Running in Iten (for amateurs)

Share this:
Running in Iten, Kenya - Home of Champions
The welcome sign to Iten, “Home of Champions”

New to running but want to know how to be inspired to run more? Want to know where the best long-distance runners in the world go to train? Look no further than Iten, Kenya, the “home of champions”.

My coach, Marc Sloan, who sent me to Africa to run. How I ended up in Iten, Kenya.
My coach who sent me to Africa to run, Marc.

The second reason we came to Iten, Kenya to run was because I need to become a better runner. I aspire be fit in every dimension: strong, fast, agile, flexible, graceful, and have high endurance over long periods. I felt like I was OK in a few of those dimensions from training with CrossFit. But I wasn’t a fast runner, and struggled to do anything medium-intensity for long periods.

Besides, many CrossFit people typically say “I hate running”. This is like a red rag to me. Hearing something like that, my challenge then becomes to be good at it and still be decent at everything else.

Now, I’m not built for running. I’m pretty strong (I deadlift 184 kg/405 lbs, squat 135 kg/330 lb, bench 120 kg/260 lb), able at bodyweight push-ups (I can string together muscle-ups, hand-stand push-ups, and recently clocked myself at 615 push-ups in an hour), and I can run for short distances at a decent clip (3:35 min/km).

But I don’t have endurance. I’m heavy (180lbs, 14% body fat). My heart just gives out at about an hour. And, and this might be the hardest part… I’m not sure I have the sheer mental toughness most running and other endurance athletes have.

Enough background. On to the helpful bits.

Why run in Iten?

It’s not just the big sign that thinks so; Iten is definitely one of the the foremost distance running training destinations in the world.

Champions from all over Kenya, elsewhere in Africa (a lot of Ethiopians), and increasingly elsewhere in the world come here.

To give you an idea of the sheer density of running talent in Kenya, consider this story, told by Adharanand Finn in Running with the Kenyans.

The other day I was trying to contact an athlete called Wilson Kipsang. He is a fairly decent runner even in these parts, ranked in the all-time top 10 in the marathon with a time of 2hr4min. Someone who knew him gave me his number – except by mistake they gave me the number of a completely different person, someone called William Kipsang.

When I called up, the conversation went like this:

– “Hello, Kipsang?”
– “Yes.””It’s Finn here, the mzungu writer.”
– “Eh?”
– “We’ve met a few times. I was talking to you at the track yesterday.”
– “Eh?”
– “Is that Wilson Kipsang?”
– “No, William.”
– “Oh, I thought your name was Wilson. The 2:04 marathoner, right?”
– “No. 2:05.”

Even a wrong number here ends up with a person who has run a time 10 minutes quicker than the fastest British runner this year, and three minutes quicker than the British record, set over 25 years ago. The depth of running talent is truly incredible.

Adharanand Finn, Running with the Kenyans

When he arrived in Iten to run, he looked for the very slowest runners he could find. His marathon time was somewhere around the 3:30-4:00 range at the time – upper half, but barely. The slowest runner he could find was a 2:35 runner.

To put this in context, an average marathoner does something like 4:30 (depending on which marathon’s statistics you look at). That’s if you run the whole way. Walk a bit and you’ll be considerably slower. And knocking off every 10 minutes is hard work, obviously getting harder the faster you are.

So why run with these incredibly fast people when I’m not one of them? A few reasons.

The first reason to run in Iten for me is inspiration. I look at fast runners and it’s like poetry in motion. If you don’t believe me, watch this video on running form. Imagine yourself performing like that! That’s exactly what I like to imagine when I see people run in Iten.

I’m not ever running alone in Iten. Everyone is running. When schoolkids see other runners, they run behind them. Who wouldn’t want to be like their heroes, other champions?

The second reason to run in Iten is community. I’m a social person, so I like to be with other people doing anything. It’s the main reason I am athletic, or even had jobs. The people is one of the parts of anything that gives me the most joy.

The third reason to run in Iten is to simply learn. It’s an old adage that Kenyans have some magic in the way they run, and westerners come to Kenya to try to bottle it up. Nobody has figured it out in a convincing way. Theories I’ve read (all with issues) have included:

  • Kenyans train in running from an early age, running to school, for fear of getting punished if they’re late
  • Kenyans train bare-foot (except everyone hear has runners), learning a natural mid-foot strike (except… lots of problems with this, many runners in Kenya have rear-foot strikes, strike varies by how tired people are, and there’s no consensus that one kind of strike is best, or least likely to injure you)
  • When surrounded by inspiring runners, it’s easy to have heroes that are runners (seems reasonable)
  • For many runners, running is their one chance at a “lottery ticket”, like football in Brazil, or boxing in Mexico
  • Some genetic advantage – I think this is doubtful (we’re not all that different, we’re all people)

But one thing I became sure of is that in Iten, people run. If I’m surrounded by runners, I’ll run more. And at my early stage of training, the more I run, the more I’ll improve. I’m sure this is true for the vast majority of runners out there.

Getting to and staying in Iten

Iten is in inland Kenya, near Eldoret, in the Rift Valley region.

The best way in is to fly from Nairobi. Flights are around $50-75 one way, and have a baggage allowance. From there, you can either get a matatu is you’re light on luggage (two legs, 200 Ksh or US$2 each), or a private car ($20-30). That’ll take you the ~90 minute drive to Iten.

Iten, there are many places to stay. You can actually find a lot on AirBnB. They range from

  • $6 a night per person for a shared room in a lodge with other athletes
  • $20 a night for two for a private room in a B&B – often with breakfast included
  • $40 night for a nice B&B, your own place
  • $100+ a night for fancy accommodation, sometimes in a place like the High Altitude Training Center

You can also do an all-inclusive running package. One of the best ones I found online was the Kenya Experience. The host is very friendly and eager to make sure you have a great time.

Places to run in Iten

Map of running paths in Iten, Kenya
The map is courtesy of Sonia Samuels who is a pretty experienced running coach.

A lot of the places you’ll find runners in Iten are EVERYWHERE!!! Go anywere in the town or around it and there’ll be people on long trails, by roads.

Some of the roads are long dirt ones, where few cars go (there are better concrete roads nearby, after all). These are popular as long distance tracks.

There are also a number of 400m running tracks. Most of these are in private training grounds, like Lorna Kaplagat’s High Altitude Training Centre, but some are public (like the one I run on).

If you want to do hill work, head to the forests. There are a plethora of long running trails with steep inclines. Not for the faint of heart. The altitude and steepness will get you!

More on running tracks in future posts.

Share this: