High life of the fastest people in the world

Kenya's winning streak has turned a farming village into a mecca for budding athletes. By Daniel Howden in Iten

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An orange line draws itself along the eastern escarpment of the Great Rift Valley to signal the coming of dawn. The half-light catches the green fields, turns the trails red and reveals hundreds of brightly-clad runners bounding in all directions. Some move in pairs, others in packs of more than 50 that choke the rutted tracks.

Among them is Gideon Cheriot on an "easy run". I struggle along next to him, gasping at the harshness with which the law of gravity is enforced in Kenya's highlands. Gideon's mother has gambled everything on sending her eldest son to seek his fortune in Iten, a small town perched on the edge of the northern rift.

"If I win races I can pay for my brothers and sisters to go to school," the teenager says. His family are from the majority of Kenyans who survive on about $2 a day and have sacrificed a lot to support his running dream. But he smiles away any doubts. Cheriot knows he can do it because his neighbour when he was growing up – former marathon world champion Abel Karui – did it.

"If he can do it so can I," he says, breezily. His times over 10,000 metres and the half-marathon would earn him a place in any European national team but in Iten they are nothing special.

An arch over the road leading into Iten tells you it's the "home of champions" and it's not an idle boast. A dozen medal winners from the recent World Athletics Championships in South Korea train and live in Iten – that's five more than the UK team's total. This success is part of an unprecedented dominance of distance running that has seen Kenyans breaking records from 800 metres to 26.2 miles.

Traditional rivals Ethiopia have been left far behind. The medal-haul from running meant the East African nation was beaten only by Russia and the US in Daegu and a Kenyan man broke the marathon world record later in the same month. Kenyans have won 28 of the last 30 major marathons worldwide.

For Kenya's rural poor, Iten is a dream factory where lives of drudgery can be transformed overnight and prize money of a few thousand dollars can change lives. Wilson Kiprop is one of the elite who make up what he estimates to be about 5 per cent of the 5,000 runners in Iten.

His life story contains the classic elements of hardship and hope that make up so many of Kenya's champions. As a boy he walked and ran the five miles to school and back, popping home at lunchtime to make food for his siblings. He used to nag his mother to tell him about a farm nearby where the owner was a running champion with a combine harvester.

"Who was this? Is this just a runner?" he would ask her. His response was to run as far and as fast as he could, eventually winning the world half-marathon title last year and with it $30,000. "Being a world champion is somehow difficult," he says. "But it's better to have that pain and get paid." Kenya's wave of winning is turning a once sleepy farming village into a mecca for running enthusiasts who arrive like pilgrims in search of the secret of running success. It creates a quasi-religious atmosphere in which myths abound and everyone has an opinion. Some credit the maize porridge "ugali" which is the staple food; others claim unique talents for the Kalenjin tribe from which many, but not all, the champions are drawn; while most agree that the altitude at 2,400 metres helps.

At the High Altitude Training Centre which hosts international athletes and local talent, Pieter Desmet, Belgium's best steeplechaser points to physiology to solve the riddle. By European standards he is gaunt to point of being skeletal, but insists that Kenyans' skinnier calves offer a competitive advantage.

Desmet describes the scene in Iten where as many as 400 runners gather on a single trail for speed work on Thursdays as "unbelievable". Confronted with the wealth of talent he can sound defeatist. "Sometimes I think I should have been born 40 years ago when my times would have won me the Olympics," he muses. "Or in 40 years when the Kenyans have given up." Edna Kiplagat, who won world gold in the women's marathon last month and is favourite to win the New York race next month, grew up a short jog from Iten and believes there's no riddle to the pedigree of its runners. "There's no secret," she says shyly. "The good runners just train as a community, you learn what the others are doing and you get moral support and confidence."

The success has changed her hometown beyond recognition, she says, bringing cash and renown. The spectacular escarpment is dotted with new homes and the few new cars you see invariably belong to runners.

Locals who can't run that fast are training as amateur physiotherapists and even cow-herds wear running shoes. Despite the prestige, the government has largely ignored Kenya's running success – training camps nearby were built with private money – and the local school doesn't even have a PE teacher. The only track in the area is a dirt one next to a local school with no lights and no all-weather surface. Injuries are frequent.

Renato Canova is equally resistant to the notion of a secret to Kenya's success. Known as the "wizard" and dressed in a faded track suit from his days as coach of the Italian team, he oversees a stable of 15 local runners. He believes that it is Europe and the US which has gone backwards in athletics, creating the impression of a Kenyan revolution. He says the recent tumbling of records and total domination over the longer distances can be put down to better training methods and bigger incentives. He says the world record set by Kenyan Patrick Makau in Berlin in September won't last the year. "There are seven people who can run faster," he says. Of course, they all train in Iten.

Mo farah

The Somali-born British athlete, who took home the 5,000m gold and 10,000m silver medals from the athletics World Championships this year, honed his famously gruelling work ethic while training with fellow runners in the Rift Valley's high-altitude atmosphere.

Martin Lel

Having struggled with injuries for the past two years, the 33-year-old Kenyan is now gearing up for next month's marathon in New York. Born in Kapsabet in the Rift Valley, he is considered to be one of the world's best marathon runners, having won the New York title in 2003 and 2007, and the London Marathon in 2005, 2007 and 2008.

Emmanuel Mutai

Despite his long list of victories, Martin Lel lost out on this year's London Marathon title to fellow Rift Valley runner Emmanuel Mutai, who became the fourth fastest man to have completed the London race. He will also compete in the New York marathon on 6 November.

Pamela Jelimo

The first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic title received a hero's welcome when she brought the 800m gold medal home to her Rift Valley village in 2008, at the age of 18. She also won the $1m Golden League athletics prize, but continues to live modestly near her training ground.

Kipchoge Keino

Credited as the athlete who turned the world's attention to the Rift Valley's running talent, the self-trained Nandi tribesman nicknamed "Kip" shot to fame when he won the 1,500m at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico despite having a gall bladder infection.