Iten is a place where you shouldn’t boast. Do all of your friends tell you how amazingly fast you are? Do you compete at regional or even national level? Well, unless you possess an Olympic or World Championship medal, or have seen WR (World Record) beside one of your race times, then you are possibly a below-standard runner in Iten.
Turn up at the old dirt track on a Tuesday and you are almost guaranteed to see a runner who has won a big-city marathon (think London, Boston, New York or Berlin), an Olympic or World Championship medallist, or a world-record holder. I remember watching Asbel Kiprop, holder of one Olympic and two World Championship gold medals in the 1500 metres, lead a group through a track session on my first week in Iten.
The Thursday fartlek session is often lead by Wilson Kipsang, current world record holder for the marathon. But these celebrities do not run alone. They fly along the roads or track in Iten surrounded by runners who may also be known, may not yet be known, or may never be known. There are many fast Kenyans training in Iten.
My normal training week involves six days of running and a day of rest. After two weeks in Iten I had run for fourteen straight days. With a life focussed around training, but with an important focus on eating and recovery I didn’t feel the need for my usual weekly day off. But I decided to start my third week with my only rest day for the four weeks I would spend in Iten.
On Tuesday I headed down to the track to run a pyramid session, running intervals of 400, 600, 800, 1000 and 1200 metres, before working back down the pyramid to 400 metres. The recovery periods between each interval was just over half the length of the preceding interval. I had set target times that would be challenging, and they turned out to be slightly too challenging, but I enjoyed a good session where I managed to get close on all of the splits.
Most Kenyan runners head out 2-3 times a day to run. After using double sessions in the first half of 2012 when starting to seriously build my mileage I had returned to longer single run sessions after a few months due to the time taken to fit in two runs around a working day. But with no work to get in the way I included three double sessions in a row. The plan was to run an easy shake-out run each afternoon after a hard morning session.
I started my second week in Iten with a planned 18 km run at marathon pace. I did not think that I would be able to maintain my Paris Marathon race pace on the hilly terrain of high-altitude Iten so I used a running calculator to convert my planned pace to its equivalent at 2300 metres above sea level. I set out slightly ahead of pace for the early predominantly downhill section of my route, but struggled to hold the pace as I climbed back to my starting point. My final pace ended up 5 seconds per kilometre slower than my altitude-adjusted marathon race pace, and I was struggling to understand how my training was proceeding against my target.
After a couple of easy runs on Tuesday I headed into a nearby forest on Wednesday. Setting out with another runner from the training centre we ran 7 km down the road to the forestry plantation that is a combination of pine and eucalyptus trees. It was pleasant running along trails between the trees, considerably slower than road paces but with considerably more hills.
On Thursday I headed to the old dirt track for a workout, after a session the previous week where I had not made my target times for a single interval. Thankfully this session, involving 2 x 1000 m, 1 x 2000m and 5 x 400 m, was much more successful, finishing each interval at my target pace.
The food at the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) doesn’t feature ugali at every meal, but it is featured at every dinner. The meals are based around a one-week cycle, so starting in your second week you become more and more familiar with the food you will eat on any given day. Below provides an idea of the food provided at each meal.
Bread (prepared and baked in-house) with spread options of butter, jam, and peanut butter
A rotation between french toast, crepes, flapjacks and a Kenyan type of fried bread
Hot water for instant coffee, hot chocoloate or tea
Hot water for instant coffee, hot chocolate or tea
Bread with spread options of butter, jam, and peanut butter
Fried bread (if left over from that day’s breakfast)
Rolls (prepared and baked in-house)
Rice, noodles or pasta
Rotating sauces/stews (predominantly vegetarian)
Salad featuring a varying combination of cabbage, carrot, cucumber, tomato, onion, pineapple, raisins
I arrived in Iten having spent the previous two weeks travelling in Ethiopia, predominantly above an elevation of 2,000 metres. Therefore I was already quite well acclimatised to the 2,400 metre elevation of Iten, and could get straight into some good training.
I arrived on a Monday morning, settled in to my room and drank some chai. I had my first High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) lunch, checked out a map of the local roads, and plotted a 16 km route. Then I set out for my first run at a relaxed and easy pace.
Tuesday morning in Iten is track day, with many of the local runners heading down to the old dirt track to swarm around in large groups at phenomenal speeds. I wasn’t planning on hitting the track for speed work on day 2 in Iten, but I did jog down to check out the action. From there I set out for my own easy run.
A period of pure training is based around just three activities: training, eating and resting. While staying at the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) in Iten all meals are included, and are served at set times, therefore defining the schedule into which all three activities are planned.
The schedule of meals is as follows, and based on those meals I think of each day as containing five possible training sessions:
It is possible to arrange for some breakfast to be kept aside for you if you plan a longer pre-breakfast workout, and morning/afternoon tea can be easily skipped for long sessions. But most of my days have been constructed around placing my training, including workouts, stretching, sauna and massage sessions into five empty slots for each day. Any remaining empty boxes are then consumed with rest, which could entail reading, surfing the internet, the occasional shopping trip, or sleeping. The amazing thing I have found is that the amount of spare time does not seem to be very much.
If you were the reigning Olympic and World Champion over both 5,000 and 10,000 metres, and you were looking to run your first marathon, where would you go to train?
Iten can be considered the home of Kenyan running. At an altitude of around 2,400 metres above sea level, it is the town where a large number of the country’s best runners live and train. It is a place where you can turn up at the old dirt track on a Tuesday morning to watch (and if you happen to be quick enough then you are free to join) a speed session lead by Asbel Kiprop, 2008 Olympic gold medallist in the 1500 metres and World Champion over the same distance in 2011 and 2013. You can then head a few kilometres out of town on Thursday mornings to join the fartlek session lead by Wilson Kipsang (current world record holder for the marathon with a time of 2:03:23). And to answer my opening question, it is also the place where Mo Farah is currently training in the lead up to his first marathon in London in April.