Long-distance Land The dominance of Kenyan marathoners begins with countless miles in the hills of home

April 22, 2001

"Athletes from other countries fear hard training. They run
alone, away from others. They are cowards."
--MOSES TANUI, KENYA
Third-fastest marathoner in history

The runners gather in a lush hollow beside the Kipteber River,
far into the rural precincts of western Kenya and more than 50
miles of paved and dirt roads north of Eldoret, the home city of
Kip Keino and cradle of this small nation's towering distance
running heritage. Nearly 30 marathoners are in the group. They
have been driven down from their training camp at the top of
Kapsait Peak in three battered pickup trucks to this shaded
glen, where early morning sunlight is filtered through waterside
trees into golden, slanted beams.

They begin to run, a boot camp squadron climbing out of the
valley and into the Cherangani Hills, back toward the mountaintop
dormitory where they were awakened at dawn. In an hour and 40
minutes they run more than 15 miles over uneven red clay, dodging
small herds of cattle and donkeys laden with sacks of potatoes.
They jump wide, washed-out ruts in the roadway, and more than
once they are joined by children in school uniforms who run
alongside them for 100 meters or more, laughing.

The route climbs more than 3,000 feet, from an elevation of
slightly more than 6,500 feet at the river to nearly 10,000 at
the peak, where oxygen is precious and a cruel wind slices across
the face of the hill. In the parlance of the athletes, today is
an "easy" day, yet at the top, runners are bent at the waist,
staggering to find stability in their legs. "Big push at the
end," says 31-year-old Erik Kimaiyo, a 2:07:43 marathoner and
two-time winner of the Honolulu Marathon.

At the finish of the run is the village of Kapsait, a cluster of
small mud houses in tall, fluttering Nandi grass. For as long as
three months at a time, while preparing for marathons, this is
where many of the runners live, in monastic isolation. They sleep
two to a room in a one-story concrete barracks with a corrugated
metal roof and no electricity or running water. They eat meals
cooked over a wood fire in a common room, fall asleep each night
amid a black, consuming darkness and awake to roosters from
surrounding farms.

After this morning's workout the runners file through a low
doorway into the camp courtyard, where they sit on wooden benches
and eat chapati, the doughy, maize-flour tortilla that is a
staple of the Kenyan diet, and drink sweet, milky tea. Because
there are visitors, a special breakfast is served, the roasted
ribs of a sheep slaughtered that morning. Pink meat is hacked
from the bone with a dull knife and washed down with gulps of
tea.

From breakfast until late afternoon they wait to train again.
Their lives are stripped of all diversion and most of the
comforts that Western athletes consider essential. "It is too
simple a place for white runners to live," says Dr. Gabriele
Rosa, the 58-year-old Italian cardiologist who coaches more than
150 Kenyan runners and administers several similar training camps
with funds provided by Fila, the Italian shoe and apparel
company. "But for many of the Kenyan runners, it is one of the
best places in the world to train."

Among those runners is David Ruto, a 5'7", 120-pound 23-year-old
from Kaptalamwa, 20 miles northwest of Kapsait. Ruto has run
1:00:44 for a half-marathon, and next year he will make his
marathon debut. "This camp is very nice," he says. "There is
competition. There is food. It is perfect."

The effects of this spartan life will be felt in far-flung cities
on some of the largest athletic stages in the world. On April 8
at the Paris Marathon, Simon Biwott, one of Rosa's runners, led a
Kenyan sweep of the top three places. At Monday's 105th Boston
Marathon Bong-Ju Lee of South Korea placed first to snap Kenya's
10-year winning streak, but Kenyans still took six of the top 12
spots, led by Joshua Chelang'a, a product of the Fila camps, who
finished third in his debut at the distance. Catherine Ndereba,
who last year became the first Kenyan woman to win at Boston,
took her second straight women's title. On Sunday Kenyan runners
will saturate the top of the finish list at the Rotterdam
Marathon, and in London, the world's largest marathon, five-time
world cross-country champion and two-time Olympic 10,000-meter
silver medalist Paul Tergat, a man with seemingly unlimited
potential in the event, will make one of the most anticipated
marathon debuts in history. He is being paid $300,000 simply to
toe the starting line.

For the runners of Kenya these performances are business as
usual, a continuation of the Kenyan marathon invasion that has
unfolded only in the last half decade. As much as distance
running has been a part of Kenyan culture (a runner appears on
the back of the country's 20-shilling note) and a source of
national pride, marathoning was once strongly discouraged by
Kenyan coaches and officials, who feared that marathoning would
lead to a drop in track and cross-country performance. "I was
always told that if I ran the marathon, I would lose all my track
speed," says Tergat.

Some of the warnings were more ominous. "When I was a young
runner, my coaches told me that if I ran a marathon, I would
never be able to have children, and when you are young, you trust
your coaches," says Tanui, a two-time Boston winner. Only when
Tanui learned that prolific Australian marathoner Steve
Moneghetti had fathered children did he begin to doubt what he
had heard at home. Tanui not only has run 2:06:16, but also has
two sons and a daughter. "My coaches," he says, "lied to me so
that I would not run marathons."

