Sunday, January 23, 2011

Show me the money - the pursuit of professionalism in Kenyan athletics

Fancy this as a day job? Running hill repeats at Singore forest, near Iten

Iten is for Kenyan runners what Los Angeles is for aspiring actors and actresses - a chance to make the big time.

If you are good enough to make it as a professional runner, then you stand to be rewarded with the glory, fame and cash that comes with success. But very few will succeed.

There are a select few runners here who have lucrative sponsorship deals and/or make big money from winning races in Europe and the US. These athletes are heroes in Kenya. Their photos and stories dominate the main sports page of the Sunday newspaper.

Many of these successful athletes have bought property and built nice houses in the area. Their lives differ significantly from the average Kenyan. You can tell who they are, because they wear the latest Adidas kit and drive a motor vehicle (while the regular punters ride the matatu). The successful professional runners occupy a high social standing in the community.

Lornah Kipligat is one example of an athlete who has invested her winnings in a business venture (Lornah's high altitude training camp). Another example is the former Dublin Marathon winner, Lezan Kumutai, who has invested in residential property and has also built a school in a small village close to Iten.

But most runners that you meet on the street in Iten have very little money or income, and are just getting by day by day (not that they need much money to support their regimented lifestyles). They live in basic rented shared houses with groups of other runners, all sharing the same goal. These runners are vying to be noticed by someone who might launch their career.

In order to make a living out of running, an athlete needs to either gain a spot on the Kenyan international squad (and hopefully pick up a big sponsor); or find a way to get to races in Europe. Specifically, those races that offer an attractive prize package and ideally an appearance fee.

However, runners face a catch-22 because they need to train full time in order to get good enough. Yet if they train full time, then they have no income to cover their cost of living in the meantime.

This is where talent scouts, agents, and training camps come into the picture. Some athletes are good enough and lucky enough to be scouted as juniors. Those who show the most promise (i.e. by winning national medals), may be noticed by scouts and coaches and offered places in training camps, where they are given food and accommodation. This means that they can focus entirely on training, from the time they finish school.

It's an early start for professional runners in Iten - 6am is rush hour for foot traffic

But very few are so lucky. And those who do find themselves in that privileged position are expected to continue performing in order to justify their place. For every one of these supported runners, there are many who are largely unsupported. Perhaps relying on their families for assistance. Let's call these the 'tier two' runners.

These tier two runners are battling to perform well enough to capture the attention of agents. For example, I have spoken to a 2:15 marathoner living in Iten who is struggling to get by because he can't find an agent who will fund his travel to races (because he's not quick enough to guarantee a good commission for a prospective agent). Like many others, he doesn't have the cash to get there himself. And he needs someone to organise transport and negotiate appearance fee with the race organiser.

By way of another example, I am told that a male 5000m runner won't be noticed unless he runs under 13:15. That gives you an idea of the standard required to make it as a professional.

The cost of failure is massive for these runners. Not only does it mean giving up the dream of fame and fortune, but also swallowing one's pride and returning to your hometown with your tail between your legs and perhaps being branded as a 'failure'. It is quite likely that you'll end up working on the family farm, operating a kiosk, or driving a matatu for a modest living. For an aspiring runner here, these prospects are fairly grim.

Most people here live very simple lives, particularly compared with the lifestyle of a successful professional runner. For example, the appearance fee earned by successful Kenyan runners in some European races would easily exceed the average annual wage in Kenya.

There is clearly an affinity between the people of Kenya and the sport of running. After all, it's not often in Dublin that groups of laughing children will sprint across a field to greet you and then run along beside you for several minutes (let alone the man dressed in a business suit who ran with me for ten minutes after I jogged past him the other night).

However, the reality is that, unlike the millions of amateur adult runners in western countries who run purely for the love of it, many of the runners here are simply trying to achieve a higher standard of living than what is available through other avenues.

Perhaps people read too much into the 'genetic advantage of African runners' theory. It seems to me that the financial motive for Kenyan athletes, combined with the undesirable alternative (a subsistence lifestyle), is part of the driving force behind the success of Kenyan running. With the sheer number of athletes dedicating their lives to running, it's little surprise that countries like Kenya and Ethiopia keep churning out champions.

