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.


Alison said...

Sounds like you will have an interesting insight into the Kenyan running success story. Looking forward to hearing about how it unfolds.

Scott said...

Really enjoying your blog posts. I got the link off Good luck with it.

Knowlsie said...

Nice work Jase, loving your reports so far mate..esp the comparison with mixing with the likes of Fed if you were a tennis player, you're very lucky as you say I'm slightly jealous is an understatement! Managed 8kms today around Battersea Park this sky for once and great conditions

sandy said...

It's a treat to see your surroundings and to hear about life in the camp.