Monday, 5 December 2011

The Home Straight

5th December
The Home Straight: One week to go
Yesterday we savoured our last ‘Mazungo Sunday’: morning training followed by a brunch of chapatis, tea, avocado, eggs and banana and an afternoon at Kerio view.  A simple but incredibly gratifying weekly dose of relaxation. This time next week we will be on our flight back to London. We’re travelling to Nairobi on Sunday by matatu (minibus): a little less comfortable way of spending a day. Sunday night will be our last night in Kenya. Without hesitation I can say that I am really looking forward to going home.

There are definitely things here that I will miss. Most of all I will miss leading a very simple (and arguably self-indulgent!) life of 24/7 training and relaxing. Since arriving in mid-September I have managed to train three times a day every day (except for Sunday) without interruptions. No commitments, no work-related pressure, no exams. It is perhaps for these reasons that I haven’t once felt ill or tired. I’ve been able to direct all of my concentration on my training and move closer to my main goal of ridding myself of injury and getting back into good shape again after 12 months of interrupted training and injury. I think the regimented regime of training, eating, and sleeping at the same time each day, at the same intervals, has given added benefit to the activities I’ve been doing.
Just as living amongst hundreds of full-time runners is very conducive to this way of life, living amongst hundreds of full-time ‘workers’ back in the UK creates an environment in which it is very difficult to justify just training! Here in Iten you can spend all of your time training or sleeping and be completely free of guilt because it is perceived as being a meaningful use of time: running is not considered leisure-time but, as our neighbour Julius said, ‘a serious business.’ If these arguments appear to be a little too thought-out it is because I am anticipating the inevitable requests to do some housework ‘since I’m not doing anything else’ when I get back home.
To reassure all of those who knew me before I embarked on the last three months: despite revelling in my seclusion and single-mindedness, I haven’t turned into ‘Boo Radley’ and I am looking forward to a good Christmas back at home. I’m not sure I can say the same about Dougie: when left alone in our dark and dingy apartment for a few hours on Friday he made a disturbingly inventive advent calendar ‘the Tadvent Calendar’ to count down our last few days in Kenya:
Hard at work
Bad spelling but a great effort
Christmas songs are now also a daily feature but try as we might we can’t really generate the same levels of festivity that you get back at home at this time of the year.
Pangs for home hit me every now and again when I abstract a task or activity that I’m doing that has come to appear ‘normal.’ For instance, after one particularly wet and muddy training session last week I was going about my usual washing process- of crouching over a basin of freezing cold water in our ‘washroom’ trying to splash and soap myself simultaneously- and, although I do this every day, I just caught myself thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?’ The same sentiment hit me and Dougie together on Monday when, in the middle of what turned out to be a 24hour power cut, we were sitting, in the dark, in our ‘living room’ with only the dying light of a headtorch that was running out of battery power, in silence because the torrential rain was making too loud a noise on our tin roof. At times like this you just have to laugh.
To an extent I’ll miss living a life that is so connected to the environment. Paradoxically, there is something quite liberating about being so dependent upon the whims of the weather, about planning when you do your washing, about just heading out to training in whatever conditions the world throws at you and trying to cope with it however you can. Just little things as well, like drinking fresh milk produced by the local cow and waking up just when it gets light and going to bed as it gets dark, make the life here feel wholesome. It must be said, though, that my relationship with Mother Nature has been strained, to say the least, in the last couple of weeks when the rains- which everybody expected to die off- picked up. Roads have been closed, paths are non-existent. Every morning at 5.45am I wake up to the sound of the rain battering the roof and I just have to put my coat on, head out the door and suck it up.
Mother Nature at her finest

Destruction to the paths wrought by the rain

The forest

Observed by a lizard whilst writing the blog at KV
This week TaD welcomed British runner Nick Swinburn to Iten. It’s good to feed off the energy of an enthusiastic new arrival at a time when our pining for home could have reached new heights. It’s likely that Nick will take on our apartment and look after it whilst we are away. This is another thing about Iten that I will miss dearly: the community spirit. Whether it’s the Kenyan people, the fact that there are a lot of runners, or because it’s a small town, I don’t really know but Iten is undoubtedly one of the safest and friendliest places I have ever experienced. Young Kipsang happily makes himself at home in our apartment and our neighbours are always around to help out (if there’s a water shortage or a power cut). Most importantly there always seem to be a few good lads around to spend your downtime with, to go for lunch with, to entrust your property to etc etc. It was good having Dan and Myles here when we arrived and it was good to welcome new faces- especially the Kiwis- as the trip went on.
Lunch with the lads at Kamogich Plaza.