Just a thought: imagine if your next pay-check (and indeed your livelihood) depended on your race performance. Now that is an incentive to train hard!

Finding my place in the pack

The senior men line up for the Discover Kenya 12k X Country event in Eldoret yesterday - Mzungus stay clear

After 20 minutes of jogging from the house on Thursday morning, the girls and I arrived at a junction between two main trails. As per the usual, I had little idea of what was on the cards for the morning.

The conversation over dinner the night before had gone something like this:

"What are you running tomorrow morning?"

"We run 1 minute fast, 1 minute easy, for 20 times."

"Is it ok if I come with you?"

"We run with a group. Yes. Maybe you can run behind with the ladies if you have energy." (not helping my already diminished confidence level)

But the girls hadn't explained that 'the group' consisted of half of the population of Iten! At best guess, there were two hundred local runners gathered at the corner, rearing to go. And then there was me - questioning whether I should have instead done my own thing on this particular morning.

One guy stood on a fence and unhelpfully (from my perspective) gave instructions to the 'group' in Kiswahili. The smiley curious guy standing beside me quietly greeted me and asked me whether I was feeling strong today. I told him that I was feeling unnerved.

After a countdown from the apparent leader, the group took off. Happily, it was 'easy' first. After 60 seconds, the sound of footsteps got louder, and a gap started building between me and the runners in front of me. I quickly found my place in the pack - near the back, where there was much more space, fewer fellas, and most people around me looked like they had eaten something dodgy for breakfast. It wasn't so bad.

I took it steady, pacing myself carefully because the mid-morning sun was beating down and I had a long way to go. The good thing was, that there were a few people behind me.

Madness ensues after the starting gun, as 400 of Kenya's top senior men descend on the bottleneck at eye watering pace

After twenty minutes, I had that comforting thought of knowing that I was closer to the end than I was to the beginning. I had run 5.2km on undulating trail. Half of it hard, half easy.

At this point I started picking people off! It was just like the second half of Berlin Marathon, except this time I was only passing women, and it wasn't lashing with rain. I kept pushing until eventually I could see my housemates about a hundred metres ahead. Then all of a sudden after 37 minutes, everyone within sight of me stopped and started walking home.

In fact, we walked four kilometres back to camp. They seem to like walking home here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

You're out of your league, son

After holding my own on the hills (with the junior girls), I was eager to try out a session on the track. Ahh... the track - well known destroyer of self-confidence for long distance runners. No better place to bring yourself back down to earth after experiencing the satisfaction of a good session.

There is one red dusty track in Iten, which is shared by hundreds of aspiring Kenyan runners. We arrived at 9:30am, on the second run of the day. The track was rammed with athletes. Most of them were running in packs at a pace probably equivalent to my sprint speed. I immediately felt out of place, which was a perfectly reasonable assessment of the situation. But that wasn't going to stop me from giving it a crack.

At initial count from the side-line, there were forty nine ripped athletes already circling the inside lane of the track. Finding a gap in the fast-moving foot traffic was going to be a challenge.

There seemed to be an anarchic system in place for sharing the track. Rather than allocating a lane to each group, everyone was using the inside lane, which was the width of two normal lanes. The idea is that when you're not actually running, you stand on the outer track. When you are starting an interval, you get a running start from the outside lanes and then hit the inside lane at pace in a gap between runners. It is like the runners version of the 'Arc de Triumph' roundabout. It works very well.

The plan was to run a pyramid session - starting with a 1200m interval, descending to 200m, then back up the ladder again (interim distances were not specified).

Photo courtesy of (Markus Roessel)

I managed to hold on to tail end of the group for the descending intervals. But by the time we'd run 1200m, 800m, 600m, 400m, and 200m, I was gasping for air.

I would be the first to admit that I'm seriously lacking speed, and this is something that I'm hoping to address in 2011. But it quickly became clear to me that, seven days into my altitude acclimatisation, I had not yet produced the extra red blood cells that I need to run a decent speed session at this altitude.

