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.
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.”
The draw of high-altitude
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.
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.”