Dougie, Nick, Sam and Me at the Mosque Cafe
TaD is still going very strong. So strong, in fact, that the trip has been described by one member of TaD, who will remain nameless, as 'one long hetrosexual honeymoon.' We've had a great experience but right now, after 12 weeks, I would probably do outrageous things to secure myself a  warm house with a carpeted floor, a hot shower, and a big roast dinner.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Interview with a Kenyan Runner

13th November
Julius Chepkwony Rotich: Interview with a Kenyan Runner
As the rain battered his apartment wall, making a racket on the tin roof, TaD tried to get his head down and salvage some sleep.  The rain and mist had been bad now for five weeks. During that time TaD had become slightly more hardened, more haggard: he rarely left his abode save to train; he had lost a significant amount of weight; his cheeks and jawline were now covered by a thick coating of facial hair. TaD had been keeping a low profile; staying out of trouble. And with every day that passed he withdrew into himself a little more. This was the wild.
Another wet and misty week in Iten. It’s also been rather noneventful (perhaps the reason why this week’s story about TaD is slightly more exaggerated than usual).  We have, however, spent a bit more time with our neighbour, Julius Rotich, a 61 min half-marathon runner. Often Julius will call round to our apartment after dinner for a chat, his visits are much appreciated. His English is pretty good and he loves to laugh. Julius was impressed with Dougie’s law degree and has started addressing him as ‘the lawyer’. Yesterday he came round for tea in the afternoon and we spoke at length about ‘his story’: he told me all about growing up in Kenya and trying to make a living as a professional athlete.
Dougie and Julius

From Baringo to Iten
Like most of the full-time athletes in Iten, Julius was born elsewhere. His home is in Baringo district, another Rift Valley area. At a lower altitude than Iten, however, Baringo is hotter; Julius described it as a desert . He came to Iten because he wanted to be a professional athlete. After reaching a good level at primary school (15.40, 5000m) his teachers encouraged him to leave Baringo and go to a high school that supported athletics.
St Patrick’s Iten was the first choice so one day he took himself off to Iten and approached the famous Brother Colm to ask him for a place in the school. A week later he returned, as instructed, for a trial with the school’s athletes. Julius tells me that at this point he didn’t know much about running and so he showed up in trousers and ‘leather shoes’. Thus attired he managed to keep up with the group.
Though there are many boys at St Patrick’s from many different towns, Julius’s tells me that his case, of a 15 year-old boy making his own way from his hometown to the school to plead for a place was very rare. His story is even more impressive because, in the part of Baringo where he is from, very few people ran or aspired to be runners. Throughout the conversation Julius stressed to me that his whole life he has had motivated himself towards his goals, and whilst his friends and family have never stood in his way no-one other than himself has actively encouraged him to pursue his ambitions.
Julius and I
Professional Running
Julius studied at St Patricks from 2003-2006. On top of a heavy academic workload, the students at St Patrick’s are required to contribute to the upkeep of the grounds. When I was shown around the school last week a group of about twenty or so boys were sweeping up the yard. Sports are central to the school’s philosophy but, Julius explained to me, no-one is given special attention and the athlete-students have to fit in their two runs a day around the school schedule. This meant rising at 5am every morning and staying on site during the holidays to attend the training camps.
A tour of St Patrick's
Earlier in the trip Dougie and I were told by a teacher at the St Patrick’s that 25% of the boys want to be professional runners when they leave. Julius confirmed that this outlook was widespread. Indeed, he has always thought to himself, ‘instead of me going to be a teacher, let me be an athlete.’ With the increasing professionalisation, commercialisation, and globalisation of sports in recent decades, professional athletics has come to be seen as a viable career path for many young people in the developing world. As I have said in a previous post, St Patrick’s has capitalized on this trend and has encouraged athletics amongst its students not simply as ‘physical education’ but as a vocation. Julius too sharply distinguished between running for leisure and running for business: ‘Many people come to Iten to run for leisure but they end up packing their bags and going home and not making anything of themselves as runners... in athletics you have to make a commitment and be disciplined. It is a business. You have to be serious.’
However life after school is more cut throat. School athletics offer a support network to aspiring young athletes. But there is little, if any, provision for those who want to make a living out of the sport when they finish with their studies. Many of the 25% who aspire to be athletes look to join the armed forces, the police or the prison services who sponsor their workers if they have athletic potential and are generous with time allowance. Julius said that the public services were a popular route for many of his peers.
Julius, on the other hand, after finishing school went back to Baringo for a year and tried to convince his family to give him some funds to pay for his rent. Then, after squeezing a little bit of cash out of his brothers, he came to Iten in 2007 when he spent a year of uninterrupted training; ‘getting strong’ as he put it. In 2008, after establishing contacts in Iten, he managed to get into some races in Europe. In that year he ran 28.30 for a road 10k and 63 for a half-marathon. His highlight of the year was claiming victory in a 20k race in Tours, France, in 58.30.
But there were complications. After pacing a marathon to, his manager at the time withheld his promised €1000. This would have been his first major payment, but he never got it. I asked Julius about his sources of income comes from. He doesn’t have a kit deal with any of the major brands but believes that he is capable of running the 59min half-marathon or 2.09 marathon he considers necessary to secure one. He relies solely on race prize money and race-organisers offering him appearance money. It is always a gamble because he is required to contribute to funding his own way to Europe- where all the big races, and big prizes, are. This, he says, is the situation for most runners in Iten.
Money, of course, is one factor that explains the growing popularity of road racing over the track amongst Kenyans. There is simply far less of a chance of making money out of track running for the average Kenyan runner.  However, even for road runners, it is common for them to go years without securing any income. Unfortunately, it is also common for agents, managers, and race organisers to withhold payment. Moreover, the governing body, ‘Athletics Kenya’ has too many athletes to fund, and offers no support to the thousands and thousands of aspiring runners that have sprung up in towns such as Iten in the last few years. It is perhaps, for all these reasons, that Julius does not take issue with the many Kenyans who defect to run other nations. ‘If another country is giving you food and money, then why not.’
Training and goals
Julius’ goal is to run 2.07 for the marathon. It is a far more modest ambition than the many Kenyan runners in this town who tell you that they are on the verge of breaking 2.05. Since2008 Julius has dedicated himself to this goal and gives himself until he is 35 to achieve it. His career highlight so far was securing his personal best for half-marathon, 61.18, in Porto, Portugal, in 2010 where he finished 4th.
When he reaches retirement age, he said, he will probably go back home and start his own business transporting goods from farms to commercial areas. But he has not ruled out the possibility of making it big. ‘If I can win a big marathon’, he told me, ‘in just one day I can lift myself from nowhere to somewhere.’
His training is basic. But he says that the seriousness of his approach is what separates him from most of the other people he knows who are training for the marathon. ‘When it is time for training, it is time for training. It is a serious business’. He said that in between training he either eats or sleeps and there’s no space in his schedule for ‘loitering around Iten, looking for girls’(!). An average day looks like this:
6am: 40mins jogging (very very slow)
7am: breakfast: Just plain white bread and tea
10am: ‘hard training’ (Tuesday: long intervals on the track (5x2000m 60sec recovery in 2.45), Friday: short intervals ion the track (20x400m 45sec recovery in 65) Mon, Wed, Thur, Sat: 70min run getting progressively quicker)
12noon: lunch: rice and beans:
1pm-4pm: sleep
4pm: either a very slow run or continue relaxing
5pm: evening meal: ugali and spinach
9pm: sleep
Kit Donation Appeal
Prior to coming out to Kenya, I had heard many stories similar to that of Julius’ so I organised a small kit donation project to try and get runners at home to donate their unwanted but re-usable running kit to help such athletes. There was a great response. A big thanks must go to Stuart Robinson from Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde AC who donated a big box of kit- a lot of which was new. I gave a lot of this stuff to Julius and he has asked me to pass on his thanks. I also gave some of the kit Stuart gave me to two other aspiring athletes Charles and Robert who live down the road from me:
Charles and Robert sporting donated kit.