The problem is that it takes so long to catch your breath back between intervals. I have since read that runners embarking on altitude training often extend the rest period significantly for the first few weeks, so that they can hit the desired pace for the session.

I was well off my usual modest pace for this type of session, and I was hurting more than usual. I finished the session (because I'm very stubborn) but I was losing about 15 metres per lap on the group by the final 1200m interval.

It was inspirational to watch the athletes display their raw strength and speed on the track. Yet at the same time I felt incredibly discouraged. All of the hard work and time invested over the last couple of years, and I get hammered for my trouble. It's something of a motivation/de-motivation paradox.

The comforting thing though, is when you see first hand how hard these athletes work to reach this level of performance. It makes you realise how much potential we all have, if we push ourselves beyond what we thought was possible.

I think the important thing for motivation, is to keep your own goals in perspective. It's easy to compare yourself to those people around you. But in this environment, it's not particularly helpful to do so.

It must have been the Ugali

After a few days at altitude, I decided that it was time to test myself with a tough session. On Sunday night, my housemates mentioned that they would run hill repeats the following morning at 9:30am. That meant up at 6am for a 13k 'easy' jog, then we'd get two hours for a short rest and breakfast. Then we'd run 5k to the forest for a 40 minute hill repeats session. (photo courtesy of

I wasn't sure how big or steep the hill was, but either way I knew that it was going to be difficult keeping up with the girls. After all, the each weigh about 40kg (6 stone), and run up hills for a living. Power to weight ratio was not on my side. Given that mountain running is supposedly my forte, I was a little bit nervous about experiencing destruction of the ego.

When we arrived at the forest, there were four guys already running repeats on the hill. The first thought that crossed my mind was bad memories of climbing 'the ride' in Crone Wood, Co. Wicklow, three times during the 2009 World Mountain running team trial. The gradient was similar, if not slightly steeper. The lads running repeats were flying up the hill, as though it wasn't a hill at all. I immediately felt deflated, and wished that we were running down-hill repeats. That way I might have had a chance.

We got started, and I surprised myself by managing to hang on to the group. We were joined by their coach (a 63 minute half marathoner), and a couple of other lads who came out of nowhere (this tends to happen a lot here).

The climb was 150 metres long (thanks Garmin) on a steep narrow dirt trail worn into the grass. The repeat was directly up and back. Pushing hard on the climb and then floating down very slowly. The climb told about 1 minute, as did the descent. The firs half of each ascent felt fine, then each time I passed the tree stump at half way my lungs would start burning and my legs would follow suit. Every time I reached the top I felt wrecked, and thought I would have to stop. But then I recovered well by the time we got back to the bottom, and was ready for another.

We ran repeats for 40 minutes, and happily I was able to stick with my training buddies. This may sound a bit sad (because the pace was set by 18 year old girls), but I was pretty satisfied with myself and considered it quite an achievement!:-)

Once the session was over, we started jogging the trails back tithe village. It was mostly uphill, but that was ok because I had my confidence intact. After about 5 minutes of jogging the coach gave a soft whistle out of the blue, and the group took off at an explosive pace. I was mortified, because I had invested all of my energy in the session, which I thought had finished! All of a sudden it was game on.

I accelerated after the group with as much strength as I could muster up. Fortunately we went over a verge and began descending. Now i was in my element! Though it was only a brief respite, before we were heading up hill again. After 2 minutes the coach gave another whistle and the pace subsided. The group all turned around to see if I was still with them - I was. The coach had a wry smile on his face, which I interpreted as 'that's round one, let's see how many rounds it takes to drop the Mzungu'.

This continued for another 3k. By the end of the final push, I was fading big time. I knew I was a goner, and I started falling back. But before anyone noticed, the coach called the session over. Everyone started walking the remaining 2k back to base (it turns out they often walk back from sessions here - apparently it's part of the session).

