Training In Iten: The Home of Champions

With the Gobi Desert race behind us, Paul and I travelled from Hami, China to Iten, Kenya for some serious altitude training and inspiration in anticipation for the biggest athletic challenge of our lives: Breaking the World Record for “The Most Desert Races Ran In One Year”. For those of you not familiar with Iten, it is a place in Kenya that produces countless number of world class elite athletes, World Champions, and Olympic Champions for distance running. This region in Kenya is where legends are born and bred. No other place on earth have that kind of prestige associated with distance running where anyone can drop in and workout (if you can keep up!) with World Champions and World Record Holders …. for free. If you want to improve your running technique and fitness, then this is where you want to be. The caliber of runners here is so high that even elite runners from foreign countries have a very difficult time completing the Kenyan daily workouts.

Don’t get me wrong, Paul and I are no elite runners or someone with any special talent, but that does not mean that we can’t learn from the best, and be surrounded by greatness. In order to be successful, you must surround yourself with people who want to be successful themselves. During our time in Iten, we have never met a Kenyan athlete who doesn’t believe that they have the potential for greatness. I cannot say that for anywhere else. The power of believe is very real and I’m a believer of that mindset. It is incredibly contagious to see so many great runners in absolute poverty running for their lives with the hope that one day, he/she will bring home the prize! That singular focus in their quest for greatness is simply mind boggling to us westerners. It is not inconceivable to see a 50+year old runner here still training hard looking for his next “breakthrough”.

The journey from Hami to Iten was an arduous one. After 36hrs of flying, waiting in airports, going through customs, and riding in taxis, we got to Iten. We chose to stay in the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) because it was the most accessible location where we can meet like minded people who are also there to train. Moreover, we got to meet Olympians from Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Poland, Turkey and Japan doing their final preparations for 2016 Rio Olympics. How cool is that? Incredibly inspiring to meet so many highly motivated athletes.

Our first week in HATC consists of a lot of rest and relaxation, eating, and doing some strength training in the gym. Basically, anything other than running. After the 3rd leg of our journey in the Gobi Desert, we were mentally exhausted from all our travels. Flying over 50,000km (30,000 miles) over 4 continents, racing in 3 Desert Races in less than three months can do that to you. Even though we were physically able to do some training, it was wise to take a break from it all to recharge our batteries and avoid mental fatigue. On our 2nd week, we started doing some light training which consists of some easy runs along the countryside and participated in the Iten Half Marathon, where we got a chance to see up close and personal superhumans running at supersonic speeds. The winner of the race finished in 1:04 (3:03/k or sub 5mins/mile) up 300m incline to 8000ft. Paul and I did a more pedestrian pace (pretty much came in dead last) at a comfortable 1:48 to avoid wrecking our lungs. Having trained at sea level in all my running career, training at altitude is quite humbling especially in Iten. You simply cannot find a flat piece of land for longer than a few hundred meters. Our training centre resides at the highest point of the whole region at 2400m (8000ft). The running paths in the area comprises of endless rolling hills on rocky terrain made of clay. All this add up to faster running on the way out and a brutally hard run on the way back! You cannot imagine how hard it was to run up these endless hills, especially when we haven’t adjusted to the altitude.

 

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On our first run, Paul had a massive headache and I was breathless running up every single hill. It was as if someone took all the oxygen out in the air and no matter how hard your breathe, you can’t get enough of it! To make matters worse, navigating through the countryside requires some serious 6th sense. Everywhere you go looks very much the same. As such, it was very difficult to use landmarks as a way to orientate yourself. Due to the hilly terrain and high treeline, you can’t see too far ahead either so your visibility is limited. But if you have the time and patience and are willing to do some exploring, you will be rewarded with some beautiful views of the Rift Valley in Kenya.

Paul and I participated in weekly core sessions led by the trainers in HATC. The caliber of these athletes is something to behold. One is a current 1:44 800m runner, and the other a former 61mins Half Marathoner. Those guys got core strength that you wouldn’t believe and I have the video to proof it! 🙂 It was amazing to see how dedicated these athletes are and how simplistic their training methods are to produce such amazing results.

There are a few things that we learned from our time here in Iten.

1. Keeping things simple

The entire time we stayed in Iten, we rarely see an Kenyan Runner lift weights or do any kind of cross training. We met with the Turkish Olympic Team’s Chiropractor, and he also mentioned the same thing (He has other insights but I’ll save that for future blogs). They focus mainly on what they do best, which is doing a lot of running. The Kenyans do a lot of core strengthening exercises using primarily their body weight. I participated in most of the core sessions offered at the HATC, so I’ll certainly be bringing back what I learned there to all my athletes.

