Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Kalenjin and the East African Running Phenomenon

25th September
The Kalenjin and the East African Running Phenomenon
As a runner it is a strange but fantastic experience to be in a part of the world where people get excited about watching a marathon on TV. This morning Dougie and I went to the ‘High Altitude Training Camp’ (owned and managed by Lornah Kiplagat) where we watched the Kenyan Patrick Makau beat the Ethiopian Haile Gebreselassie in the Berlin Marathon. In the process Makau set a new world record over the distance: 2.03.38. The Kenyan guys, who we watched the race with, jumped out of their seats to celebrate when Makau crossed the line and cheered in the way football fans do back in the UK when their teams score.
Over the past week, by providing their readers with daily coverage of race build-up, Kenyan newspapers and media agencies have seemingly been both caught up in, and a key factor in exacerbating, the excitement. For Dougie and I, predictions over the outcome have been the bread-and-butter of our small talk with the locals.
This is a small example of the cultural importance of distance running in Kenya. Indeed, the importance of running in this part of the world also has economic (with thousands of professional East African athletes, running is very much a major money-making industry and a viable career option) and socio-political (for example the intense rivalry between Ethiopia and Kenya) dimensions. Running is deeply engrained into everyday life here. A teacher at St Patrick’s High School, an all-boys boarding school in Iten, told Dougie and I that about 25% of the boys in the school want to be professional athletes when they grew up.
Undoubtedly the importance of running is an effect of the great success Kenya has had in the sport. In turn, however, the fact that so many young adults sacrifice everything to train to make a career in athletics can also be seen as a major cause of Kenyan success.
A similar environment has been cultivated in neighbouring East-African countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. The latter half of the twentieth century (particularly the period since the early 1990s) has witnessed an ‘East African running phenomenon’ with athletes from this part of the world becoming dominant over distances from 800m to the marathon. For instance take today’s world records:
800m: David Rudisha, Kenya, 1.41.01
1500m: Hicham El Guerrouj, Morrocco, 3.26.00
3,000m: Daniel Komen, Kenya 7.20.67
3,000m: Steeple-chase: Saif Saaeed Shaheen , Quatar (formerely Stephen Cherono of Kenya. Defected to Qatar in 2003) 7.53.63
5,000m: Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia, 12.37.35
10,000m: Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia, 26.17.53
Half-Marathon: Zersenay Tadese, Eritrea 58.23
Marathon: Patrick Makau, Kenya 2.03.38
Only one of these athletes is not from East Africa (the North African, el Guerrouj).
A number of arguments have been employed to try and explain why East Africa has reigned supreme: the high-altitude, the active-childhoods, the desperation to escape poverty, the abundance of role-models etc.  However, as those who have analysed this phenomenon have pointed out, success in distance running is not uniform across ‘East Africa’- some regions have achieved more than others. Many regions in East Africa (such as the east coast of Kenya) have significantly underwhelming athletics success- comparable to many other regions across the globe.
This is where I want to talk about the Kalenjin, a predominantly Kenyan tribal group native to the Rift Valley. The Kalenjin make up 1/2000th of the world’s population. Yet, in 2003, of all of the all-time top-10 male performances for the 800m, 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, 3,000m steeple-chase, and marathon, 50% of them were achieved by Kalenjin athletes: a truly astonishing statistic. Furthermore there appears to be an ‘ethnic dimension’ to the ‘East African running phenomenon.’
Most of the population of Iten are Kalenjin. Perhaps it is such proximity to this particular tribe that has encouraged me to romanticize their traits: of all the tribal groups in Kenya, I find the folk-lore that surrounds the Kalenjin the most rousing. There is a consistent narrative amongst the locals about how the Kalenjins are honest and fair but at the same time fearsome warriors; they are, apparently, brave and courageous; a tribe of people who are capable of withstanding, and indeed of thriving in, a climate of extreme pain and hardship. 
There are some stories of the old rituals of the Kalenjin that, whilst shocking and appalling to a Western audience in the 21st century, indicate how brutality and bravery are intimately related in Kalenjin culture. For example, as john Manners has written,
‘[In the nineteenth century], before marriage, every Kalenjin adolescent had to undergo ritual circumcision as initiation into adulthood. The slow and painful operation was observed by watchful elders looking for the slightest flinch by a young initiate, which would cause him [or her] to fail this very public test and to be permanently labelled kibitet [chebitet for girls], or coward, and be consigned for life to a kind of internal exile.’ John Manners  Raiders of the Rift Valley
Manners has spent decades researching Kalenjin culture in order to explain why they are so successful at distance running. He has argued that throughout their two-thousand year history the Kalenjin deliberately encouraged the breeding of brave children and promoted repeated tests of courage (such as the circumcision ritual) which tested ‘not only the ability to withstand physical pain, but also to hold up under pressure in a long-anticipated trial...perhaps not unlike an athletics competition.’ Ultimately Manners has argued that the history of Kalenjin ritual practices is the history of a tribe trying to ‘strengthen their military forces’. In so doing, he believes, they ‘have fostered the development of traits that have made their modern heirs conquerors in an entirely different realm.’

