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KENYA'S SECRET TO LONG DISTANCE RUNNING

The World Cross Country Championship scheduled to take place in Mombasa, Kenya on 24th March 2007 has generated considerable excitement in the country. In less than two months, Kenya will be the focus of the global athletics spotlight as attention shifts to the 35th edition of the World Cross Country Championships.

An estimated 1,000 plus visitors made up of competitors, officials and media from various countries will be in the country to not only compete in the event, but to also indulge in Kenyan hospitality.

Kenyan athletes, the likes of the legendary Kipchoge Keino and Henry Rono, decades ago set the bar high and established the country’s prowess as an athletics powerhouse. Ever since, Kenya has become a gold mine for world beating champion athletes and runners.

In an age when Kenyan long distance running stars have turned the international circuit into a national fiefdom, it is no longer difficult to find Kenya on the world map.

This fertile ground for the development of world beating athletes has created an international phenomenon, as many runners across the world seek to come and discover the source of Kenya’s athletic prowess. Several high altitude training camps in the Great Rift Valley and Central Kenya attract many international athletes, yearning to share in a little of that which builds Kenya’s runners.

Sitting at the heart of the Great Rift Valley, just a few kilometers from Eldoret town and considered the Mecca of athletics is the Kipchoge Keino High performance Training camp. It is located on a farm owned by legendary Kenyan track star and is designated as an approved high altitude training facility by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Numerous international athletes troop there to train in an annual ritual, which Keino says has benefited the country’s image abroad. Some of the top athletes who have trained here in the past include South Africa’s Ezekiel Sepeng, Olympic 3000m gold medalist Ezekiel Kemboi and top 1500m runner, Daniel Komen (junior).

What started off as a modest facility is now well known within the annals of the IOC, and the international athletic community.

In total close to 100 athletes from different countries and backgrounds train at this facility annually in the full glare of both the local and international media.

According to Coach Jimmy Beautah, their core business is to nurture talent irrespective of their origin. “Here, we receive athletes from all parts of the world and we guarantee improvement,” he said.

Among the athletes currently at the camp are — Eliana Sahqlinirina (Madagascar), Cleveland Forde (Guyana), Marlyse Menene (Gabon), Hamidou Garba (Niger), Chancy Master (Malawi) and Elizet Banda (Malawi).

The state of the art camp provides everything an athlete needs for training. Quality accommodation, conference facilities, a modern gymnasium, a good training ground, a library and a well managed diet are all at the disposal of the athletes.

Approximately 30-kilometres from Keino’s Camp lies Iten town with training camps which host a conglomeration of international athletes mainly drawn from the Middle East countries of Qatar and Bahrain.

There is also a heavy presence of athletes from Europe especially the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

“We train here because we like the climate. Kenya is a beautiful and hospitable country,” says Michael May a Germany athlete with a personal best of 13:33 in the 5000m

Many champion Kenyan athletes give back to the sport and set up training camps where they help develop up and coming athletes and share their talents. Lornah Kiplagat dons Dutch colours but she is a common figure in Iten where she owns and runs a camp. “How can I forget where I came from? It is always a good feeling to be among my people,” she says.

Her camp, which specializes in training women athletes, has become highly valued, churning out runners who end up as international champions. At many of the international meetings, many people now know who we are,” says Kiplagat.

Sharon Jebii Kosgei, a manager at the camp says training and education are their priority. Perhaps this explains why the camp is equipped with a gymnasium, library, computer room and 16 double rooms for accommodation with a capacity of hosting 50 athletes.

The gym here is state of the art, equipped with the latest machines including a sauna.

Jebii says that they are in the process of setting up a basketball court and conference facilities.

At St Patrick’s Iten, it is the same story. The simplicity of the camp may draw hesitation from less seasoned athletes, but the story behind it is simply amazing.

The camp has produced a mass of talent among them the world 800m record holder, Wilson Kipketer (Denmark), Bernard Lagat (USA), former Olympic 3000m champion Mathews Birir, former Commonwealth 800m champion Japheth Kimutai, the Chirchir brothers—Cornelius and William, former world 3000m steeplechase record holder and champion, Boit Kipketer, former world 10,000m champion, Sally Barsosio and former Olympic 1500m champion Peter Rono are all products of this camp.

Other active members of the camp include Commonwealth 5000m champion, Augustine Choge, World 4-km silver medalist, Isaac Songok, World 8-km junior Cross Country champion, Mang’ata Ndiwa and Commonwealth 800m champion Janet Jepkosgei.

The camp also plays hosts to 40 junior runners including world junior 3000m champion, Caroline Chepkurui, World 1500m champion Irene Chelagat and silver medalist, Mercy Kosgei and the world 800m champion, David Rudisha.

The camp receives a good number of international athletes. But why would foreign athletes want to train in Iten? Coach Colm O’Connell explains that the high altitude makes the area malaria free, hence attracting many foreigners keen on training in the country. The serenity and good terrain makes Iten a perfect training ground according to O’Connell. For foreign athletes a visit, he says breaks the mental barrier that Kenyans are unbeatable.

Kaptagat about 30km from Eldoret is another home of training camps. Here there are five odd training camps belonging to various sports shoe manufacturers. Like the facilities in Iten, camps here offer more than just training and the results have been impressive.

Back to the WCCC, the end of the event should mark another chapter in the country’s sporting record. Should local athletes dominate the championship; the country will have a perfect launching pad to claim the coveted title of being the best in the long distance.

This could offer a number of advantages. It may give sports its deserved role of being used as a key tool in the promotion of tourism. This is a role Kenyan athletes have played and continue to play perfectly.
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