High altitude and big dreams help to hone world champions
Posted Thursday, February 2 2012 at 00:00
Elgeyo-Marakwet is the Mecca of world long distance runners.
More than 5,000 athletes are on the roads every morning and evening in this county of hills and valleys.
They range from those at the pinnacle of their careers to greenhorns dreaming of hitting the jackpot in the future.
Athletes from all walks of life and all corners of the world come here to discover the secret to success. And many go on to be champions.
The county has produced some of the world’s greatest athletes.
Ahead of this year’s Olympic games in London, scores of athletes from Sweden, Britain, The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and South Africa are already camping in the county.
Indeed, sports tourism is set to be one of the biggest revenue earners for the county.
The county’s combination of high and low altitude gives athletes a unique advantage.
Brother Colm O’ Connell, an athletics coach at St. Patrick’s Iten, a school that has played a key role in nurturing athletes, said high altitude regions had a slight advantage because the air was thinner and the body became more efficient at consuming oxygen.
“Physiologically, people born in high altitude areas take in less oxygen leading to development of more red blood cells, forcing the body to make small adaptations. Red blood cells help to cope with a situation where extra oxygen is required at sea level,” said Bro Colm, who has been training athletes at St Patrick’s since 1976.
The Irish lay missionary went on: “That is why athletes from low altitude areas prefer to live in Iten, but rain in low altitudes. In this case, they obey the athletics science theory ‘live high, train low’. So, my athletes live in Iten, but train down the valley at Tambach Teachers’ College, which is at low altitude.”
Iten lies at 8,000 feet (2,400m) above sea level.
The top stars are train at the world-famed High Altitude Training Centre in Iten owned by Lorna Kiplagat, a daughter of the county who became a Dutch national.
They include British world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe, former world junior 1,500m champion Stephanie Twell, 5,000m runner Mo Farah and world and Olympic champions Mbulaeni Mulaudzi of South Africa and Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu.
World record holders David Rudisha (800m), Saif Saaed Shaheen, formerly Stephen Cherono (3,000m steeplechase), Mary Keitany (21km), Lorna Kiplagat (20km), Moses Mosop (25km and 30km) all train in Iten.
The foreign athletes train just metres away from the homes of marathon greats Florence Kiplagat, the 2011 Berlin winner, London Marathon conqueror Mary Keitany and world marathon champions Ednah Kiplagat and Abel Kirui as well as Frankfurt marathon titleholder Wilson Kipsang.
Sylvia and Hilda Kibet, Lorna Kiplagat and Boaz Lalang come from Top Hill at the far end. On the same gradient is Daegu marathon silver medalist Vincent Kipruto then 2004 Boston Marathon winner Timothy Cherigat at Nyaru Escarpment.
Vivian Cheruiyot and Edina Kiplagat grew up a stone’s throw from the escarpment, which also helped to nurture the careers of three-time world 3,000m steeplechase champions Moses Kiptanui and Ezekiel Kemboi, Sharon Cherop, Wilson Chebet and Wilson Kipsang.