Hitting the road at a good speed, we drove past the countryside in Kakamega, through the rolling tea farms and forested land, via and Kapsabet and Eldoret, and into Iten, that sits in the Kerio Valley.
Nightfall was catching up with us again, and we just made it to Hotel Kerio View to check in to the hotel dinner was set. Quickly stashing our bags in the rooms, we settled down to a sumptuous dinner.
Kerio valley is a place that invites you to exercise. The rolling hills and some flat lands offer perfect training ground for the athletes that have made Kenya’s name with winning synonymous. The Hotel Kerio View was packed to the brim with athletes and their trainers and coaches, and I felt like we stuck out like a sore thumb. But they were wholly welcoming and a few of us chatted with the athletes who were from all over the world – Germany, Britain and many more countries.
Waking up to views of mist clearing off the rolling hills, life in the area begins very early as athletes get out to run and exercise before the day gets hot.
Life around this area is very simplistic – most people are not flashy about their wealth, despite being multi-millionaires. They’re focused and disciplined, as demanded of most sportsmen. The only inkling you might have of the wealth in this area is when someone tells you about it.
After breakfast, we headed out to Lorna Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Camp, a place that has earned its name in the international circles as the place to live and train at. The likes of Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah have camped here for months. The camp is spacious but simplistic – athletes are encouraged to live a minimalist lifestyle that enables them to focus on their sport. It is however equipped with the latest gadgets and equipment to aid in training, despite its simple façade. We were lucky to meet a few athletes and coaches, who explained to us that they were still seeking the Kenyan secret to winning! It seemed that the most common answer that came up was ugali … and we are yet to know if this indeed is the secret.
We were then informed that David Rudisha and his coach were in the area, training at St. Patrick’s School, Iten. Driving through the town of Iten, we almost missed the little, rusty sign showing the way to St. Patrick’s school – I think everyone but visitors know the way there! Once you get onto the right route though, you can’t miss the school. We heard that a TV crew was there already speaking to Rudisha, so we patiently waited our turn as the school principal gave us some history about the school.
One of the founding fathers of the school is extraordinary coach Brother Colm O’Connell. Brother Colm’s history is completely intertwined with that of Kenya, and particularly Iten and the sports field.
Having settled in Kenya as a teacher with the Patrician Brothers, he decided to train the students in sports as an extracurricular activity, and greatly excelled at it. Running was not very popular, especially for the girls, for whom it was taboo to be seen in shorts and bloomers. Eventually the whole sports program took off, and by mid 1980s was hugely successful cultivating many Kenyan champions. Ibrahim Hussein (1st African to win the New York Marathon), Peter Rono, Wilson Kipketer, Ruben Kosgey, Bremen Kipruto, Shaheed Shaheen, and the ladies, Vivian Cheruiyot, Janet Jepkosgei, Edna Kiplagat, Sharon Cherop, Sylvia Kibet, Sally Barsosio, Rose Cheruiyot, Viola Kibiwott… and many more!
The secrets to training in Iten? The altitude that is over 2400 meters above sea level, the quiet of the area, less pollution and noise and the beautiful scenery around Kerio valley escarpment and the pathways all offering diverse geographical features. Iten is a town now teeming with international athletes, coaches, news crews, budding and amateur runners, recruiters, and many more have formed a thriving sports tourism industry. The culture of the people also enables athletes to train without much disturbance – because it’s a lifestyle there.
Speaking to Brother Colm on the issue of handling finances and fame, with hindsight to Samuel Wanjiru’s death, more athletes are being trained on better life and money management, as well as handling the pressure, the fame, the contracts, the iconic status and the fact that they are role models. The programmes now train the athletes to focus on their skill and talent, as well as fulfil their responsibilities in contracts and to society.
Brother Colm is a fountain of history and knowledge, and speaking to him was such a great pleasure. He says he would not change a thing in his life, and would be quite happy to live as he has – with an open mind, and with the discipline it requires. His relationship with David Rudisha (and I guess with most of his athletes) is one of a friend and father figure, not strict and disciplinarian, but more of a facilitator and guide through their sporting life.
We walked down to the humble home that is the training camp for the athletes. Rudisha was having a massage, and listening to Christmas music on his iPod – yes, Christmas music is still fashionable at that time of the year. A humble and pleasant man to talk to, he easily towered over us, regaling us with tales of his moments before a race, and how he looks around to see the others on the starting line, but wholly focused on the task ahead. His long, graceful legs remind you of an antelope morphing into a cheetah – fast but elegant.
As he stood there in his training shorts and shirt, barefooted, it was eye-opening to see Rudisha in his own skin, away from the glare of the cameras and audience.
Later on, having been totally awed by the athlete, we met him at the Hotel Kerio View, and he was looking spiffy as he met another news crew for an interview – but not too spiffy to come round to our table and joke around, with world champion Edna Kiplagat in tow. Yes, viatu vyake vinang’ara!
And that marked the end our trip to Western Kenya. Through the beauty of Kisumu and Lake Victoria, to cool Kakamega and its serene forests, and down to the fast lanes of Iten, it was an amazing view through a part of the country sometimes forgotten as an area of tourism.
Next time you want to get out, drive west.. and see what magical places unfold before you.
Where to Stay in Iten:
Tel: +254-(0)20-2039559 or +254-(0)20-3539570 or +254-(0)722-781916
Take an excursion into the Kerio Valley, and hike into the valley’s bottom
Run like the athletes and get into shape!