What a relief.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Life in the fast lane

As I mentioned before, I'm staying in a house that is beside Saint Patrick's High School. Aside from the world class junior runners that I'm living with, there are plenty of athletes at the top level of the sport living and training in the neighbourhood. Many of the athletes based in and around the high school use its grounds to stretch, warm down, and run intervals. So are in the luxurious position of being able to see some of Kenya's top international middle-distance runners going about their day.

Picture: Geoffrey Mutai (second left) biding his time before hammering the field in Saturday's National Cross Country series Race in Iten. Mutai was second in Rotterdam Marathon and in Berlin marathon in 2010. The pace was INSANE!

The camp attached to the high school is just one of a number of high-performance running camps in Iten. While this camp is geared towards middle-distance running, others are marathon focused. There are also a lot of individual athletes living and training here outside of a camp environment. There are plenty of people around town who are happy to chat about training.

One question that has been on my mind for some time is 'how do these top athletes in Kenya live?'. Because perhaps if we understand that, then we are a step closer to understanding how the East Africans have been so dominant on the global running scene over the last few decades.

I don't pretend to know much about it after being up here for less than a week, but you can't help but notice what's going on around you, because the runners are everywhere from the moment you leave your front gate! Keep in mind that my observations here are anecdotal and preliminary, as I haven't been here for long.

The first, and perhaps most import observation I made is that the approach applied by athletes here is not rocket science. To the contrary, it is quite simple. You won't see fancy compression socks and expensive GPS watches. The successful runners here simply train smart and hard. The cinder track says it all really...

Professional athletes obviously don't have to work other jobs, so they can be much more flexible about training throughout the day and week. The athletes flex their training according to how they feel on the day, and will skip (or pull out of) a session if they are struggling. For the same reason, athletes have plenty of time to stretch and look after their bodies.

Picture: My speedy house-mates, Janet and Nancy, battle it out in the junior women's race. Placing 2nd and 7th respectively.

It seems like there is by no means a 'one size fits all' approach to training. Programs are perhaps less rigid than we are used to, and are tailored for each athlete. For example, a program will depend on the goals of the athlete, how the athlete is feeling on a given day, and what works for the individual. But there is a general daily structure that seems to be common for many runners. The day seems to be based around either two or three runs..

The day starts early. At 6am runners emerge from their homes en mass and take to the trails for the first run of the day, which seems to normally be an easy jog. From my limited observations, the pace starts off very slow, and speeds up gradually throughout. It can be fairly strenuous in the last couple of miles. Then a long stretching session after the run, then breakfast and rest time.

The second run, if there is one, is normally mid/late morning. This is the hard session of the day, meaning hill repeats/intervals/tempo etc. But athletes might skip the late morning session and instead run the session early in the morning or in the afternoon either.

Then the streets are filled with runners again at about 4:30pm when the sun is low in the sky and the temperature is dropping to an agreeable level. It seems like the evening run is normally easy pace.

The time in between runs is spent mainly resting, sleeping, and eating. Kenyans are generally pretty laid back, so sitting around like this is quite conducive with their culture anyway. You won't see many runners out and about during the hot period of the day between 11am and 4pm. Best to stay indoors and off your feet, as it is energy sapping to be moving and out in the sun.

Meals a very simple and unprocessed. Very little meat or saturated fat. For breakfast we've been eating plain white bread (no spread) and maybe fruit, with tea. For lunch, ugali or rice with lettuce or spinach, and tea. Then the same thing for dinner. I've been buying pineapple and mangoes for the house as a treat, but otherwise I doubt it would feature on the menu. You would think that the lack of variety of food would leave people deficient in certain vitamins and nutrients, but it doesn't seem to affect their running performance.

I haven't seen treats like chocolate or ice cream in the village. When these treats are not waved in front of you all day, it's amazing how little you miss them (or even think about them). The food that people normally eat here is healthy because of it's simplicity, though probably not providing all your essential vitamins and nutrients. But it is not particularly tasty, so people are not tempted to eat too much. I've been eating just enough at each meal that I'm not hungry any more, and not more.

By 8pm the village is quiet (except for the sound of barking dogs all around), and so it's off to bed early (before 10pm).