Regardless of whether or not such theories are true, they play a fundamental role in how many Kalenjin perceive themselves today in Kenya. Most of the athletes I have spoken to have told me of their natural endurance ability. Perhaps this sincere belief in their capabilities as modern warriors gives many of these athletes the mental edge required to claim victories over their (as they see it) tribally-inferior opposition.
(Note: The more time I have spent in this part of Kenya, the more I have realized how important tribal identity is here. Indeed, State House politicians in Nairobi are currently pursuing plans to remove the tribal classification from Kenyan citizens’ official documents as they believe that it has the potential to be so strong, it could cause damage to attempts to unify the Kenyan people under the banner of one nation. Related to these political manoeuvres is the court International Court Case in which senior members of the Kenyan government are being tried for crimes against humanity after being charged with inciting and assisting the tribal violence that broke out after the 2008 elections.)

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


19th September
It seemed strange to TaD that it was only last Thursday when he had spent the first night in the apartment. That night had entailed a broken sleep on a mattress on the floor. His bags remained packed at the foot of his mattress and clouds of dust, awoken by the tirade of sweeping and cleaning earlier in the day, still circled the empty building. But TaD was a tough man and he persevered. Though he was not renowned for his labouring skills he had somehow managed to turn his nimble fingers to the basic tasks necessary to turn a house into a home. He was now care-free. Henceforward he could spend time after training stretching on the yoga mat in the living room; in the evenings he could read and write by the gas stove with a mug of Kenyan tea.
We have just entered the second week of our trip. On Thursday we moved into the ‘apartment’ that is to be our home for the next fourteen weeks. We are renting a four-roomed building within a compound of similar buildings. Our compound is owned by Sylvia Kibet (Silver medallist 5,000m in the World Championships in Daegu earlier this summer) and her husband, Erastus. This arrangement (four-roomed buildings within a compound owned by a successful runner) is very common in the area. For example, our flat is nearly identical to the one our mates Dan Mulhare and Myles Edwards are currently renting from Linet Masai, about 400m from ours. We are paying 4,000 Kenyan shillings a month for it (2000 each) which equates to roughly a mere £4 each per week.

Thursday night was a bit bleak. The flat had been vacant for a while and left open. As a result it has probably been housing squatters. It was very dusty and dirty and the toilet had an unholy smell to it.  Upon any disturbance it would emit a foul stench. To quote Dougie on that first day, everytime you go to the loo you entered with the fear of ‘reawakening the wrath of ancient manure.’

During the day we had to buy a broom and a mop in order to do a bit of basic sweeping . Then we negotiated the purchase of two reasonable mattresses and managed to get them transported (via motorbike) up to the flat. By the time we had done this, completed our training, and eaten, it was dark so we simply had to pull our sleeping bags out of our bags and leave all the sorting out and cleaning for the next day. The rough conditions were made worse by the fact that, by this point, I had not managed to secure a mosquito net. Mosquitos are not a problem but flies and spiders are so it was a bit uncomfortable.
Since Thursday we have managed to expand our number of household possessions beyond just a mob, a broom, and two mattresses. Omandi, a carpenter from Eldoret, knocked up a couple of beds for us (for £20 each) and a table (£7). We have purchased,  from the market in Iten, things like plastic chairs, straw mats for the floor, pots and pans, gas and stove, bed sheets and containers for our clothes. We sketched an image of some shelves and a small table we would like Omandi to craft for us and he is bringing them to Iten on Saturday for us to collect.

Perhaps the best side-effect of having to furnish your own house using only your wits and a limited supply of cash is that it forces you to be inventive. Take, for example, this curtains which came about when I was left alone for an hour one day armed only with a penknife, a sheet of cotton, and a long piece of string.

