In some ways, Iten, Kenya, looks like a typical African town. Families live in squat stone houses scattered around the mountainous countryside, tend their land, and lead farm animals through the town’s red-dirt roads. Once a week there is a market in the center of town, where one can find both handmade goods and knockoffs of Western brands at a steep discount. Children as young as five wander freely, always happy to initiate conversation with strangers.
But Iten is unlike any other town in the world: It is the undisputed capital of Kenyan distance running, a discipline that the country dominates internationally. Kenyan runners won 19 Boston Marathon titles in a 22-year stretch and have posted 10 of the top 11 fastest times ever in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, to give two examples of their unprecedented success at the global level.
The majority of Kenyan runners are part of the Kalenjin tribe, which forms the ethnic majority in Western Kenya near the Rift Valley, which Iten is at the heart of. The village is at the perfect altitude for long-distance training and has miles of hilly dirt roads. This, along with the relative political stability of the area, has attracted elite athletes from all over the country and the world to come train with the champions.
Visiting Iten is on the bucket list for many distance runners. Waking up before the crack of dawn to run, you’ll witness groups of Kenyans dressed in track jackets and tights wordlessly embarking on their first of as many as three daily runs, a training load that can easily reach 20 to 30 miles per day. Later in the day, you can visit Kamariny Stadium, a dirt track located next to the local primary school, to watch athletes complete intervals at a dizzying clip. Here, it is fairly easy to pick out the Olympic medalists and championship marathoners who work out alongside their more anonymous countrymen.
Choosing to pursue the running dream is a grueling and thankless task for Iten athletes, who face long odds of making it big. In a region where there are few career options besides farming, many elect to train full time in hopes of catching the attention of foreign agents, who can fly them to prestigious races on the European circuit with lucrative cash prizes. It is not uncommon to meet an athlete whose personal best in the marathon would place him in the top 50 or faster in the United States, yet is so poor he has not purchased new running shoes in 10 years.
The runners initially trained on the track of St. Patrick’s High School. In 1999, former world champion Lornah Kiplagat opened a facility for both locals and foreigners called the High Altitude Training Center, with well-furnished rooms, a communal dining room, and modern training equipment.
Know Before You Go
The nearest airport is located in Eldoret, which is a 45 minute flight from Nairobi. From there, Iten can be reached by taxi.