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Setting The Pace is a Small Town’s Big Business

Elias Kiptum (in blue on the left), leading the pack during an early morning traning session at Iten. Photograph by Robert Njuguna/Kenya Running Project

The ‘mystique’ of the Kenyan long-distance runner is to be found not among the elite on the European or North American circuits, but among the journeymen whose starting line is a T-junction in a farming community in the northwest of the country. Jackie Lebo keeps track of proceedings.

It is early morning in Iten, and traffic – human and otherwise – is still sparse. A diner at the local Amani Café has skipped out on his bill and indicated to the waitress that we will pay. He cannot have gone far but we don’t see him among the few people walking, huddled into sweaters and jackets, bracing against the chill. Attempts to get a description are futile. Someone asks if he is a runner.

The waitress shrugs. The only thing he said before he left was that he was from up the road. He seems to have vanished into thin air, leaving only a white receipt for two cups of tea in the waitress’s hand. When she hands the bill specifically to Alex Kipkosgei, we attribute it to his ‘counsellor’ status. Alex is the head of maintenance at Iten District Hospital. He has also been a professional athlete for 10 years, runs an organisation named Aldai Sports Development Association and is the liaison for a Holland-based agent.

In another town, Alex could easily pass unnoticed. He is small, quiet and looks younger than his 33 years because of the constant athletic training. But in Iten, where there are 400 to 700 runners during peak training season, he is sought out for his connections in the running world. His multiple roles connect him to all sides of the community – the runners, civil servants, businessmen and farmers. Walking through the town with Alex is a slow process: a man from the ministry of works pulls him aside for a few minutes to talk about a project at the hospital; a group of eager young runners, their leader in a Nike T-shirt, stop him to ask about management – key to breaking into the lucrative European circuit.

The even expanse of the Uasin Ngishu plateau drops spectacularly into the Kerio Valley at the edge of the town. Sitet Complex, a hotel built near the cliff, offers tea with great panoramas. Cliff land, which used to be given to unmarried women in Keiyo society, has gone up tremendously in value as hotels catering to elite runners and foreign managers are built.

On a clear day you can see beyond the Tugen hills, which separate the Kerio Valley from the Rift Valley, to the Laikipia plateau. The formation of the valleys pushed up the adjoining areas into high tables of land with altitude conditions ideal for training, thus the profusion of athlete training camps on both sides, in Nyahururu and Iten.

One camp is a few hundred metres down the road at mwisho wa lami (the end of the tarmac). It is a two-bedroom rented house across the road from the hospital housing where Alex lives. There are lots of camps like this, set up by individuals, mostly experienced or retired runners. There are currently four athletes staying at the camp. Two, Evans Ogaro and Onesmus Nyerere, are experienced runners who have raced on the European circuit for some years. The other two, Felix Keny and Christopher Korir, are young, still in initial training, and have not yet left the country. Rent is paid by their manager in Holland, who visits two or three times a year on recruitment trips and to check in with the athletes. In between, he relies on dispatches from Alex.

The accommodation in the camp is spare, the conditions martial, with not much regard for privacy, only the common training objectives. There is a jiko in the kitchen, various utensils scattered about and the ubiquitous thermos for tea. There is one bed and a couple of thin mattresses with blankets crumpled on top on the red cement floor. Outside, running shoes stained by the distinctive red mud of the region dry against the wall and varied athletic attire of all brands hang on the wood fence: Adidas socks, Puma warmup jackets, Nike shirts, Fila tights.

On this particular morning, the athletes lean against the fence and talk about the long run. Korir has pulled his mattress outside on the grass and is basking in the sun while offering everyone hot milky tea with lots of sugar. People in the Rift Valley drink tea with almost religious devotion, at least three times a day, at breakfast, mid-morning and afternoon, more if anyone visits – then the thermos is brought out without question and tea automatically poured.

A study conducted by an American university on the nutrition of Kenyan athletes concluded, almost with amazement, that milk and sugar in tea are among the top sources of protein and carbohydrates respectively for runners. It is one of those continuous attempts to extricate the thing that separates Kenyan runners from their counterparts elsewhere in the world, without looking wholly at the tea-drinking ritual that is cemented into everyday life, becoming more than basic nutritional sustenance.

