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Scenic Iten: Home of Champions that attracks Tourists

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Peter Muiruri | October 12th 2014
The only tartan running track outside Nairobi at Lorna Kiplagat's High Altitude Training Centre-Iten

Rift Valley; Kenya: The meandering road between Kabarnet and Iten is not for the faint of heart.

However, any fears are more than compensated for by what is perhaps one of the most scenic locations in Kenya — the breathtaking Kerio Valley.

Here, time seems to stop as the opposite escarpment seems to hug the sky, blocking out any other vista.

To stand on top of the escarpment is akin to resting your feet on top of the world.

Having left Lake Bogoria earlier that morning, my mind was glued on the main highlight of the day.

I had to get to Iten early enough and do a few laps in the new tartan track that is part of the Lorna Kiplagat’s High Attitude Training Centre.

However, due to time constraints, my training was postponed.

Iten is aptly called the home of champions, and for good reasons.

At 8,000 feet above sea level, Iten has about 80 per cent of the oxygen found at sea level.

Bodies here must fully utilise this amount, a matter that makes the runners more efficient in major competitions, most of which are held in lower elevations.

WORLD BEATERS

This is a town where Kenya’s renowned world beaters are referred to by their first names.

In fact, almost all Kenya’s top athletes have at one time or the other hugged the hilly terrain around Iten when preparing for international races.

Everyone in Iten seems to have caught the running bug.

It does not take a visitor long to notice that everyone here seems to be in a hurry.

Very early in the morning, scores of youngsters train along the area’s dusty roads, down into the farmlands, in deep ravines — all in the hope of making it into the big boys’ and girls’ clubs.

In Iten, you run, eat, run, sleep, then wake up and run again.

Eight in the morning and the racing bug caught up with me.

Training shoes on, I was eager to test out the 800-metre tartan track.

As some friends and colleagues lay lazily on the sidelines, I got onto the track.

My heartbeat increased as the thin, high attitude air took a toll on my lungs.

On the fence of a nearby school, eager children stood, watching the lone runner in a red outfit.

Were they mistaking me for a world record breaker? I will never know though I must have disappointed them. But run I did — three laps in all.

INTERNATIONAL ATHLETES

In the land of world champions, mine were baby steps.

The track is the first of its kind outside Nairobi and is the brainchild of naturalised Dutch Lorna Kiplagat and her husband Pieter Langerhorst.

The idea was conceived after she won her first international marathon in Los Angeles in 1997.

In the last few years, the camp has attracted a number of international athletes including Britain’s Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe.

At the training centre nearby, we are shown the modest accommodation these jet-setters have to contend with: a single room devoid of any luxuries such as music systems or television sets.

There is a bed, a desk and solar heated showers. Willy Songok, the caretaker, shows us what he termed the room of champions.

“This is Room Number 25 and is normally used by Mo Farah whenever he turns up for training,” he says, and quickly adds: “But for him, even the most stringent rules may be bent a little thus if he requests for a TV set when his favourite football team is playing, we give him.”

According to Songok, this is perhaps the only place in the world where racial prejudice has been overcome with ease.

“Where will you find an Israeli, a Palestinian, a Somali and an Ethiopian running side by side? Only in Iten, thew home of champions.”

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