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.
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Close to a quarter of Iten's 4,000-strong population are here to train. The draw is the high altitude that robs the air of oxygen and makes muscles work more efficiently, especially when an athlete then competes at lower, more oxygenated altitudes.Skip to next paragraph
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In the wake of the success of the early few runners here, hundreds more have come, latching on to the back of elite runners' training runs in the hope of being noticed and sent abroad to race. Increasingly, international professionals are following, too. Close to 50 of Britain's Olympic endurance sport athletes have been here in the last four months. Belgium's fastest marathoners were here recently, as were teams from Germany, India, and Greece.
They may be their countries' fastest, but they struggle to keep up with the locals. One recent morning, a dozen Kenyans in bright vests and brighter running shoes began 15 miles of training along a farm road south of Iten.
Chasing them in his rattling Toyota minivan, Canova half-eyed the GPS-linked watch strapped to his steering wheel. He would time each fast kilometer to an exact 2m55s pace, punctuated by recovery laps at 3m15s per kilometer.
If the numbers mean little, know only that the fast stretches, if sustained over a half-marathon, would be less than three minutes off the world record.
And this was just a normal training session, at 7,500 feet above sea level, on a stony track crossed by ambling cows and tractors kicking up dust. At one point, a herd of giraffe towered on the horizon.
What this means, says Wilson Kipsang, currently the world’s second fastest man (officially), is that records that used to change hands every five years or so will now fall far quicker.
“There are already four of us Kenyans chasing it, four guys at the right age to produce the right results, really aggressive and ready to go for it,” he says.
Women benefiting from social changes
Kenya’s women runners are also ever faster.
For them, the money is a motivation, but their sudden resurgence came because Kenya’s patriarchal society has mellowed, says Mary Keitany, the fastest woman at the 2011 London Marathon and the half-marathon world record holder.
“Before,” she says over milky tea in her bungalow close to Iten, “a woman would train, compete, then get married and stay in the home. Now, husband and wife help one another, and you can remain focused on training.”
Whether Geoffrey Mutai, winner of last year’s astonishing Boston Marathon, can better his time during the 2012 race today is in question thanks to unseasonably hot weather.
Experience with heat
In 2011, cool 50 F conditions and a tailwind helped. This year, even though Mutai and the others have just come from training in Kenya’s hottest season, forecast temperatures of 82 F at the elite runner finish time will likely hold him back.
But then London's Olympics are mere months away, when marathon-watchers are likely to be treated to one of the most thrilling competitions in years. Last year, 162 Kenyans ran faster than the Olympic qualifying time of 2h12m, compared to five Americans.
“Soon the world record will come to two hours three minutes flat, then two hours two minutes, why not two hours flat?” asks Abel Kirui, two-time marathon World Champion.
“The way I’m seeing guys running, in a very good body, with a very clear mind, it’s possible, and not in a very long time.
“Everything is possible, nothing has to be very hard, it’s only the right kind of focus, the right kind of training, and the belief.”
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