Training is all-consuming. The day begins at 5.30am and by 6am the athletes are gathered at the starting point of their morning run, which lasts 45 minutes to an hour. They return, have breakfast, rest, and then prepare for the main training later in the morning. At 9.30am or 10am, six days a week, they have day-specific training: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, an easy to moderate run; Tuesdays, speed-work at Kamariny  track; Thursdays are alternated between hillwork and fartlek training (a funny-sounding Swedish word for an exercise that simultaneously builds speed and endurance); and Saturday, a long-run of up to 40km. Sunday is the only day of rest, with most of them going to church and the family men leaving, perhaps once a month, to visit wives and children in other towns.

Alex has told us a big group of athletes meet every Thursday at 9am for fartlek training. It is about 9.15am and there are only five runners in front of us. One of them comes to the car to talk to Alex. His name is Amos Maiyo. He is 23, tall with long strides, and has never been to Europe. He is slated to go in September and appears to be in excellent condition. He will lead the group of runners today. Within a few minutes other runners arrive and start warming up.

It is cool, almost cold. The group takes off at an easy pace, running in a tight pack. They cut across a field and join the road to Kapsowar, past the venerable St. Patrick’s Iten High School, which has produced more world-class runners than any other institution. There are about 30 runners now gathered at the junction of the access road in conversation. They look relaxed; the 5km run from the main road has barely exerted them. The core group, including Amos Maiyo, Jason Mbote and Alex Kipkosgei, are affiliated with the same management. They train together, support each other and scout new athletes for their management based on their local knowledge of upcoming talent. The rest of the athletes are friends and acquaintances, who join them for the benefits of group training. Many athletes live and train in Iten for this reason – you can constantly pit yourself against the best.

Amos Maiyo comes to the car. “One minute slow, one minute fast,” he says. Alex sets his combination wristwatch-stopwatch. The group of runners starts off at the slow pace they used to get here. We follow at a distance. In a minute Alex’s watch beeps and the runners take off at a furious speed. Feet pound the road, soles of shoes flashing in rapid succession, and arms move piston-like at their sides. They keep it up for one minute, which seems like an eternity, then slow down to a one minute recovery jog. They will repeat this alternation 25 times for a total of 50 gruelling minutes.

At 30 minutes, the group is still almost intact. The leaders keep up the relentless pace on the fast sections of the interval. Each subsequent interval is harder, the recovery jog losing its restorative power. The group mentality kicks in, the individual pegging performance on the group transferring individual tiredness onto the pattern that can be followed automatically beyond each runner’s endurance. A few more people fall back, their bodies failing beyond the point they can get reserves from the group’s progress. We pass them and they are now going at a steady jog.

“There are two really bad hills coming up,” Alex says. Until now the course has been rather flat. The human body straining at maximum output is a thing of marvel, pounding up the hill and round a curve only to encounter the second hill. There is a flat section and we are back to where we started, having covered a distance of about 17km. A few runners are bent over, lungs bellowing, sweat evaporating from their foreheads. But they recover quickly, and apart from their soaking shirts, you can barely tell they have just completed an arduous physical task. Various groups leave until the core five runners, who were there first in the morning, remain talking. They will eat, rest and go for an easy run in the evening.

Alex never intended to be a runner. He played football while studying at Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) in Nairobi, eventually signing up with Mafuko Bombers in Meru. But with the state of Kenyan football being what it is, he eventually decided to switch to running. As he points out, “All you need are two pairs of running shoes and some sports clothes.”

He began training seriously after college, living with athlete friends in different parts of the country including Njoro and Nairobi. After entering some local races, he came to the notice of a German manager and was soon racing in South Africa. But it was not until he went to Germany and began racing on the European circuit that Alex started making good money. Utilising his KMTC training, he found a job at the hospital in Iten and started training before and after work. The job is flexible, allowing him to race several weeks during race season in Europe and come home with between USD10,000 and 15,000 a year.

For every Boston, New York, London, and Vienna marathon there are many smaller races – the Würzburg 10K, Sevenaer Run, The Great Scottish Run, Zwitserlootdakrun. Race organisers work with agents and managers to secure places for the Kenyan runners, who set credible race times and whose formidable reputation brings a certain prestige. The perception of running centres on elite athletes who dominate the news. It is far from reality. There is an entire class of middle-tier athletes who run, not to represent the country in Olympic or world championships, but to make a living. They are journeymen with no illusions ‑ in other words, true professionals.

These middle-tier runners live and train in Kenya and go to Europe for up to three months a year. They stay in small apartments with other runners under the same management, driving from town to town to races every week. There exists a whole system to support this industry, from the governing athletic body that oversees the relations between agents and runners, to athletic visa guidelines in the Nairobi embassies of host countries.

