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Hakuna Matata – Two Weeks of Running with the Kenyan Elite
In March 2023, I spent two memorable weeks in Iten, Kenya to train at the High Altitude Training Centre. In this piece, I share my experiences of the vibe, the training, and the inspiration.
Part 1: The Vibe
He gave me the welcome pack and said “Your name is very hard to pronounce, you shall now be called Chirchir. Don’t worry, chichir in Kalenjin means fast, like hurry hurry. Men have the prefix of Kip and women have the prefix of Chep.” So then, for the next two weeks, at least in the eyes of the boss, I became Kipchirchir – The fast one.
I thought to myself, such an irony to have that name for someone who is an average club runner, but at least now I had an identity here. For whatever it is worth, the name sounded a little like Kipchoge – the fastest man on earth – the greatest of all time and I knew this was going to be fun for the two weeks.
Over the past eight months of booking this running camp, I had to fight the demons of self-doubt as to whether I will be able to survive here. While I’ve had many years of running experience behind me, the realities of life - babies, startups, Covid, AQI - had caught up to me. I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to handle the high-altitude training. Running city marathons at sea levels is one thing but training with the world's best in their den is another.
Over the years, running has given me great joy. Through the sport, I have met many interestingly people and visited unique places. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I wasn’t going to miss. This was a chance to observe in great detail, how the masters of running world operate - how they live, what they eat, how they train, and above all, how they conduct themselves. If you are into distance running, you will read about the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and its towns and cities of Iten, Eldoret, Kapsabet, Kaptagat, Nandi Hills. This region has produced the greatest of champions in long-distance running.
After three flights and a long car ride, we arrived at the High-Altitude Training Centre (HATC) – “The University of Champions”. Willy Songok, the head of guest relations at the Kenya Experience camp, is a tall Kalenjin man who speaks with great intent. As I got off the vehicle, he shook our hands and warmly welcomed us. Iten, a small town, in the west of Kenya, is at 2400m above sea level. The altitude and the weather provide for a great training ground. The Home of Champions as it is called, this place is the mecca of distance running. Many legends of Kenyan running trace their roots back to this place. Some like Lornah Kiplagat have given back to this place. HATC is a great location with 35 rooms and all facilities such as a great dining room, swimming pool, lounge, gym, and vast green spaces.
During our two weeks here, we had with us national-level athletes from Finland, the Czech Republic and Poland. As for our campmates – we had a diverse set of runners from a very young 64-year-old to a very mature 16-year-old. I say that because all of the attendees were serious runners who had built the right attitude of humility and kindness that one usually imbibes with this sport.
A marathon is a beast that humbles you and anyone who runs with the right attitude typically demonstrates similar traits. We had folks from the UK, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, and USA and I was the only one from India in our camp. We all got along very well and built a strong bond. Although you run alone, they say running is a team sport. However, it was evident that different people have different goals. Some were almost pro-level and hence had a lot more regimented routine, then there were runners like me, who were there more for the experience. I must say that I learned that many of the “slower” runners did feel a sense of doubt before considering this camp – interestingly, we all had a great time – regardless of the pace at which we ran. Comparison is truly the bane of existence and the Kenya Experience taught us that you only challenge yourself and you need to run at your own pace.
There was a certain slowness in the way of life. This was rural Kenya at its finest. Willy would often say – you have the watches, but we (Kenyans) have the time. Nothing was rushed, everything happens when it is supposed to, and if it doesn’t “Don’t worry, no panic, Hakuna Matata”. Open skies, vast green fields, fresh fruits, and vegetables. The HATC crew was warm and welcoming and not new to Mzungus (foreigners).
