This blog is a personal account of Callum’s training camp in Iten, with friends and training partners Jonny, Andy and Will. This blog is co-authored by Callum and Jonny.
Most runners have heard of Iten. They’ve seen ‘The Sign’ – “WELCOME TO ITEN, HOME OF CHAMPIONS”. They’ve heard of Wilson Kipsang, Mary Keitany, David Rudisha, Jake and Zane, all of whom live and train in this small town. As a runner you simply cannot ignore this place. This semi-mythical village, sitting at 2,300m in the middle of rural Kenya, has produced a staggering number of elite level athletes, Olympic medallists and world record holders in distances ranging from 800m to the Marathon. I, like hundreds of others, wanted to experience Iten for myself; meet the pros, feel the altitude and see what it takes to become a top class athlete. So after graduating university, myself and 3 friends (all graduates of Bristol Uni) bit the bullet and decided to go to Kenya on our own training camp in the motherland of running. We figured that our best shot at realising our own athletics potential was to spend three months there, the self-proclaimed Home Of Champions. Maybe by spending time among the fastest people on Earth we might uncover secrets that will aid us in our own athletic endeavours.
After a long, but actually pretty smooth and seamless journey, we arrived in Iten. We knew we’d arrived as we passed under the famous sign; it sounds cliché but Jonny turned to us at this point and said he had goose bumps, and he was right – so did I! It really did fill us with motivation, just knowing that we were now in the same town as countless World and Olympic champions, national record holders, world record holders, legends from the past and stars of the future. We continued through the town and took a right off the tarmac road onto a bumpy dirt trail; the driver assured us this was the right way! We finally arrived at Hugo Van Den Broek’s house which is situated quite literally on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. We were stunned by the scenery and the view across the winding valley to the mountains on the other side.
As someone with fairly limited travelling experience my first thought was safety. Is Iten a safe place to live? But right from the offset I felt safer than I did in most parts of the UK. The first person we met in Iten was Hugo, head coach for the Kenya Experience. I can quite honestly say he might be the nicest person I’ve ever met. He helped us with our bags and made us feel right at home. He came and had a chat with us about why we’d come to Iten and what we wanted to get out of our stay and he had so much fantastic advice to offer. To us, he was part of what made our experience so great, he helped with our training and gave us all the inside info there was to know about Iten and its characters. Already we couldn’t believe that we were staying with a 2.12 marathon runner and his wife Hilda Kibet who is just as lovely and even better at running!
We’d been advised to take the first few days very easy, and Hugo confirmed this when we arrived. The first challenge we would face would be the altitude. As sea-level dwellers we simply wouldn’t be used to the low level of oxygen in the air. This was actually one of the reasons we went to Iten, as living and training at 2,300m would improve the efficiency of our hearts and lungs to deliver oxygen to our muscles when we’re running. We noticed the altitude immediately, just walking up the hill outside Hugo’s compound, or even the stairs up to our rooms made us out of breath and exhausted.
We took the first day off – no running at all. The second day we went for a very easy 25 minute run around a loop that we now refer to as ‘Hugo’s Loop’. We averaged about 8.30/mile and this was tough! All four of us would ordinarily be hitting around 6.30/mile for an easy run at sea level, but for our first run in Iten, with the uneven terrain, altitude and crazy hills, 8.30 was plenty. We slowly increased the amount of running we did and the pace naturally sped up as we became accustomed to our new environment.
During the first week we stuck to easy running only and began to incorporate some core stability and circuit training into our regime. After 6 or 7 days we did a small tempo run of something like 5x3mins tempo with 3 mins easy running in between which felt like really hard work. Our first track session followed about 5 days later; 3 sets of 2mins, 1min, 1min, with equal jog recovery. For this we went down the valley to a track called Tambach. We were advised to head down early enough to beat the afternoon heat but not so early that the track was wet from the rain we’d had the night before, so we left Iten in a cab at around 9am and arrived at 9.15 ready for training. A group of fast looking Kenyans were just finishing a session lead by non-other than Wilson Kipsang. Already this place was living up to its name as ‘Home of Champions’!
The track wasn’t anything like the flat, synthetic, pink carpet we’re used to at home. It’s amazing that many of the world’s most elite athletes train here, on an uneven dirt oval with weeds covering half of the back straight. Everyone we asked estimated that the track was between 2 and 10m too long, and when it rains it’s unequivocally unusable. But, situated as it is on the edge of the rift valley, the view is absolutely stunning.
We tentatively stepped on to the track and began our usual warm up routines and by 10.30 we were ready to rock and roll. After the very first rep I was in shock by how much harder this was than at sea level. This was the first time I’d actually pushed the pace here in Iten and I didn’t like it one bit! The first session was excruciating but a trip to Kerio View Hotel afterwards for possibly one of the best milkshakes I’ve ever had quickly numbed the pain and somehow I was already looking forward to another session. We were already feeling like we’d gotten to grips with the way of life here and had started to meet some of the athletes who lived here.
