How Kenya Builds The Fastest Humans On Earth
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The 2012 Summer Olympics kicked off in London last night with an opening ceremony that was quirky, jokey, rocking, and a moving portrait of Great Britain. Thirty-two sports are represented at this year's Summer Games. There are over 300 medal events. We get a read on the first wave of results later in the program.
The long- and middle-distance runners to watch during the London Olympics are from Kenya, a country with a rich tradition of producing great track athletes. Four years ago, they won 14 medals in the Beijing Olympics. And many of the world's best marathoners have come from a highland region above Kenya's Great Rift Valley.
NPR's John Burnett traveled to the famed town of Iten to find out how they produce some of the fastest human beings on Earth.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS AND CONVERSATIONS)
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: If you drive down the main road, past vendors of mangoes and charcoal, past the Zam Zam Hotel and Mama Mercy Salon and under the arch that reads: Iten, Home of Champions, then turn onto an unmarked road the color of rust and continue past fields of corn and passion fruit, you'll see them.
Young men and women in black Lycra shorts and bright running shoes, with zero body fat, are warming up for the morning run.
A local woman who gives her name as Charity, wearing a pink Nike top, is asked what's her goal.
CHARITY: I want to be rich.
BURNETT: I want to be rich, she says.
CHARITY: Yeah, I want to be rich.
BURNETT: At 9 o'clock sharp they're off. Four hundred legs pumping uphill in loping, relaxed, efficient strides.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNERS)
BURNETT: These are some of the 500 to 1,500 runners, at any given time, who come to Iten from Kenya and around the world to train and be discovered.
A farmer, Robert Toraitizh, stands in front of his gate and watches admiringly.
ROBERT TORAITIZH: Actually, I'm proud of them running like this. Sometimes we see them live on TV. And then, after all, we see them running live at here.
BURNETT: So you see them on TV and then you see them running past your house.
TORAITIZH: Yes, live.
BURNETT: Then a lone white runner, far behind the pack, passes, huffing and puffing.
(SOUNDBITE OF A RUNNER AND BREATHS)
BURNETT: Robert the farmer smiles ear to ear.
He's not as fast as the others.
TORAITIZH: Yes. You see like a small country like one beating like you have huge America, even not America and other countries, rich countries.
BURNETT: So, you're saying a small country like Kenya beating the big rich countries like the United States, Germany, England.
BURNETT: Kenyans are immensely proud of their athletes. And for good reason. On these dirt roads pass some of the world's fastest long-distance runners, like David Rudisha, the world record holder in the 800 meter, Mary Keitany, the holder of the world record in the women's half-marathon, and Wilson Kipsang, the second fastest marathoner of all time.
Kipsang, wearing a gold-trimmed hoodie, lounges on a sofa in the dining room of the hotel that overlooks the Great Rift Valley, which appears as a misty chasm in the green Earth. Kipsang is a local favorite here in Iten because he lets aspiring young runners train with him.
WILSON KIPSANG: Some of the athletes who really came up so that one can really handle...
BURNETT: The slight, soft-spoken Kipsang is captain of Kenya's Olympic marathon team, which is scheduled to compete on the last day of the games. Wilson Kipsang echoes the female runner, Charity, who we heard from at the beginning of this story. Runners want to make money. They want to live a comfortable life, buy some land, build a house, support their extended family, maybe even invest.
Most of Kenya's runners grow up dirt-poor. They see prize-winning runners buying farms, hotels and matatus, the omnipresent Kenyan jitneys. And for these young men and women, running is the only means to escape poverty, says Wilson Kipsang.
KIPSANG: Provided you really focus and train very well.
BURNETT: Altitude is another reason why Iten produces such extraordinary athletes. They train at 8,000 feet above sea level. The idea is to strengthen circulation by creating more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to muscles.
PETER MCHUGH: This valley is 6 miles down. They run up these hills every single day.
BURNETT: Peter McHugh is the director of Run-Fast, a British sports management company that has a training camp in Iten. Admittedly old-school, McHugh admires the elegant simplicity of how Kenyan runners train.
MCHUGH: My argument is, for instance, if you want to build strength in your legs, you should do what the Kenyans do, which is to run up hills. We are distracted enormously by heart rate monitors, by distance monitors, by very sophisticated gymnasiums, by taking blood tests, by measuring all sorts of things.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)
BURNETT: The Run-Fast facility here in Iten is not what you'd expect a training camp for aspiring elite athletes to look like. The muddy compound is fenced with corrugated metal. Runners live in Spartan rooms. Their coach is former champion Kenneth Kibett.
KENNETH KIBETT: For those who've got a chance to stay in our camp we provide accommodation, provide food, provide training.
BURNETT: Run-Fast provides its team members a bed, daily training, shoes and clothes, and simple, healthy food. Forget sports drinks and nutrition bars. Here they eat corn, beans, kale and the occasional steak. It's pretty basic, but this is what every hungry, young Kenyan runner wants: sponsorship and a manager. A good example of a Kenya success story is Ken Kibett's wife.
HELLEN KIMUTAI: I grow up in here a place called Simara.
BURNETT: Hellen Kimutai is from a village not far from Iten. She's 35 with a broad forehead and braided hair. In March, she won the Rome City Marathon. The prize was 40,000 euros. The annual per capita income in Kenya is less than $2,000.
Growing up in a one-room hut, Kimutai began her athletic career running back and forth to school, barefoot, when she was 15.
KIMUTAI: Six kilometers in the morning, I go to school. In lunchtime, I go for another 6. I go back 6 to the school. In the evening I go back 6.
BURNETT: Twenty-four kilometers a day.
BURNETT: So you ran about 14 miles back and forth to school everyday.
BURNETT: That was before Hellen Kimutai ever thought about running as a vocation. She ran because she had to. And, eventually, she ran because she loved to.
John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.
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