Overlooking Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, there is a small but chaotic town that breeds the next generation of Olympic stars.
Perhaps it’s the high-altitude at Iten that continues to draw an international crowd of athletes, or maybe it’s the winding country roads that make for pleasant training ground. Whatever it is, the town has long been heralded as both a runner’s paradise and a generator of sports talent.
Some of the best runners in the world have come from Iten, including David Rudisha, who holds the world record for the 800 meters and Mary Keitany, who holds the world record in the women’s half-marathon.
When the season starts, the pressure is on.
“If you are out on the roads walking, people will say, ‘what’s wrong with you? You should be running,’” says Lornah Kiplagat, a four time world champion with several world records.
Kiplagat helped create the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, where many of the star athletes of tomorrow train.
“What I really wanted was a one-stop shop for an athlete,” she says.
It helps that Iten sits at about 8,000 feet above sea level – high-altitude training helps build endurance in runners.
“Essentially, what you’re doing is getting six weeks of training in four,” explains David Harmer, an endurance coach with British Athletics.
The High Altitude Training Center, in fact, has attracted athletes throughout the world, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah.
“He came with just some friends and saw how serious Kenyans were concentrating, and figured out if he could do this, he probably would be like them, and now he can beat them,” says Kiplagat.
Kids go for the gold
Some kids dream of becoming movie stars when they grow up. In Iten, they dream of running.
“A child has the mentality that my mom or dad or my friends like athletics, I should do the same,” explains Michael Mavuno, an athletics coach at the Salaba Academy, which is training – and scouting – the next generation of star athletes.
Children as young as seven years old attend the academy and run up to 12 kilometers every weekend, and 10 to 12 laps after school.
“We try to bring out their talents,” says Mavuno.
“”We’re very confident that one day, ten years from now, they will be shining.”