I also want to thank Jane Sawyers and City of Stoke AC who provided lots of kit. The children’s kit has gone down very well. A lot of it has gone to a little lad called Victor Kipsang who lives near us. Victor often calls by our apartment every morning for some breakfast. He’s a great kid and perhaps one day he’ll be a great runner. He loved the City of Stoke AC kit!:
Dougie and Kipsang
Kipsang sporting his new City of Stoke kit.
Some of it has gone to the young daughter’s of a local cook called Rose:

Good quality running kit is hard to come by for most of the people in Iten so these donations have been hugely appreciated: thank you to everyone who contributed.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Photos: Half-way

31st October
Photos: Half-way

Today marks the beginning of TaD's venture into 'week 8' and thereby the passing of the 'half-way stage'. Who knows what adventures lie ahead, it's been a great seven weeks so far.

The ‘archway’ upon entering this running Mecca.

Dougie perusing the central market with discerning eyes.

The Iten Market, Saturday.

 A bewildered mzungo and his furniture. From week two when, amazingly, the two large wooden beds, and two tables that we had purchased in the town centre were strapped onto the back of a tiny motorbike before being carted up the hill to our humble abode one mile away.

Gideon (my training partner; wrapped up, keeping warm) and I (enjoying the baking heat) one Saturday afternoon in Iten.

The Cyclists. Me with the Kenyan cycling team whose training sessions my group joins a few times a week.  

The view from the escarpment edge overlooking the Kerio Valley at 6am. A misty day.

The view from our ‘apartment’ overlooking Iten. A cloudy day.
The view from the corridor of our ‘apartment’ overlooking Dougie’s rear. A muddy day.  

Cattle grazing on the in-field of Karmariny track.

A strange mzungo: an object of fascination for the many local kids who come to watch (and occasionally partake in) our training sessions. Photograph courtesy of Brian, aged 10.
One of the many Primary schools in the town built to cater for the enormous young population.