As the camp started, we were introduced to the fundamentals of Kenyan running and lifestyle. Most importantly, we were warned about the high altitude and that we should take it easy in the first few days. Runners are notorious for their gadgets that measure everything from running stats to heart rates to sweat loss to sleep. Kenyans keep it simple – we were told to listen to our bodies. If you feel good, twende twende (go go!), if you don’t feel so good pole pole (slowly slowly!). We were introduced to all the coaches and pacers – all men and women of high achievement yet simple and humble. It was repeatedly mentioned that there was no secret to Kenyan running expect that one had to be “Simple, Humble, and Disciplined”. I used to often wonder that humility and discipline can still be imbibed but the level of simplicity that rural Kenya presents is hard to find in a large megalopolis like Delhi, Mumbai, London, or New York. Time will tell if we can truly imbibe those qualities when we head back home and settle into our routines.
Kenyans don’t run for time. They run to win. Winning means bread on the table. It means monetary success that can be shared with friends and family. During one of our long walks, Willy was talking about the irony that comes with success. He said runners work hard to earn all that money, and when they get it – it goes to their head and they stop listening to their coaches and stop being disciplined – then the downfall begins. This isn’t true just for running but success getting to the head is a common malaise in other professions as well. Our coaches would often say Eliud is different – despite all the success, money, and fame but nothing has changed him. You realize that it’s not your timing that makes you a champion but your character and Eliud Kipchoge has been a true inspiration for many in Kenya and around the world.
We cannot forget our favorite Masai man on the trip – Alex Kariankei, our photographer, who ensured that not a single day went by when he didn’t take great pictures of us. Just like the running staff loved their job, Alex loved clicking pictures.
Part 2: The Training
Runners in Iten train with a 3–4 month plan, which is the guiding force behind all their success. Each week of the day is dedicated to a specific run – easy run, track session, progressive run, fartlek, recovery run, long run, and of course a day of rest. Each training program is unique but the basic tenets are as follows:
First, the initial weeks should focus on strength and conditioning and slightly lower on the mileage – We had our famous core classes a few times a week. The usually soft-spoken Coach Richard would give instructions for each set and then yell “No Pain No Gain”. The importance of a strong core cannot be emphasized – that makes a big difference in how you move through the air. Strength will not make you faster but it will ensure you don’t injure yourself. Our core classes had some Kenyan runners join us. We had the chance to share our session with champions like Edna Kiplagat, and Joyceline Jepkosgei. Imagine you are doing crunches and hurting – the person next to you is also hurting – expect that the person next to you has won London and Boston marathons. To hear them wince is not only humanizing to see that even elites feel pain but also gratifying to be in such an august company.
Second, the focus is always on endurance and mileage – Some runners put up to 200 kms a week. Once you have the mileage, you can play with your speed. I noticed that in no single practice run, we were supposed to run faster than our marathon pace … When it comes to speed - You are supposed to always save your best for the final day.
Third, there is usually a lot of talk about diet in running circles and on social media. However, at the camp, we hardly spoke of it – Our food was simple, healthy and a fresh diet of local vegetables with pasta, bread, rice, and ugali. Desserts were local fruits. I understood that as a vegetarian, the simple home food my Indian mother fed me while growing up was more than enough to run the 42K.
There was tremendous importance given to rest – and rest meant sleep. Kenyans run twice a day and sleep in the afternoon for a short nap and then again at night. Sundays are rest days with a visit to the Church. We spent our Sunday visiting the Lake Nakuru National Park.
When you are tiring your body at that level, rest is important for recovery. In the world of social media and OTT – sleep is gravely affected.
Simple home food and good sleep – it is really that simple. Life has a way of reminding you, again and again, that be it work, relationships, health, or long-distance running – the genius is in simplicity.
Part 3: The Inspiration
By far the best takeaway for me from Kenya was the inspiring people I met through my two weeks. To hear some of their experiences, makes one feel how grateful we are to be living in conditions that are not economically challenging. I am not sure if Kenyans win because of or despite their economic conditions but their stories are heart-warming and gut-wrenching at the same time. I have seen many runners with torn - borrowed shoes, and I have also seen runners holding rocks in their hands to increase strength – no fancy gyms, just purity in training. Back in the day, kids would run to school early in the morning when it was dark and because they were without shoes, they learned how to step on the rocky red dirt roads, this led to natural front / mid-foot landing – and you ask why is their form so good!
