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Runner’s High

Far above the plains where lions roam, there’s another Kenya, where life moves slowly and the people run fast. Writer Matt Gross tries to keep up.

On a clear Thursday morning in November, in the hills of Iten, Kenya, approximately 50 men and women gathered for a weekly workout called a fartlek. Clad in skintight running gear, they jogged and stretched to warm up in the cool air. Then a coach got up in front of the crowd to discuss the run. At least, that’s what I assumed he was doing—he was speaking the language of the Kalenjin, the 3 million or so people who make up the dominant tribe here in western Kenya. I’d been chatting with Johan, a local runner, who had asked where I was from and how long I’d be here; he seemed surprised that I was attempting this fartlek, during which everyone would alternate a minute of jogging with two minutes of sprinting—for roughly nine miles. But before I had a chance to learn more about Johan, everyone was fiddling with their watches, and they—we!—were off.

Down the road we went, the Kenyan runners and I, sticking together in a loose group. For 60 seconds, we did the Kenyan shuffle, a slow-motion jog I had trouble sticking to. I wanted to move! Then came my chance. A chorus of electronic beeps erupted from the runners’ watches, and as they picked up the pace, so did I. In vain. As in those cartoons where the Road Runner suddenly vanishes in a puff of dust and a meep-meep!, these run- ners blitzed down the road through the fields of maize. Johan was long gone. I was alone, and for a minute I considered giving up.

Instead, I kept on running, since running was precisely why I’d flown halfway around the world to Iten. Sitting at the edge of a high plateau about 200 miles northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Iten is not a base camp for safaris. There are no grassy savannahs, and no tribes in traditional dress. Instead there are conifers and chilly mornings. A hospital, a Catholic school, and government offices cluster around a bend in the highway known as the tarmac road. Just 4,000 people live here year-round: farmers, medical workers, teachers, and lots of runners. I heard estimates ranging from 500 to the scarcely credible 6,000, residents and visitors combined. Eighteen training camps host a mix of locals, Kenyans from other regions, and foreigners, most from Europe.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect place to train. The 7,800-foot altitude has just 76 per- cent of the oxygen at sea level, so your body adapts to use oxygen more efficiently, and the mild, dry climate allows you to train year-round on roads of forgiving red clay. Plus, in Iten you run alongside the world’s best, from speedy high schoolers to record-setting men and women, all of whom will push you to go faster, longer, and harder.

Matt Gross Kenya

I, however, am no superstar. Rather, I’m a 37-year-old Brooklyn dad. I started running in my mid-20s, but solely on treadmills. As 30 loomed, I decided I should train for a marathon. But while training for it, I got injured and stopped running entirely. Four years later, I took it up again and rediscovered my love for the sport—and, more important, I began training outdoors. I wasn’t as fast as I had been in my 20s, but I could run longer, to the point where my brain would go into deep hibernation. It was an incredible relief from my normal life as an overthinking writer, an anxious father, and a time-crunched husband.

Still, I could never run as much as I wanted. In a good week, I’d run three times, covering roughly 26 miles at a pace that would land me in the top 15 percent of the low-pressure races in which I occasionally competed. I wanted to run faster and better, however I didn’t know how. Mostly, though, I just wanted to run more, to achieve that mindless nirvana as often as possible.

When I learned about Iten, I knew I needed to visit this place where people do nothing but run, eat, rest, and run some more. This routine might seem boring to a nonrunner, but for me, it was a greater version of those rare vacations when I could cover as many miles as I wanted, free from the obligations of home, family, and work. In Kenya, however, I could not only run to my heart’s delight, I could also match my training to that of the elite. And maybe, if I truly committed myself, a bit of their bipedal genius would rub off on me. Maybe, when I got home, I’d run faster than I had in my mid-20s.

Almost a week before the fartlek, the minivan ferrying me from the airport in Eldoret, about an hour’s drive southwest of Iten, had turned off the tarmac road, clunked down a bumpy dirt lane, and passed through a set of gates. It was dark, and when I got out of the van, the air was cool and damp. A meticulously constructed landscape lay before me: a shimmering pool, a lofty wooden lounge building, and a string of new guest rooms. This was the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC), my home for the next 11 days.