Right now the only thing we are feel the lack of is we a supply of running water inside the apartment. Hopefully a plumber will pay us a visit soon. Otherwise we will have to continue to make do with our outside tap, which is also doubling as a shower:

I am, however, able to communicate all of this because we have reliable electricity. Upon arrival in Nairobi we purchased a ‘USB Dongle’ which plugs into the computer and gives us internet access. We top up the credit on it as one would a mobile phone. Due to limiting our expenditure on luxuries like the internet, and not wanting to be too mazungo, we are keeping internet use to a minimum. I have even started buying the ‘Daily Nation’ in a vain attempt to live like a Kenyan.
Furnishing the flat has been a graft. Every day until now we have had to make the 20min walk up and down the hills on broken road to buy furniture and necessities and walk back. It is not only the blazing sun that has been crippling in our attempts to do this; the persistent haggling and bartering in conjunction with the incredibly slow pace of live out here makes shopping a bit of an ordeal.
At the same time, however, it has been a useful experience as we’ve really had to think about what things we do/ don’t need. Moreover it has made us appreciate actually living in a foreign country for a duration of time. Before I came out here many people asked me what I would be doing in Africa and a lot of people were under the impression would be travelling. We won’t be doing much travelling on this trip, except of course, when we’re running around. By setting up a life in a new house amongst a new group of people one can really get a feel for a place and adapt to how others get by from day to day.
Our daily routine at the moment, compared to the daily routine of a ‘traveller’,  is rather mundane. We get up at 6 to train, then we have breakfast. At 10 we train again, then we eat and rest before training at 4. Between 6 and 8 we eat and by 10 we are asleep. (I’ll go into the specifics of the training in a later post.) This is how all of the other guys in our compound are living and how the vast majority of people in the town live. It is also very different to how I have spent my days over the summer. Altogether this is an incredibly enriching experience. Regardless of the training, simply living a completely different mode of existence helps one to see and experience things from new perspectives, which can only be good.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Photos: Week 1

Some photos from Week 1.
1. TaD with Daniel Komen
2. Arriving at Eldoret International Airport
3. Too Guesthouse outside
4. Too Guesthouse inside
5. Too Guesthouse room
6. A silly Mazungo

Friday, 16 September 2011


(Photo's of Iten. Photo 2 is the 'centre', photo 3 is Dougie outside one of the shops)
I am writing this blog from my ‘new’ apartment. It is 9.30 on Friday evening, and Dougie and I are preparing for our second night here. We have just cooked for ourselves for the first time since arriving on Monday. I will write more about the living arrangements in a later post, as I will the food. Here, though, I’ll write a bit about Iten (pronounced ‘it’-‘en’)- the town in which we will be living for the next three months.
TaD unassumingly meandered down the dusty highway under the baking sun. Sometimes he stepped aside for the locals walking in the opposite direction to pass; sometimes they moved for him. As he passed the Mosque he flicked a casual hand to acknowledge the figures standing at the Kiosk. They smiled back at him. A number of small children ran up alongside him. They were dressed in their distinctive blue school uniform. ‘Jambo’ he said, lovingly, as their hopeful faces beamed back at him with happiness. ‘How are you?’ they all screamed in unison with excitement and delight. ‘Fine’ TaD replied, ‘how are you?’. ‘Fine!’ they shouted before scampering away.
On Monday and Tuesday we were two clumsy ‘Mazungos’ (white person in Swahili). We got sunburned. We got ripped off by the street-sellers. We stumbled on the broken ground. We said ‘hi’ instead of ‘Jambo’. Now we are at one with the town and feel at home. I’ve even caught Dougie speaking with a bit of an African accent.
I have taken some photographs of the town. Essentially made up of one long road and one large area packed with market stalls, cluttered and crooked, the ‘town-centre’ is fundamentally different from ‘towns’ in Britain. Whilst the centre is located in a basin, what we would call the ‘residential area’ sprawls out, up the sides of the basin, on to hilltops. Except for the main road, all of the paths and minor roads are rock-hard: made up of broken rocks and dried mud. On a clear day, of which there are many, one can get some fantastic views of the ‘Kerio valley’ which stretches away for miles and miles.
What the photographs do not convey is the friendliness of the town. Although now, after furnishing our flat, we have a reputation as dangerously hard barterers in the local market, we are yet to encounter any outward signs of unhappiness, anger, or frustration. In our early ‘obviously-Mazungo’ days the people flocked around us putting out their hands for us to shake and telling us their names. The children, in particular, are very welcoming. Though some are shy and will run to hide behind a tree, most will shout ‘how are you?!’ (Admittedly, this is rapidly becoming somewhat irritating). Yesterday when we passed a school a hundred or so very young kids ran to the fence and put their hands through the bars. They were chanting ‘how are you’ and laughing. Great fun!
Perhaps one explanation for the friendliness here is the athletics. As Ambrose (our host at the Too Guesthouse on our first night) told us, Iten is a ‘running town, for athletes.’ In a similar vein, a local told us ‘these people are Kalenjins, they are good people’. The Kalenjin are the tribe native to the Rift Valley area to which most of the great Kenyan runners belong.
By producing great runners Iten has become renowned across Kenya, Africa, and the world, for being a hotbed for middle- and long-distance running. This has bred more success as that thousands of young aspiring athletes- rich and poor- have packed in their jobs and made the trip to the town to live and train. Indeed, whilst many of Kenya’s great runners have grown up here (for example Wilson Kipketer, David Rudisha, Isaak Songok, Silas Kiplagat, Augustine Choge- who all attended the town’s famous St Patrick’s school [of which there will be a later post about]) many of the others have moved to live here. This has become increasingly common amongst Western athletes: Great Britain’s Mo Farah came out here a couple of years ago for 9 months of un-interrupted training, as have the great French steeple-chasers Bob Tahari and Mehdi Baala. Last night, Dougie and I went to the ‘Kerio View Hotel’ for an evening meal and sitting on the table next to us was the Italian renato canova possibly the world’s most famous marathon coach.
As TaD wrote he contemplated the increasing Westernization of Iten and the effect this has had on society in general in the town and upon the running community in particular. But TaD was tired and needed to be alert for training in the morning. He finished writing his thoughts before making his way down the hallway and into his bedroom. There, he sank onto his mattress, secured his mosquito net, zipped up his sleeping bag and promptly went to sleep.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Nairobi to Iten

