Posted by: Susan Loken | March 1, 2019

Running Alongside The Kenyan Greats

kenya susan in kenya top

My Kenya Experience

A Solo Overseas Adventure

Traveling to Kenya is not a quick jaunt, and it’s hard to believe that my first solo trip out of the country was to someplace as exotic as Africa.

I left Phoenix at 7:30 PM on Friday and arrived to Eldoret, Kenya at 2:30 PM on Sunday.

Phoenix –> Los Angeles –> New York City –> Nairobi –> Eldoret

The total travel time, including the 10-hour time difference and layover, was 43 long hours.

I love stretching outside my comfort zone and my initial arrival was an opportunity to do just that. It was a challenge to navigate customs, gather my bags, walk to the run-down domestic flight terminal and then wake up the annoyed security guard to scan my bag. The flight was delayed and I spent over three hours into the foreign airport. To say I was eager to get to the running camp would be an understatement.

I like to think that I’m brave and adventurous but, in all honesty, I felt a bit frightened being alone in Nairobi. Here I was in a place so far away from home and so different from everything I’ve ever known and still a flight away from some familiar faces.

I quickly accepted that I was entering a completely different culture than I was used to. I took a few deep breaths, focused on how blessed I was to embark on such an incredible adventure and then keep moving. Living in a developing country, even for a brief period, is an adjustment and I chose to embrace those differences before landing in Iten.

“There are no problems in Kenya, only a lot of unusual situations.”

Arrival, Accommodations and New Allies

I soon arrived at the High Altitude Running Camp in Iten along with 15 other people from around the world, where we took in its charm, met the coaches and discussed what to expect over the next two weeks. Runners journeyed from the UK, Switzerland, El Salvador, Denmark, India, USA, Australia and (of course) Kenya to take part in the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Iten, Kenya is a small town of 4,000, located about 300 kilometers northwest of the capital, Nairobi. The town sits 8,000 feet above sea level and is made up of miles and miles of hilly red dirt. Perhaps most notably, Iten is home to many of the world’s best distance runners and filled with hundreds more who make their living winning road races.

As I’ve mentioned before, my favorite part of running is the people you meet. By the third night, camp attendees were pushing two tables together so we could all share each meal together. Though a diverse bunch, we bonded over our shared passion of running and health. We arrived as strangers and left as 15 forever friends.

One of our first lessons was on accepting and adopting the Kenyan approach to life, which involves flexibility and reframing problems as situation. The running camp leader, Willy, was a Kenya native and emphasized that there may be a lot of unusual situations (but no problems). We were told that Kenyans are always late, but never late for runs.  

Briefing before our run.

I choose to forget about the comforts of home and embrace everything that Kenya had to offer. Perhaps the hardest part to accept was when all but four camp participants got sick. I’m not sure if it was the food, water or something else, but I had to release my urge to panic and instead focus on eating what I felt was safe. I did lose 6 pounds on the trip (from 111 to 105), but I felt strong and healthy through the entire time!

Natalie (my roomie), me, Janna and Camila!

The rooms were very basic, yet the space was clean and comfortable. The rooms had just one towel each, but it was enough. I would mention that my roommates were great, but everyone knows that all runners are nice. I was lucky enough to share a room with Natalie, a Vet from the UK, along with two single beds and a toilet that worked part-time. Before arriving, I was a little nervous about sharing a small living space with a stranger for two weeks, but Natalie and I became fast friends within a few hours. One of the girls I met, Janna, already has plane reservations to come visit me next month and explore Arizona.

Daily Life in Iten, Kenya

Do you want to know the secret of Kenya’s fastest runners? After two weeks in Kenya, I realized that strength, endurance and speed of Kenyan runners is borne of necessity. Most children run to and from school in bare feet, learning to limit contact between their soles and the hot, rocky ground. Children are also responsible for helping to carry jugs of water and care for younger siblings.

I was amazed to learn that there are no refrigerators or very few in Kenya. Since there is no way to protect food from the heat, all ingredients are prepared fresh daily by local farmers. Our first Kenyan meal consisted of ugali (cornmeal and water) with gravy, hot greens, chicken, lentils, homemade tortillas, pineapple and mango. Traditional Kenyan fare is even simpler, often just ugali with beans or kale. Ugali is a staple carbohydrate because it’s cheap, plentiful and keeps everyone’s bellies full. The locals view food as fuel and aim to maximize nutritional content at the lowest cost.

The health standards, germs and typical diet were all different than the average American body is used. I ate a lot of bread, rice, pasta and pancakes, as well as watermelon, pineapple and cabbage. You can safely say that my diet was 90% carbs. Throughout the trip, I stayed healthy and energized while also losing weight. I’m not sure why so many choose to fear carbs. I won’t get on that kick! Perhaps the key is that Kenyans eat to live and don’t overindulge on fast food and junk, mostly because there is none.

Waiting for Church

Faith and community are pillars in the Iten community. Kenyan runners join together on a weekly basis to run together, challenging each other to give a full effort and keep up with group. They cheer each other on, support one another and even offer financial help to extended family members once they’ve made it in the running world. An overwhelming sense of community permeated every interaction I saw in Iten.

Handing out lollipops before Church.

The normally-bustling town is quiet on Sundays, as the locals attended church and observe a day of rest. I attended the Sunday services in Iten and was overwhelmed by the peoples’ powerful faith. Even though many live in poverty and face difficulties every day, they still praised God for all of his blessings. The sermon that morning was about keeping a line open with God all the time, not only in our times of need. I don’t think I will ever be able to complain about the small inconveniences of my daily life again.

