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Kenya: the business of running

As the Boston Marathon proved again, Kenyans are great runners. That doesn't mean they're making money.

Kenyan athlete Sammy Karanja trains ahead of Nairobi Marathon. Thousands of extremely talented athletes in Kenya are training on their own, hoping to get noticed. They see running as a way to make money. (Patrick Barth/Handout/Standard Chartered/Reuters)

ITEN, Kenya — In Iten, a village 8,000 feet above Kenya's Rift Valley, it sometimes seems that everyone can run the marathon in under 2 hours and 15 minutes. Elsewhere, this might be national record pace, but in Kenya running 11 minutes slower than the world record just isn't good enough.

"You have to run under 2:10," said Edwin Letting, 33, while training to shave off three minutes of his personal best, 2:13, at Iten's dirt racetrack, which he shares with dozens of other runners, cows and sheep simultaneously.

"At 2:10 you can get a coach. And then everything is easy," said Letting, who once dreamed of going to law school, but a running career looked more realistic.

He's not the only Kenyan to turn away from school to try his luck at the marathon gravy trail. Indeed, a little-known Kenyan runner, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, won Monday's Boston Marathon in a course record-shattering time of 2:05:52. Cheruiyot, who is not related to another famous Kenyan runner with a similar name, netted a $150,000 prize for his victory.

While the running boom of the last three decades has created many opportunities, it has also created an environment of fierce competition among Kenyan runners and — thanks to the global economic crisis — shrinking demand for them.

Iten and surrounding villages are home to some of the best runners in the world. These are those “unknown Kenyans” who have been annoying the Western running audience by winning all the medals. Ken Kilonzo, manager of the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, estimates the number of elite runners in this area at about 600.

But there are thousands of extremely talented athletes, like Letting, training on their own, hoping to get noticed. Like Letting, most see running as a way to make money. Almost everyone here is related to somebody who has.

Getting out of poverty through running, however, has been becoming harder for Kenyans.

The talent pool might be getting larger because so many people now train, but there are only so many international events and — compared to other sports — only small sums of prize money in it. More importantly, because of the global downturn, coaches are harder to come by, endorsements fees are down and foreign running events are issuing fewer invitations to Kenyan athletes. Last year, the Hamburg Marathon did not invite any Kenyans and the prize money was reduced from 40,000 euros ($53,600) to 6,000 ($8,000) for the winner.

Still, in a country where a large part of the population survives on less than a dollar a day, running continues to appear as a viable option to get rich, and Kenyans continue to dominate world running.

So what makes Kenyans such great distance runners?