, will make one of the most anticipated marathon debuts in history. He is being paid $300,000 simply to toe the starting line.

For the runners of Kenya these performances are business as usual, a continuation of the Kenyan marathon invasion that has unfolded only in the last half decade. As much as distance running has been a part of Kenyan culture (a runner appears on the back of the country's 20-shilling note) and a source of national pride, marathoning was once strongly discouraged by Kenyan coaches and officials, who feared that marathoning would lead to a drop in track and cross-country performance. "I was always told that if I ran the marathon, I would lose all my track speed," says Tergat.

Some of the warnings were more ominous. "When I was a young runner, my coaches told me that if I ran a marathon, I would never be able to have children, and when you are young, you trust your coaches," says Tanui, a two-time Boston winner. Only when Tanui learned that prolific Australian marathoner Steve Moneghetti had fathered children did he begin to doubt what he had heard at home. Tanui not only has run 2:06:16, but also has two sons and a daughter. "My coaches," he says, "lied to me so that I would not run marathons."

Much has changed since the mid-1990s. Marathon and track training camps now dot the countryside, most funded by shoe and apparel companies and operated by leading Kenyan runners. Puma International has two camps, where 3,000-meter world-record holder Daniel Komen and 1998 Chicago Marathon winner Ondoro Osoro are among the runners. Saucony, a Massachusetts-based shoe company, supports 26-year-old marathoner Lornah Kiplagat, who has funded a revolutionary camp that includes Kenyan women in Iten, two hours northeast of Eldoret. The most ubiquitous of the training camp patrons, though, is Fila, which operates six major camps within 65 miles of Eldoret, with satellite camps popping up almost weekly.

The training camps are at the heart of Kenya's marathon dominance. They provide a reliable living environment for runners who have been raised in a poor society (Kenya's per capita income is $900 a year) where a single bed, however cold and dark, and abundant food are blessed amenities. Consider: Tanui was raised in a one-room hut with 10 siblings. He is now wealthy and lives in a five-bedroom house in Eldoret, yet each morning he drives to his camp in Kaptagat to train with a group of more than 30 runners, ranging in ability from David Busenei, fourth at Boston on Monday, to teenage hopefuls looking for opportunity. To prepare for London, Tergat moved into a modest Eldoret hotel and trained with the Kaptagat or Kapsait group every day. The group dynamic is at the core of the training. "There is always someone to push you -- or pull you," says Josephat Kiprono, the sixth-fastest marathoner in history.

Joseph Chebet was made financially secure by his New York and Boston wins two years ago, but when the time arrived to train for Boston this year, he moved away from his house, his wife and three small children into a dorm room at his own camp at Kiptoi, a row of 10 rooms alongside a dirt highway at the base of the Cherangani Hills. "I try to go home each afternoon to see my family," says Chebet, "but it is best that I stay in the camp. Here I must train. At home, things can happen to hold me back." He spoke in a bare concrete room; outside, running gear hung from clotheslines, and an army of flies buzzed around two pit toilets.

Athletes at Tanui's Kaptagat camp rise at dawn and run up into a forest of ancient pines and spreading Okun trees, a world so dense and chilled that steam emanates from the sweating runners. Only after 12 miles of brutal uphill running does the sky appear whole and the mountainside fall away into the Great Rift Valley below. An hour west, 2000 Boston Marathon winner Elijah Lagat takes athletes from his new camp on runs though miles of rolling green tea plantations in the Nandi Hills. "It is an amazingly beautiful place," says U.S. marathoner Christine Clifton, who spent a month training in Kenya in January.

Young runners see that Tanui lives in a mansion, with two Mercedes and a Land Cruiser pickup. They see that Tergat owns a modern house outside Nairobi (complete with satellite television, on which his 11-year-old son, Ronald, watched J. Lo on MTV during a journalist's visit). They represent the dream. "You cannot get a good job easy in Kenya, like in Europe or the U.S.," says the 27-year-old Kiprono. "We run to have success."

