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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.

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.