The Kenya Experience ensured we met elites during our trip and interacted with them. We went to meet the Kibet family – where the sisters Slyvia and Hilda Kibet were kind enough to share their running experiences. Slyvia is an Olympics bronze medalist and a CWG silver medalist in Delhi. When I asked her what did you like the most about the run in Delhi, she said “The shopping after the race”. It makes you realize how similar we are as people. Slyvia took breaks from running because of motherhood and each time she would come back, lose weight and then get back to her training – Her story and that of her family are nothing short of inspirational. Most heartwarming was to hear about one event in the Netherlands where three sisters ran – I think they finished 1,2 and 4. Coach Collins, their brother used his running prowess to get a scholarship at the University of Arizona. Running has given their family everything but they have done a lot for the sport as well by staying true to their roots.
We met Abel Kirui – the Silver medalist at the 2012 Olympics, someone with 20 years of running experience. Like the Kibet family, he had a jovial presence. He said he has seen hard times of having no sugar in the tea and that their childhood was rough, but when your great-grandfather was chasing antelopes (in his words), genetically you are built for distance. Today, he runs a school, and has some investments, running has taken him to 70% of the countries around the world yet he continues to train just as hard - he continues to remain humble. He said, “God has given me the talent, the glory goes to him – I am a happy person because I have seen his hand help me.” Abel said sitting for long periods on a flight annoy him the most about travel. Made me wonder, most of us do desk jobs and sit all day. Its not very healthy for the body.
Runners are happy, healthy people – one such person was our lead pacer, Emmanuel Bundotich. Emmanuel at 2:12 is faster than any Indian and is looking for a 2:10 finish in Nairobi in October 2023. A good time in Nairobi means he gets invited to various parts of the world – a challenge he is willing to accept because the last time he was invited to San Salvador, he spent two months there and he won everything – The funds helped in building a new house.
Finally, no trip to Iten is complete without a visit to St Patrick's School. This school has produced arguably the greatest Kenyan runners of all time. We went to their museum, walked around the school, barged into the library when kids were writing their exams and met the great Brother Colm O’Connell – also known as the Godfather of Kenyan running. It was surreal to see him and hear him speak – over the years, I have watched so many of his videos and documentaries of his great success with Kenyan running and in particular with ‘King David’ – David Rudisha – the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medalist in 800m and the current world record holder. Little did I know that I would meet Brother Colm again in a few days and spend an hour chatting with him over dinner.
Our conversation was no less than a crash course in leadership for me. It was St Patrick's Day and he kindly agreed to have dinner with us. As I started asking questions about his time in Kenya and his training methods, I noticed that his stance wasn’t to train people for gold medals. He said I have a batch of 50 kids to train, 10 will take running as a professional career but 40 others will use the learnings from the sport – that of focus, perseverance, sacrifice – to make a decent life, either by getting a foreign scholarship or joining the Kenyan armed forces. Our world idealizes the winner – the person with the gold medal around their neck but Brother Colm said – someone like Rudisha is not my aim – he has done great for himself and I am glad to be his coach but I aim to bring those other 40 up to a mark where they can make a better life for themselves. Even when we spoke about Rudisha, he was humbled to admit the losses of 2009 that forced their team to reflect. He came back strong in 2010 to break the world record. Brother Colm spoke of the importance of failure and how critical it was to learn from them. Our dinner marked the last night in Kenya and what a way to end this camp.
What's next for Kenya? Interestingly, the Kenyan education system allows you to either study or run – doing both is hard – few schools like St Patricks allow for that balance. Studying would mean a stable income and running would mean a high-risk career but pursuing an avenue that has a prior culture of success. What will the Kenyan kids choose is the question? I met some Indian athletes in Iten who said runners from Ethiopia, Uganda, and even India (Avinash Sable) have proven that they too have it in them to win on the big stage.
Like everything, Kenyan running will evolve. We ran past so many school kids during our morning runs. We hope that through their education or running prowess, they secure the future for themselves and their families.
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