Take a tour around the small Kenyan town of Iten and the scene is something of a who’s who of the athletics world.
Olympic gold medalists, world record holders as well as the stars of tomorrow are all being drawn to the modest red-dirt Rift Valley destination, fast emerging as the go-to training destination for the world’s elite runners.
At its centre is the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC), set up nearly 15 years ago by runner and entrepreneur Lornah Kiplagat and a facility she hopes will one day prove to be as big a cash draw as Kenya’s safaris and beaches.
“This is a way of marketing Kenya,” Kiplagat told AFP. “For me I look at the big picture. We have taken the challenge to lead the way, and when Kenyans realise that this is a way of selling Kenya, it will be great.”
Nestled in the hills overlooking a deep ravine at an altitude of 2,400 metres above sea level, criss-crossed by traffic-free dirt tracks and blessed with year-round sunshine, Iten is considered the perfect environment for distance training success.
In addition, the Kalenjin are genetically gifted for endurance sport and have produced hundreds of champions.
Here, Olympic glory is widely seen as a viable way to riches and fame, providing for the emergence of a unrivalled depth of talent and running culture that visitors can tap into for their training.
Hundreds of non-Kenyan runners are now being drawn to the town of just 4,000 people, among them the likes of Britain’s Olympic and world champion Mo Farah and women’s marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe, both of whom have fled the cold European winter for pre-season training.
“When we started out there was only one training camp for athletes here in Iten,” recalled Richard Mukche, a former marathoner and now a coach at the HATC’s gym.
“It is amazing that today there are over 20,000 athletes training here.”
Kiplagat started out trying to nurture the running talents of young Kenyan girls, but quickly realised that Iten could be advertised as an ideal training destination that was cheaper than established centres like Flagstaff and Denver in the United States or Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees.
A Kenyan-born former world half marathon champion, Kiplagat took Dutch nationality and runs for the Netherlands. She ploughed her race winnings into buying land and building the HATC with her Dutch husband Pieter Longerhorst.
“The camp was only meant to be for girls but the dream changed along the way. Top athletes wanted to stay with us and we couldn’t refuse,” said Kiplagat, 39.
The training centre now has 36 rooms, a gym and a swimming pool. A room costs around 50 dollars a night – hugely attractive for athletes in a sport not known for its huge paycheques.
“It has taken us 18 years and that we are getting the recognition now is great because of the international athletes who are staying with us,” Kiplagat said.
“There is no place in the world where everything is available – good running trails, friendly environment, right altitude and where everything is set up for a professional runner.”
Iten is now drawing in foreign investment, with organisers of the London marathon helping build a new synthetic track which opened last weekend and is the only such track in Kenya outside the capital Nairobi.
British athletes are now regular visitors to Iten, with the town currently playing host to the team set to take part in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July.
The town, dubbed the “Home of Champions”, is also hosting Chinese athletes preparing for the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.
The influx is bringing welcome changes to the region and is serving as a model of sustainable, private sector development.
“This is all about changing the environment and changing what we have never had before. The future generation can benefit from it,” she said. “We never anticipated to do this but it gets bigger and bigger as we go.”