Much has changed since the mid-1990s. Marathon and track training
camps now dot the countryside, most funded by shoe and apparel
companies and operated by leading Kenyan runners. Puma
International has two camps, where 3,000-meter world-record
holder Daniel Komen and 1998 Chicago Marathon winner Ondoro Osoro
are among the runners. Saucony, a Massachusetts-based shoe
company, supports 26-year-old marathoner Lornah Kiplagat, who has
funded a revolutionary camp that includes Kenyan women in Iten,
two hours northeast of Eldoret. The most ubiquitous of the
training camp patrons, though, is Fila, which operates six major
camps within 65 miles of Eldoret, with satellite camps popping up
almost weekly.

The training camps are at the heart of Kenya's marathon
dominance. They provide a reliable living environment for runners
who have been raised in a poor society (Kenya's per capita income
is $900 a year) where a single bed, however cold and dark, and
abundant food are blessed amenities. Consider: Tanui was raised
in a one-room hut with 10 siblings. He is now wealthy and lives
in a five-bedroom house in Eldoret, yet each morning he drives to
his camp in Kaptagat to train with a group of more than 30
runners, ranging in ability from David Busenei, fourth at Boston
on Monday, to teenage hopefuls looking for opportunity. To
prepare for London, Tergat moved into a modest Eldoret hotel and
trained with the Kaptagat or Kapsait group every day. The group
dynamic is at the core of the training. "There is always someone
to push you--or pull you," says Josephat Kiprono, the
sixth-fastest marathoner in history.

Joseph Chebet was made financially secure by his New York and
Boston wins two years ago, but when the time arrived to train for
Boston this year, he moved away from his house, his wife and
three small children into a dorm room at his own camp at Kiptoi,
a row of 10 rooms alongside a dirt highway at the base of the
Cherangani Hills. "I try to go home each afternoon to see my
family," says Chebet, "but it is best that I stay in the camp.
Here I must train. At home, things can happen to hold me back."
He spoke in a bare concrete room; outside, running gear hung from
clotheslines, and an army of flies buzzed around two pit toilets.

Athletes at Tanui's Kaptagat camp rise at dawn and run up into a
forest of ancient pines and spreading Okun trees, a world so
dense and chilled that steam emanates from the sweating runners.
Only after 12 miles of brutal uphill running does the sky appear
whole and the mountainside fall away into the Great Rift Valley
below. An hour west, 2000 Boston Marathon winner Elijah Lagat
takes athletes from his new camp on runs though miles of rolling
green tea plantations in the Nandi Hills. "It is an amazingly
beautiful place," says U.S. marathoner Christine Clifton, who
spent a month training in Kenya in January.

Young runners see that Tanui lives in a mansion, with two
Mercedes and a Land Cruiser pickup. They see that Tergat owns a
modern house outside Nairobi (complete with satellite television,
on which his 11-year-old son, Ronald, watched J. Lo on MTV during
a journalist's visit). They represent the dream. "You cannot get
a good job easy in Kenya, like in Europe or the U.S.," says the
27-year-old Kiprono. "We run to have success."

Kimaiyo's visit to a primary school was cause for a celebration.
Older kids, dressed in traditional clothing, performed a ritual
dance for him, and the youngsters gathered around him as if he
were royalty. When Kimaiyo left, they ran alongside the vehicles
as if they could be carried along with their hero.

When Fred Kiprop was 21, he lived with his wife and child in a
one-room hut in the countryside near Eldoret. For months he ran
in a pair of shoes discarded by Tanui. In January 1997 he ran
1:03 at the Eldoret half-marathon, and Fila signed him. "I was at
the bottom, no money, no more shoes," says Kiprop, now 26. He ran
2:06:47 to win the '99 Amsterdam Marathon, still the
seventh-fastest time in history. He moved his family (he now has
three children) to a three-room mud house on 40 acres of farmland
and is building a house in Eldoret, on the same street as Tanui
and Komen.

The runners prosper in a training program created by Rosa, a
portly, bearded, Obi-Wan Kenobi type contracted by Fila to
operate what the company calls its Discovery Kenya program.
(Last year Fila began a Discovery USA program as well, modeled
on Rosa's Kenyan camps.) "Fila pays me, but I use my own money
as well," Rosa says. "I will not get wealthy from this."

As he bounces along in a shock-absorber-deprived Land Cruiser,
riding behind a training group in the verdant Kaptagat Forest,
calling occasionally to the runners--"strong" for fast, "quiet"
for slow--Rosa tells his own story. He was a provincial
cross-country champion as a teenager near Brescia, in northern
Italy. While in medical school he began coaching local runners
and found a vessel for his passion in Gianni Poli, who won the
1986 New York City Marathon.

