LetsRun.com Goes To Kenya - Post #2: Tuesday Track Workout In Iten + Sally Kipyego And Jake Robertson Unplugged

By Robert Johnson
July 12, 2011

Editor's Note: A few weeks ago, LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson traveled to Kenya, spending two-plus weeks in the country. Over the next week or so, he will be providing a series of posts about the trip to give you insight into the country that is home to many of the world's greatest distance runners. This is his second post. Come back on Friday for workout footage and an interview from 2009 World Championships 5,000m silver medallist Slyvia Kibet. Next week, he'll be back with footage from the incredible Thursday fartlek run. Next week, he'll also have safari and charity work photos where everyone will get to meet LetsRun.com's new unofficial mascot - LetsRun The Cow - a cow we donated to a women's micro-finance program.

Other Coverage: Post #1: Sammy Wanjiru Was Not Murdered - LetsRun.com Explains How One Can Get Locked Into A Bedroom In Kenya
*LRC Photos From Kamariny Stadium in Iten, Kenya from June 28, 2011

Post #2: Tuesday Track Workout In Iten + Sally Kipyego And Jake Robertson Unplugged

Note: In addition to the print coverage, we also have video footage of some action from the track,  plus two video interviews which appear at the bottom of this story as well as a photo album here: LRC Photos From Kamariny Stadium in Iten, Kenya from June 28, 2011.

I arrived at Lornah Kiplagat's High Altitude Training Center, my base camp in Iten, late on a Sunday night. The next day I figured I should try to go see some runners. On Monday afternoon, one of the employees at Lornah's, who also was an aspiring professional runner, said to me that for the most part, all of the long distance runners in Iten followed a set workout plan. He described a typical workout week for the long distance runners as follows:

Monday: Long Steady - Sounded like sort of a tempo day where they run at least 65 minutes with most of it pretty fast.
Tuesday: Track Session
Thursday: Fartlek
Saturday: Long Run

I was told that most Kenyan runners generally wake up at dawn (which is normally right around 6 am) and get their main run in that early unless it's a workout day. After the run, they have breakfast/tea, take a nap, and then if it's an easy day, go out again for a real light run - "40 minutes easy" and we mean very easy - at 10 am (it's possible they do it in the other order, but this is what I thought they said). So if they are going to run twice, they normally are all done after their 10 am run. Sometimes people will do another shakeout in the evening as a third run or the evening easy run could serve as a second run if they don't get two in early in the morning, but most like to get everything done before lunch.

There was a message board thread on this very topic earlier this year which many people didn't seem to believe: Paul Tergat runs his 2-a-day runs at 6 and 10 am. Hopefully, my report gets you to believe you that it is indeed true that the Kenyans like to run very early in the morning.

Now, when I initially was given the weekly workout plan, it seemed a bit strange to me (and it may as well to you) that virtually everyone in Iten would be on a similar plan. Now not everyone follows the plan described above, but the vast majority of people do. Let me try to explain to you why this is the case.

The most amazing thing about Iten in 2011 is the sheer number of people trying to make it as professional runners. By some estimates, there are more than 1,000 runners in town and people have estimated that close to 800 of them have shown up for the fartlek at once (I'll recap the amazing fartlek run next week). The vast majority of these runners are not part of an official group and don't have a coach, and as a result, many tend to just follow the crowd and do what everyone else in town is doing.

Erastus Limo, a former middle-distance runner who is the husband of 2009 Worlds 5,000m runner-up Sylvia Kibet, estimated that 80% of the people in town don't have a coach (and after the fact that estimate doesn't seem off to me at all).

Up Early So I Don't Miss Any Of The Action
On Monday afternoon, when I asked what time the track workout was, I was told, "10 am, but it's so crowded that some people have started coming earlier."

As a result, I decided to not take any chances and got to the track early - around 7:15 am. The track is only a 20-30 minute walk from Lornah Kiplagat's training center, so the good thing about getting to the track at 7:15 was that I was walking to the track right when the Kenyan school children were getting to school, and the track is literally across the street from an elementary school.

Some Kenyan Kids Running To School

Instruction in Kenya starts at 8 am but the Kenyan children all are expected to be at school by 7 am. Why, you ask? So they can do chores - like sweep the classrooms, water the plants, etc. Schools in Kenya are operated on a total shoestring budget. For example, later in the week, I visited the elementary school of 1988 Olympic champion Peter Rono and believe the whole school of 600+ which had no electricity is operated on a yearly budget of roughly $60,000 US. Teachers at his school are paid 15,000 Kenyan shillings per month (this is 167 dollars), which ends up being basically $2,000 per year.

Yes, I did see a few kids who were late running to school (see video on left or  photos at bottom). Those that weren't there by 7 sharp ended up being locked outside - having to await some discipline, I assume.

Around 8:30 am, the first people started to show up at the track. The first guy I met was a 3:50 1,500 meter runner. Now while a 3:50 at 8,000+ feet of altitude on a dirt track probably equates to 3:40-42 on a top-notch track in America at sea level, I know many people might be surprised to learn a 3:50 1,500 runner is trying to make it as a pro, but when you realize that jobs are scarce and it's possible to live on Kenya on literally couple of dollars a day, it starts to make sense. There's no real opportunity cost of trying to run as a pro, as the alternative is a very low-paying job or unemployment at home, so why not give it a try? (Editor's note: LetsRun.com's Weldon Johnson talked about this same phenomenon when he went to Kenya in 2007 for the world championships).

