Why are Kenyans so very fast? When it comes to distance running, the country is like an athletics kaiten-sushi, a conveyor belt delivering a succession of lean and elegant individuals, all keen as wasabi. Olympic champs are common as California rolls.
But why is Kenya so good at producing world-beaters? In the sport- obsessed year of 2012, I went there to try to find out. I was bound for the highlands of the Great Rift Valley, Kenya's most geologically and athletically dynamic locale. Gazing down on this ancient tectonic furrow, which stretches 6,000km down the African continent, is a small village with a big reputation. In Iten (population: 4,000), up to 1,000 athletes – marathon winners and record-holders among them – gather to train. And thus tatty, goat-roamed Iten has, not unreasonably, declared itself the "Home of Champions".
I liked being part of it – and anyone, regardless of fitness, can be. The simple but comfy High Altitude Training Centre (HATC), my home for a few nights, is happy to host all comers, so long as the place hasn't been booked out by, say, the British Olympic team. I was under no illusion that I'd be able to keep up. But I was hoping to watch the pros in action, learn a few of their secrets and have a nose around some of the surrounding Kenyan countryside too.
Initial problem: the altitude. I awoke early on my first morning to join the ghostly coven of lithe legs in Lycra, jogging gently in the pre-dawn; if the weather is favourable, 6am in Iten is rush-hour for runners. I fell into step behind one chap as he padded off the main road and down a terracotta-mud trail, curiously similar in colour to an athletics track, but a lot more gloopy (and with more cows). Immediately I felt my lungs scream. In Iten, perched up at 2,400m, the air is cruelly lacking in oxygen, making the slowest trot hurt like a Bolt-esque sprint to the uninitiated. No wonder Kenyans are so fast – train here and running down at sea level must be a cinch.
It was lovely to be out though. As I ran/wheezed, the dim sky began to crack, the rising sun injecting the clouds with shards of gold. The land around was a lush muddle of maize plots, fruit trees and forest, stretching off into a horizon that suddenly plunged a kilometre to the Rift Valley bottom below.
I ran to nearby Kamariny Stadium. The rickety grandstand looked like it might collapse under my weight; there were sheep grazing on the centre-oval and livestock drinking from the track's chocolate-milkshake puddles. But this is a legendary venue. On a Tuesday morning up to 200 elite athletes do terrifying group speed sessions on its well-worn murram; there's more talent gathered here than at some international competitions. This morning there was just a handful of hopefuls doing drills, but it was still humbling to watch.
During a stay at the HATC you can run the same hills and routes as the pros, hit the modern gym (where I narrowly missed London Marathon 2012 winner Wilson Kipsang doing a work out) and pick up a few tips from the experts. One day I lunched with legend Kip Keino, whose Olympic 1,500m gold in 1968 was Kenya's first big victory on the international stage. On another I grilled Moses Tanui – the first man to run a sub-hour half- marathon – and sort of wish I hadn't ("Train for speed and endurance; I ran seven days a week, twice a day, sometimes three...").
"Kenyans don't care about mileage, they train how they feel," explained HATC's resident coach Richard Mukche. That said, they train hard. "When you're resting, someone else is training," Richard added. The drive to be the best is unmatched: it brings not only glory but, most importantly, money – running is often a ticket out of poverty.
Just being in Iten was inspirational. I wandered around the bustling market, where Nikes are sold alongside passion fruit and potatoes. I visited St Patrick's school, which has produced more elite athletes than some countries; here, a tree is planted to commemorate every pupil who has ever won a world medal (there are a lot of trees). I even forced myself to eat ugali, the maize-meal mucilage that fuels every Kenyan champ, and tastes of absolutely nothing. And always – gliding by the roadside, limbering up on verges – there were runners: silent, dedicated, graceful as gazelles.
For all this effort, though, one thing Kenyan runners do best is rest. They train hard but relax hard in between. I might not be able to complete an elite training session (four lots of 17-minute 5Ks, anyone?) but resting? That I could do.
The Rift Valley is gaining fame for its running pedigree, but it's always been renowned for its lakes. There are eight in its Kenyan portion – including Lake Nakuru, one of Kenya's prime national parks and a good stop-off between Nairobi and Iten. However, I headed three hours east of Iten, hairpinning down, up and over primordial-looking hills of acacia and camelthorn to spend the night on Lake Baringo.
Baringo is Kenya's second-largest lake, a freshwater full-stop where the road ends and civilisation concedes to Mother Nature. Pinkish cliffs coated in a stubble of green, and unbothered by human blemishes, seemed to extend forever – not least back in time. A short motorboat ride zipped me out to Ol Kokwe island, where a scatter of comfy tents amid the trees hosted my resting: I took this part of the training very seriously.
After lounging by the pool in the company of a handsome paradise flycatcher, its long tail rippling like a streamer amid the foliage, it was time for a smidgen of activity – a sunset circumnavigation. Guide Peter manned the propeller and steered me round the island. Around 1,000 people live on Ol Kokwe; we saw several, cooking outside their simple thatched huts, and fishing from their unique reed rafts, featherlight constructions painstakingly powered by hand-sized paddles.
We also saw fish eagles swoop down to catch dinner, Goliath herons with great runners' legs stalking the shallows and weaver-bird nests hanging like Christmas baubles. A splash marked a young crocodile sidling into the water; a grumpy hippo made more fuss, thrusting its meaty head above the surface in displeasure, frighteningly close to our flimsy launch.
The next morning it was time for a 5K – though not a dash round the track, but a pre-breakfast hike across the island's craggy basaltic interior. Birdsong filtered down through the trees and into the reedbeds as guide John lead the way. We stopped to watch a man repairing his raft and a gaggle of boys fishing with sticks and string.
We were headed for the hot springs, reminders of the outcrop's volcanic provenance. As we neared the steaming fumaroles we acquired a Pied Piperage of locals, curious and keen to sell me decorative gourds. One of them, a boy of two or three, skipped barefoot over the sharp rocks like they were made of marshmallow, while I stumbled behind in my protective shoes. I couldn't imagine subjecting my delicate soles to the scoriaceous surface – let alone growing up doing so. But then, I can't imagine running a marathon in little more than two hours, a pace so blistering it makes me nauseous just to write it down.
As I watched the toddler – nimble, uncomplaining, without any other option – I realised that there lies part of the secret of Kenya's runners.
Kenya Airways flies to Nairobi from Heathrow; returns from £566 (020-8283 1800; kenya-airways.com). Other options from Heathrow include Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Flights from Nairobi to Eldoret cost US$69/ £46 (fly540.com); Iten is a 45-minute drive from Eldoret.
The High Altitude Training Centre in Iten (lornah.com) runs 15-day training camps from £899 per person, excluding flights (see traininkenya.com). Bespoke camps can be arranged for groups.
Island Camp Baringo, Ol Kokwe, Lake Baringo. Tents sleeping two from US$380 (£253), full-board (islandcamp.co.ke).