HATC was opened in 2000 by Lornah Kiplagat, a 38-year-old distance runner who was born here in the Rift Valley, and her Dutch coach and husband, Pieter Langerhorst. Kiplagat, now a Dutch citizen, has set world records for 5K, 10-mile, 20K, and half-marathon distances, and will be competing on the Netherlands’ team in this summer’s Olympic marathon. Kenya will be represented by six runners, all of whom train in or near Iten.

Matt Gross Kenya

When Willy Songok, who handles guest relations for HATC, led me to the dining room, I saw a sea of lean runners’ bodies and chiseled faces. About half the British national team was training here, along with several Dutch and French runners, plus elite Kenyans. Songok, himself an ex-runner in his early 40s, fetched me a plate of mini-pizzas, salad, and ugali, the thick cornmeal cake that is the staple food throughout Kenya. Then he explained how things work in Iten.

Names didn’t matter much here, Songok explained; marathon times did. “‘Hello, I am 2:05,’” he said, extending his hand to shake. “‘Hello, I am 2:04, 2:07.’ If you are 2:08, you don’t mention that. That,” he deadpanned, “is a Brazilian time.”

I wondered if I should tell Songok my time was a flat two hours (not for a marathon but for a half-marathon I ran, hung over). Instead, I mumbled something about being much slower, and he told me not to worry. Civilians were welcome. “Hakuna matata,” he said. No worries. In the morning, he said, the Brits would be going on an easy 40-minute jog to adjust to the altitude. I should join them.

After a solar-heated shower and a night’s rest, I did. At 7:30 the next morning, I followed the Brits into the countryside. They were indeed taking it easy, but even so, they out-paced me. The air was thin, and I could tell my body wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I felt like a car with a clogged gas line.

But so what? I was running in the incomparable Kenyan hills. Kids, shoeless but bundled up against the chill, jogged by on their way to school, and adults rode bicycles or walked, many carrying aluminum canisters of fresh milk. All greeted me: “Jambo,” in Swahili; “Chamgei,” in Kalenjin; but most often, “How are you?” In fact, as the Brits pulled ahead and turned off the main road, I could follow them by listening for the faint “How are you? How are you? How are yoooouuuuu?” ahead of me.

The only thing missing was Kenyan runners, and I soon learned why: They were already home and showered, because they’d started at 6 a.m. The seasoned pros, teenage strivers, and everyone in between are insanely disciplined, and they train six days a week, two or three times a day. In Iten, certain days have themes: Tuesdays at 9 a.m., speed work at the Kamariny Stadium; Thursdays, the fartlek; Saturday, a long run of 20 miles or more. “Train hard, win easy” is the motto here.

Matt Gross Kenya

Though I couldn’t hope to match anyone in Iten for speed, I generally ran twice a day. Usually, I’d take off solo, roaming all over Iten with only a fading memory of Songok’s hastily sketched map to guide me. I ran through town, uphill past the police compound, downhill past tin-roofed churches, up again past the open-air market and locals who wanted to shake my hand, and into the countryside. I had only a vague sense of how to get home and, in my pocket, 100 Kenyan shillings (about $1) to hire a matatu, or minivan taxi, if I got truly lost.

As the slowest runner around, I was frequently alone, but not entirely.“Chamgei!” I’d call out as I passed a group of school kids, who’d burst into laughter. “Chamgei!” I’d say to an old woman, who’d respond with “Chamgei sana!”(“Good day! Very good day!”)

On one run, a 12-year-old boy yelled from the side of the road: “Mzungu!” I’d been waiting for this word: the term for “white man” used across sub-Saharan Africa.

“Mzungu,” he said again. “How are you?” “Fine!” I yelled as I passed.

“You are a strong runner!”

I laughed. “No,” I said, “I am not. I am old, I am fat, I am tired, and I am slow!” Behind me, I could hear the kid laughing, too.

Still, I never knew what to make of “mzungu”—and I heard it many times. Was it an epithet? An insult? Or merely a statement of the obvious? In general, I took it the way I take all things while running: in stride. But it stuck out as a marker of difference in a place where every other interaction, whether out on the trails or in the HATC lounge, had an easy equality I found remarkable.

