The plan was to live and train with the Kenyans for a few weeks and get some proper insight into why they’re so bloody good. I wasn’t born in the mountains. I didn’t run to school. Perhaps my best years are gone, but if any place on Earth could restore a little faith and fire in the legs it had to be here.
It was December 2011, seven months before the London Olympics, Kenya by then being increasingly dominant in global distance running. Only neighbours Ethiopia could compete – or some unlikely exceptions such as the Somali-born Mo Farah, who still frequently escapes Britain to live and train in the same environs.
Especially around Iten, the remote and poor farming town that lies perched at 7,875ft on the western escarpment of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and what feels – and breathes – like the edge of the world. It is a sort of running paradise, a wild hive of running activity from the moment the sunrise first clears the thin air and splits the landscape into a kaleidoscope of bottle-green fields and dark tangerine clay tracks.
On arrival the first thing you notice, after the sound of your own breathlessness, are two large red rectangular arches, on the only road in and out, the Kenyan flag painted down each side and six words written across the top in white capital letters: WELCOME TO ITEN – HOME OF CHAMPIONS.
This is no exaggeration. No town on Earth – or indeed country, for that matter – has produced more distance running champions than Iten. No one even keeps score anymore, such is the number of Olympic and world champions and medal winners who were born, raised or else moved here to train. When big city marathon winners are included the list runs to several hundred.
It’s not always sunny in Iten, and my first few days were misty and wet and unseasonably cool. At the Kamarin Stadium track – more shack actually than stadium – a small group of runners were taking shelter, and among them was Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic 1,500m champion, who’d won a second successive world title in Daegu a few months before. Kiprop, like some Kenyans, seemingly didn’t like to train in the rain, but hey, he’s the Olympic champion.
On a sunnier day outside the gate to the Kerio View hotel there was Wilson Kipsang, who’d pulled up in a new Toyota pick-up truck recently purchased with his winnings from the 2011 Frankfurt marathon, where he ran 2:03:42, four seconds short of the world record. Two years later, in Berlin, Kipsang broke that record, running 2:03:23, beating Eliud Kipchoge into second place.
Three weeks living and training in Iten unquestionably raises fitness levels and often the spirit too, which is why runners from all over the world still come here for their share of the sacred air. Only now, I think if I passed under that sign again I’d see and feel something sickeningly different: Welcome to Iten – home of champions and of cheats.
Last year, Kiprop was exposed as exactly that, banned for four years after testing positive for the blood-boosting drug EPO and for paying the anti-doping officer $30 in the process. Last year alone, 15 top Kenyan distance runners were banned for doping offences, adding to the 138 Kenyan positive tests between 2004 and 2018. The number of Kenyans currently banned for four years, or longer, hovers close to 50.
Among them is their 2016 Rio Olympic athletics team manager Michael Rotich, banned for 10 years for providing advance notice to athletes of doping tests. Rio women’s marathon gold medallist Jemima Sumgong was banned for eight years last January after testing positive for EPO and fabricating her medical records (blaming her positive on an ectopic pregnancy which never happened), her second doping ban in five years after she also tested positive in 2012.
Sumgong’s case followed that of Rita Jeptoo, who spent much of her career living and training in Iten and was the top women’s marathon runner in the world when she also tested positive for EPO in 2014; same with another Rio Olympic champion in the steeplechase, Ruth Jebet, who lives and trains in Kenya even though running for Bahrain.
Also busted last December was Sarah Chepchirchir, winner of the 2017 Tokyo Marathon, along with Angela Munguti, the African Youth Games 800m silver medallist, who has tested positive for steroids at age 17. Seriously.
Other Kenyans found cheating in the last year were Abraham Kiptum, who in 2018 broke the world half-marathon record, caught on the eve of the London Marathon last April, all primed to race; Sammy Kitwara, the 2010 World Half Marathon champion; Kipyegon Bett, the 800m bronze medallist from the 2017 World Championships in London, along with Cyrus Rutto, Mercy Kibarus, James Kibet.
Last weekend, it seemed that same Kipsang of Iten fame was another one too many, handed a provisional suspension by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of World Athletics for both missing and tampering with a doping test – the proper positive in that being the AIU, the new anti-doping police brought in by World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, appear to be doing their job.
Only Kipsang was promptly followed on Thursday by Rio Olympic 800m finalist and 2013 World Under-20 champion Alfred Kipketer, and later in the day a “well-known” Kenyan runner reportedly jumped out the window and over a fence at a training camp in Kapsabet, south of Iten, once alerted to the arrival of the AIU.
Maybe this isn’t enough for Coe and World Athletics to impose a blanket ban on Kenya, temporarily at least, and maybe their priority for now is deciding whether or not to ban some bouncy running shoes. It may not be state-sponsored doping like in Russia either, but no one is being fooled anymore about how so many of those running around Iten are so bloody good.