You can’t get the camera out in Iten without a group of kids gathering round in excitement and asking for their photos!

Myles’ Birthday meal at Kerio view.

TaD, two highly cultured individuals sipping Kenyan tea at Kerio view.


Monday, 24 October 2011

St Patrick’s High School, Iten

 23rd October
St Patrick’s High School, Iten
On Wednesday 14th September, a fresh faced TaD- whose bright-white skin tone was equalled only by his bright white shoes- was walking down the road in Iten when he happened to catch a glimpse of a small sign. Much of the paint had peeled from the sign but, nevertheless, it still clearly indicated the entrance to St Patrick’s High School. If, at this point, TaD appeared nonchalant, it was only because his outward signs of excitement had been dampened by the 48 hours of travelling he had had to endure in the two days prior. Indeed, Wednesday 14th September was TaD’s first day in Iten. Thus he was enthused, with the energy and curiosity so common amongst travellers in the early days of their voyages, to submerge himself in the town. And so it was on account of said energy and enthusiasm that TaD decided to take the detour from the main road to witness, or at least steal a photograph of, the famous school.
A photo of TaD on Day One, outside St Patrick’s. (Note the white trainers and white skin. Note also the surplus weight- particularly visible on Dougie)

St Patrick’s High School Iten was founded by Irish missionaries, the Patrician Brothers, in 1961. During this time, Kenya was moving towards independence: the Mau-Mau Uprising, often cited as one of the first signs of organised struggle for de-colonisation in Kenya, began in 1952 and the nation finally achieved self-government in December 1963. As Dennis Newman has noted, in the 1950’s there was a real ‘thirst for freedom’ in Africa and education was seen as the best medium through which to acquire such freedom. Some missionary groups, like the Patrician Brothers, were particularly responsive to this sentiment. Accordingly, a guiding motivation of some large missionary-ran boarding schools, like St Patricks in Iten and St Mary’s in Nyanza Province, was to encourage the growth of an ‘educated elite’ of Kenyan’s who could run the country upon the (increasingly inevitable) departure of the British Imperial government.
The aim of the Patrician brothers in Iten was ‘to put the structures in place to enable and empower the people with the knowledge and skills to move forward into a better future and for the country to take its place among the independent nations of the world.’ The school is interesting because the most prominent way in which it has achieved this aim is not through ‘orthodox’ channels such as government, health, business, or education but, rather, through athletics. This is not to discredit the work the school has done in those fields but instead to emphasise its pioneering role in middle and long-distance running in Kenya.
Alumni of St Patrick’s include Peter Rono (Olympic gold, 1988- 1500m), Matthew Birir (Olympic gold, 1992- 3000m S/C), and Wilson Kipketer (3 time World Champion; holder of 3 world records). Since the mid 1980s, the school has held seasonal running camps. These camps have developed the best talents in the country. Recent graduates of the St Patrick’s camps, for example, include Augustine Choge, Isaak Songok and, most famously, the current 800m world record holder David Rudisha.
Lots of broadcasters and journalists have written about St Patrick’s success in producing athletes. So on our first day, when we swung by to get a photograph outside the school, we were more than happy to receive an invitation, from one of the school’s history teachers, for a guided tour of the place. Mr Kibichi’s first stop was the dining hall, at the end of which stands a large placard displaying the school records:
The modest dining hall
The 'anything-but' modest school records

Even taking into account the fact that some of these records may have been set by students who weren’t of (what we would consider in Britain as) ‘school age’, they are pretty impressive. As a point of comparison here are the Scottish national records.
100m Alan Wells 10.11
200m Alan Wells 20.21
400m Brian Whittle 45.22
800m Tom McKean 1.43.88
1500m John Robson 3.33.84
3000 S/C Tom Hanlon 8.12.58
5000m Nat Muir 13.17.9
10000m Andrew Lemoncello 27.57.23
I must add that I (English) have been taking a bit of stick from Dougie (Scottish) over making this comparison; to clarify- I am just trying to show how good St Patrick’s athletes are and I’m not attacking Scotland!
A lot of this success has been attributed to Brother Colm O’Connell who arrived in Iten in 1976 to teach geography at St Patrick’s. Quite incredibly, given what his athletes have gone on to achieve, he had, at this point, no experience in athletics. However, with some encouragement from Peter Foster (brother of British athletics legend Brendan Foster) he began to get involved with the school’s athletics team.