One Saturday night we go back to Amani Café, site of the bill incident, to have the evening meal. Saturday represents a kind of loosening for the runners as they will not train the following day. Strict diets slacken as we order the only thing left on the menu, chips and fried chicken of a texture that is generously described as flinty. Any other night and we would have insisted on rice or ugali with vegetables.

Accompanying us is Elias Kiptum Maindi, Alex’s teammate and friend. Elias is young, confident and believes he will be running a 2.06 marathon within a year; his half-marathon best is 1.03:06. He has been competing professionally for two years and this year made good time in various road races, and paced champions including Felix Limo and Martin Lel in the London, Rotterdam and Bonn marathons. The optimism is clear in his open, ready smile. Women like him – from the waitress to the pregnant neighbor, also a runner, who comes often to visit the house he shares with Alex. He tells me she is very happy, believes the baby is good luck and she will run faster after she delivers.

The athletes sleep early on weeknights, but this evening they are among the people walking around. I am curious to see how far this Saturday slackening of their rigorous routine goes. Big races are televised on Sundays at a hall behind the main line of shops. On other days, the community comes to watch European League football. This particular hall belongs to Arsenal fans, and at the bar attached to the hall we find a couple of runners drinking. Alex, for one, is a strong proponent of the analgesic and sedative powers of alcohol after the Saturday morning long run. But I have never seen him drink.

 

The place is cramped, with a wooden table and two benches on one side and a small cleared space for dancing. A young woman with blonde braids and skin the same colour as her hair comes and sits on one of the runner’s lap. I am told there are growing numbers of prostitutes in the town, drawn by the runners’ money. The runner’s life, however, does not lend itself to vice. Excessive slackening – rich food, a little too much beer – is immediately felt in one’s performance. Disappointingly, everyone goes home by 10.30pm. The bar will close at 11.

The following day, we are in a Toyota Townace matatu racing towards Eldoret. The day is clear, the sky a deep blue. Farmland stretches on each side for miles, broken by small shopping centres every couple of kilometres. Elias accompanies us to see Felix Limo, from whom we intend to gain some insight into what distinguishes a champion from the journeymen.

I am not sure what to expect from the athlete ranked at the top or near the top of Road Race Management’s winnings list for the last two years. The listings for USD125,000 to 150,000 do not tally with what I hear on the ground, which estimate his yearly earnings, including a contract with Adidas, at USD200,000 to 300,000.

Felix gestures for us to sit outside his house on two wooden benches. A small white Toyota is parked in the middle of the compound. There are a few chickens scratching about and four sheep so puffy with wool, they look like overstuffed pillows that have split. He says he is looking for someone to shear them.

We launch immediately into a discussion on his career trajectory. “I realised that I can do something when I almost beat Tergat in the Brussels 10,000. I ran 27:04. I realised I can beat also all these other big guys.” He pauses for a moment and I look to the side. The merinos have moved close behind us and are just standing there, trembling.“In 2001 I realised my potential also was on the road not on the track when I broke the world record of 15km, beating Haile Gebrsellasie.”

Felix left track for road racing, posting a 2.06 in 2003 in Amsterdam, his first marathon. He has been running 2.06 since then and boasts one of the top ten fastest times ever posted in marathon running.

Before that, his primary goal was to complete his education. After finishing high school in 1995, he was called to Maseno to study Information Technology. A fruitless search for a sponsor to pay his fees closed the education avenue and led him to running. His early years were a struggle; training in starts and stops when the shoes he bought in mitumba wore out. A manager made promises of races in Europe that never materialised.

“I consolidated some money from my uncles and bought some shoes,” he says, and he resumed training until November 1998 brought his first race in Europe. He wants to go back to school when he retires from running, but will not divulge his specific plans.

Felix trains in Kaptagat, a lushly forested area about 30km south of Iten. He is at home 100 days in the year, races about four weeks abroad, and spends the rest of the time in camp. An agent I speak to attributes a big part of Felix’s success to the strategy of limiting his events. He races sparingly, attending only four events a year – two half-marathons, which he calls “tune-up races,” and two marathons.

Commentators at the half-marathons have mistakenly written off his performances, not understanding their purpose in his overall strategy. He returns to “prepare for the real war now”. His keen tactical sense is only matched by a fiercely competitive spirit.

