ITEN, Kenya — It's the start of a usual day in a very unusual place. The sky is dark, cold and damp, the mist thick in the mountain air. Lines of children in drab grey uniforms scurry to school along the muddy road. Then suddenly, a group of runners swoops past in brightly colored tracksuits.
These are the world’s best athletes, and this is their home.
The little village of Iten, two kilometres above sea level in Kenya’s Western Province, is where more than 800 Kenyan runners, including world record holders and Olympic favorites, live and train. The tiny mountain town has become almost mythological in running circles, producing world-beaters year after year.
But as Kenya modernizes and villagers move to the city, the country's famed talent pool is shrinking. Some in Iten now worry that as running looses its appeal as a profession, the country’s dominance in the sport could be waning.
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Kenya has dominated middle- and long-distance running for decades. Over the past 12 months, its runners have won most of the world's top marathons; the fastest 20 times in 2011 were all clocked by Kenyans. In Boston, one the world's most competitive marathons, the country's runners took the top three spots in both the men's and women's events. Patrick Makau set a new world record of 2:03:38 at the Berlin Marathon, yet he did not make the Olympic team – such is the depth of Kenya's talent.
What sets them apart? In the 1990s biological-advantage theories were popular, and Kenya’s “running tribe,” the Kalenjin, which produces most champions, were tested for their physical attributes (long legs, slim ankles, more red blood cells), or ‘genes’ that would give them the running edge. Results were inconclusive and Kenyans themselves are loath to accept such theories.
Johana Kariankei, a 20-year old from Narok in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province, has been training in Iten for the past three years, striving to emulate his medal-winning colleagues. As he sat on the grassy bank of Iten’s dirt running track, Olympic hopefuls whizzing by, he said what distinguishes Kenyans is just hard work. “They train so much and they are so very dedicated, and they have very good places to train like here in Iten. It is the best place to train in the world,” he said. “It’s the attitude and the altitude."
By western standards, Kenya's athletic facilities are weak. There are only two Olympic-standard tracks in the country. The track in Iten, which produces more champions than any track in the world, was built in late 1950s by the British and has hardly changed since. Its grass is kept short by a small herd of grazing goats.
Kenyan athletes are thought to gain their advantage long before they ever pull on a pair of running shoes and step into a stadium. Kenyan children literally ‘run’ errands, fetching milk or wood, or chasing stray goats.
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“When you start running to school when you are very young, that will build your stamina at your early age. So that when you reach the age of 15 you will be using the stamina to do well in athletics,” Kariankei said. “That’s why I think we differ from Europeans [who] get buses to go to school."
Running is such an integral part of life in Kenya's rural grasslands, it is not identified as an activity in itself — most Kenyans will tell you they do not run much.
But by the time Kenyan runners start their formal training they have run an estimated 10,000 miles farther than their western counterparts. While the latter spend their first years of training building up stamina — what coaches in Iten call ‘the basics’ — Kenyan athletes can focus on refining technique and achieving results.
"In Kenya the most important sport is [track and field]," says Italian coach Renato Canova, who has been training athletes in Iten since 1998. "Everybody in this country knows that if they have talent and are able to reach top results they can really change their life."
But as Kenya develops, tens of thousands of young Kenyans are moving to urban areas every year, where running is not a part of daily life. This, the coach said, could threaten the county’s preeminence in the sport.
“The connection to the traditional lifestyle is the main reason for why Kenyans are such good runners. When this connection disappears, like is has in Europe, there is no more athletics, there is no runners in Kenya,” Canova said.
Ian Kipruto, 13, is just one of many Kenyan children who run six kilometers every day to his village school. He enjoys running and, like his peers, he is in awe of Kenya’s famous runners. But Ian does not want to be a runner.
“It is a very big task, I will not do that career,” he said. “I want to be an engineer."
Ian wears a badge, “Best in English,” on his blazer as a testament to his abilities. While Ian still runs miles every day, more schools, roads, buses and improved living standards mean fewer children have to run so far and so often.
As job opportunities arise in cities, running may also lose its appeal as a source of income.
In the current economic climate, athletes complain that sponsorship becomes available only for the elite few. This shortens the odds for success for young Kenyans who want to cash in on their dreams.
John Kimaiyo, 38, is an ex-runner, said he has experienced the changes firsthand. His career was a typical one: Spotted by the military during a high-school race, he was enlisted and competed for the army. In 2008 he began to run full-time. He had modest success, winning a few medals in international races and joining the prestigious Belgrave Harriers Club in London. Still, he could not pay the bills for long. Now he has quit, hoping to put his running talent to a better use. Next month he leaves for Baghdad to join the elite force guarding the US embassy.
"In Kenya not all people run, but it is something that has lifted Kenyans up in their lives,” he said. “A long time ago people [ran] to get money, but today people have so many options.”
Kimaiyo sees a different future for his children in a developed Kenya, one where running will not be essential for survival.
"If I had a car right here, I would give my kids a ride to school because I don’t want my kids to run the way I was running."