Running with the Kenyans. What an Experience

21 Jan 17  / Pete

Iten, Kenya…7500ft above sea level, 300km North of Nairobi in the height of the Rift Valley. What the heck was I doing here?

I was here to run!!!

6 months prior to this immense trip, I knew very little about this area (I am writing at the time off my departure back to Manchester). Sure, I knew about the success of Kenyan runners, but Iten? I knew nothing about the place if I’m honest. That was until I received an invitation from my now awesome friends Gemma Hockett and coach Colin Thomas. Legends! Love these two.

How did I get invited on such an epic experience?

A few months earlier, I received a message on Instagram from Gemma asking if I’d like to talk on the phone about a running trip. We had interacted on IG for a long time, it wasn’t completely random…

Gemma: “Hey Pete! Me and coach Colin are trying to get a running trip to Kenya arranged for some high altitude training. Do you fancy joining us?”
(Essex accent. Hockett style)

Me: “Kenya? High altitude training? What the feck are you banging on about? Let me take a peak online, see what this place is all about.”

“Yeah…Sod it! Sounds ace. Count me in!”
(Spoken in true Manchester twang)

Ok, it probably took me a little bit more thinking time than this but I certainly knew straight away that I was interested. When an opportunity comes along, I go for it!

I initially met Gemma through Instagram and we got together in Amsterdam when I ran the marathon and she was smashing the half. For any of you that know the Hockettmeister, you’ll know that she is a superb runner who is seriously dedicated and as it turns out, she’s a fantastic person as well, so to be part of anything running related with someone like her had to be a good idea! In all honesty, I felt privileged to be asked.

Marathon Girl Gemma Hockett
The legendary Marathon Girl, Gemma Hockett

The main man who was organising this amazing journey was Coach Colin Thomas. Having been to Iten previously himself, he had been inspired to share this runners haven with other like minded running loons. Colin is Gemma’s running coach and a top bloke and a cracking coach! Yes, I know… I’m totally bigging these two up but they’re superb runners and over the last 2 weeks, we have become great friends. At time of writing this, I’m thinking about how much I’ll miss living with them and sharing so many moments of stupidity and laughter. It’s been an absolute blast getting to know them more.

Coach Colin Thomas
Coach Colin Thomas bossing it

Anyway, you get the gist of this…I met 2 awesome runners through Instagram and I thought that getting on a couple of planes on my own and meeting them in Nairobi in the middle of the night seemed like a solid plan. I do like an adventure!

Why would anybody want to run in Iten, Kenya?

Iten is known as ‘The home of champions’. How did the area inherit such a title? This area is home to a huge amount of successful athletes including:

Wilson Kipsang (former worldrecord holder marathon and London marathon champion), Abel Kirui (2x worldchampion marathon), David Rudisha (worldrecord holder and Olympic champion 800m), Florence Kiplagat (worldrecord holder half marathon), Edna Kiplagat (2x worldchampion marathon), Mary Keitany (worldchampion half marathon, winner London marathon), Asbel Kiprop (Olympic champion 1500m).

Thousands of athletes currently live and train in Iten and it has become somewhat of a runners Mecca for people with a passion for the sport.

The benefits of running in Iten

Iten is all about the altitude, the hills and the terrain.

The benefit of high altitude running

At high altitude, the body produces more red blood cells which aid the delivery of oxygen to the body.
Runners who train and live at high altitude can become more efficient at transporting oxygen around the body.

The hills and rough terrain in Iten

If you regularly get tight muscles after a run, then get yourself well stretched out before hitting the mean streets of Iten! The roads and path ways in Iten are littered with rocks and you’d do well to find stretches of more than 100m on a flat surface. The beauty of the streets lies within the contrast between the blue skies and the dusty red dirt paths. This tough red earth provides a different experience to road running, but watch out for the rocks! They can play hazard with your lower legs if you’re used to flat roads!

Running with the Kenyans at Kamariny Stadium
At the end of some 200m + 100m reps. Battered!

Running in Iten

There was certainly a difference in how my body felt when I was running the trails of Iten when compared to running back home. The part of the UK that I reside in is far from flat, so I’m certainly used to a hill or two, but the biggest difference in Iten was my recovery times. This was most evident a few days into the trip as we did some 200m and 100m reps at Kamariny Stadium. My recovery speed on this kind of work is usually pretty damn fast, but each rep was followed by a 200m jog recovery, and my lungs we clearly crying out for an extra 100m each time!

The terrain also added an extra dimension to the running experience. I regularly run off road, whether it be fell running or hitting the trails, but the sheer amount of rocks on the trails and roads in Iten makes it extremely easy to lose your footing or twist your ankle. This is something that Gemma can back me up on, having had a niggly injury during the trip that brought her out in a couple of brat attacks. Her words, not mine. Hahaha!

The running culture of Iten

Iten is like nowhere I have ever been before. In Manchester, I have plenty of running friends, but that is a select group within my social life. Most people I know do not run at all. In Iten, this doesn’t seem to be a thing that exists. It seems that about 99% of people there run. It’s quite ridiculous. If you meet a local in Iten, it’s extremely common for a conversation to go like this:

Are you a runner?
What distance do you do?
What’s your time?

If the distance is marathon, every male states a number below 2 hours and 18 minutes, usually around the 2:12 mark.
Do I take this at face value? Hhmmmmm, I’ll be honest, as time went on, I got the feeling that some people just pulled a random number out of their arse when quizzed about their run times, and that number was usually the kind of time that would have them cleaning up medals in the UK.

There was definitely some truth tellers though. I met many athletes, both past and present who I could confirm through the magic of the internet to be absolute running legends. As for watching people train in the area, you only have to watch to see that there’s clearly some insanely fast runners here. When we went down to the track at Kamariny Stadium, the reps that people were running were staggering. 400m reps were usually smashed out for about 17 reps with short recoveries and they were not taking it easy during that 400m. #beastmode

What did training in Iten do for me?

From a physical aspect, I can only reveal the gains I’ve had at a later date, although if weight loss is what you’re after, I’d recommend it. I haven’t had chance to stand on a set of scales yet but I’d be amazed if I’ve not shedded a few pounds of fat. I was referred to as ‘fat’ a couple of times upon my arrival in Kenya (I’m a 30 inch waist) but nobody seemed so surprised that I was a runner by the end of my trip! Hahaha!

Hopefully, spending time running and living at altitude for a couple of weeks should benefit my running times once I return to racing at home, but again, I will be able to confirm this shortly.

The mental toughness and strengthening

Running in Iten is tough. It can test you both physically and mentally. Why? As you now know, it’s 7500ft above sea level. This makes recovery difficult. As I also mentioned, the terrain is tough and a flat piece of land is tough to find. But these are far from the only contributing factors that make it a bitch of a battle. I was eating and living like a local. The accommodation and diet was simple and very much Kenyan style. I had travelled for a full day to get to Iten. Once you add all this into the mix you get a really tough cocktail made up of hard training, difficult recoveries, tired from travel, and last but by no means least, there’s likely to be some backlash from your bodily functions as you try and adjust to a very different diet than you aren’t used too! Haha.

Kenya has made me stronger in my mind. I had already pushed myself in many new ways during 2016 that I believe have prepared me for bigger things to come and hopefully Iten has also added some more mental resolve so that I can push on in 2017.

Kenya, it’s been emotional. There been ups and downs (literally) but I have loved my visit, embraced my runs (mostly!) and had an unforgettable time with some extraordinary people.

I’ll never forget my own little piece of running with the Kenyans.

Running with the Kenyans
Me and Colin having some childish fun with some skipping haha

Running with the kenyans

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