Runaway success in Kenya, land of the fleet elite

Soon after sunrise, a boy in a school uniform is running along a dust-red dirt road, his shirttail flapping in the breeze, satchel slung over his shoulder, stiff black shoes on his feet. "Nobody tells him to run," says David Letting, whose job is telling other people to run.

Coach Letting, who trains Kenyan long-distance racers, is driving a pickup full of marathoners to their morning workout spot along this same dirt road. The schoolboy zipping past Letting's truck may not become a world-class runner, but he would appear to have a far better shot at it than most of the world's children.

Kenyan men have so dominated marathons for much of the past decade, particularly the Boston Marathon, set for its 105th run Monday, that some international events limit the number of Kenyan contenders. The Boston event has been won by a Kenyan every year since 1991 - a streak unsurpassed in the annals of the men's event. Last year, Catherine Ndereba was the first Kenyan woman to win in Boston, where prizes total $525,000.

In the world of marathoners, the elite take less than 2 hours, 20 minutes to cover the grueling footrace's distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. While only 34 American runners have achieved that velocity, Kenya, with a population one-tenth of the US's, boasts 222 such superchamps, according to a recent British study based on international athletics rankings.

Most of Kenya's elite distance runners hail from the hills around Eldoret. Here, the farmland terrain ranges from 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, the air so thin that walking up a couple of flights of stairs will leave the average person panting.

A study recently provoked controversy by suggesting that genetics give Kenyans a head start. Researchers from the Copenhagen Institute of Sports Science concluded that members of the Kalenjin ethnic group - who come from around Eldoret and dominate Kenyan running - have an inborn ability to greatly increase their lung capacity through training. Letting scoffs: "You can have the genes, but if you don't train, you cannot win."

The secret of Kenya's success is discipline, says Moses Tanui, the compact dynamo who won the Boston Marathon in 1996 and 1998 and will compete again next week. "Kenyan runners are hard-working people," he says.

Tanui started his marathon career much like the boy on the road - by running to school as a primary student. He grew up in Sugoi, a village 12 miles from Eldoret, and his parents still live on the same plot of land. But Tanui lives in Eldoret in what amounts to a mansion - a ranch-style home, surrounded by a wall topped with electrified fencing. His silver Mercedes Benz sits in the yard, and silver trophies compete for shelf space around the house.

Tanui has run competitively since he was 20, at a time when Kenyans didn't think they could make a living from the sport. "Running is paying at the moment," he says. "Before, people ran for fame." Today, many young Kenyans are training extra hard because they think that by running they can escape from poverty.

Tanui and Letting work with young Kenyan runners at a high-altitude training camp in the village of Kaptagat, 15 miles northeast of Eldoret. The camp - sponsored by the Italian sporting-goods company Fila - stands among maize fields, home turf to the athletes, who come mostly from poor farming districts nearby.

The 30 athletes in Kaptagat, most in their 20s, seven of them women, sleep in two-bed huts, take their simple but nutritious fare - such as ujji, a hot porridge of ground sorghum, water, and sugar - in the communal dining room, and relax in a common lounge. Fila pays for the facility, gives the athletes running gear, and provides an Italy-based coach who sends them tailored training regimens by fax. Foreigners occasionally train with the Kenyans, but do not live at the camp.

Until four years ago, only one of these camps existed in Kenya. Now there are eight, with others sponsored by the companies Puma and Adidas. All are hungry to spot raw talent in the Kenyan hills, with the hope of developing world-class athletes.

Simon Bor is already a star. A native of the nearby town of Kapsabet, he won the Los Angeles marathon in 1999. He says the support of the training centers makes a big difference in Kenya, where a new pair of top-quality running shoes costs the equivalent of two months' salary for a police officer.

The centers foster both competition and cooperation among the athletes and keep them focused on the goal, Bor says. "You don't get distracted, and you are able to concentrate," he says.

Under the watchful eye of Letting, 20 runners start with an easy 5-kilometer jog to loosen up. Along the perimeter fence of Eldoret's state-of-the-art airport, they then stretch their muscles to the reggae blaring from the truck stereo. Then it's on to speed drills: a kilometer run at full pace, a minute's rest, then repeat - 12 times. Yet moments after they're done with the whole exercise, the runners converse with ease, as if their lungs had hardly been taxed.

That's just the morning workout. In the late afternoon, once the sun drops to a tolerable level, they'll run 20 kilometers.

There are no easy days in the Kenyans' regime, says Eric Polonski, a runner from Austin, Texas, and a former winner of the San Diego half-marathon. He came to the hills around Eldoret this year to train for the Rotterdam marathon, which takes place a week after Boston's.

"It's a great training atmosphere to be in," says Mr. Polonski. "These guys are the best in the world, and they're so humble and kind and gracious. In the US, you don't see the level of good athletes training together like you do here in Kenya. There's no posturing going on."

Nonetheless, he says Kenyan runners have a quiet, supreme confidence both in their training and in themselves. "When they go to the race and step on the starting line, they know they're ready."

After running more than 200 kilometers a week at high altitude for the past few months, Tanui will no doubt be ready for Boston on Monday. He refuses to predict how he'll do, but asked if a Kenyan will win the race, Tanui smiles and says, "Of course."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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