The key tenet of the approach seems to be a structured repetitive lifestyle. When you live in a running centric world like Iten, it seems to be easier to block out distractions and temptations that 'hinder' the rest of us in happening places like Dublin. Aside from the obvious work duties that get in the way of our training, I'm mostly talking about good distractions like meeting friends for coffee or a pint, going to movies or out for dinner, weekend excursions. Missing out on these things is a sacrifice that I think is made by many athletes here, though I don't think they have any desire for these types of things anyway.

There is no reason to break from this structured day, and certainly no reason to leave the house after your evening session (believe me, I experimented with this the other night). There is no reason to drink alcohol in this town. The 'pubs' are not an attractive option, so you're better off just going to bed after dinner in anticipation of another early morning.

I'm also posting on an Irish web-site forum called if anyone is interested:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Adjusting to altitude training in Iten

There are several running camps in Iten that house elite Kenyan athletes. I am fortunate enough to be staying in a running camp that is affiliated with Saint Patrick's High School (through a friend). But most international visitors that visit Iten stay in either the Kerio View Hotel or Lornah Kiplagat's High Altitude training camp, which are fairly flash places. Both of these hotels are full with athletes, including the British Olympic running team, and a team of elite runners from Sweden. These places cost between $30 and $60 a night, which is ridiculously expensive given that lunch costs about $1 in a local restaurant. But the hostels seem very nice and have good facilities.

By contrast, Markus and I are sharing a basic house with three seventeen year old girls located right next to the school (we have our own sleeping quarters). I feel privileged and lucky to be staying here. Our house-mates, whom are called Nancy, Antonia, and Janet, are world class junior runners. Nancy and Janet have both represented Kenya on the track, and Antonia is hot-on-their-heels for one of those elusive places on the Kenyan international teams. Two of the girls are from a remote mountainous area called Mount Elgon. Both of them had probably never seen a Mzungo (white person) before they were recruited by the training camp and moved to across the country for training. So they're naturally shy around me at this stage. These young and talented girls are in line to be in the next generation of Kenyan Olympic champions, and it is humbling to be their company.

I suppose that the experience of living in one of the international 'training camps' on the other side of the village would be quite different from our living situation here. Here we spend time and live with the Kenyan athletes (I haven't seen any Muzungos on this side of the village), while in those places you're more likely to hang out and train with other international runners. But either way I think being here means you can access a large group of potential training partners.

Iten is perched on the edge of a plateau that looms over the deep Rift Valley, at an altitude of 2600m. This means that there is less oxygen in the air, and the body takes some time to adjust to this. Iten's location, with impressive views over the Kerio National Park from far above, also means that the local residents bear witness to an impressive sunrise while they're out jogging every morning.

Running at this altitude is quite difficult at first, because your lungs are working much harder to sustain any given pace. Your muscles are drawing as much oxygen from your engine, but your engine is receiving less oxygen from each breath. For this reason, I was told when I arrived yesterday morning that I should not run at all on my first day in Iten. And then I should only run slowly for the first week.

I'm told that I probably won't be able to run any intensive speed work in the first while. But I'm hoping to start pushing the pace a bit after a few days, to test the water. Some people are affected more than others by the altitude, so it's hard to say this early on how quickly I'll acclimatise. I guess the local residents have seen plenty of over-eager Mzungos blowing themselves out up here before. The hard part is that I'm extremely anxious to get stuck in, and I feel normal just walking around.

After showing much restraint by resting up yesterday, this morning at 5:50am I bounced out of bed in anticipation of a 6am run. It was still mostly dark. Markus and I joined the girls for a 10k circuit in the area around the village.

