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Wilson Kipsang of Kenya celebrates after winning the men's London Marathon April 22, 2012. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)
Wilson Kipsang of Kenya celebrates after winning the men's London Marathon April 22, 2012. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Elite Marathoners

Running from poverty to become world champions Add to ...

As Wilson Kipsang crossed the London Marathon finish line on April 22, the roughly 200 people clustered in a ramshackle theatre here responded with only lacklustre applause. Kipsang had established a virtually unassailable lead, so his win was anticlimactic. For Kenyans in this remote town, widely acclaimed for the marathon talent it produces, a mere victory is insufficient.

More than two minutes after Kipsang won, in 2 hours 4 minutes 44 seconds, his compatriot Martin Lel edged Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia in a full sprint to secure second place. That sent the crowd into jubilation.

“People here feel very proud; the winners are all from this region,” said Mohamed Omar Kipyego, the 28-year-old owner of the theatre, called Dreams. “It means a lot to people here, even for me. Those people who participate in the marathon events, I know them very well. They are my friends.”

Resting on an escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley, Iten is increasingly gaining recognition as the world’s foremost manufacturer of elite middle-and long-distance running talent.

The figures speak for themselves. Male and female Kenyans who train here won marathons last month in London and in Boston. All six marathoners named last week to Kenya’s Olympic team train in Iten or the vicinity. The town of 4,000 people, roughly a quarter of whom are athletes, is also becoming a popular destination for foreigners seeking to hone their skills before races.

“Iten is a very nice place to train; the altitude is high,” Kipsang said upon arrival home last week at Eldoret airport, about 30 kilometres from Iten. The town sits more than 2,400 metres above sea level. “There are so many high-class athletes that train there and perform very well.”

Iten does not have the premium facilities common throughout the United States and Europe. Athletes train on a gravel track a few miles outside of town that floods quickly when heavy rain sets in. Despite the disadvantages, Kenyans are routinely recording faster marathon times than ever. Kenyans registered 29 of the 30 fastest official times in the marathon last year.

Debate surrounds the reasons for Kenyans’ long-distance running success. Analysts cite physical attributes that are conducive for the sport. But running is also ingrained in the local culture.

Regardless of such speculation, Iten’s premier athletes anticipate increasing hegemony.

“Maybe I can say yes, other countries are strong,” Mary Keitany, this year’s female victor in London, said while noting improved Kenyan female performances because of increased gender equality in the country that enables women to pursue independent careers. “But if we continue to train the way we are, we will continue to dominate.”

Kenya boasts a surplus of top-notch long-distance runners, largely unknown elsewhere. Most are from the impoverished countryside and do not receive the chance to run abroad. The successes of local athletes in the Rift Valley region and the financial rewards they reap, however, have galvanized the population.

“We are fighting the poverty bwana [master]” Jackson Biwott, 24, an Iten native, said after a moderate 18-kilometre, hour-long run one recent morning. “We’re just here for money. Nothing else.”

Biwott is one of hundreds of Iten residents who in the morning stream onto the labyrinth of dirt roads and paths that feed into town. They brave the rain and relatively cold morning temperatures of April in hopes of capitalizing on the rare chance of competing internationally.

“They are motivated now,” Joseph Cheromei, a local coach, said with the heat on full throttle inside his vehicle parked on a road a few miles outside of town. “It has become a job. It is work.”

As the pack of runners approached the van, Cheromei pointed out the 2009 10-kilometer women’s world champion Linet Masai, running casually among the others. “They train hard,” Cheromei said. “You see yourself, how they wake up early and run.”

Youths in the region are increasingly encouraged to pursue formal training in distance running. Watching their role models train around them daily, then return to large homes and properties, Kenya’s young athletes focus on running as a way to escape the hardship of agrarian life.

“I like to run, but I want to be rich one day from running and build a big home,” said Isaac Koech, 13, the winner of a two-kilometre race, sponsored by the London Marathon, that was held in February for schoolchildren in Iten.

Surrounded by his parents and grandparents on their property adjacent to bean and maize fields on the outskirts of Iten, Isaac said he won the race despite not having shoes. Some of his family members sleep in thatched-roof mud huts on the property.

“I want to be a bigger athlete than the ones there now,” he said.

International athletes are flocking to Iten in quickly increasing numbers for the high altitude, clean air and cool temperature, and to analyze their performances. In recent months, squads from Germany, England, Greece and other countries have come here to train. Independent runners also come to town throughout the year.

“For most people, they come to Kenya to see how the Kenyan athletes train,” said Dan Mulhare, 26, a 3-and 5-kilometer runner from Ireland who is living here temporarily to train for this year’s European championships. International athletes “come to Kenya to find that magic ingredient,” he said.

Despite an injury withdrawal from the London Marathon by the world-record holder, Patrick Makau, a performance that cost him a spot on the Olympic team, Kenyans appear poised to accomplish great feats at the London Games. Kipsang said he was ready to bring another record back to his Rift Valley homeland.

“For me, as an athlete, I have the potential to beat the world record,” he said.

Because of the clout long-distance runners carry in Kenya, the athletes are ripe for potential exploitation. In an increasingly combative political and tribal environment as the country nears nationwide elections, some politicians in the Rift Valley region have sought to use runners for personal gains.

William Ruto, an Eldoret North member of Parliament, called in recent weeks for all local runners to boycott the London Olympics in protest of the International Criminal Court’s decision to level charges for crimes against humanity against him and three other Kenyan political and civil leaders. The charges stem from the 2007-8 postelection violence that ravaged the country. Athletes have remained tight-lipped, but prominent members of the community readily dismiss the calls.

“Runners are runners and politicians are politicians,” said the chairwoman of the town council and de facto mayor, Mary Cherono Ruto, who is no relation to William Ruto. “There’s no way a politician can stop a runner from running.”