Boston Marathon: The village in Kenya where the elite train
Some Boston marathoners today will have trained at 8,000 feet above sea level in the Kenyan village of Iten. The big money in the sport has attracted younger athletes here.
Up here, 8,000 feet up, the air has always been short of oxygen, and Kenyans have always run fast. Records and medals have gone again and again to athletes who honed speed and endurance on the dirt trails around Iten, this small town on the edge of an escarpment 210 miles north of Nairobi.Skip to next paragraph
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But in recent years a revolution here has molded Kenyan runners’ already punishing training into something altogether more crafted, professional, and potent.
The product of this new paradigm was seen in last year’s Boston Marathon, when Geoffrey Mutai tore through the finish ribbon in a time few thought possible: 2:03:02 (two hours, three minutes, and two seconds). Moses Mosop, a fellow Kenyan, was four seconds behind him.
These blistering times were almost a full minute faster than the then world record (although Boston’s times don’t officially count because the course is point-to-point, too downhill, and Mr. Mutai and Mr. Mosop had a fair tailwind).
Nevertheless, by the end of 2011, Kenyans had run 29 of the year’s 30 fastest globally certified marathon times, and nine of those times were faster than the world record as it stood less than a decade earlier. Patrick Makau bettered the existing world record, Ethiopian Haile Gebreselassie’s 2:03:59, by almost a third of a minute in Berlin, followed closely by Wilson Kipsang in Frankfurt.
The reasons for this sudden acceleration, according to coaches and athletes who spoke to the Monitor in Itan during a recent week, are two-fold, and they are linked: youth and money.
Where Gebreselassie, now 38, and his old marathon record sparring partner, Kenyan Paul Tergat, 42, hit their career peak in their mid-30s, the new clutch of Kenyan stars all shattered records before their 30th birthdays.
And what has propelled these much younger men is the sudden shift in commercial sponsorship from track and field events to the long distance races.
Way out of poverty
Kenyans with even basic athletic talent have always seen running as a way out of poverty. Winning even a middle-tier race abroad can return prize money exceeding 10 or even 20 years of average earnings here.
“It’s the market that wants to see every race run so fast, and it will pay very much better for those times,” says Emmanuel Mutai, the 2011 London Marathon winner. “To do that, the way we train is different, it’s a lot of long runs, longer than the old guys, but also speed training on the track, good physios, professional techniques.”
Renato Canova, an Italian coach who has spent the last decade living in Iten and training Kenya’s best runners, including Mosop, agrees.
“The marathon used to be the refuge for the older runners, those who had already finished a career on the track at 5,000 [meters], 10,000m,” he says. “Now there is money in marathon, and nothing for track. So the young guys, they are going straight for marathon, and they are wild, they are aggressive, it is like nothing we have seen before.”