“You should be thinking about how am I going to win it, and you know winning is money. I am not saying I am not after money. I am after money, but I don’t put money on my mind because it will destroy me during the race. I put it… what I put in my mind is winning.”

Felix is more guarded than any of the other runners I have met so far, balancing the necessity of interacting with journalists with controlling accessibility. His environment is far more telling, the simplicity of his home deceptive. He owns two well-sized rental houses down the road and points to 15 acres of maize.

He preempts what he expects to be my question on the lifestyle he has chosen, which is very deliberately not ostentatious, when he speaks about runners buying big cars and properties they cannot maintain when the earnings slow to a trickle. He seems to be acutely conscious that this is something that could end abruptly because of injury and also because high-level competitive sport, by its very nature, is a temporal pursuit.

Evans Ogaro and Onesmus Nyerere are from Kisii. They tell me of the decline of the running tradition in their home town. When Evans was in primary school, if you were on the track team, your school fees were reduced and if you excelled, your schooling was free. The schools used to nurture runners but have now stopped. So the athletes are getting older and there is a gap between them and the next generation, who are not picking up running shoes, but looking for other pursuits.

Onesmus has used his part of his winnings in Europe to establish a timber business with his father back in Kisii. Elias points to him, “Huyu alijaribu kubeba power saw kwa hand luggage” (This one tried to carry a power saw in his hand luggage). Howls of laughter follow as incidents of airport scrutiny are remembered: removing shoes, the paranoia that carrying even a nail cutter on board can cause.

The runners are well-travelled, more than most Kenyans. Among them, they have been to Asia, South America and the Caribbean and most countries in Western Europe. Yet, they travel very specifically to race, staying in hotel rooms and apartments. It is like a businessman who stays in a conference hotel for the duration of a seminar abroad and sees little else. The ‘been to’ airs – that supposed cachet that comes with international travel – are little in evidence. There is a consciousness of a deficiency, being from a small town or a village; one of them expresses anxiety about navigating Nairobi despite having been to various European capitals. When travelling, the runners usually depend on their managers – for visa arrangements, air tickets, housing and local travel.

The agent calculates the runner’s net earnings, which are winnings minus air ticket, food, accommodation, transport, incidentals, and, because it is business, his own 15 per cent cut. Usually, the breakdown will include the mileage of the trip he has taken driving the runner to the airport, and the parking fee he will pay leaving the airport after the runner is long gone. The famous ‘breakdown’ is given to the athlete at the end of the competitive season, sometimes on the way to the airport. Onesmus shakes his head, “Hata hiyo chai mlikunywa itakuwa hapo… Na wewe umekimbia race ya 20 Euro” (Even that tea you both drank will be on the list… And so you have run a race for 20 Euro).

Any given morning, on the 30km stretch of road between Iten and Eldoret, one will encounter groups of runners training. For the first part of the trip Alex sits in the back row of the Toyota Townace with agent Gerard van der Veen, the owner of Volare Sports of Wezep, Netherlands. We are on our way to the Nandi North track and field district competition at Kapsabet’s Kipchoge Keino stadium. Gerard is in Kenya for a week and a half to visit the runners he represents, as well as recruit new athletes.

Alex and Gerard map out the schedule for the day – a visit to Martin Lel’s camp before the stadium to meet athletes, meet athletes at the Kapsabet competition on the way back, stop in Eldoret and meet some athletes and return to Iten and meet a few more athletes before the end of the day.

“Every week I get four, five, six emails from athletes asking for management,” says Gerard. “But I want to screen them, because, of course, I am looking for the strongest athletes. Alex does the research for me and when he says ‘Ok that is a strong guy or strong lady’, I try to invite them for five or six races where they earn back their ticket and make some money.”

After these initial small races, Gerard will evaluate their performances and decide whether to invite them back the next season. But the athletes also have various managers to pick from. Amos Maiyo, who led the fartlek training a few weeks before, has decided to sign up with another agent and he is now racing in Brazil. For Amos, the chance to race immediately, as opposed to waiting out the months until September, was the decisive factor. “He couldn’t wait,” Gerard says, shrugging his shoulders.

“But this year I get this guy into London on my own,” he adds, pointing to Elias. The race will build Elias’s name among organisers and soon they will invite him as one of the elite athletes – the natural and upward progression from pacemaker. I ask if it is truly a competition if the pacemakers can’t finish the race and he tells me that along with the ‘Pace’ back tags they wear, they are usually given chest numbers so they can complete the race, but that is not in the strategy.