In other countries, I’d never quite felt like an equal. Cambodians treated me as a rich foreigner, British kids called me a “weirdo,” French bargoers thought me a barbarian. In Iten, though, strangers like Timothy Kipkorir Limo (nicknamed Timo Limo) invited me to their homes for lunch as if I were any other running comrade. Here, we all seemed to exist on the same high-altitude plane.

Matt Gross Kenya

I’d met Timo Limo, a tall, gregarious Kenyan runner, while walking through Lily’s, an ultra- bare-bones training camp of sorts near HATC. Born in what he called “a small remote area”of Iten, Timo grew up running three kilometers to school and back every day. School, however, was not his focus. He got expelled.

“I was a very naughty boy,” he told me as we shared plates of rice and beans in his two-room rental, its walls festooned with photos of famous runners clipped from magazines. Still, he said, he’d had dreams: “My ambition was to fly in a plane.”

Running helped him achieve that and more. Though Timo was not (yet) a world- dominating 800-meter racer, he had begun to compete abroad—“I think I have covered mostly all of Europe,” he said—and earned enough to cover most of his rent, food, and fees for use of the gym and pool at HATC, Iten’s only modern training facility.

In Iten, Timo’s life is typical. In fact, the town’s economy is increasingly founded upon the successes of its runners at all levels. Speedy students train at St. Patrick’s, Iten’s Catholic high school, under Brother Colm O’Connell, a legendary Irishman who has coached generations of champions. A clutch of talented runners live at camps and compete in smaller European races with modest prize pots that are huge by Kenyan standards. And then there are the world-class champions, including Lornah Kiplagat and Moses Mosop, whose payday victories at major marathons (Mosop’s $150,000 for his record-breaking win at Chicago last fall, for example) have enabled them to buy farms and invest in property development. All these runners form the base of a broader economy, one that encompasses coaches and business managers, drivers and physical therapists, and people like 23-year-old Mercy Chepchirchir Chesiror.

Matt Gross Kenya

Mercy caught my attention because, although I’d seen her hanging around town and at the HATC lounge, I never saw her out running. As I learned when I introduced myself, the Iten native had been a runner when she was younger—and had been so speedy, smart, and studious that she was now a civil engineering major at Princeton University.

She had run cross-country there but stopped after her freshman year. “I was becoming average in everything. I was becoming average in running, average in class. I had to choose a side,” she said. Her choice was academics. This made sense. Learning was the motivator when she ran to school as a child, and it has remained her top priority. While some runners would continue sprinting to athletic glory, others—including the Kenyan students whom Mercy was helping prep for Ivy League admissions as part of KenSAP, the Kenya Scholar-Athletes Project—would reach their finish lines on the quads of America’s elite universities. Or perhaps that should be “starting lines.”

As I listened to Mercy discuss her college life (classes, parties, Facebook) and plans for the future (maybe interning on a dam project up north), I couldn’t help but chuckle at how normal it felt. Chatting with Mercy was like chatting with any Amercan twentysomething, in part because Mercy never acted as though she were special. And in a way, she wasn’t. KenSap, which helped her get into Princeton, sends a dozen Kenyan kids every year to top schools.

In fact, with her Ivy League engineering degree, Mercy might be looking at a post-running future brighter than that of the Europeans I had met at HATC. Mark Draper, a New Balance–sponsored Brit, told me he’d never been much for academics, and if he hadn’t discovered his running talent, he might have become a carpenter. The 27-year-old wasn’t sure what he’d do after running. He said that it wasn’t the role of U.K. Athletics, the sport’s governing body at home, to prepare athletes for life after their running careers. But in Kenya, the running community is like one big family. Everyone looks after each other, even when they’ve moved on from running competitively.

Matt Gross Kenya

The secret of Kenyan runners’ success? That depends on whom you ask. Many cite the local diet (ugali, kale, beans), others the tribal genetics; and the high altitude surely helps. A large share of the success is credited to St. Patrick’s running coach, Brother O’Connell.

When I met him, O’Connell talked to me about the power of Iten. “Life in Africa, in Iten, is tough. It’s harsh,” he said. “It toughens the soul. It creates an attitude that there are hardships in life. You have to learn to sacrifice, you have to learn to be tough if you want to survive.” It’s that same toughness that makes a good distance runner.

The thing about running is that, no matter how tough you are or how far or fast you go, eventually you have to stop. Sometimes it’s just for a few hours, as it often was for me, and in those stretches, I’d chat with other runners in the HATC lounge.

