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 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 http://mylesedwards.wordpress.com/)
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. http://www.runnerslife.co.uk/dan-mulhare/profile