To Run Like a Kenyan

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When two South African athletes take on Kenya… Part 1

 

Trying to get back into running after an injury can be a bit of a drag. Especially when you have become fat, unfit and quite selfish with your time. It’s easy to understand the “I don’t have time to run” theory when you have filled up your previous training time with other factors of life such as wining, dining, work and children. So the desire to get fit and back into shape was high but the consistency in my training was not.

 

Whilst I was spending some of that valuable time thinking about how to find time and motivation to start training properly again, the perfect solution found me. I received an unexpected message from a good friend and excellent athlete, Nolene Conrad. Nolene ran the fastest SA female marathon time of 2:35 last year and is somewhat of a role model to me in my quest to become a better athlete.

 

The message read “How would you like to join me for a month of training in Kenya?”. “Yes please” was my immediate response. “When?”. “We leave in nine days” came the reply.

 

Wow! That was all the motivation I needed. The next week was a whirlwind of chaos and before I knew it we were at the airport getting ready to take on a once in a lifetime opportunity and experience. We were on our way to run with the Kenyans.

 

Okay… so running with the Kenyans was delayed for a few reasons. The first was my luggage getting delayed for 2 days after we arrived. You can imagine my frustration. My heart full of motivation and my running shoes and kit lagging behind somewhere between Johannesburg and Iten. Eventually my bag did arrive and in eager anticipation I set off to find the Kenyan runners.

 

Therein comes the second reason I could not run with the Kenyans… My heart full of motivation and… about to explode from my chest after a couple of km’s. Huffing and puffing like a steam train I could barely believe that this body once upon a time used to glide with the wind in my hair and the road under my feet. I felt like a stumbling elephant attempting to gallop. I was tripping all over the uneven gravel roads and I could not breath. The higher altitude and my laziness had left me a wreck. A few Kenyan athletes who ran past me in my state of distress offered me something between sympathetic and amused glances – as if they weren’t sure whether they should be laughing or calling an ambulance. A taxi stopped to offer me a lift. If I hadn’t been so oxygen deprived at that point I might have felt embarrassed. I returned back to my room exhausted, humbled and grateful to be alive. That afternoon I went out for my second run which, although nothing to brag about was considerably better. And so my journey to being able to run with the Kenyans beings 🙂

 

We have been in Kenya for a week and it has been the most incredible cultural experience. My goal is to be able to actually do a couple of runs with the Kenyan groups, that we hear so much about, before I leave. I feel that I am getting fitter and more adapted to the higher altitude (2400m) every day and I am hoping that by week three I will get to that level. In the mean time I intend to enjoy every bit of the experience and I’m excited to share it with anyone curious about the Kenyan way of running and living. Here are a few of the things I have discovered in this first week in the land of champions.

 

Iten – Home of Champions:

 

As you run/ walk/ drive into Iten you are greeted with a huge sign which reads: “Welcome to Iten: Home of Champions”. It’s hard not to feel motivated towards reaching your own personal greatness with a welcome like that.

 

There is one tarred road running through Iten. Off this main road are endless numbers of dirt roads and paths. Taxis (which are motorcycles often carrying 2 passengers) share these roads with a few cars and many pedestrians and runners.

 

Throughout the residential areas and the main centre to the town you will find sheep and cows roaming and school children (some who can’t be older than 5 years) laughing and playing.

Our favourite grocer (right) and hair stylist (left)

 

 

Little shop stalls pop up everywhere so that it’s possible to find anything from bread to fruit and veg within a couple of hundred metres from where we are staying. A short walk down a dirt road, past some grazing cattle and a few hens, and there you will find a grocer, a baker and a beautician all smiling and happy for business. The honesty system is also incredible as people seem to leave their stalls without fear of looting and a common respect for each other and all things around them is evident.

 

The Food:

Ugali with a spinach side dish

I urge anyone who is following a banting or low carb diet to never come to this place (ie. Dear Prof Noakes. You don’t want to ever come to Kenya because you will have no food to eat and will starve).

 

I eat a moderate amount of carbs in my usual diet but I had no idea that it was possible to have four different starches in one meal. Ugali (similar to pap), rice, chapati (similar to the Indian bread roti) and a potato stew all in one meal. And I have yet to see a Kenyan here who is not lean. I know that eating carbs generally makes me pick up weight so it does make me wonder whether it’s genetic or something else (but I will hold onto that thought for a future blog on nutritional insights).

 

The food here seems to be predominantly carbohydrate based which is often accompanied by some sort of a spinach or a bean stew. We have had very little meat since we arrived. A favorite is the Kenyan chai tea which is tea boiled in milk and served with plenty of sugar (go figure).

 

The Lifestyle:

 

Everything here is very simple. We walk everywhere and no one seems stressed or in a hurry. Everyone is laid back and friendly.

 

The kids are amazing and they run alongside you laughing until they run out of steam and then continue cheering you on until you are out of sight. Every child I run past greets me with a “How are you?” to which I have learnt the understood response is “I am fine, how are you? The children who don’t want to run put out their hands to high 5 you as you run past and if you clap their extended hands they jump up and down in excitement laughing with pure joy.

 

Leah cooking chapati

Our room is simple with 2 single beds and a small lounge. The kitchen consists of a gas burner and a few aluminium pots and pans. We are spoilt to have a chef named Leah who cooks for us three times a day. (I personally think it’s because they don’t trust us to operate the gas burner). It does however give us plenty of time to relax and enjoy the full Kenyan experience.

 

The Running:

 

Running is a massive culture here and it seems that no matter what the time of day you will encounter someone running. Some run alone and some in larger groups of 30 or more. Every Tuesday and Thursday there are groups doing fartlek sessions which anyone (who can keep up) is welcome to join.

 

One thing which struck me by surprise was the running attire. Despite it not being particularly cold people generally run in long tights and tracksuit tops. I definitely did not pack enough of the correct gear and therefore in addition to the fact that I don’t have the fast Kenyan running style (yet) I am also not dressed appropriately. This makes me feel like I don’t quite fit in as I plod around in my short tights and tank tops. At least I seem to have the preferred brand of clothing which is saving my reputation somewhat (Thanks adidas for the cool gear).

 

All in all one cannot help wanting to run here. There is something about the long dirt roads beckoning, witnessing the poetry in motion of the true Kenyan champions gliding along and the fact that running is such an accepted way of life. I am loving my journey back to fitness and am looking forward to sharing more of this wonderful experience with you over the next few weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

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