The thin air is especially noticeable on the undulating trails around Iten, because you can feel every little climb. The Eldoret Road is the only tarmac road that passes by the village. Most runners use the extensive network of red dusty trails that span the area. The fire trails twist through forests and between small farms. I was completely lost within minutes, which meant it was very important to keep up with the girls! (more details about the runs to come)

Kerio District is full of world class runners, and all of them are sharing the same trails, tracks and hills for their training (up to three times a day). For a visiting runner, the experience of going out for a morning-run and stretching in the company of these athletes is a huge buzz: imagine an All Black fan throwing a ball around with Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, or a tennis player having a hit around with Roger Federer. So far so good.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Rasta time in Zanzibar

On New Year's eve Tom and I arrived into Nungwi village in Zanzibar. Zanzibar is a tropical island off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. It is a long thin island approximately 100 kilometres in length (2 hours drive on bumpy roads). The island has some of the best beaches I have ever seen. Zanzibar plenty of tourists over the new year period, and parts of the coast are littered with fancy hotels that are mostly visited by wealthy Italians (I'm not sure why). But thankfully there is a village called Nungwi, in the north of Zanzibar, which is a more relaxed spot suited to backpackers.

We rocked up to Nungwi with our backpacks to find a group of local guys with long dreadlocks sitting in the shade listening to reggae music, accompanied by a contingent of Scandinavian females. There was a beach bar with a massive rasta flag behind it, and an amplifier plus mixer with two speakers the size of a fridge. I liked the look of it.

The scene was reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe (or 'The Beach', for the younger audience). There were local guys digging holes and others were nailing thatch panels to the tree-house like structures. It appeared to be some sort of commune. At first it seemed a bit sketchy. There were no rooms, just open bungalows accessible by step-ladders where a few mattresses were haphazardly spread out across the floorboards. There seemed to be no security, but none of the existing guests seemed bothered by this so we decided to go for it (we had no choice anyway).

It turned out to be an excellent decision, because the people were either chilled out rastafarians, or people who like hanging out with rastafarians (relaxed interesting people). It was a buzz sleeping in the open air, with the sound of the ocean offering a peaceful ambience. We made some good friends during our stay, and had a great time swimming, reading, drinking cheap beer, and sitting around chatting with the locals and the other guests.

A short walk away from the beach and you are in the middle of a small local village, where you could explore the windy dirt streets and check out what the locals are getting up to. Everybody is friendly and smiley, and says 'Jambo' when you walk past. It costs US$1.50 in the village to buy lunch, or $2 if you want a coke with it.

The local people seem to like lounging around during the day because it's very hot and ridiculously humid. I suspect that they only work for for as long as they need each day to pay for the essentials (food, power, cell phone), and they are probably less focused than westerners are on accumulating wealth (that is purely an anecdotal observation). They seem to make money by: fishing and selling fish in auctions, working in a hotel, operating a small fruit/bread/miscellaneous items store, digging holes for pipes, building, snorkeling tours, importing marijuana and sunglasses from the mainland (Tanzania) and selling to tourists on the beach.

Nungwi is now one of my favourite beach holiday destinations. The beach is gorgeous, and if you find the right place to stay, and go exploring, you can really immerse yourself in the culture of the place. A highlight was watching the local Muslim kids running around on the beach in the evenings. Groups of boys playing football, and girls running around in beautiful colourful full-body garments. Perhaps the low-point was when I exhausted myself by trying to run in 35 degree heat on New Years eve. I had to stop when I was 11km into a run, with 5km to go, because I was about to collapse in a heap! Though this ended well, because a local offered me a seat on the rear tray of his bicycle for a lift back to the village.

Anyway, that's enough indulgence for a while. It's time to hit the hills of the Rift Valley, so I'm heading back to Kenya. In the meantime, Tom is off to battle some wild animals and maybe Mount Kenya too.

Welcome to Africa: Nairobi

After dropping my backpack off at my guest house, I stepped out into the hot and crowded streets of Nairobi with some trepidation. I tried my best to look like I knew where I was going and what I was doing. I was thankful that I hadn't shaved for a couple of weeks, because at least I looked a little bit travel hardened. But the stubble couldn't hide my pasty white skin, which hadn't seen any sun since I visited Croatia in July. So there was little chance of slipping beneath the radar.

The route to the town centre was mostly a dirty shanty-town type environment, stimulating to all of the senses. It is an exciting place to walk around. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of attention that I received from the locals, aside from a few friendly comments along the lines of 'Mzungo' (white man) and 'Jambo' (hello).

