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Running with the Kenyans

Running with the Kenyans

Jul 2016

Words and pics Franki Black

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It’s 6:30am in Eldoret, a vibrant and rather chaotic city situated in the west of Kenya at 2000 metres above sea level. I’m standing on a dirt road in my running gear waiting for a group of professional runners. Like clockwork they appear. This is their first run of three for the day and I’ve signed up to go along – it’s a dream come true.

Afternoon run in Iten.

Kenya is world-renowned for producing champion long-distance runners and most of them are of the Kalenjin tribe and come from this part of the country. Their athletic prowess has baffled scientists and researchers for decades. Some put it down to genetics, others to diet, determination and community spirit. In these parts it’s fashionable to wear running shoes wherever you go. Children grow up surrounded by athletic heroes and by the time they turn 15 most dream of joining one of the many running camps dotted around Eldoret. In these camps 20 to 40 athletes (specialised in different distances) eat, sleep and train together. They run on a network of dirt roads and cover an average of 30 kilometres every day, seven days a week. I’m at best a casual jogger and completely out of my depth as eight lanky athletes greet me; some in English, some in Swahili.

Post-run with the Kenyan athletes.

Hosea Maiyo, a talented marathoner, leads the pack. It’s luckily a slow training session for the trainees and I find the pace manageable. There are two Kenyan women, one of whom won the Kenya Marathon a week prior, among the group which for the rest consists of men and they gesture for me to run with them. I fall back as we make our way up a hill and file into line when we enter a forest trail. “The thin air in the forest is good for training,” explains Hosea. The runners chatter occasionally among themselves and make me feel completely welcome. At the eight kilometre mark I’m assured that we’re almost finished. We run the last stretch in perfect synchronicity and I feel as if I’m part of a moving whole. At the finish the athletes invite me to stretch my limbs, before bidding me farewell. They’re off to have breakfast before their next run at 10am. 

Boutique tents at Elagerini Tented Camp.

The day before we had checked into the Elagerini Tented Camp - a nature retreat that comes with seven boutique tents - for a two day stay. It’s conveniently situated next to the Pace Running Camp, which makes interaction with the athletes easy. Over breakfast Patrick Birgen, a local man who started Elagerini with his wife Veronica in 2011, assures us that he has many activities planned. First up is an expedition along the Elagerini River to see a collection of 12th Century ruins left behind by the Sirikwa people, a tribe that predates the Maasai. We trek through a dense forest until we reach a shallow depression in the ground. Patrick points out stonework around the hole. These depressions (known as Sirikwa holes) were central to the Sirkwa’s temporary settlements and believed to have housed their cattle. There are an estimated 50 Sirikwa holes found in the area. 

Stonework left behind by the Sirikwa people (12th-15th Century).

In the afternoon we’re driven to the famous Kamariny Stadium, a dusty training ground where many Kenyan greats have run. It’s situated on the Kerio escarpment and offers spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley. This is also a popular destination for parachuting and hiking. From there we go to the nearby town of Iten, another home of champions, to see more neon-clad athletes in action. Along the way children pop up like meerkats and white butterflies fill the air like snowflakes. Watching life in this part of the world is a fascination. Bread, booze and milk are sold from the backs of motorcycles, brightly-painted homes are turned into fruit stalls and livestock share the sidewalks with pedestrians. Everyone seems busy, selling plants or electronics or catching up on gossip. This is raw Africa at its most lively.

Bottle store on wheels.

In between the bustle, we spot groups of athletes running along the road. I’m in awe of these humble and determined sportspeople. They have no sophisticated infrastructure, little financial support (what there is, comes mostly from parents) and limited external coaching. Nevertheless Eldoret and surrounds produce more gold medals in athletics than any other place on earth. Last year the Kenyans topped the overall winners table at the World Athletics Championship in Beijing with a total of 16 medals. Some of the most famous athletes from Eldoret and Iten are: Wilson Kipsang (former world record marathon holder and London marathon champion), Abel Kirui (two times marathon world champion), David Rudisha (world record holder and 800m Olympic champion), Mary Keitany (half-marathon world champion and London marathon winner) and Lornah Kiplagat (four times world champion and current world road record holder for 5km and 10 miles).

Iten, home of champions.

In the evening a group of athletes join us for dinner. Their diet is strict and limited to vegetables, carbohydrates and proteins. Unlike the rest of us, they skip the ice cream and opt for watermelon instead. We ask many questions and discover that passion for the sport and potential financial reward are the main motivators for the runners. They also enjoy a great sense of community and are more like brothers and sisters than competitors. “If we have a new neighbour, we will feed that person for a whole year until they are settled,” explains one of the runners. 

After dinner we gather for a bonfire storytelling sitting. Veronica’s face grows animated as she tells us about the mail runners of yesteryear. In the 19th Century mail would arrive via train in Eldoret. Often letters were destined for remote parts of the county. Barefoot Kalenjins would run in relay to deliver letters. One runner would run up to 40 kilometres a day, before handing it over to the next runner. This would continue until the letter was delivered. These lean men ran with spears in hand to protect themselves from wild animals and to lift the letter above water when crossing rivers. There are still stamps found in Eldoret that depict the mail runners in action. 

