Running with the Kenyans: ‘A head start is what I need’

There’s a quiet knock on my door. I roll over and look at the time on my phone. 4:40am.

“OK,” I say, swinging my legs out of the bed. I haven’t slept that well. The bed was comfortable enough, but I was missing my pillow. I ended up wrapping my towel in a sheet, but it wasn’t quite the same.

It’s still dark outside, so I switch on the harsh strip light. A small, bare room. My clothes piled on a white plastic chair. My trainers on the floor. I sit on the edge of the bed for a moment, trying to wake up, but it’s cold so I start to get dressed. In ten minutes we have to leave.

I’m spending two days in an elite training camp here in Kenya. Although the country’s Rift Valley area and particularly the town of Iten is full of amazing athletes, the very best usually live and train in camps like this one, run by a Dutch company.

It’s a small, grassy square surrounded by dormitories where the athletes sleep. When I first arrive, a few of them are lying on old mattresses on the grass chatting. Another man is washing running shoes in a bucket of water. I go over and sit next to him. His name is Emmanuel Mutai. He came second in both the New York and London marathons last year. The year before he was second in the world championships. In a few weeks he’ll be lining up in London again as one of the favourites.

He chats to me politely while working away on his shoes, scrubbing them until they’re spotless. Then he leaves them on the grass to dry and disappears into his room.

Also staying in the camp are two of the world’s fastest 1,500m runners, Nixon Chepseba and William Biwott. The day I arrive I get to head out with them for a slow recovery run through the nearby forest.

They’re both long and sinewy, gliding along through the trees. I try to run relaxed and smooth, but I feel like a clown trotting along beside them.

These are two of Kenya’s most promising athletes and they’re full of confident smiles. As well as being training partners, they’re room-mates at the camp, and between them they won a host of big races on the European indoor circuit this winter.

“He won one, then I won one, then him, then me,” William tells me.

That evening we eat a supper of ugali and chopped greens while watching a Jackie Chan film in the camp’s sparse common room. Most people turn in before the film ends, ready for the early start the next morning.

We leave through the gate just before 5am and walk under the stars to the main road. Athletes stand around in the shadows not speaking while we wait for a bus to come and pick us up.

A young man of barely 20 with a big smile asks me how far I will run. Most of the runners are planning to run 38km, which is almost a marathon. The bus will follow us handing out water and giving us our time splits every 5km.

“It depends on the pace,” I say. “How fast will you run each 5km?”

“Probably 16 minutes, maybe 17,” he says, casually, as though that’s a normal pace for a 38km run. At 6am. At 8,000ft. My fastest ever 5km time, run on a flat course in Exeter, is over 18 minutes. Suddenly I’m worried.

A minibus pulls up and the door opens. Sleepy faces peer back at us. The bus is already full and there are about ten of us waiting outside. Somehow we all squeeze in, with people sitting on each others’ laps, or standing bent over, heads squashed against the ceiling. I manage to get a window seat and peer out at the passing verge as the driver cranks up the skipping Kalenjin music. Nobody speaks.

Just before 6am the bus stops on a lonely dirt road in the middle of nowhere. A few people walk by in the darkness, looking over at us, as some of the athletes disappear into the blackness to use the loo. The rest of us stand around like early morning workers about to start a shift. I’m still fretting about the pace. A thin, sickle moon hangs in the sky as an orange glow starts to seep in from the east. It’s a beautiful, still morning.

We seem to be waiting for something, I realise.

“What’s going on?” I ask one of the other runners.

“We’re waiting for the ladies,” he says, nodding over to the road where three women are standing holding their watches, getting some last-minute instructions from the two coaches. “They get a 10 minute head start.”

A head start is what I need. I run over. “Perhaps I should go with them?” I say to the coaches. “Sure,” they say, and a few seconds later I’m running, gently at first, but soon moving steadily along. Kenyans are brilliant at slowly cranking up the pace on long runs so you almost don’t notice you’re getting faster. By 5km we’re passing bicycles, as streams of people make their way to work. At each corner the road stretches off again far into the distance, but we keep going, without speaking, our feet pat patting, the miles passing as the day rises into the sky.

At about 17km the men come past us. First the sound of rushing feet, like something sprinting up from behind. Then they go by, their stride strong, their shoulders leaning forward, little puffs of dust kicked up by their feet. One by one they go. At the front are Emmanuel Mutai and a Ugandan athlete called Stephen Kiprotich who came 6th at the recent world cross country championships. The others are not far behind.

As they race past I feel suddenly worse, as though the harsh contrast in speed has stripped away the belief that I was feeling strong, has shone glaring headlights on the folly of my efforts. The women are getting away from me now. They too are running 38km, but the pace is still picking up. Behind me I hear the motor of the bus. As it passes me the side door slides open. The coach, Patrick Sang, a former Olympic silver medallist, grins at me.

“You want a ride?” he asks. It’s a beautiful offer. I leap in through the door and sit down on a long empty seat. My heart is pumping, my body tingling to have stopped.

“You know,” says Patrick, “It is very high up here.” He’s giving me an excuse, which is generous of him. But it’s for him too. The offer of a lift was more of a command than a question. The bus has to keep moving from the back of the group to the front, handing out drinks, giving out times and offering encouragement. The further behind I get, the harder that is to do. But it’s OK, I’ve done enough. In fact, I’m exhausted.

Back at the camp, the athletes are in chirpy spirits. The day’s work is done. All that is left now is to rest. Tea is served by the cook, but hardly anybody eats anything. For those who are hungry, like me, there are slices of dry, white bread.

The camp is a strange mix of frugality and wealth. As well as washing their own clothes and shoes in buckets of water, the athletes sleep in small rooms, eat with their fingers, and sit on the floor or on plastic garden chairs. After the run I ask where the showers are. I’m pointed to a cold tap and a pile of buckets.

Yet some of these are wealthy men. A row of large, shiny 4×4 cars are parked just inside the gate like a dealer’s showroom. They all own houses and farms elsewhere, often more than one. But they choose to live an almost monastic life here, with running their daily practice.

“It’s what we’re used to,” Emannuel tells me, referring to the basic conditions. But also, there is a belief that those who leave, who chose to train at home and live a more normal life, will lose their edge. And with so much competition in this one tiny corner of the world, edge is something that once lost, is hard to get back.

The book Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn will be published in 2012

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