Anyone who thinks the Irish roads are bad should check out the footpaths in Nairobi. A patchwork of dirt and concrete slabs, the potholes are more like ditches, often filled with water. Rubbish everywhere. Walking through the city streets requires some nimble footwork.

I was leaping/jogging down the path over a particularly rough section next to massive market place that looked like a slum, when a young and colourfully dressed girl decided that she'd join in the fun and began skipping along beside me. She was delightfully laughing and playfully holding onto my t-shirt with one hand, and at the same time had her other hand out asking me for money.

I found a small store that I decided might be a pharmacy, and asked whether they could sell me some malaria tablets. The women said yes, then she said: You have already been bitten by mosquitoes on your face. I said: No, that's just my normal face.

Later that day, I was joined by Tom and we had a beer at a rooftop bar looking out over the city, before heading into the city to find a cool night spot. The first bar we walked into in central Nairobi was brilliant. It was an outdoor bar with a vibrant atmosphere and a decent local crowd. A band was setting up. Reggae type music seemed to be on the cards, and the band was fronted by a group of talented singers and dancers. Interestingly, the men in the bar were most taken by the large female dancer with her belly unflatteringly hanging out over her skirt. Before we'd taken our first sip of Tusker beer, we were propositioned by a couple of over-affectionate local girls, whom according to their responses were 'good' but also 'lonely'. We sent them off on their way.

Tusker, the local beer of choice in Nairobi

People were very friendly (especially the females), but unfortunately it's sometimes difficult to decide who is genuine and who isn't. Later on, I met a Kenyan diamond and gold trader called 'Geoff' who it turned out was looking for a Mzungo contact in Europe. I saw 'Blood Diamond' last week, so thought it best to kindly decline his request to swap business cards.

Everyone we met told us that we shouldn't walk in the streets of Nairobi after dark. I asked the taxi driver on the way home what he would do if his car broke down late at night in the city. He said he would stay in his car and quickly find another taxi to pick him up. It's a sad day when a city is so fraught with danger that even the locals can't walk the streets at night.

I wanted to take lots of photos of the city streets to give a sense of the madness but I was worried that I would either get mugged, or at the least I would look like an idiot flashing an iphone around.

It's great to be back on the road.

Training camp in the Rift Valley, Kenya

In the summer of 2010 I was browsing through a copy of the Irish Times when I saw an article about an Irish Brother (of the Catholic church) who lives in a small town called Iten in the mountainous Rift Valley of Kenya. The article explained that Brother Colm O'Connell had moved to Iten in the early 1980s to fill the role of principle at a Catholic high school called Saint Patrick's. During Brother Colm's time at the school he developed an enthusiasm for the sport of running, and began coaching students. Brother Colm has been very successful in this role, and in recent years the school has developed a reputation for producing some of Kenya's top athletes.

St Patrick's college is a central institution in the small village, and is a production-line of running talent that feeds into into the local supply of aspiring elite runners. The success of St Patrick's High School as a production-line of high-achieving runners has lifted the profile of Iten within the running community of Kenya (and globally). Iten has become something of a Mecca for Kenyan runners wishing to enter the professional running arena, and also for curious runners from all over the world who are looking to learn from the best in the business. The village is now home to a number of training camps, where runners congregate to train and live together.

The article sparked my curiosity in the place, and I im

mediately began investigating the idea and planning a trip. The plan I came up with was to head away just after Christmas and spend four weeks training in Iten. I'm also treating myself to a few days on the beach in Zanzibar (a tropical island off the coast of Tanzania) to celebrate the New Year, and I'll probably climb Mount Kenya on my way back to Nairobi in late January.

After discussing the idea with a few friends, I was put in contact with a couple of lads who had been to Iten before. Dan (from Melbourne) and Markus (from Germany) were both helpful, offering some tips and contacts in Iten. After passionately recounting stories of previous trips to Kenya, Markus decided to join me for a couple of weeks in Iten. Markus arranged accommodation for the pair of us at a local training camp (affiliated with Saint Patrick's High School) through a friend.

So training camp in Iten is ON! Starting on 4 January. But first Tom and I are off to Zanzibar to welcome the 2011 in style.