Tanui was Rosa's first Kenyan runner. They met in 1990 at a race
in Europe, when Tanui consulted Rosa about a knee injury, and
Rosa later traveled to Kenya with Tanui. Two years later, he
began working with Tergat. "Kenyans taught me that they can train
harder than any athletes in the world," says Rosa. He learned.
They learned. Now Rosa has staffs and offices near Brescia and
Nairobi and a cell phone that is never quiet. Rosa's company,
Rosa & Associati, does make money by managing the athletes and
collecting a percentage of their earnings and appearance fees.
Rosa has often been asked to parry the accusations of doping that
follow all successful track coaches. "I can't even read stories
that accuse Kenyans of doping," he says. "If you meet these
people, you would understand." Rosa supports the proposed
institution of blood testing at major marathons. "With testing,"
he says, "everyone would know my athletes are clean."

Rosa exudes a genuine passion for his runners, for his relentless
training program and for his adopted country. After chasing a
morning training run up from Kaptagat to the village of
Chororget, Rosa climbed from his SUV, walked to the edge of a
rock outcropping 10,000-feet high, with the Rift Valley spread
below. "This," said Rosa, making a sweeping motion with his
hands, "is where I want to build my home."

Scarcely past sunrise on the last Friday in March, Rosa brought
together Biwott, Chebet, Kiprono, Kiprop, Japhet Kosgei and Sammy
Korir for a training run in the Ziwa savanna, a wide expanse of
acacia trees and low brush outside Eldoret. All six of them have
run 2:08:02 or faster for the marathon, an extraordinary
collection of talent in one place, a runners' Dream Team of
sorts. It is rare that all of them train together, so this will
be a special day.

The workout begins peacefully with the runners moving over the
flat red clay, their footfalls like slippers on a bedroom floor,
their breathing just as soft. Lesser athletes stay with them.
Abruptly, 40 minutes into a run designed to last an hour, the six
separate from the other five who had started with them. The six
leaders are sweating now and breathing hard, turning a modest run
into a killer. Kosgei, a man who has run 2:07:09, is dropped in
the last two miles. At the finish all of them fall into heaps at
the side of the road. "Not easy, not easy," Chebet wails, his
words punctuated by a deep, gasping cough.

The runners climb into the back of the pickups that accompany
their every run and are ferried to Kiprop's small new training
camp, two miles away on a patch of farmland near his home. It is
a minimal place, with four sleeping rooms and three young runners
in residence. Yet six of the best marathoners in history joyfully
stuff themselves into a sparse common room to eat chapati and
drink tea. "I love being with my brothers," says Chebet, and
there is soft laughter, the sound of simplicity begetting
excellence.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Winner by a neck The competition was keen for Julius Bitok as he hoofed it near Eldoret. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Recipe for success Tanui (right, in yellow), the first Kenyan runner to work with Rosa (center), introduced his new coach to the virtues of chapati (below) and the endurance-building terrain of his native land. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Born to run In the tea plantations of the Nandi Hills, the next wave of Kenyans matches strides with 2000 Boston champion Lagat. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Just rewards Tergat (left) will get $300,000 to run his first marathon, in London this Sunday, while Ndereba earned her second straight Boston title on Monday. COLOR PHOTO: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP [See caption above]

Miracle Miles

The secret to the marathon training program that Dr. Gabriele
Rosa has used to help Kenyan runners dominate the event over the
past four years? Hard running and more hard running. Rosa's plan
calls for 150 to 175 miles per week, and, he says, "it's not in
our mentality to run easy." Here are three weeks of training
during a marathon buildup, most of it climbing at altitude on
uneven surfaces, making stopwatches irrelevant.

WEEK ONE

MONDAY: One-hour, 10-minute run in morning. One-hour run in
evening.

TUESDAY: 25 intervals, alternating one minute fast, one minute
slow, in morning. One-hour run in evening.

WEDNESDAY: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.

THURSDAY: Twelve 1,000-meter repeats, with 90-second recovery
between each, in morning. One-hour run in evening.

FRIDAY: One-hour, 10-minute run in morning. One-hour run in
evening.

SATURDAY: 35-km (21.7 mile) run on flatlands in morning. No
evening run.

SUNDAY: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.

WEEK two

MONDAY: Six 2,000-meter repeats, with 90-second recovery between
each, in morning. One-hour run in evening.

TUESDAY: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.

WEDNESDAY: Hill session. Run up Flourspar hill, 21 km (13 miles),
with 48 switchback turns. No evening run.

THURSDAY: One-hour, 10-minute run in morning. One-hour run in
evening.

FRIDAY: 25 intervals, alternating one minute fast, one minute
slow, in morning. One-hour run in evening.

SATURDAY: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.

SUNDAY: Four 3,000-meter repeats with two-minute recovery between
each, in morning. One-hour run in evening.

WEEK THREE

MONDAY: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.

TUESDAY: 38-km (23.6 mile) run in hills in morning. No evening
run.

WEDNESDAY: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.

THURSDAY: Twelve 1,000-meter repeats, with 90-second recovery
between each, in morning. One-hour run in evening.

FRIDAY: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.

SATURDAY: 30-km (18.6 mile) run in hills in morning. No evening
run.

SUNDAY: One-hour run in morning. One-hour run in evening.

After 12 miles of brutal uphill running, the sky appears whole
and the mountain falls away into the Great Rift Valley.

The runners' lives are stripped of all diversion and comforts
that Western athletes consider essential.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)