After a week, I took a longer break—a weekend of safaris in the nature preserves of Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria, just a few hours’ drive east, through the mountains and down into a more prosaic African landscape of thorny acacia trees, towering termite mounds, and rough roads occasionally interrupted by broad, shallow rivers.

Matt Gross Kenya

Frankly, I’d never been big on wildlife, but at Bogoria, a narrow saltwater lake, I stood hypnotized as flocks of flamingos swarmed the shore—hundreds of thousands of birds high-stepping across the shallows, peeling row by row off the surface and into a sky that turned ominous as rain clouds moved in. At neighboring Baringo, I saw ostriches bob their heads as they strutted across hotel parking lots and watched birds spin lakeside nests. Fishermen glided on the water in tiny wood boats, as swift and nimble as the fish they tossed to wheeling eagles.

As I watched the flying, swimming, swooping, and paddling, I was reminded that I, too, had my own well-honed means of locomotion. I ran, and in Iten I had found my flock. By running, I asserted a commonality that transcended skin color, religion, national origin. Together my fellow athletes and I formed a motley metatribe of runners, some slower, others faster, but all with this thing we did and loved. This thing that told us, in our oxygen-craving blood, who we were.

Matt Gross Kenya

Tribal identity is a big deal in Kenya, even today. It can help you get a job or get into school. It ties strangers together across a vast country, and it determines how people see you—or stereotype you. It’s also a touchy subject.

“It’s like trying to talk about racism in America,” Mercy told me. “People are supposed to be educated and over it.”

Nevertheless, tribe is the lens through which many Kenyans view the world. Early in my visit, for example, I walked to the market, where I bought mangoes with the help of a friendly woman who asked if I was Christian. No, I said, I’m Jewish.

“Ah!” she exclaimed, her eyes widening. “The tribe of Judah!”

At times, tribal identity is more than a big deal—it’s a matter of life or death. In late 2007, disputes over the results of presidential elections erupted into violence, pitting members of the Kikuyu tribe against the Luo and the Kalenjin. More than 1,300 people died, including a former Olympic runner who was killed in Eldoret.

“This whole area was very, very bad,” said HATC co-founder Pieter Langerhorst. “We went to the road and saw 1,000 people with spears, bows and arrows, and stones. They started to stone the police office and the buildings next to us. But, they never came close to us. They said, ‘Whoa, whoa. That’s Pieter and Lornah. Don’t touch.’” The runners of HATC were a tribe not to be messed with.

Matt Gross Kenya

After my restful weekend, it was time to put my training to the test at the Baringo Half Marathon. Of the 300 or so participants, I was the only mzungu, but I’d grown not to mind the term and to accept my status as an object of curiosity, the star prop in pre-race snapshots. But then it was time to run—13.1 miles, starting at nearly 7,550 feet and ending at 6,560 feet—and once again, I immediately blended in, an athlete among athletes. Or at least behind them.

The first few miles were tough. My muscles were tired, but the altitude no longer hindered my breathing, and I pushed hard up every hill, alone but for the villagers cheering me on. Around 10 miles in, I spotted something new—a Kenyan racer. I was catching up! Soon, I was just behind him, and as we approached another hill, I realized this was my chance. I began to sprint, knowing he wouldn’t let a foreigner overtake him if he could help it.

For 30 seconds we ran neck and neck, and then we crested the hill and I joyously submitted to the force of gravity, gaining speed and pulling ahead of him once and for all. (Never mind that he was dressed in street clothes and tennis shoes.) I finished in one hour and 53 minutes, 25 minutes behind the runner ahead of me. I was dead last, but at least I’d finished; many did not, including the guy I’d passed.

I might have finished, but I was not done. A runner never is. The next morning, back in Iten, I went for a jog and returned to find Timo Limo, Johan, and one of the Brits, Mukhtar Mohammed, stretching outside HATC. We’d all come from different directions, all run about 40 minutes, and would soon go our separate ways: Timo to Germany, Mukhtar to England, me home to Brooklyn (where I would would run the fastest five-mile race of my life—in under 35 minutes), and Johan to who knows where. But for now, we were all together, all the same: exhausted, exhilarated runners, exactly where we wanted to be. A

Photos by Jason Florio. This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.