Brother Colm O'Connell and David Rudisha
Colm O'Connell and Ian Kiprono
Sport has played, and, indeed, continues to play, an important role in boarding schools across the world. To some extent, its central place in the curriculum can be attributed to the influence of the all-boys English public schools of the nineteenth century. These elite, gentlemanly, institutions encouraged sport (rugby and cricket in particular) in order to teach their ‘lads’ lofty ‘English’ values such as obedience, discipline, leadership and ‘manliness’. It was hoped that, by combining education of the body with education of the mind, schools could produce fully-formed noble Englishmen who could be sent out across the world to tell everybody else what to do. Many boarding schools in former British colonies still follow this pedagogical outlook, albeit less cynically of course. St Patrick’s motto, for example, is ‘Excellence in All Endeavours.’
At St Patrick’s, however, ‘doing athletics’, is not merely seen as one element in a young person’s development into a professional. Rather, success in athletics is an end in itself. On the tour of the school for example, as Mr Kibichi walked us through the yard, he told us that ‘only’(!) 25% of the pupils want to be professional athletes when they grow up.
The success of the school’s athletes really began to take off in the late 1980’s and it has continued on an upward trajectory unto today. It is no coincidence that during this same time period, Iten has transformed from a small African farming village to a town built upon the money made by its professional runners, and by the many athletes who come here from all over the world to train. As Brother Colm has said, ‘traditionally, African people relied on agriculture for their survival, now they look more at sport as a means of a livelihood.’
Road sign upon entering Iten
Since our first visit to St Patrick’s I have been fortunate enough to establish stronger links with the school, and have even managed to speak to Colm himself. He has now retired from teaching and works as full-time coach to David Rudisha, Augustine Choge and Harun Keitany, all of whom have houses next to the Brother’s within the school grounds. I didn’t really appreciate it on the first day but subsequent visits have made me aware of the incredibly serene and simple environment within the school grounds. Whilst Iten town is generally a relaxed place there is an underlying sense of urgency. I guess this is created by the hundreds of runners who live here in a state of constant desperation and who are training at full-tilt every day in order to improve their times and, it must be said, get to live, or at least race in, Europe. The tranquillity at St Patrick’s, Brother Colm told me, is something those involved in the school’s athletics have worked hard to cultivate. Small and secluded, and no great piece of architecture, the school could easily be missed. But it is the very basic and relaxed atmosphere that Colm believes has been crucial to his athlete’s success.
Last week, on the 22nd October, Kenya celebrated ‘Mashujaa (‘Heroes’) Day’ to commemorate all those who have dedicated their lives to the promotion of the Kenyan nation. News programmes throughout the week have been showing montages of Kenyan heroes. Featuring prominently amongst footage and photographs of the country’s exalted political leaders (such as, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, and Wangari Maathai) were Kenya’s athletics heroes: Kipchoge Keino, Wilson Kipketer, Paul Tergat, Linet Masai, David Rudisha. Like David Beckham, Chris Hoy and Steve Redgrave in Great Britain, Kenya’s sporting heroes play a crucial role in bringing the people of the country together. Along these lines the case can be made that, in its own way, through athletics, St Patrick’s High School Iten, a modest institution in a small town, has in fact made a vital contribution to the growth of the Kenyan nation and the way Kenyan’s feel about themselves.
TaD, week 7- a little more comforatble in Kenyan surroundings than on Day One

