Britons try it the Kenyan way
Team GB members including Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe are in the home of distance running, looking to find the secret to Olympic glory, writes Simon Turnbull in Kenya
Monday 23 January 2012
Take a sharp right turn when the rutted road from Eldoret climbs up to Iten, a tiny town of tin and wooden shacks perched on the precipitous edge of the Great Rift Valley, and you wind down a trail to Lornah Kiplagat's High Altitude Training Centre. "University of Champions", it says on the gate.
Straight ahead – past a row of chalets with running shoes propped against the steps of each billet and the red, white and blue of Great Britain training kit hanging on the washing lines – is the dining room. Sitting in the shade is the British distance runner who graduated to world-champion status last summer.
"Sunday is a rest day," Mo Farah says. If you can count a 24-mile morning run through the steep, red, dusty trails as restful, that is. With no afternoon run planned, and the rest of his week's 130 miles of training having been conducted at close to or bang on race-speed, for Farah that is what the group run happens to be, as he puts the foundations in place for his London Olympic challenge here, at 7,800ft above sea level in the thin air of Iten.
Since mid-December, the28-year-old golden boy of British athletics has been grafting away in this Kenyan hotbed of distance running, at a national endurance squad camp funded jointly by UK Athletics and the London Marathon. "I like it here," Farah reflects. "The life is easy. You sleep. You train. There are no distractions."
Not quite. The local track is not exactly of Olympic standard. Cattle have been known to wander on to it. Farah laughs. "There was a classic one yesterday," he says. "There were donkeys on the track.
"Was one of them Tony Adams?" some unkind soul enquires. Farah, a lifelong Gooner, refuses to bite. "I shouted to try to scare them off," he continues. "They were in lane one so I had to go on a different bit of the track. I've got a picture of them on my camera."
It's a snapshot of the world that has made the local runners you see haring along the trails at high speed in mass numbers into the planet's pre-eminent distance runners. Kenya boasted 81 of the 100 fastest marathon runners in 2011, including all of the top 20. They won 17 medals in endurance events at the World Championships in Daegu in August last year. Still, Farah planted a Union flag at the global summit in Daegu with his thrilling victory in the 5,000m final. He also got pretty close before having to settle for a silver medal in the 10,000m.
The Somalia-born, London-raised Farah has scaled the heights since joining the elite group of Americans coached by the former marathon great Alberto Salazar at Portland on the west coast of the United States last year, but another key factor in his ascent has been the effect of annual trips to live and train the monastic Kenyan way.
"Mo first came here from a British background three years ago," says Brother Colm O'Connell, the Irish missionary and teacher whose training programme at St Patrick's High School in Iten has produced a countless string of world and Olympic champions from these parts. "In a sense, by our standards, he came as a fairly mediocre athlete – just a good performer by world standards.
"But gradually he has just nibbled away at any myths or beliefs he might have had about the superiority of Kenyans, or the way they train. He has kept at it and I think he has worn it down.
"What he has benefited from, in being here, is a lot more than training. It's an attitude. It's a feeling, it's a confidence. It's a realisation that 'I can do it too; if I'm put in the same environment, under the same conditions, I can do the same thing.' He's proved it can be done.
"If you go back to the era of when I came out to Kenya – of Steve Ovett, Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Peter Elliott, kings of middle-distance running – what made that? Was it any secret? Was it genetic? Was it altitude?
"It's a culture, of running – maybe at a particular club, maybe at a particular time in British athletics – which created the environment for them to be successful. And it just blossomed."
The avuncular Brother Colm, a 63-year native Corkman, came to Iten in 1976 to teach geography at St Patrick's. He had no athletics background when Pete Foster – brother of Brendan, the Olympic 10,000m silver medallist – asked him to take over as the school coach. He has lost count of the number of scientists and physiologists who have turned up at St Pat's seeking the secret of the success that has brought the British endurance squad – Farah, Paula Radcliffe, Hannah England, Helen Clitheroe and company – to Iten at the start of home Olympic year.
He smiles at the mention of the Swedish scientist who brought the gift of a heart-rate monitor. "Yeah, it's sill in my drawer," Brother Colm says. "I come from a background of not being very technical, of having very basic facilities. Like other traditional coaches, I like to keep it simple.
"I think most of the Kenyan athletes here will tell you that their approach is not very scientific – in terms of heart-rate monitors and measuring blood and lactic acid, all these factors you have in the west. Coming from a poor background, science and facilities were never going to be big factors in their training or lifestyle."
The simple answer as to why the British team have come here – for a four-week block of training before Christmas and for another four-week stint in the new year – is to concentrate on putting in the hard miles, living and working the modest Kenyan way. And, of course, to gain the benefit of boosting their red blood cell count when they return to race at sea level – which Farah, England and Clitheroe will be doing in the traditional curtain-raiser to the indoor season, the Aviva International Match in Glasgow on Saturday.
Ian Stewart, who has overseen a turning of the tide in British distance running in his role as head of endurance at UK Athletics, was one of the generation of great British distance men who were in at the start of experimentation with altitude training. So was Dave Bedford, the former 10,000m world record holder, now joint race director of the Virgin London Marathon. Both men are in Iten, at the high altitude training camp built and run by Kiplagat, one of Radcliffe's long-time rivals, and her husband, Peter Langerhorst.
"Dave and I trained together a lot in 1972, preparing for the Olympics," recalls Stewart, who won a 5,000m bronze medal in Munich. "There was a British team camp in St Moritz [in the Swiss Alps] just before the Games but we'd already been altitude training in Font Romeu [in the French Pyrenees] quite a lot that year. We preferred it there.
"With the present team, we put a lot of research into ending up with a base here – our physiologists, Barry Fudge, Andi Jones and myself. We went to pretty much every altitude centre worldwide and this is as good as it gets.
"I'm not a five-star hotel boy. I want it basic, military-style, which is more or less what it is here. Good bed, clean sheets and a shower. We have a doctor, two soft-tissue physios and that's pretty much it.
"It's simple. That's all we need. And the great thing about it is there are no distractions. You get up at 6.30am, go for an hour run, come back, have a shower, get some breakfast, have a sleep, go to the gym in the afternoon, then go out for another run, an hour-and-a-half. That's 25 miles a day during the week and one long run on a Sunday.
"Everybody's really good. If they weren't they'd soon be found out. There's no hiding place here and that's the way it should be. Some of the sessions are brutal."
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