Kimaiyo's visit to a primary school was cause for a celebration. Older kids, dressed in traditional clothing, performed a ritual dance for him, and the youngsters gathered around him as if he were royalty. When Kimaiyo left, they ran alongside the vehicles as if they could be carried along with their hero.

When Fred Kiprop was 21, he lived with his wife and child in a one-room hut in the countryside near Eldoret. For months he ran in a pair of shoes discarded by Tanui. In January 1997 he ran 1:03 at the Eldoret half-marathon, and Fila signed him. "I was at the bottom, no money, no more shoes," says Kiprop, now 26. He ran 2:06:47 to win the '99 Amsterdam Marathon, still the seventh-fastest time in history. He moved his family (he now has three children) to a three-room mud house on 40 acres of farmland and is building a house in Eldoret, on the same street as Tanui and Komen.

The runners prosper in a training program created by Rosa, a portly, bearded, Obi-Wan Kenobi type contracted by Fila to operate what the company calls its Discovery Kenya program. (Last year Fila began a Discovery USA program as well, modeled on Rosa's Kenyan camps.) "Fila pays me, but I use my own money as well," Rosa says. "I will not get wealthy from this."

As he bounces along in a shock-absorber-deprived Land Cruiser, riding behind a training group in the verdant Kaptagat Forest, calling occasionally to the runners -- "strong" for fast, "quiet" for slow -- Rosa tells his own story. He was a provincial cross-country champion as a teenager near Brescia, in northern Italy. While in medical school he began coaching local runners and found a vessel for his passion in Gianni Poli, who won the 1986 New York City Marathon.

Tanui was Rosa's first Kenyan runner. They met in 1990 at a race in Europe, when Tanui consulted Rosa about a knee injury, and Rosa later traveled to Kenya with Tanui. Two years later, he began working with Tergat. "Kenyans taught me that they can train harder than any athletes in the world," says Rosa. He learned. They learned. Now Rosa has staffs and offices near Brescia and Nairobi and a cell phone that is never quiet. Rosa's company, Rosa & Associati, does make money by managing the athletes and collecting a percentage of their earnings and appearance fees. Rosa has often been asked to parry the accusations of doping that follow all successful track coaches. "I can't even read stories that accuse Kenyans of doping," he says. "If you meet these people, you would understand." Rosa supports the proposed institution of blood testing at major marathons. "With testing," he says, "everyone would know my athletes are clean."

Rosa exudes a genuine passion for his runners, for his relentless training program and for his adopted country. After chasing a morning training run up from Kaptagat to the village of Chororget, Rosa climbed from his SUV, walked to the edge of a rock outcropping 10,000-feet high, with the Rift Valley spread below. "This," said Rosa, making a sweeping motion with his hands, "is where I want to build my home."

Scarcely past sunrise on the last Friday in March, Rosa brought together Biwott, Chebet, Kiprono, Kiprop, Japhet Kosgei and Sammy Korir for a training run in the Ziwa savanna, a wide expanse of acacia trees and low brush outside Eldoret. All six of them have run 2:08:02 or faster for the marathon, an extraordinary collection of talent in one place, a runners' Dream Team of sorts. It is rare that all of them train together, so this will be a special day.

The workout begins peacefully with the runners moving over the flat red clay, their footfalls like slippers on a bedroom floor, their breathing just as soft. Lesser athletes stay with them. Abruptly, 40 minutes into a run designed to last an hour, the six separate from the other five who had started with them. The six leaders are sweating now and breathing hard, turning a modest run into a killer. Kosgei, a man who has run 2:07:09, is dropped in the last two miles. At the finish all of them fall into heaps at the side of the road. "Not easy, not easy," Chebet wails, his words punctuated by a deep, gasping cough.

The runners climb into the back of the pickups that accompany their every run and are ferried to Kiprop's small new training camp, two miles away on a patch of farmland near his home. It is a minimal place, with four sleeping rooms and three young runners in residence. Yet six of the best marathoners in history joyfully stuff themselves into a sparse common room to eat chapati and drink tea. "I love being with my brothers," says Chebet, and there is soft laughter, the sound of simplicity begetting excellence.

Issue date: April 23, 2001

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