Sunday, 16 October 2011

TaD vs the World

16th October
TaD vs the World
Back on the sofas at Kerio View, TaD reclined as he drank his Kenyan tea. ‘Week five of thirteen’, he thought to himself. He breathed a long sigh of relief. Throughout the week TaD had been forced to draw upon his enormous reserve of perseverance to combat the series of inconveniences that his harsh Kenyan surroundings had thrown at him. Not only did he have to cope with broken technology but Mother Nature, too, had thought that she could get the better of him. How foolish she was.
Morale is still high and another Mazungo Sunday is still being very much enjoyed despite the fact that the past week has contained what has felt like a number of battles. We haven’t had to endure anything particularly dramatic or unexpected; indeed, all of the ‘battles’ TaD has courageously fought this week have been with things that we were prepared to face. The only problem is that all of our bad luck seems to have been packed in to one week.
TaD vs Technology
Our struggle with technology began two weeks ago when, after my laptop had been stored incorrectly whilst at Kerio View, my computer screen failed to work. This instigated a mission into the back-streets of Eldoret city to find a computer repair shop. Thankfully the looming threat of having to buy a new laptop or computer monitor was averted and I returned from the busy city with a fixed laptop.  
But it didn’t stop there. As all the avid followers will have noticed, last week’s blog was uploaded a day later than expected. This was due to the internet service we use apparently taking a little ‘Sunday rest’ of its own. We we’re back online by Monday afternoon only to be struck by a series of evening power cuts. Power cuts are apparently pretty common, so perhaps we were just been lucky in our first few weeks by somehow avoiding them.
We took this in our stride. When the power goes out in the evening we simply have to put the head torches on. However the power-cuts contributed to the scuppering of Dougie’s evening plans. Dougie, who unashamedly wears his heart on his sleeve, often enjoys a ‘Skype’ call back to his girlfriend Jenny (who I promised I would give a ‘shout out’ to). Even when the power came back on however Skype struggled. There seems to be something about trying to access Skype from the Rift Valley that makes it a bit of a lottery whether you can connect or not. Ever resourceful, Dougie has often found mechanisms to thwart Skype’s games but this week he simply had to admit defeat.
Even I, Skype-less though I am, have fallen victim to a malicious attack on my communication technology. After leaving my mobile phone in a damp coat pocket (after a day of torrential rain- see below ‘TaD vs Weather’) the phone keyboard had broken thus rendering my phone useless at texting.
TaD vs Weather
The ‘rainy season’ in this part of Kenya usually occurs in September. We heard all about it from our mates Myles and Dan (henceforward ‘MaD’), who came out here before us and had to endure a few weeks of heavy rain. The rain, however, has returned with vengeance, accompanied by a cold mist. The rain itself, though quite annoying, isn’t too bad. The consequences of heavy rain, however, can be dire. First, there is only one tarmac road in Iten. The rest are dirt tracks which can very quickly turn into swamps of sticky clay when they get wet. The red clay gets everywhere and makes the act of running, even walking, anywhere quite difficult. It also covers your shoes and trousers. Second, periods of heavy rain, when one lives without heaters or tumble dryers, make cleaning and drying clothes and shoes very difficult. If you don’t think ahead a few days of rain could mean that you have a few days wearing wet clothes.
TaD vs Utilities
Not only did we have to overcome the irritation of intermittent electricity and the wet weather but for most of the last week we have also been without running water. Ironically, our lack of water was initially brought about by the weeks of baking hot, dry days we experienced since our arrival five weeks ago. However, even during the height of the recent rains our water supply failed us because the generator (which pumps the water from the tank into our compound) had broken.
Lack of running water meant frequent 30minute walks down the swampy clay road the supermarket to buy, and subsequently carry back along the swampy clay road, 10 litre bottles of water.
We each have a membership at the ‘High Altitude Training Centre’- the only place in Iten where we can access hot running water and get showers. Unfortunately the HATC’s water is heated by solar power. Do I need to explain the consequences of back-to-back cloudy days when one relies on solar power to heat the water? Washing ourselves this week has, furthermore, involved using the bottled water purchased at the supermarket. Meaning more trips to the supermarket... in the rain.
TaD vs the Kenyan Way of Life
‘No problem’ I hear you say, ‘at least you had a cook to prepare you a hearty hot meal each night.’ If only. Kenyan’s are an incredibly relaxed people, for whom the concept of rushing anywhere, or for that matter, sticking to a deadline, is alien. Perhaps this is a stereotype, but this is at least true of the majority of Kenyans we have met- including, it must be said, our cook. Whilst, at times, this can be a truly admirable quality, even endearing; a quality that makes Kenya a very homely and leisurely place to live and train, it also has definite downsides. Valentine cooks a great meal but from time to time she decides at short notice that she can’t work, or that she won’t come to work until a bit later than usual. Sometimes she even makes these decisions without letting us know. Like, for instance, on Friday night- after a day of heavy rain and power cuts.
TaD the victorious
Really, this week hasn’t been that bad. In fact relatively speaking, it’s been a great week. We’re living as full-time athletes and things like power-cuts and cold water are the only things we every have to worry about. Things could be a lot worse. For example, the aforementioned ‘MaD’ have had a very similar week but have also had to cope with bouts of food poisoning. Myles has even had to visit the local hospital as a result. More so even, we are surrounded by hundreds of Kenyan runners who are living in even more basic conditions; who have been for years, and who will continue to do so for years. They all just get on with it.
Many of the Kenyans don’t even have the chance to come over here, to Kerio View. This week, however, I can definitely and unashamedly say that we are making the most of our Sunday and our brief reminder of some of the comforts of life at home.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


10th October
At 5.30 every morning my alarm goes off. By 6.00 I have met up with my training group and have begun the first session of the day. By every day I mean every day- including the sacred Mazungo Sunday. The programme I am following is very different to anything I have done before. Indeed, it had to be because my physical condition upon arrival needed radical revision if I ever wanted to a) get back from chronic injury problems and b) improve.
If you are eating your dinner look away now... 12 months ago my left heel looked like this:

I had surgery to remove some bone growth near my Achilles tendon (a known as ‘Haglund's deformity’) and a ‘chronically inflamed bursa’. These are problems are not uncommon amongst middle and long-distance runners: of the small group of Western runners based out here in Iten, at the moment, two others have had exactly the same operation.

