Kenya: the business of running

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?

Experts have been speculating for a long time whether it's nature or nurture. Some say living in altitude increases their lung capacity. Others point to the physical build of the local people, particularly the Kalenjin tribe with their long, bird-like legs and relatively short torsos. There's a theory that swears Kenyans are good runners because of the simple food they eat. Another theory suggests that people who learn to walk and run barefoot have a more natural running stride, which helps them avoid injuries resulting from running shoe-related “heel striking.”

Rob Higley, an Australian coach, says the magic formula are all those factors combined. But, he says, it also comes to each athlete's ability to interpret their own strengths and weaknesses and prescribe the best kind of training. “Most athletes indulge too much when they feel good and soon run themselves ragged,” said Higley, who trains six runners in Iten for the 800 meter race, a discipline not yet fully tapped by Kenyans.

Higley, who describes his life as a search for the perfect human running model, has been coming to Iten since 1998. In 2008, he moved here permanently.

"There's no other place on Earth that allows me to do what I want to do," he said. "A lot of the talent here is wasted."

Timo Limo, an impossibly tall and thin 23-year-old, is currently the best athlete on Higley's squad. The walls of his dorm room are covered with newspaper clippings and pictures of runners, primarily his Olympic medalist cousin.

Limo's best 800 meter time is 1:48:9, seven seconds slower than the world record from 1997, which is not a bad achievement from a “random runner,” who approached Higley in Iten and asked if he could train with him.

Like other runners here, Limo is eager to compete abroad. This year, he finally succeeded in getting a visa to run in Europe. He won first place at an indoor athletic race in Prague in February. He took home all of 120 euros ($161), not even a tenth of the overall cost of sending him there.