Secrets Of The Savannah: What It’s Like To Run With The Best

A three-time Comrades finisher makes a pilgrimage to the home of the world’s fastest athletes to conquer his own demons...


Cuan Walker, Images by Zane Robertson |

Iten – a tiny farming village, 32km from Eldoret – is regarded on the elite circuit as the ‘Home of Champions’. In fact, those exact words are displayed on a structure that spans the road on the outskirts of the village – you’ll see it as you drive in.

Most Kenyan world-record-holders and championship medallists are either based in Iten, or have trained there. The same goes for the likes of Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, and many other top international athletes, who have all attended training camps in Iten.

My third trip there was different to the others: I was battling to recover from a stress fracture in my hip, but I also wanted to train for a Comrades finish. Even so, just knowing I was sharing the same routes with some of the best runners in the world gave me a motivational boost like none I’d ever felt before. I began to understand why the world’s greatest runners come here in their droves.

Environment

Sitting at just over 2 400m above sea level, Iten’s soft, red-clay dirt roads (and agreeable climate) make it an ideal training ground for runners who want to boost their performance – especially the Europeans, who make the village their base each and every year.

There’s a running culture in this town that is not seen anywhere else in the world. It’s not unusual to be having your lunch with an Olympic champion at the table next to you, or to bump into one while walking on the main road.

Patrick Sang, Eliud Kipchoge's Coach. Image by Zane Robertson
Patrick Sang, Eliud Kipchoge’s Coach. Image by Zane Robertson

The village is also the home of St Patrick’s High School, which is undoubtedly the world’s fastest running school. Big names such as Augustine Choge, Wilson Kipketer, and – more recently – world 800m record-holder and double-Olympic champion David Rudisha have passed through its doors.

Training

I will never forget a funny moment I shared with Abel Kirui, twice world champion in the marathon distance and winner of the 2016 Chicago Marathon. Kirui has been a close friend of mine since 2012, and when he heard I would be running the Comrades, he was astounded.

Image by Zane Robertson
Image by Zane Robertson

“Eighty-nine kilometres – in one go?” he questioned me. “My friend, you are superhuman!”

(A world champion calling me superhuman? I know of nearly 20 000 others who fall into that category every year, as they tackle the arduous road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.)

As it was my lead-up to the Comrades, I followed a highly structured training programme. It started with an easy run on Monday morning, followed by another easy run in the afternoon.

But Tuesday is a special day in this town. Want to see the world’s best in action? Head down to the famous Kamirany track – a 400m oval office that has produced countless world records, Olympic medals and world champions. From 8am to 11am, the track is filled with hundreds of athletes, all honing their skills in different groups.

Patrick Sang
Patrick Sang

On Wednesdays, I would do a midweek long run. Then, on Thursdays, I would meet up with hundreds of other athletes to do the same fartlek session. The few men who manage to keep up with the front of the pack by the end of this session are guaranteed to be world-class performers, in shape to run anything special, anywhere in the world.

Fridays were reserved for easy runs. My weekly long run took place on a Saturday, usually on a tough course at high altitude. Though it’s just a training run, it would put you in good stead to win any marathon in South Africa. And Sunday, for Kenyan athletes, is a day of rest and worship.

Support

One thing that stands out in Iten, and which makes the Kenyans such great supporters, is their humbleness and willingness to assist. Everyone helps each other there, offering a place to stay, some food, or (most importantly) running shoes – which are, after all, the tools of our trade. In South Africa, we call this ‘ubuntu’ – although, truth be told, the Kenyans can really show us the true meaning of the word.

Image by Zane Robertson
Image by Zane Robertson

My adventures in Iten have taught me to remain humble, just like the locals who live there. It doesn’t matter if you run a marathon in 2:03 or barely make the cut-off, as long as you remain humble, believe in yourself, and stay committed to the plan. Keep this in mind, and you will succeed.

You don’t have to be an elite athlete to appreciate Iten, but words and pictures don’t do this small, magical town justice. It’s something that needs to be experienced first-hand, by all fans of the sport. Trust me, Iten will leave you inspired – not only to take your running to greater heights, but also to lead a better life.

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