Blood, sweat and cheers
It is dawn on a cold, wet, dark morning in Iten, a small farming town perched high on the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment overlooking the expansive Kerio Valley National Park, 2,438 metres above sea level.
But Iten is no sleepy backwater; visitors are drawn here to experience a different side of Kenya, away from the safari lodges and game drives. It's a place to sit back and marvel at the breathtaking views of the Rift Valley, to hike or cycle through forests filled with Colobus monkeys, or paraglide off escarpments over sheer rock faces and waterfalls down into the lush, semi-tropical valley. It's also a place where dreams of running alongside world champion athletes can come true.
Through the drizzle and fog dozens of sinewy figures, clad in fluorescent lycra, emerge pounding the uneven, red-dirt roads. Their strides appear effortless and natural, their bodies like machines - built for running.
It's well known that Kenyan runners are some of the fastest on the planet. Their marathon and long distance runners regularly make, and then rapidly break, world-record times. In the run-up to London's 2012 Olympics, Kenya's marathon selection committee were so spoilt for choice they denied the current world record holder, Patrick Makau, a place on the team. Many speculate another will soon break his record anyway - most probably a Kenyan and, quite possibly, a Kenyan from Iten. Because what is even more astonishing about this town is that many of Kenya's greatest athletes were born and brought up here.
Irish-born Brother Colm O'Connell, a Catholic missionary-turned-athletics-coach who has nurtured 25 world champions and four Olympic gold medallists (including the
Image:Top to bottom: High altitudes of the Rift Valley have helped athletes reach peak fitness; Athletes on a misty morning training session in Iten; Catholic missionary Colm O'Connell, coach to local runners; Opposite page: David Rudisha of Kenya during a training session current 800m world record holder David Rudisha), arrived in Iten in 1976 as a young teacher. Now greying with ruddy cheeks, he says running is definitely not in his blood and he insists he could never have foreseen the evolution of the town into a Mecca for potential running champions.
"There were just two down-to-earth schools where I worked," he explains, as he supervises a track training session with some of the younger Iten talent he is nurturing.
"I trained the boys and the girls out of fun, enjoyment and local competition. There was nobody running around the roads, there were no centres or camps for training. I never dreamed it would reach what it is today."
O'Connell is both amused and bemused by the constant stream of trainers, scientists and nutritionists who flock to Iten in a bid to unearth the secret formula which sets the Kenyan runners apart from other international athletes. From analyses of their blood and DNA, to examination of their diets, Brother O'Connell has seen it all.
Indeed, such is the almost mythical allure of the town and the calibre of runners it churns out, that international athletes and training squads are descending on the town's high-altitude training camps. British marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe and Somali-born British 5,000m champion Mo Farah are just two regular visitors.
It is no secret that altitude training builds up an athlete's red blood cell count, allowing them to feed their burning muscles with more oxygen when running at lower altitudes. But if it were that simple, wouldn't athletes make a beeline for the Himalayas? Instead they flock to Iten, hoping the town's magic will rub off on them.
"Athletes who come from overseas think that if they spend a month or two in Iten they can become a superstar," says Brother O'Connell. "But it's not quite as simple as that.
"You begin to realise the discipline that these Kenyan athletes have in order to reach the very highest level. You start to understand the way they think about sport and how highly motivated they are to succeed."
Talk to any international athlete in Iten and they all cite training at high altitude as their main reason for coming here. Dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that the Kenyans are also teaching them a thing or two about 'mindset' - their dedication to pure hard graft to get to the top.
Karen Van Proeyen is one of Belgium's top seven cross-country runners. As she ploughs through her post-run breakfast in the Kerio View Hotel, a popular training base for international athletes, the wiry 27-year-old says she's learned that it takes more than just living at high altitude to reach the level of Kenya's athletes.
"Here they live for running," she explains. "They train twice a day, which in Europe is very unusual. Maybe they even train harder but also the culture is so different. Everyone here is running; here they dream about becoming good at running to make it in life. It's not like that in Belgium."
There can be few other places in the world where life revolves so much around running: kids run to school, training camps complete with gyms, physiotherapists have mushroomed and seemingly the entire population crams into bars to cheer on their local heroes during the big international races. It's no wonder they call Iten 'home of champions'.