Bonfire sessions at the Elagerini Tented Camp.

The next day we’re on a plane to Mombasa where we’ll play golf and go big-game fishing. I’m sad to leave behind the kind people of Elagerini, but filled with new inspiration.

There are many plausible explanations for the success of the Kalenjins – the high altitude training, the strict diet, the intense training regime, the entrenched running culture, the genes – but I think above all it’s the unshakable Ubuntu spirit of these extraordinary people that makes it all possible.

Stay at Elagerini Travellers Tented Camp & run with the athletes. Email: [email protected]; Phone: +254 (0) 787 933 428;

Yoga on the banks of the Elagerini River.

More Ideas for Active Travellers in Kenya

Golfing at Vipingo Ridge: Situated 42 kilometres north of Mombasa on the East Coast, Vipingo Ridge is a residential golf estate that boasts an 18-hole championship golf course. It has recently been rated the number one golf course in Kenya by the World’s Top 100 Magazine. Visitors can rent two-to-four-bedroom villas and facilities include a luxury clubhouse, a conferencing venue, a private beach bar, a sundowner bar, a private airstrip and horse trails. Book today! Email: [email protected]; Phone: +2544150150. 

Watamu Beach.

Big-game fishing at Hemingways, Watamu Beach: Situated 100 kilometres north of Vipingo Ridge, Hemingways is something of an icon on Kenya’s east coast. Since the eighties this family-friendly luxury hotel has attracted fishermen and holidaymakers who come every year for world-class sports fishing, snorkelling and to enjoy Watamu, one of Kenya’s top beaches. This coastline is considered the top destination for big-game fishing in East Africa and renowned for its variety of fish, including three types of Marlin, Sailfish, Broadbill Swordfish and Short-bill Spearfish. Guests can sign up for five or ten-hour fishing excursions aboard one of many diesel-powered boats anchored in Watamu Bay. Each charter is hosted by a captain and two deckhands. Besides fishing, guests can enjoy the hotel’s restaurant, poolside bar and spa or walk along the beach to the local market. Other activities on offer include diving, kite-surfing, kayaking and sunset dhow cruises in Mida Creek. Hemingways will be closed for renovations from April 2016 for 15 months, however fishing charters and all other activities will still be available to guests staying along Watamu Beach. Email: [email protected]; Phone: +254 733 411 112/ +254 722 205 917

Professional Runner, Laban Kiprop.

Voices of Kenya

Professional Athlete: Laban Kiprop

Speciality: 10-kilometres [current time: 32 minutes; ideal time: 28 minutes].

1. How old were you when you started running? I was 15 years old when I first started running and I went professional when I turned 25. 

2. Why do you run? I like to run. It allows me to travel to different parts of the world. The pay can also be good if you succeed and it keeps me fit. 

3. How often and how far do you run every day? We run two to three times a day, between 15 and 30 kilometres in total every day. 

4. Why do you think so many of the world’s top runners come from this part of Kenya? The environment is excellent for running and running is a big part of our culture here - we motivate one another. 

5. How does running benefit the community? Successful athletes often go on to open schools in our communities and this leads to undeveloped areas being upgraded. 

6. What do you think about when you run? I think about being better than yesterday. 

7. What is your ultimate goal? To represent my country in the Olympic Games.

Running shoes at the Pace Running Camp.

Head Chef: Joseph Thambu

Joseph is originally from Nairobi and has been working at the Vipingo Ridge Golf Estate for six years.

1. What is your earliest food memory? Making pancakes as a six-year old with my mom at our home in Nairobi. 

2. What inspired you to become a chef? My love and passion for food and the fact that I started early in life made cooking easy. 

3. What is the cuisine at Vipingo Ridge? We cook continental food. It includes Thai, Italian, British and Indian cuisine. When we host functions, we’ll also serve local Kenyan dishes. 

4. What is your signature dish? There are a few, but I’d have to go with the Ridge fillet steak. I roast and bake it and serve it with pepper or mushroom sauce. It’s delicious!

5. Where do you source your ingredients? Everything is sourced locally from nearby markets. We source our fish from local fishermen and we aim to support surrounding communities in this way. 

6. What would be on the menu for your last meal on earth? Italian scallop. 

View from the Kerio Escarpment.

Voice of Kenya Tourism: Wausi Walya

Waisi works in Public Relations & Corporate Communications for Kenya Tourism.

I love being Kenyan! We are extremely friendly people, we form a close-knit community and when you’re far from home Kenyans are always your family. I think that Kenya provides a soft landing into Africa for tourists. What makes us special is that we have successfully preserved our cultures - such as the Maasai - and we boast diverse destinations within our borders: coastal, forested, savanna and wildlife areas and of course the beautiful Rift Valley. Visitors are literally spoilt for choice! Besides the Big Five we have a great variety of birds and butterflies and our conservation efforts are world-class. Kenya is also home to two of the top beaches in the world - Watamu and Diani - and our water is clean, crisp and warm. To top it off our vibrant tourism sector trickles down and benefits our communities. 

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Source: Travel Ideas

Travel Ideas