It has taken a year of resting and cross-training, plus one cortisone injection, for it to start feeling relatively normal again. Over the summer I managed to string together a few weeks of very basic running, covering 30-40 miles per week. Most of this was on the roads around Poulton-le-Fylde with my long-suffering training partner/ ‘athletics mentor’ Phil Leybourne. Even on this relatively low volume of training, however, I knew I had reached a ceiling- the Achilles wasn’t getting any better and reacted badly to any of the more intense training.
All runners suffer injuries and niggles through their careers. Most find a way of combating them, but a small minority exhaust all the possible avenues to improve their condition and finally have to succumb to the injury. Some just take up fell-running (I joke). At 23, with modest personal best times, I wasn’t ready to pack in competitive running. In fact, I was prepared to go to quite extreme lengths- not only to get back again, but to improve.
This is where Rob Higley, the coach with whom I am currently working, comes in. Rob has, in his own words, dedicated the last thirty years to finding the ‘perfect running model.’ For the last four or five years he has been based in Iten and has worked with many of the great Kenyan middle-distance runners. Rob’s energy and enthusiasm about athletics is infectious and he is an extremely diligent and attentive coach. He has spent hours and hours of time with me every day making sure the programme is working well for me and that I’m getting better.
I couldn’t possibly attempt to summarize Rob’s incredibly complex philosophy of coaching and training. To the outsider, the regime I am following would definitely appear to be ‘esoteric’ and ‘unorthodox’ but it makes a lot of sense to me and the other people in the group. Given that Rob hasn’t made any attempt to publicise the work he is doing, I can’t really compromise his project or his reputation by going in to details. But in very basic terms, at this stage of the ‘programme’, I am doing lots of what most athletes would call ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘strength and conditioning’ work.
For someone like myself, for whom injuries have brought them to a standstill, Rob’s project is great at getting back to the ‘building blocks’ of running and addressing key weaknesses. Most of the time I spend training is divided between the gym at Lornah Kiplagat’s ‘High Altitude Training Centre’ and the forest. Whilst in the gym our sessions often attract some keen (and bemused) observers, the forest sessions are watched only by the wild monkeys that swing around the trees.
The entrance to Lornah Kiplagat's 'High Altitude Training Centre'
 The gym.

The squad is quite small. There are five of us, including me. It’s always good to train with a group- particularly when the training is hard, unfamiliar, and time-consuming. We’re all dedicated to what we’re doing, and that dedication really carries the regime. There is a good mix of us: there is Ciaran, an Irish runner who is in his second year of training with Rob; Gideon and Charles, two Kenyan lads who have been friends since childhood and now live next door to Rob; and Fazia, the only girl in the group, who has just started the programme like me. The Kenyans in the group, in particular Giddeon, are teaching me how to maximise rest and relaxation- they are probably one of the most laid-back group of people in the world!
The three Kenyans in the group are all younger than 20 and, in choosing athletics as a career path, have left their respective hometowns across Western Kenya to come to Iten to train. Before I came out to Kenya I managed to organise a small ‘kit donation project’ which was met with a great response. Many individuals and groups contributed. As I distribute the kit I’ll be sure to get some photographs and give the relevant donors a special mention. For now a special thanks must go to Nick Hume and Blackpool Wyre and Fylde AC (my home club) for donating a stack of T-shirts and to Staffordshire Police Running Club who donated loads of running vests. I have given some of these items to the training group:

Whilst my training at the moment is quite different, I am surrounded by athletes fully implementing the ideals of ‘old school’ training methods. Iten has a reputation for being a ‘marathon’ town, a distance event that is becoming increasingly popular in Kenya due to the opportunity for marathon runners to make huge amounts of money from big-city international marathons. Training, for these runners, such as the four guys who live opposite us (one of whom has ran a 61min half marathon, another of whom has ran a 2hr07min marathon), involves an easy 40 min run at 6am followed by a hard 70min run at 9.30 am every day, except for Tuesdays when the 70min run becomes an ‘interval session’ and a Sunday when they do one run of anywhere up to 3 hours. This approach undoubtedly has a real rugged kind of glamour to it. This is especially the case when you see a group of 40-50 Kenyans smashing out the miles along Iten’s dirt tracks at a ferocious pace.
Iten's famous Kamariny Athletics Stadium

A team of 'marathoners' training at Kamariny
(Photographs of Kamarin courtesy of Myles Edwards, middle-distance runner and journalist extraordinaire

Dougie and Dan Mulhare are also both putting in impressive shifts. I can thoroughly recommend Dan’s blog. It is a great read for anyone who wants more information about the training and lifestyle of hard-working athletes from Ireland and Britain.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Mazungo Sunday

