Radcliffe takes high road in search of gold
Marathon star takes to Kenyan altitude
Sunday 22 January 2012
The grey metal box attached to the wall in the arrivals hall at Eldoret airport says: "Corruption complaints box." Here in the foreign land of Kenya, it is like the past of LP Hartley's imagining: they do things differently.
Heading out of the airport, at the entrance there is a giant sign proclaiming: "Welcome to Eldoret, home of champions. Only champions win London."
It refers to the London Marathon rather than the London Olympics but given the domination of Kenyan athletes in the middle and long distance events at the World Championships in Daegu last summer we can expect many of the champions of London 2012 to have come out of this part of east Africa, in one way or another. Our battered jeep takes us along a rutted, dusty trail of a road 32km north west to Iten.
The route is lined on either side by small wooden and tin shacks, with matchstick slim Kenyans of all ages offering all manner of services. "Victorious butchery," says the sign outside one modest establishment. "Tearoom and chops," says another. "Coffins," another announces starkly, Ronseal-fashion.
The locals lining the route wear ragged clothing and shoes but seem happy with their modest lot. They smile and wave and shout, "Jambo," – "hello" in Swahili.
At the top of the climb to Iten, which stands perched some 7,800ft above sea level overlooking the vast, breathtaking sweep of the Great Rift Valley, a red-painted arch proclaims: "Thank you for visiting the home of champions." Off to the right, we rumble down a trail until we reach the gates of the High Altitude Performance Centre. "The university of champions," it says on the sign.
There have been an awful lot of world and Olympic champions from this market town of 4,000 people, which is one reason why, when we step inside, Paula Radcliffe can be seen performing high-kicking drills by the side of the swimming pools. It is 9am and the world's fastest ever female marathon runner has already been for her morning run along the red dust trails that thread through the hilly landscape. She is strengthening her legs to make sure the kind of misfortune that befell her in the Olympic marathons of 2004 and 2008 does not happen again when she has a fifth – and surely last – shot at Olympic glory in London this August.
In her two decades as an international runner, the 38-year-old Bedfordshire woman has become renowned for her ultra-holistic approach. UK Athletics once issued a booklet about it entitled "No stone left unturned". No pebble, more like.
There has been the emu oil to treat injuries, the titanium necklace, the knee length compression socks, the ice baths. There have been the trips to high altitude to gain the benefits of a boosted red blood cell count upon return to sea level but never – until this winter – to Kenya and the gold mine country of distance running.
For four weeks before Christmas Radcliffe was with the rest of the British endurance squad at the High Altitude Training Centre set up in Iten by Lornah Kiplagat, a long time rival at cross country and in the marathon. After Christmas she has been back at the base UK Athletics have adopted as their endurance camp, funded half by the national governing body and half by the London Marathon.
For someone who lives in Monaco, it might be expected to be something of a culture shock. "I think the first time you come it's a culture shock," the mother of two said yesterday, sitting in the complex restaurant. "You walk into the town centre and realise that that's all there is – and that these [shacks] really are shops.
"Yes, that's a shock. But when you go out running and see the local people they're all so happy. We're out covered in mud in the pouring rain and they keep shouting out, 'How are you?' And they're all smiling. That's great."
The Iten locals have become accustomed to seeing Kenyan champions on their trails. Radcliffe is a former world champion and as the holder of the outlandish world record for the women's marathon – a Boltesque 2hr 15 min 25sec – she commands respect.
"Yes, they do recognise me," she said, "because they're all running mad. I go out and all of them – apart from the really young kids – know me and shout out my name.
"It's inspiring being here because of the history, but it's also inspiring being around and seeing Mo Farah and the young runners in the British squad coming through. They knuckledown and train really hard and it's inspiring to see."
Not that the trip has been trouble free – or scare-free for Radcliffe. "I've been for a precautionary scan on my ankle in Eldoret this morning," she said. "I did a really good long run last weekend and since then things have just felt a little bit tight. Thankfully it's just muscular."
Come late afternoon the world record holder was heading back up the hill from "the University of Champions" for a training run. "Radcliffe! Radcliffe!" the happy people of Iten shouted by the side of the dusty red trails.
That 26.2 mile Olympic exam on home soil was moving closer into view.
Bekele dispute escalates
The dispute between Kenenisa Bekele and the Ethiopian Athletics Federation cranked up a notch yesterday when Jos Hermens, manager of the Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion, said: "He is so upset that he is saying, 'Let me run for another country'." That is unlikely, given the rules on athletes switching nationality – one year if both national federations agree and three years otherwise.
The Ethiopians would not want to lose their best athletes – 34 are suspended for missing a training camp – so that would mean the longer option. Hermens added: "Kenenisa said to me, 'I have not been shown any respect'."
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