2. Physiological differences

The one obvious physical difference between western athletes and the Kenyans are their thin legs. There has been a lot of discussion surrounding their ‘genetic advantage’. To me however, I’m much more fascinated by the strength of their ankles and their torso to leg length ratio. These combination of traits are highly unusual.

Most Kenyans are too poor to have shoes, so naturally, most children there walk around barefoot. Whenever I see the Kenyans run, they just seem to explode off the ground with every step and their ankles are highly flexible. Something you just don’t see in many Western athletes. They just seem to leap off the ground like gazelles with ease. Over the course of my running career, I have been refining my running technique and although I’m somewhat able to duplicate their running efficiency, I can never duplicate their explosive power.

Take David Rudisha (current 800 WR holder, 2x Olympic Champion) and Asbel Kiprop (2nd fastest 1500m runner of all time) as examples. When you watch them on TV, they look like someone who’s much taller. But when you meet them in person (I had the pleasure of meeting them and seeing them in action), you’ll realize that they aren’t of that height, except that the length of their legs are of someone who should be 3-5inches taller! Even the greatest runner of all time, Halle Gebrselassie, possess legs of someone who’s much taller than his short stature. This trait seems to be fairly prevalent in this part of Kenya. A lot of their fastest runners have long legs and short torso for their respective height. This is just an observation of course and not a scientific study.

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After 6 weeks of staying in Iten, my performances at sea level are still vastly superior to my performances at altitude. Base on this observation, I believe that I have a relatively low VO2Max (limited oxygen receptors), but well above average running economy. Without sufficient oxygen in the air, I simply cannot fuel my muscles! It was a bit frustrating not being able to run anywhere close to my ability, but I believe I will get more benefit from altitude training than someone with high VO2Max (they already got all the oxygen they need!). People with high VO2Max often have no trouble going between sea level and high altitude. There have been reported cases of people born in extremely high altitudes (the Andes in South America) experiencing headaches when they are at sea level simply because there’s too much oxygen in the air! I say that’s a good problem to have! ;). To sum it all up, VO2Max is not an absolute indicator of running performances. You can run really fast without it, but you will not be a World Class elite runner without both. The best Kenyans here possess both of these traits.

3. Singular focus and ability to block out distractions

All the Kenyan runners I met in Iten have one job. Run/Eat/Sleep/Repeat. You hear that slogan all the time in Social Media, but believe me … these guys back it up with action. I haven’t met a single person back home who after a really hard workout, can just lay on the ground under a tree for hours at a time staring at nothing waiting for their afternoon run to commence. Most of us will be too busy posting photos or workout splits on Instagram, be on some form of Social Media, or taking care of their personal businesses outside the act of running. Basically, anything other than blanking out. Runners here have only one job. Run really fast. It’s very common to see runners do 20 x 1km w/1min rest @3:00/k descending to 2:45/k on a clay track. Another workout they like to do is Diagonals. 100m fast, 100m easy in a “Figure 8” fashion inside a running track or in a soccer field. It doesn’t sound that hard, except these guys do them for 45min-60mins straight non-stop! This is fairly common place. Whatever epic workouts you may have conjured up, the Kenyans probably have done them before, and have taken them to the extreme.

Life in Iten is very simple. Sun rises a 6:30am and goes dark by 6:30pm … every single day of the year. There is virtually no street lights after dark and very limited forms of night life. Most local don’t even have working electricity and running water in their homes. How can anyone not improve their performances if all one ever do is Run/Sleep/Eat/Repeat … 2-3x a day, every single day, for years at a time? There really is no secret to success. Just pure hard work, except some people take the meaning of hard work to the next level.

What’s Next?

With our time in Iten finally over, Paul and I have travelled to La Paz, Bolivia in final preparation for the toughest challenge of our life. Running 4 Desert Races in 6 weeks to break the World Record … and beyond. Here are details of the 4 races:

  1.  Sep. 19th: World famous high lands in Salar De Uyuni (Salt Falts), Bolivia. At over 4000m (13000+ ft) elevation, even a causal jog feels laboured, never mind carrying 18lbs of gear on your back!
  2. Oct. 2nd: The Atacama Desert in Chile, held just 9 days after the completion of the first race. Another high altitude race held at 3200m (11000 ft).
  3. Oct .23rd: Big Bend Desert in Texas, USA 2 weeks after Atacama.
  4. Nov. 4th: The craziest challenge of all, the 7th and World Record breaking race at the Omanian Desert in Oman just 5 days after Race #6 in Big Bend to break the World Record.

It will be the most monumental challenge ever undertaken in the sport of Desert Racing.

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