Nairobi to Iten
At the close of the last entry I made some stereotypical observations about the potential running ability of the African people who sat around us in the airport. I reflected upon this assumption. How we perceive others seems to be shaped both by how those others present themselves to us and how they are represented to us by external agents such as pictures, written reports and television coverage. Much of the coverage of Kenya in the Western media relates to the nation’s prowess in distance running, and indeed many Kenyans speak of themselves as belonging to a nation that is great at distance running. It should be no surprise then that stereotyping the Kenyans as great runners comes very naturally to one who is has only a superficial, or media-informed, relationship with the country.
Then I discovered that the man who had been sitting next to me for the last half hour was Daniel Komen, who has held the world record for 3,000m (7mins 20sec) since the mid-nineties. Komen’s 7.20 is regarded as one of, if not the most secure world records. This time the stereotyping worked.
TaD had spent hour upon hour in the airport waiting room espousing his hugely inflated opinions on training methods and athletics convictions. There he was, TaD, a coupl guys who had just about managed to do alright on a regional level in a country that does not have a particularly massive athletics following, and all along one of the greatest runners in the history of the sport was chilling out next to us. Komen, at this point merely a lean-ish guy with a moustache wearing a suit, leaned over and asked if TaD he was a runner and if he was going to Iten. After a brief bit of forced small-talk about TaD, who TaD was and where TaD was from etc, the conversation went as follows:
TaD: So, are you a runner then?
Random ‘guy’ (Daniel Komen): Yes, a little, but not so much anymore.
TaD: Really, great, so what was your best distance?
Random ‘guy’ (Daniel Komen): Three thousand.
TaD:  What was your best time?
Random ‘guy’ (Daniel Komen): 7.20
Cue much ‘awwing’ and ‘you-are-a-hero-ing’ and  laughing and photos etc. Daniel Komen, or ‘Dan’ then asked for TaD’s number. And, duly star-struck, TaD obliged and handed him his phone. That’s right Komen asked for TaD’s number.
Komen is now the head of athletics in Iten and represents the town’s athletes. I am lead to believe that his job involves speaking up for their rights and helping their cause. He may work for the IAAF, I will investigate this further.
Komen lives in Eldoret, the city we flew to after our 10 hour wait. The flight was outstanding. The fly540 plane took us via Kisumu which lies on the West bank of Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria before picking up some more passengers and taking us on to Iten. Out of the small window looking out over the propellers one could see only a vast expanse of rolling green hills. We were met at the airport by the reliable ‘Theo’, a taxi driver who had been recommended to us by a couple of the other Western athletes who are also in Iten at the moment.
Consciously attempting to use cliche’s sparingly, it is hard to describe the taxi trip from Eldoret to Iten without using the word’s ‘like nothing I’ve ever seen before.’ To my Western eyes this place seems to be seriously wild. It was pitch-black and yet hundreds of people were roaming along the long tarmac road that runs from Eldoret to Iten. They came into view only when one of the many motorbiokes, taxis, or ‘matutus’ (minibus) sped past them and illuminated them with headlights. Headlights also gave us brief glimpses of the sheds and stalls that lined the road, the clouds of red dust could not disguise their bright paint. The road was largely in good condition save the occasional pot-hole or speedbump. These do not so much limit speed as force the driver to slightly change direction giving rise to all sorts of havoc. At the meeting point of a number of roads in the very centre of Eldoret there were cars driving at speed in a number of different directions. It was pointed out to us that there were no traffic lights. Cars, bikes and people everywhere. “This is rush-hour” Theo explained.
After nearly 40 hours of travelling TaD, under the comforting guidance of the reliable Theo, finally arrived at the Too Guesthouse at about 8pm. After successfully negotiating (and subsequently eating) an evening meal with his host, Ambrose, TaD settled in for an early night. In the sleeping bag, within the mosquito net, amongst the clean and colourful confines of the Too Guesthouse, TaD spent his first night on African soil.