When I asked the 3:50 guy if he worked a job or just ran, he said he just ran. When I asked him how he paid the bills, he said his father would send him some money (as he was not from nearby but has moved to Iten to try to make it as a runner). Despite his dad's help, he certainly was struggling to get by. He told me his rent was 1,000 Kenyan shillings per month ($11.16). He was wearing used shoes with holes in them and was borrowing someone else's spikes. When I asked him what he needed most - his reply was simple - shoes. For 1,500 shillings ($16.74), he said he could get some shoes (used shoes). I ended up giving him 2,000 and wishing for the best.

Over the next few hours, a couple of hundred people would show up and run various workouts on the track, some dodging sheep that crossed in front of them looking for grass to munch on (click here to see my photo album from Kamariny Stadium in Iten, Kenya on June 28, 2011). And the crazy thing was, everyone was talking about how no one was there and how un-crowded it was. It had rained the night before and apparently a number of people had gone to the Moi University track in Eldoret as they thought the track in Iten wouldn't be runnable.

The dirt track in Iten actually was in fairly good condition, as it had been renovated the year before, so the big ruts that used to exist in lane 1 were a thing of the past.

Sally Kipyego Unscripted
The only part about being at the track all morning was that I didn't know who any of the runners were. Luckily I heard a voice that I recognized to be that of 9-time NCAA champion and now Oregon Track Club member Sally Kipyego, who had just finished a workout. My full 6+ minute interview with her appears below on the left, but I'll try to give you the highlights in case you are time constrained.

Sally was in Kenya getting re-acclimatized to altitude as she gets ready for this weekend's Kenyan track championships. Kipyego told me that twice before she had tried to run the Kenyan champs but had very little success as she struggled to run at altitude each time, as she'd come back just a few days before the meet (in 2009, she was 40 seconds behind 3rd). This year, Kipyego was giving herself a month in Kenya to get acclimatized.

Sally Kipyego Talks From Iten, Kenya

"This is my third time coming for the trials and every time I've come I've struggled because of the altitude. This time, I said, 'Forget it. I'm just going and committing and am going to go to Iten for a month to give myself a shot.'"

"I'm here for business. It's not really to visit family. I'm here for business - to get ready for the trials. I know I'm ready to run at that level. I just need to be able to do it altitude."

Kipyego herself, though, admitted that the running scene in Iten was awe-inspiring even for her.

"It's good to be back. It's exciting. I mean look at all these runners - it's crazy. I've never trained in Iten before."

"When I got here, I went for a run at 10 o'clock and I think there were more than a thousand runners on the road. It just blew my mind. It's exciting (and it's) an eye opener - even for me being a Kenyan. I looked at the street and said, 'Look at these people.'"

Kipyego said she'd be focused on the 10,000 at the Kenyan Trials (although the 5,000 is after the 10,000, so it's possible she could run that if she doesn't make the team at 10,000, but that possibility definitely didn't excite her). I asked her if she was worried if the Kenyan federation might possibly hold it against her that she trains and lives in the US if she doesn't get one of the two automatic spots.

"(I hope not). I'm just trying to make a life for myself. How can you blame somebody (for that?)," asked Kipyego. "If you (got) a job in  Great Britain, wouldn't you go if it was a better deal? That's what I'm trying to do. I hope they don't hold it against me. I'm just trying to make a better life for myself - by training in the US and going to school."

One interesting thing was when I asked Kipyego off camera if she worked out with anyone in Kenya or if she was on her own, she said she was going solo because if she tried to do what the average Kenyan in Iten was doing, she'd be tired within a number of days. The belief that a decent number of the Kenyans are over training is one that I certainly had at the end of the week myself.

Jake Robertson Speaks And We Listen
The other person that I caught up with was 21-year-old Jake Robertson of New Zealand - one of the two twins who moved to Kenya at age 17 to follow his dream of being a world-class runner (again, the full interview appears below on the left, but I'll try to give you some highlights). Now Jake's a 13:22 performer who will be looking to get the IAAF "A" standard next week in Europe. I watched Jake go through a 2 x 2,000, 3 x 600, 5 x 300 workout where he left his Kenyan training partners totally in the dust (Jake afterwards said that they were young athletes just getting started).

Jake Robertson Talks From Iten, Kenya

Jake seemed full of confidence when I asked him what he'd try to do in Europe when he got another crack at 5,000.

"I want to see how close I can get to breaking 13:00. I'm confident of the form of about 13:05 if I get everything right."

Jake's twin brother Zane has recently left Kenya and is now training with the Ethiopian national team and I asked Jake if it was weird being alone for the first time in his life.

"At first, yeah (it was weird), but it's helped us both to relax ad helped us to do what we need to do - to focus on ourselves more. To be our own men and to make our own claim. It's very important for us to be seen as individuals."

At the end of the interview, I asked him what he'd tell all the detractors who have repeatedly criticized him for not doing the standard thing and going to university.

"Two years ago, people were laughing at me. Now they are seeing the results. And two years from now, look at the results and you'll see something (truly special) and you'll no longer have anything to say."

As I was leaving the track, Jake got me in touch with Erastus Limo, a former middle-distance runner who is the husband of 2009 WC 5,000m runner-up Syliva Kibet, and they ended up taking us back to the track to let them watch their workout on Friday (they were originally going to do tempo but it rained and the roads were too wet). So check back tomorrow to see coverage from that workout as well as an interview with Kibet.

In the meantime, let me recommend the photos I took as well as the video I took at the track (video pasted below). All of it is pretty random but it should give you a good idea of what it was like there. The first page and half of the still photos are from the actual stadium and the last half shows you what the walk to the stadium was like.

More: LRC Photos From Kamariny Stadium in Iten, Kenya from June 28, 2011 *Video From Track
Coverage From Kenya From 2007:
Kenyan Distance Running Part I: Kenya, the Land of Opportunity

A Random Tuesday Track Workout
From Iten, Kenya



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