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Getting up to speed in the Kenyan village of Iten

The author finishes his run and avoids traffic in Iten, Kenya.

By T.K. Skenderian Globe correspondent 

My leg muscles burned, I struggled to keep up, and I was confused.

Four minutes earlier, this had been a fun run, but suddenly, we were cruising. Nearly five miles along our 7.5-mile route, I was trying to accelerate while running uphill. The process sent waves of doubt and pain through my body.

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Self-doubt is common in running. Runners regularly question their strength, their lung capacity, and why they ever took up this painful hobby. But at 7,900 feet above the Rift Valley, with two miles to go, the doubt was warranted. I couldn’t keep up with the Kenyans.

Iten, Kenya, is 215 miles northwest of Nairobi, overlooking a vast green quilt of farmland and forest below. It’s mythical in the world of running. Since the 1980s, world-record holders, Olympic medalists, world champions, and major marathon victors have routinely sprung from this 4,000-person village. “Success brings success,” says Kip Evans, an agent and coach who lives in Iten. “It’s a bit like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger as it goes down the mountain.”

As Iten-based runners have grown their snowball of dominance, Western researchers have studied their diets, training regimens, and anatomy to try and unlock the secrets of Kenyan speed. And while books, studies, and films on the topic proposed lots of hypotheses, Iten runners continued to win, making the small village a travel destination for runners from around the world. Athletes embed themselves here, not only to improve their speed, but to experience a “trip-to-Mecca” level of respect that deepens with every mile. “It’s a quiet, peaceful, and safe environment where champions can really focus,” Evans said.

Four-time world champion Lornah Kiplagat has founded the High Altitude Training Center in Iten. Kiplagat finished fifth in the 2000 Boston Marathon and fourth in 2001. She and her Dutch-born husband, Pieter Langerhorst, sent a minivan to meet me at the Eldoret airport, and after a long day of travel, my driver and I buzzed into Iten in near-total darkness. The gates swung open at 11 p.m., and I headed to bed. The basic rooms had comfy white twin beds, a hot shower, and near silence. I planned to stay at Lornah’s for four days.

Most of the guests were European “mzungus” (Swahili for whites) in their 30s and 40s, and with their morning runs behind them, they swapped running tales over breakfast. Before long, I was talking to the fastest man from Wales. Everyone had an upcoming race, an injury they’d overcome, and an opinion about the state of the sport. The local staff attended its own daily workout class, spoke fluent English, and flashed big smiles. A woman named Mary, who managed breakfast, wore a 2011 BAA 10K shirt. The only time she wasn’t smiling was when she was doing sit-ups.

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After two days at the training center, I had run around Iten with two guests from Northern Ireland, completed a solo workout on the dirt track at historic Kamariny Stadium, eaten five meals of ugali (a mashed corn staple of East African diets) and had a warm beer in former marathon world-record-holder Wilson Kipsang’s bar. All enriching Kenyan experiences, but I still hadn’t run with any Kenyans.

I sought to change that. At a small restaurant next to Lornah’s, Europeans gathered around an international track meet on TV. I shared a table with Evans in the back of the room.

Evans knows almost every runner in Iten, and is an agent for and coach of dozens of them. Originally from France, he’s a good runner in his own right. He’d lived in Kenya for more than a year.

“Can I run with some athletes you know tomorrow?” I asked, suddenly nervous. “Is there a workout planned, or a run planned?”

“We are doing the ‘Boston Loop’ tomorrow,” he said. “It’s maybe . . . 12K?”

“Great,” I said, not pausing to think this through. “I’d do that. Can I join?”

The “Boston Loop” gets its name because of its topography. The hills that come late in the route simulate the Newton hills that await runners late in the Boston Marathon. “It makes you sweat, work hard physically, and it tests your mental strength as some parts really aren’t easy,” Evans said.

We met the next morning at 7. Two mzungus and I jogged to the paved road that connects Iten with the world, and under a steel span above it that reads “Welcome to Iten, Home of Champions.” It was quiet. Packs of runners zipped by, their feet barely seeming to contact the road. Everyone had impeccable form. The sun peeked over the horizon, and Evans arrived with a woman who introduced herself as Joan Chelimo.

Chelimo was lean and tall, her white smile permeating the morning darkness. She was in her mid 20s, spoke great English and wore green shoes, black tights, and a purple jacket. She looked like a race car.

We began our run at a 9-minute-per-mile pace, and conversation was lively. As the lone Kenyan running with four mzungus, Chelimo took our silly questions in stride. Though we were running slowly, passing Kenyans barely looked twice. It was 58 degrees and the roads were crowded with runners.

Our conversation revolved around Chelimo and her career. We joked about how someday, when Chelimo won the Boston Marathon, she’d give the best news conference the race has ever had. She laughed.

“Joan’s not ready for the Boston Marathon yet,” said Evans. “Maybe in a few years time.”

“Hopefully,” she said with a smile.

Chelimo ran in front of and sometimes beside me, and her breathing was inaudible. Her black ponytail bounced against her back and she glided over the red ruts and potholes. I kept pace with her for a few steps and soaked it in. Stride for stride. Trying to hide my smile.

We were at an 8-minute pace when I first felt the altitude, and the conversation thinned with the air. At a 7:30 pace I started to count down the kilometers, and when we speeded up to 7 minutes, I stared longingly ahead, hoping for a downhill reprieve. It reminded me of Heartbreak Hill. Chelimo only got stronger, and as I fell behind, I could see her drive with each step. We made the final turn onto the paved road, and dropped to 6:45 pace. Two kilometers to go. I was wheezing.

The climb continued, and with a kilometer to go, Chelimo and Evans took off at 6:15 pace. Their heads bobbed off into the distance, and they vanished. Sadly, I never got to thank them for such a joyful (though painful) experience.

I arrived back an Lornah’s, where mzungus reflected on their morning runs. Other runners had also started their runs with Kenyans, but no one could keep up.

At the BAA 10K in June, a talented field of Kenyans and Ethiopians took off through the Back Bay, and a pack of five women bound tightly together with two miles to go. Surging away with a late kick was a smiling, lean Kenyan in her mid 20s. It was Joan Chelimo. She won $10,000 with a time of 31:24. In October, she returned to dominate the BAA Half Marathon, winning another $30,000 in a time of 1:10:31. That’s 5:23-per-mile pace for 13.1 miles.

Chelimo plans to run her first Marathon in 2019, and compete in shorter competitions around the world until then, likely with more good results. In between races, she’ll return to practice on the red roads of Iten, toasting every visiting mzungu who tries to keep up.


TK Skenderian can be reached at tkskenderian@gmail.com.