TaD on Tour: Why have we come to Kenya?

TaD on Tour: Why have we come to Kenya?
‘TaD’ meaning, Tom-and-Dougie, was coined during a memorable warm-weather training trip in Portugal in the Spring of 2010. It has since all got out of hand and it appears now to denote some kind of mystical union that has created an unstoppable whole. It’s so ridiculous, so cringe inducing, and so charged with childish humour that it has inevitably stuck. TaD is one, wherever T is, D is. Or at least so it goes.
Sitting in Nairobi Airport, TaD had a good chat over a coffee as to the purpose of the trip. It was about 11 am and TaD was 3 hours into a 10 hour wait until his second flight (Nairobi to Iten). For TaD, travelling from the North to Heathrow (Terminal 3), the day before had been a bit of a slog. The in-flight entertainment system, in particular the 2-player ‘bowling’ game, had created all sorts of physical and emotional turmoil.
It is hard to disentangle the many number of reasons that have brought us to Kenya. We are aged 23, and have both graduated. This time last year I, was content to slip straight in to a postgraduate course and was strongly contemplating a fifth year at St Andrews. Dougie, however, began throwing out some talk of a TaD running tour. What better way, the argument went, could a young athletic male spend a year of his hitherto responsibility-free life, than pursue his favourite pastime uninhibited by duties to work or study? I needed little convincing and after considering purely ‘warm-weather’ locations in Europe and even the USA, our eyes settled on Kenya which promised adventure and athletics at an unbeatable cost.
At the point of making this decision I was in the process of recovering from surgery on my left heel. I needed to have the operation in order to remove a ‘chronically inflamed’ bursar and bone growth in the area between my heel bone and the base of the Achilles tendon. That was October 2010. In the 12 months before that TaD embarked upon a fantastic and fearsome training regime involving a reasonably high mileage at a reasonably high intensity. TaD would never lay claim to being an ‘elite’ athlete. TaD doesn’t do superlatives, but TaD loves running, and running hard. The plan of action was for me to be back training full tilt, T alongside D, that is, by Christmas 2010. By the time of the Kenya trip, we hoped, we would be ready to employ some old school winter-training methods high up in the Kenyan hills away from the UK racing scene.
For me, this hasn’t really happened and, after further medical interference with my heel (cortisone injection in June 2011), I am only just at a stage where the area is pain-free. Strength and flexibility in that area of my left leg are still lacking.
In the meantime, over the summer, Dougie managed to pick up a BUCS bronze medal in the 5000m and a Scottish Champs silver medal in the 1500m. Needless to say, with Dougie on a upwards trajectory towards more pb’s and medals, and myself battling to come back from a 12 month lay-off, we are both in a very different situation with regards to our running. My goal over the next 3 months is to begin the slow and gradual process of getting my body into a strong and healthy condition to enable me to begin loading the mileage at some time in the future. A year out with injury has made me realise that the most important thing to me is, first and foremost, simply to get back running pain-free. Iten, at nearly 2,500m, where lifestyles are simple, and where athletics is the heart-beat, provides the perfect environment for this.
Since making the decision to get ‘out to Africa’ I have, in turn, become increasingly interested in studying the continent from an academic perspective. This is with a view to using my experiences in Kenya  to form a foundation of knowledge that will assist me in the postgraduate education I wish to pursue. Throughout the coming year I will be researching material that I can use in a Masters or PhD course relating to the culture, society and history of Africa upon returning to the UK. Perhaps this may help me get some kind of a job in the future.
So, here on the ground, in Nairobi Airport TaD, tired and achy, yet brimming with enthusiasm for what the next 90 days hold, sit in a hospital-esque boarding gate. He was now fully equipped with a Kenyan phone and SIM card, and had his water bottle and snacks for the flight at the ready. After a brief glance around the room it seemed quite possible to TaD that four or five of the lean black figures around him could easily be proficient long distance runners. Indeed, he had already encountered a 14.10 5000m guy who checked his boarding pass.