When Kenyan runner Kip Keino won gold in the 1,500 meters at the 1968 Olympics, despite having a gallbladder infection, he put a new spotlight on the East African country. His medal was the first of many that were won by runners from Rift Valley, where the small town of Iten is located.
Between 1988 and 2012, 20 out of 25 male winners of the Boston Marathon were from Kenya. Looking at all marathons and long-distance running competition, most of the winners are Kenyans from the Kalenjin community, which forms the ethnic majority in Western Kenya near the Rift Valley where Iten is located.
These Kenyans have not only won but have broken records over and over again. Many began to wonder what it was about Rift Valley, particularly the town of Iten, which has produced so many world-class runners. Iten, which sits on the edge of the valley 7,000 feet above sea level, is now a mecca for runners from around the world. Thousands come from around the world to train and be discovered in the town that it’s known as “the city of champions.”
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Some of the world champions from the community include Eliud Kipchoge, who is referred to as “the greatest marathoner of the modern era”; Wilson Kipsang, who has run under 2 hours 4 minutes for the marathon on four separate occasions; and Vivian Cheruiyot, who won the 2018 London Marathon. An increasing number of international top athletes like British Olympic champion Mo Farah has traveled to train in the Rift Valley.
So what really has been Iten’s secret to raising many international top athletes? Experts have attributed it to various factors including training, culture, tranquility, the perfect climate, runners’ willpower, and of course altitude. Visiting Iten, one would find that it is almost like any other small African town. “Families live in squat stone houses scattered around the mountainous countryside, tend their land, and lead farm animals through the town’s red-dirt roads,” writes Atlas Obscura. But what makes the farming town unique is that no town in the world has produced more distance running champions than it.
Almost every day at dawn or around 9 a.m. in Iten, about 200 runners, most of whom are hoping to become champions, train on the dirt roads surrounding the town. These runners have observed how top marathoners do make millions of dollars in prize winnings, sponsorships, and appearance fees. They would like to make some money too, live comfortably, buy land and build a house as well as support their family. And so even though the training regime is tough, combined with the steep hills of the Great Rift Valley, they are determined to train full time — sometimes barefoot — with the aim of grabbing the attention of foreign agents, who may sponsor them for international races that can earn them some big money.
The altitude at Iten is also almost perfect for the runners. Studies cited by the Insider found training in high altitudes improves running performance when the runner is down at sea level. At Iten, runners train at 8,000 feet above sea level, and this is “to strengthen circulation by creating more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to muscles,” NPR reported. But other places in the world like the Mexican Andes and Nepal also have high altitudes, so experts believe everything boils down to runners’ determination.
As Wesley Korir, who won the 2012 Boston Marathon told The Guardian, they run so fast because they are “running away from poverty.” And indeed champions like Korir has not done badly at all. Korir has a foundation that pays for hundreds of children to go to school. That same foundation also supports farmers.
Even though there have been doping allegations against Kenyan athletes, Iten continues to attract many. Today, the region has scores of running camps. Most of these camps are for Kenyans; others are for international athletes. It is significant to note that runners at Iten initially trained on the track of the local St. Patrick’s High School. Colm O’Connell, an Irish missionary who was principal of the school, started training his students to be runners. Then in 1999, former world champion Lornah Kiplagat started her High Altitude Training Centre in Iten. That became the first training center with “decent facilities” and was opened for Kenyan as well as foreign athletes.