Iten: At the highland home of the fastest people in the world

Kenya's winning streak has turned a farming village into a mecca for athletes eager to tap into its success. Daniel Howden reports

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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 is among the majority of Kenyans who survive on about $2 (£1.30) a day and have sacrificed a lot to support his running dream. But Cheriot knows he can do it because his neighbour while growing up – the former marathon world champion Abel Kirui – did it. "If he can do it so can I," Cheriot says.

His times in the half-marathon would earn him a place on any European national team, but in Iten they are nothing special. An arch over the road leading into Iten tells you it is 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 – 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 the marathon 26.2 miles. 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 the same month. Kenyans have won 28 of the last 30 big marathons worldwide. For the 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 élite who make up what he estimates to be about 5 per cent of the 5,000 runners in Iten. His life story, which he describes as "not smooth", contains the classic elements of hardship and hope that make 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 farmer nearby who was a running champion and had 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 $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 what was a sleepy farming village into a mecca for running enthusiasts who arrive like pilgrims in search of the secret of success. It creates a quasi-religious atmosphere in which myths abound and everyone has an opinion. Some credit the maize porridge ugali, the staple food; others claim unique talents for the Kalenjin tribe from which many, but not all, the champions are drawn; most agree that the altitude at 7,875ft helps.

At the High Altitude Training Centre that 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 the point of being skeletal, but insists that Kenyans' skinnier calves offer a competitive advantage. He is staying at the centre set up by the champion runner Lornah Kiplagat – who switched nationalities to race for the Netherlands and was determined to give something back – to recover form after a long injury lay-off.

Desmet describes as "unbelievable" the scene in Iten where as many as 400 runners will gather on a single trail for speed work on Thursdays. 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 says. "Or in 40 years when the Kenyans have given up."

Others, like Britain's young hope, the schools cross-country champion Richard Goodman, believe the answer is more psychological than physical. He has put off going to university and left his friends in northwest London to come and live in Iten for as long as money allows. The 18-year-old believes the success flows from the community of talent that has gathered among the trails and small farms of the northern Rift. The loneliness of the long-distance runner that was apt to describe training at home is unknown in Kenya. And the focus, he says, is total. "You sleep and eat and train three times a day, there are no distractions," he says. "There's no place like Iten, I almost feel like I don't want to go home."

Edna Kiplagat, who won world gold in the women's marathon last month and is favourite to win the New York City Marathon next month, grew up a short jog away 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 home town beyond recognition, bringing cash and renown, she says. 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-herders 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. Olympic medallists, world champions and world record-holders fly around a rutted surface that looks unfit for a school sports day. 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 and lives much of the year in Iten's Kerio View Hotel.

He believes that it is Europe and the US that have gone backwards in athletics, creating the impression of a Kenyan revolution. "We continue to speak about why the Kenyans are so strong. We should ask why is Europe so weak," he says.

While athletics competes with a noisy world of alternatives in richer countries, Kenyans see running as the fastest route out of poverty. "Here, when people see there is some money that can change their life, everybody tries," the coach says. Today, European running is full of athletes who are like "accountants" who "want to control everything" but the Kenyans have the "instinct and aggression" that's needed, 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: "Track athletics is now really poor," and "the money has moved to marathons".

The world record set by the comparatively unknown Kenyan Patrick Makau in Berlin in September is a "soft one" according to the wizard, who says it won't last the year. There are seven people who can run faster," he says.

And, of course, all of them are training in Iten.

Rift Valley runners

Mo Farah

The Somali-born British athlete, who took home the 5000-metre gold and 10,000-metre silver medals from the athletics World Championships this year, honed his famously gruelling work ethic 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, 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 City Marathon on 6 November.

Pamela Jelimo

The first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic title received a hero's welcome when she brought the 800-metre 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 convincingly won the 1,500 metres at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico despite having a gall bladder infection.

Enjoli Liston