I was amazed by how friendly the locals were. We were regularly greeted by strangers, sometimes just with a smile and a wave but more often than not they’d strike up conversation asking where we were from and reminding us that we were very welcome in Iten. It was a very pleasant change to walking through a town at home where you’d be lucky to even have your existence acknowledged with a polite smile. The people of Iten were warm, open and genuinely pleased to meet us.
The story was the same even when we were out running on the open trails. We’d pass people working on their farms who’d put down their tools to cheer us on and give us a quick word of encouragement. A stark difference to back home where the only word of encouragement I’d get is from the white van man who kindly takes the time to wind down his window and shout “Oi Oi”, all for a cheap laugh out of his less than intelligent friend in the passenger seat. The locals in Iten understood why we enjoy running and why we’d travelled so far to be in this small rural town. We’d hear the children shout “how are you!?” as we ran past their houses to which we’d reply (if we had the energy), “Fine! How are you?”. The reply back was always “fine!” despite the relative privation of their day to day lives. Admittedly the shouts of “How are you!?” did become somewhat tiresome after hearing it several times a day for 3 months, but it never really lost its charm and we’d still try to take the time to reply.
It took about a week for us to acclimatise to the altitude but it wasn’t until about 3 weeks in that we started the real serious training. By this point we were able to push ourselves as hard as we could at home and the altitude was no longer making us feel like our lungs were tied up with rope. The long runs had ramped up to 13 or 14 miles (16/17 for Andy) and we were finally hitting some more respectable times on our track reps (although still nothing close to what we’d expect at sea level). At this point I was hitting about 75-80 miles per week with 3 good quality sessions and plenty of strength training.
The key difference for us was that we had plenty of time to recover. We were no longer at university, we didn’t have jobs out here and we didn’t have family to visit. We’d come back from training in the morning have plenty of food and go back to bed, we’d either have a nap for an hour or so or just lie there and do some reading or something; the pace of life was very, very slow. It did become kind of boring on some days, but we reminded ourselves that we were out here to become better athletes, and walking into to town was a waste of energy that could have been spent on training. We were living the lifestyles of professional athletes! We were getting plenty of sports massage (which only cost 500 shillings, around £4) and eating the same food that professional athletes here in Iten eat, so we were recovering really well!
The food was basic to say the least, but extremely healthy and nutritionally spot on, despite featuring meat only twice a week. Instead we got protein from beans, eggs and milk, and iron from an unprecedented amount of spinach. There wasn’t a protein shake or supplement in sight.
We were fortunate enough not to suffer any serious injuries while we were out there so our training went pretty smoothly from start to finish. As we neared the end of our camp we were advised to taper our training down once again, this was to avoid getting ill during the travel home and to ensure we returned home in the best shape possible. We also had a race planned for 2 days after we landed back home so the taper fitted perfectly for that! We’d heard mixed reviews about how athletes respond to returning back to see level. Some said they’d ran extremely well and never felt better, others felt terrible and only after 2 or 3 weeks did they start to reap the benefits. Everyone we’d heard from eventually felt fantastic as a result of high altitude training, but it was the timescales that differed. So we had no idea of what to expect from our first race back at sea level.
For me, the race went far better than expected! I took 30 seconds off my previous best to run 14.49 over 5000m. A result I wasn’t expecting. Jonny also had a fantastic race, he ran 15.15, which for an 800m specialist proved that the extra endurance work had really paid off! Will had some fantastic training sessions when he returned home but has since taken some time off running to focus on a new job. Andy took a bit longer to start seeing the rewards of training in Iten. His first few races were good, but not what he’d hoped for. He’s now back into pb territory though and all the hard work has definitely paid off for all of us!
To cut a long story short, it was an incredible experience and one I’d recommend to any runner, from recreational runners to elite athletes!
Callum and Jonny
About the author
Callum Jones is an engineering master’s graduate of the University of Bristol and middle distance runner who has spent long periods of time training in Kenya. He began working for the Kenya Experience in October 2017.
“I’ve been an aspiring distance runner for the last 10 years and worked hard to improve my times year after year. Training in Iten was an incredible experience for me, it really took my running and love for the sport to a new level and opened my eyes to a whole new mentality towards training. Working for Kenya Experience is fantastic as I can offer my knowledge of the sport and insight into the Kenyan running culture with our guests.”
Jonny Monk studied psychology at the University of Bristol and went on to do a masters degree at the University of Loughborough. Jonny is an 800m specialist who won the 2017 BUCS 800m title in a time of 1.48.6!
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