“He will be ready for marathon next year… maybe year after,” Gerard says. Pacemakers are chosen from road racers with good 10km, 15km and half-marathon times. They have to be fast and lead the elite athletes up to contractually agreed-upon distances. Then they drop out, leaving one of the elite athletes to break the tape at the finish line. The elite runners are not always content to follow the ‘Pace’ jerseys and are known to put on the pressure. At a marathon in Bonn, Peter Chemei would come dangerously close to overtaking the pacemakers while exclaiming, “Chunga Unga! Chunga Unga!” (Guard your flour or take care of your bread, which you will lose if I pass you.)

We get to Martin Lel’s camp and there are about 20 athletes present. Elias points to Martin’s car and Gerard responds, laughing, “Yes, you can buy good car when you run good marathon.”

Gerard and Alex are particularly interested in the 5,000m and 10,000m runners in camp because they have the most potential to turn into road racers. One coach who approaches Gerard has four athletes in the front. He shouts to them as they pass, “Stride! Stride! Arms! Those are my boys,” he says pointing to them. “I tell them don’t overtake on the straight… only on the curve.”

Later, we make a stop at the Kapsabet competition – one of a series organised by Athletics Kenya (AK), the body that administers athletics in the country, including scheduling the athletics calendar, ensuring meets are carried out according to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) standards, protecting Kenyan athletes by vetting foreign managers and agents, and selecting and training the teams that represent the country in international events.

There are two seasons: cross country from January to April, and track and field from early November to January, and events in both provide the stage for runners to show themselves and meet agents and managers. It also enables teams from different parts of the country to compete against each other and gauge their strengths and weaknesses. The geographical races move from districts to provinces in a bracket that gets smaller as the best runners qualify. This culminates in the national championships, where the national team is selected.

Yet, AK does not run a permanent national training camp. The selected team goes on to train at a teachers college or other facility near Nairobi for two months before they proceed to the international championships.

Considering the success that Kenyan runners have had and continue to have in the world, the gap is evident and surprising. This is a frustration expressed across the board in the running world. AK in turn points to the national ministry of culture and sports and the lack of policies relating to athletics. Asked about the policies in place, a former AK official laughs ruefully: “What policies? In my day when you went to the ministry for money, they say they have finished the budget… taking choirs to sing in State House.”

The appointment of officials on a political basis regardless of qualification or, more importantly, interest in the field, has been cited as a problem in policy making. A former head of the Committee of Stadiums was once heard to ask, “Hiyo 800, wanapiga kiwanja mara ngapi?” (That 800m, how many times do they circle the track?)

Of AK’s nearly 90 million shilling (just over USD 1 million) income in 2005, 49 million was a grant from Nike, 13.6 million from the IAAF and 1.5 million from agent fees. Local grants were made up with Standard Chartered Bank at 19.1 million. The ministry of culture and sport contributed 3.4 million. The bulk of the money was spent on administration (19.7 million) and athletic meets (60 million). Only 6.6 million was spent on developing talent.

At the same time people complain about the lack of development resources and the athletic federation’s entrenched bureaucracy being resistant to change, they take matters into their own hands. Two places in particular, Kip Keino’s Training Centre and Lorna Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Centre, are setting new standards with top-level facilities. The former is listed by the IAAF as one of seven high performance training centres in the world. It represents an investment in the third and fourth generations of Kenya running. The centre is located just outside Eldoret, on a farm owned by Kipchoge Keino, who retired in 1973, after garnering two Olympic gold medals and holding records at all distances from 1,500m to 10,000m.

With all that has been made of the base advantage of Kenyan runners – high altitude; the lack of modern amenities that have them running long distances to school, or to fetch water or to raid cattle; and the great amounts of milk they drink and unprocessed foods they eat – the observable is far more awe inspiring than the mythical. Large reserves of mental strength are required to face the cold Iten mornings, along with laser-like focus to overcome the tedium of daily repetitious training sessions and to endure the punishing physicality of the sport. Of course some people are more athletic, but without the years spent training they would never have become the champions they are today.

On my last Sunday in Iten, I go to church with Elias and Gerard. Just outside stands St. Patrick’s Iten, the centre of an athletic movement that has spilled outside the school boundaries and become an integral part of the community. It draws young people to Iten as long as running is the most lucrative opportunity open to them and the infrastructure to make their dreams a reality exists. And, moreover, because the champions winning medals, marathons and making money are not remote figures, but people they know from their villages and towns.

 



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