2nd October
Mazungo Sunday
TaD sauntered in to the hotel restaurant, sat at the bar and promptly ordered his coffee. He leaned over the bar and with few words coerced Eric, the barman, to put the football on. As he did so he felt the burn in his legs from the week’s training. It would be a while until Arsenal Tottenham but TaD didn’t mind. He’d sit at the bar and do whatever the hell he wanted. No doubt he would, later in the evening, put away a large quantity of red meat. There seemed to be something different about the way TaD held himself. He seemed surprisingly self-assured. It was a Sunday.
Just as with last week’s ‘Kalenjin’ post, I am uploading this blog from the sofa in Kerio View. Located about 1 ½ miles away from the town centre, the hotel is probably the most luxurious accommodation available in Iten. The hotel restaurant is located within beautiful grounds which run right up to the cliff edge. On any of the short walks that extend from the hotel, or even just sat by the window, one feels a part of the stunning views of the Kerio Valley. It drops over 1,000m below and stretches out as far as the eye can see. We have settled into a bit of a routine of coming over here every Sunday after lunch and spending all afternoon here just relaxing eating, and watching football. As it is quite different to most of the other days here, and quite similar to a Sunday afternoon at home, we have labelled it ‘Mazungo Sunday.’ It has become a bit of a running joke that, on these days, we cut-loose, in the only way a couple of university graduate-distance runners can, and order whatever we want to eat and drink. Normally coffees, cakes, steaks, and ice-cream feature. With the addition of Sunday’s offerings of the English Premier League, we are able, albeit briefly, to let the inner ‘lad’ in us come out.
The Kerio Valley
TaD with a group of Kenyan runners on a walk from Kerio View
The weekly meals at Kerio View function as a kind of pressure valve, providing relief from the weekday rigmaroles of ugali, rice, beans, and cabbage. Food is, if not an essential, then at least an important element of a good training programme. Whilst we aren’t particularly obsessive about diet we have made an attempt to eat well and sample the type of food the Kenyans here eat. It would be possible to eat just as we would at home. Not only is Kerio View only 10 mins away, there is also a large European-style supermarket in Eldoret (45mins by car) which sells everything one can buy in a Tesco, or the like, at home. Both options, however, are relatively expensive. A three course meal at Kerio View costs £10 and the supermarket prices are similar to those at home. We are trying not to rely too heavily on these options.
We buy most of the food for our breakfast and evening meals from the shops or market stalls in Iten. Breakfast is usually a pretty dull affair: ‘Weetabix’, whole milk, bananas, bread with ‘Nutella’ peanut butter and or jam. ‘Weetabix’ is the only available cereal in Iten. We have embarked upon a few long, desperate, but ultimately fruitless, searches for porridge oats. The closest we came was ‘sour ground millett’. But we had to use so much jam, honey, banana, ‘Nutella’ and sugar to disguise the taste of sour flour that we have sacked that option. With a banana costing roughly  4p, a loaf of bread 50p, 50ml of milk 35p, and a 900g box of Weetabix £1.40 we are spending very little on breakfast each day.
From the sorry sight of our food supply in 'week one' to the shelves after a shopping trip in 'week two'
At around 12 noon each day Dougie and I embark upon the 0.75 mile pilgrimage, along the dirt track, to the Mosque. More specifically we go to the mosque kitchen, as it is here where we have our lunch. As regulars we now receive a warm welcome from the woman who runs it and her daughter. There seem to be two options: a) Ugali with spinach and meat; b) chapatis with rice, beans, cabbage, spinach and meat.
Ugali is made from ground maize which grows in abundance in the fields around here. It takes the form, and indeed tastes like a block of mashed and compressed white rice. Being high in carbohydrates and containing no fat, it is known around the world as a staple part of a Kenyan long-distance runner’s diet. Many Kenyan athletes refer, both jokingly and seriously, to its ‘magic qualities.’ Bearing these positive qualities in mind certainly helps one persevere with the chore of eating it every day!
A sideways picture of the Mosque

Option 'a'

Option 'b'

(Outside the Mosque cafe. From l-r: Myles, Me, 'Mosque-lady' and child, Dougie, Dan) 

In the evenings we have become a couple of post-colonialists: last week we hired a local woman to cook for us. Whilst Valerie, or ‘Val’, also washes our clothes and cleans our flat (once a week) she performs her best work in the kitchen, knocking up a feast for us every day for when we get back from training. We get the shopping in for her (usually a selection of the small selection of things available in Iten- rice, ugali, beans, spinach, tomatoes, garlic) and she works her magic. Writing this now sounds a little precious but professional runners out here take their lifestyle very seriously. Furthermore, any practice that maximizes the time one can spend training and resting seized by Mazungo and non-Mazungo athlete alike. Anyway, having Val produce a tasty meal every evening certainly beats fighting a losing battle every night trying to prepare, what inevitably ended up as, a very average, rice-based stew.

'Rice stew' our own attempt

'Millet flour porridge'

Dougie settling down for a Valerie-prepared feast.

Val cooks for us six nights a week. On a Sunday we assume our usual place at the bar at Kerio View and usually order a meat-based meal (as meat is hard to come by in the market in Iten). It feels great to come over here once a week and make the most of ‘normal’ food. The simple mid-week life is very enriching but nevertheless Sunday's are very much looked forward to.

Having a muse to myself overlooking the Kerio Valley.