Iten in Kenya's Rift Valley is a Mecca for potential running champions. Formerly a sleepy farmers' town, it now nurtures the world's best long-distance runners. Their potential for the Olympics is looking promising.
As dawn breaks on a dark, misty morning in the small farming town of Iten, high up in Kenya's Rift Valley, swarms of lycra-clad figures appear, their fluorescent strips signalling their presence. For the next two hours they pound the uneven, red dirt roads. Their rhythmic strides get faster and faster, yet the effort appears minimal and totally natural; their bodies look built for running.
"That run was good," announces Johana Kariankei, a tall, lithe Kenyan athlete, joining a group of runners stretching out after their 6-kilometer (3.7 miles) run. "The last five kilometers were really fast." He is, however, barely out of breath.
Fastest on the planet
Kenyan runners are on a roll and it comes as no surprise that they are some of the fastest on earth. World-record times are frequently made and then slashed again by the country's marathon and long-distance runners. Just last year, Kenya's long distance runners won the world's five top marathons and put in winning performances at the London Marathon in April. In the upcoming London Olympics, their medal-winning potential is looking equally promising.
And it is this small town of Iten, 2,350 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level, that has churned out so many of Kenya's great athletes and is the training ground for the country's future talent. Twenty-year old Johana is one such hopeful. He is determined to follow in the footsteps of these great athletes. But to get to Iten, Johana has faced challenges.
Originally from Naroc, a town in the heart of Maasailand where running certainly isn't a normal occupation, Johana had to battle against the cultural norms of his community. "Few athletes come from there," says Johana. "People are not so much concerned with sports, they are more concerned with taking care of the cattle, they value cows so much."
In a community where people running fast are often seen as thieves or madmen, Johana had to resort to slipping out of the house after dark to train. Barefoot, he would run around the fields surrounding his house. Eventually, in 2008, his hard work paid off. He was spotted running at a school competition by a Kenyan scout from Iten and was invited to go to the Rift Valley and train amongst professionals. But in a crowded field of so many talented athletes, reaching the top is no easy feat.
A Mecca for wannabe running champions
It is Irish-born Brother Colm O'Connell, a Catholic missionary turned athletics coach, who is often credited with inspiring the evolution of Iten from the sleepy farming town he encountered when he arrived in 1976, into a Mecca for wannabe running champions. To date he has nurtured 25 world champions and four Olympic gold medallists including the current 800m world record holder, David Rudisha.
Running is most certainly not in his blood, he says, acknowledging he has never run a competition in his life. He claims he simply harnessed the raw talent that he saw whilst teaching.
"Back then, I trained the boys and the girls out of fun, enjoyment and local competition," he explains. "Now we have a very well-organized primary and secondary schools athletics association which helps identify and tap some talent from a young age."
Containing the young athletes' enthusiasm and drive is the main challenge, he admits, coupled with the visual transformation of the town - runners on every street, training camps and centers jostling for business. The hillsides are dotted with new building developments funded by the winnings of the town's champion runners. These champions are often the drivers of brand new four-wheel drive cars speeding through the town.
"They [the kids] see world champions in their village. They see world record holders running around the roads of Iten so you have to try and get the kids to just be patient and not get over-involved because they get burned out." It is this very visible wealth and new-found prosperity, which attracts young runners like Johana. Running, they realize, could lift them and their families out of poverty and pave the way for a different life.
Running, a catalyst for change amongst women
Athletics has also changed the cultural landscape for Iten's women. Where previously a rural family would favor sending a son to school and marrying off the daughter, the success of Kenya's women runners has now changed this mentality. "Gradually parents have begun to realize that maybe the girls' talent as an athlete is more beneficial than her getting married," says Brother Colm.
"Or maybe they think we can make more money out of athletics than out of a dowry. So don't marry her off, let her run." With a more level playing field, Kenya's female runners are now held up as role models and honored by women's associations across Kenya - a revelation in a country traditionally dominated by men in every area.
And if the international success in athletics has given the athletes global recognition and financial reward, it's also given the residents of Iten, who turn out in their droves to support and welcome home their heroes, a sense of pride. They know their athletes are the best in the world. And for wannabe young champions like Johana, there's no question he doesn't have what it takes to succeed. He is determined to make it to the top.
"I thought this was the perfect place for me because they say being with the champions makes you a champion," says Johana with a determined look on his face. "I knew that when I came to these highlands, known in Kenya for producing long distance, very fast athletes, I knew that I'll also be a champion because this is the right place for me."
Author: Victoria Averill, Iten, Kenya
Editor: Sarah Steffen