Built to Run

We tend to think that all Kenyans are fast runners but, in reality, all these fast runners actually come from the same tribe of Kenyans. This tribe, known as the Kalenjin, represents a small minority in Kenya, yet they dominate most of the world’s long-distance races. Genetically, they are built to run. The Kalenjin are small-framed with thin hips, long Achilles and small calves. Kenyans are active throughout their entire life by necessity and this strength and resiliency prevents injury in adulthood.

Along with the the right body for the sport, these world-class runners have adopted a mindset and way of life to help them excel. One of the first things that our camp leader, Willy, told us upon our arrival was that “There are no problems in Kenya, only a lot of unusual situations.” Kenyans keep stress to a minimum and calmly deal with any new or challenging situations. They understand that the best way to perform at your best is to leave the stress behind. This mental toughness may come from local rites of passage that include circumcision and military training, where children learn to withstand pressure and tolerate pain.

When the Kenyans run, their goals are simply to be fully dedicated and give there best each and every day. They don’t worry about PRs, medals or the outcome because they know hard work pays off. Runners take their program seriously, but are flexible when they need a break. With limited access to modern technology, Kenyans learn from a young age to listen to their bodies and observe how they feel, rather than obsessively track their pace. Perhaps most importantly, professional running is a means to a better life. Earning money through winning races gives Kenyans and their families a better life and, for them, that’s motivation enough to give every single run their best effort.

Out of every 1,000 training in Kenya, about 200 make it big. However, during training every single one of those 1,000 believes that they will make the cut. Since so many are committed to success as a means of supporting their family, Kenyans have learned a few important things:

  1. Consistent training and logging lots of miles is the key to strength, speed and endurance.
  2. Their motto is: “Train Hard, Win Easy.” Kenyans work hard by running 2-3 times per day, with 2-3 Tempo/Speed or Fartlek workouts per week.
  3. They allow their bodies to rest and recover by going to bed early and taking naps during the day.
  4. Group training is essential to success, providing an extra edge to push yourself just a little bit harder to keep up with the group. I saw a flyer on a pol inviting runners with a sub 2:10 marathon time for men and 2:20 for women to join their workouts. Say what?!
  5. Finally, they know the importance of a proper warm-up and easy runs. They start all runs off at a pedestrian pace before slowly building to their workout pace. As they say in Kenya, “Anyone can run easy with us, but no one can race with us.”

“Train Hard, Win Easy.”

The Running Greats

While in Iten, I met some of the world’s fastest Kenyan runners. I worked out with and visited the home of Sylvia Kibet, 5000 silver medalist at the 2009/2011 World Championship and 2008 Bronze Medalist at the Beijing Games. I was surprised that I was actually stronger than her in the core class, but her race pace clearly leaves me in the dust. Sylvia has a close connection with her family and the local community, and she runs to make them all proud. I also had the pleasure of working with Edna Kiplagat, 2011/2013 IAAF Marathon World Champion and winner of the LA and NYC Marathons in 2010, along with several other incredible local athletes. They all share the same sentiment: running is all about community.

Me and Gemma with Edna Kiplagat (2:19 marathoner!)

When you spend time with larger-than-life athletes whose talent you can only dream of, it’s astonishing to realize that they are as humble, hardworking and kind as anyone else. What sets them apart? Kenyans are blessed with the right genetics, a hard life that teaches perseverance and a purpose stronger than anything a privileged American could fathom.  

The Lesson of Lifetime

When I first landed in Africa, I was overwhelmed and a bit frightened by how different the culture was from everything I’ve ever known. Yet, having traveled so far, there was no turning back. I choose to embrace the opportunity, savor the experience and immerse myself as fully in this seemingly-foreign culture as possible. While their daily lives are so different from our own, there is so much we can learn from the inhabitants of this developing country, from healthy eating habits and lifelong movement to the importance of faith and the benefits of being part of a supportive community.

After reflecting back on my Kenya trip and the past 20 years of running, I realize it’s never been about the wins, PRs or medals. My dash–the lifetime contained within that tiny line on my future tombstone–has been composed of wonderful experiences, daring adventures and special relationships, including those afforded by my running career. There were too many highlights from Kenya to name a favorite. I enjoyed everything!

However, the most impactful moments involved being invited to join my hosts in their everyday lives. On Saturday, we did a long run through the Singore Forest, crossing the red dirt hills while passing through the tranquil forest and watching farmers tend to their life-giving land. On Sunday, I was welcomed to worship God alongside the locals, which opened my eyes to both the daily struggles and great faith of those living in Iten. Each experience gave me a new perspective of life beyond my front door, as well as a new appreciation for the small luxuries that come with living in America.

Passing a farmer, his children, and sheep in Singore Forrest.

Running changed my life and I have been fortunate to pay it forward through my coaching and, hopefully, by example. I am truly honored to have been offered the opportunity to live alongside and learn from the Kenyan greats. While I picked up some great running tips, my biggest takeaway was to appreciate the privileges of life in America and find ways to simplify my way of life.


Responses

  1. A great read Susan and it was great to meet you (if only briefly). NO Kenya Experience blog fro me this time, but here’s hoping I will return fully fit! I will enjoy following your running exploits, and if you’re ever in the UK then let me know!

  2. Reblogged this on timmytalks and commented:
    A very inspirational runner that I met on my, all too brief, recent trip to Kenya. It’s a great read.


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