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KENYA- AHEAD OF THE GAME

Paul Tergat’s victory at the New York Marathon was further confirmation of Kenya’s domination of the global athletic scene, coming hot on the heels of a spectacular 1st, 2nd and 3rd place sweep by Kenya in the Berlin Marathon. The secret of our athletic success lies in a beautiful and little known region in the North Rift Valley.

On November 6th, Tergat maintained a tough battle against defending champion Hendrick Ramaala throughout the five boroughs of New York to pull off an incredible knife edge win- the closest finish in the history of the event.

Paul, who is the world marathon record holder, crossed the line in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 30 seconds, with Ramaala clocking in less than a second later.

This victory comes in the wake of September’s Real Berlin Marathon, in which first, second and third place were all claimed by Kenyans: First, Philip Manyim (2:07:41) Second, Peter Chebet (2:08:58) and Third Jackson Koech (2:09:07).

This win evoked memories of the 2004 Athens Olympics, where Kenya’s steeplechase team seized gold silver and bronze in a single race and the 2002 Boston Marathon, where Kenya held 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th , 6th and 7th place in the Mens field, and both 1st and 2nd for Women.

Athletes and sports fans alike may well wonder how a single African country produces such consistent results in athletics. What gives Kenyan runners this definite edge of the competition?

There is a secret to all of this sporting success, and it is found high in the hills of the North Rift Valley. In fact, the secret is the hills themselves. The average altitude throughout Kenya's Western highlands is around 2000 metres. The rarified air at this altitude makes exercise much more difficult than at sea level.

On a purely physiological level, altitude training greatly improves fitness, endurance and performance. At higher altitudes, the body increases production of red blood cells, which means that any exercise greatly oxygenates the blood.

Kenya's great advantage lies in the fact that its high altitude regions lie in an equatorial zone, creating an ideal climate for training. While the high chill can be felt throughout the night, the blend of tropical sun and altitude ensures perfect moderate conditions for running by day.

This has made the Western Highlands of Kenya a mecca for athletes. International runners have now realized that highland exercise is an integral part of successful training, and that there is no better place for this than Kenya.

Training camps are now being established throughout this area, and are providing highly specialized training for both local and international athletes. Five seperate camps offering accommodation and training programs are now in operation, and as international interest increases, more are planned.

This is a beautiful region of high green mountains and precipitous valleys. Little visited by outsiders, the Western highlands are a quiet rural retreat, with many small farming villages. This is the true heartland of the culturally diverse Kalenjin community.

Staying in this area is a good way to learn more about Kenya's runners, past present and future.

Two local schools have produced a steady stream of champions. St Patricks at Iten is a small Catholic College, with immaculately tended grounds. At the centre of the school is a grove of native trees. Each tree bears the name of a former pupil who has gone on to international sporting glory. Walking through this rapidly spreading grove, the extent of St Patrick's success quickly becomes evident. It's clear that one day, the entire school will be quite literally surrounded by a forest of future champions.

For visiting athletes, training with Kenyan runners in the highlands is a training experience unlike any other.

Rising early in the morning, they run along quiet and deserted rural lanes, passing through colourful markets where everyone greets them with cheers of encouragement. As the morning sun rises, the mist clears from the high mountain passes, affording them fantastic views as they pace themselves to match the local runners.

Each day the effects of the altitude are seen in their performance, and they become used to the natural rhythms of life in the hills. Many athletes come away from their altitude training having made deep and lasting friendships with Kenyan runners and members of the local community- friendships that will be rekindled again and again on the international running circuit.

One of these camps, in the Eldoret region, is owned and managed by one of Kenya's best known athletes- former Olympian and Gold Medallist Kipchoge Keino.

His camp supports not only local runners, but also raises money for a local orphanage and other community projects. The camp is visited by runners from as far afield as the USA and Singapore. The camp offers running and cycling training, often combining training with sight-seeing trips to the Kakamega forest and other local attractions. For more information click here

These altitude camps offer varying levels of service and specialization. As facilities improve, sports medicine, massage and therapy are gradually being introduced.

While highly specialized programs for serious athletes are certainly possible, many camps also welcome visitors who are simply interested in improving their general fitness. You don't have to be a current or future Olympic champion to train in the highlands.

This is simply an excellent opportunity to relax and enjoy a healthy and active break in one of Kenya's least known and visited regions. There is an abundance of surrounding attractions to explore.

An athletic break in Kenya doesn't have be all about training. There are plenty of chances to compete, with several major cross country events and marathons organized throughout the year.

One of the best known Kenyan marathons is held at Lewa Downs, a private wilderness sanctuary. This annual event is held to raise vital funds for the conservation of wildlife, particularly the highly endangered Rhinoceros. The race winds its way through the game sanctuary, and is often watched from the roadside by the same animals it seeks to protect. For more information click here

Try training or competing in Kenya and you'll come home a winner in more ways than you may expect: With a genuine altitude advantage, newfound friends and enough wonderful memories to last a lifetime.
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