Day One: A story in five parts
ITEN, Kenya — The day that changed Emily Rotich’s life dawned like any other. By the time the sun’s rays touched the green and gold hills along Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, the women who live there were already hard at work.
These highlands, homeland of the Kalenjin tribe, are so close to the equator that the sun rises promptly at 6 each morning. Kalenjin women are equally dependable, rising before dawn each day to fetch water, gather firewood and brew tea before their husbands and fathers wake up. After breakfast, they labor past dusk, tending crops, caring for children and cooking meals for extended families that can number into the dozens.
Such is the rhythm of life in rural Kenya, where most families live in round, straw-topped clay huts without electricity or running water, much like their ancestors. This is a place where change comes slowly, almost imperceptibly, and progress is measured in increments like this: One Saturday 18 months ago, Emily’s parents excused her from her daily chores.
Instead, she journeyed to a town called Iten to run in a 10-kilometer race in which the winners would be invited to train, for free, at a one-of-a-kind camp founded by one of the world’s top women runners, a Kalenjin named Lornah Kiplagat. It was the best chance Emily was ever going to get to follow a new Kalenjin tradition — to become an elite long-distance runner on the lucrative international circuit.
Just having a day off was a rare treat for Emily, a tall 22-year-old with big brown eyes and a shy smile. The closest thing in her experience are Sundays, when she gets up and runs for at least 90 minutes — and then makes breakfast, attends a three-hour church service and returns home to prepare dinner. “You see,” she said, smiling, “I do not have to do anything after 3 o’clock.”
Hard work is certainly no stranger to young Kenyan women like Emily who aspire to become world-class athletes. And one by one, they are beginning to lug home more than water and firewood. They are lugging home trophies and prize money and new opportunities for their families and their nation.
Kenya’s long-distance dynasty
Over the past 35 years, Kenyans, especially the Kalenjin, have established themselves as the world’s premier distance runners.
Kenya ranks near the bottom worldwide in nearly every social and economic category — in life expectancy, per capita income, child mortality, you name it. But in footraces longer than 800 meters, on the track or on the road, Kenya is indisputably No. 1.
Since 1968, Kenya has won every Olympic steeplechase it has entered (it boycotted the 1976 and 1980 Games) and has collected 33 Olympic medals at distances between 800 and 10,000 meters, far more than any other country. In the 1996 Boston Marathon, the most lucrative marathon in history, Kenyans finished Nos. 1 and 2 — and took 12 of the top 18 places.
Until recently, however, Kenya’s long-distance running dynasty was only half a dynasty, reserved for men. The achievements of Kenyan women were barely worth listing: no Olympic medals, no world cross-country titles, no major marathon victories.
No wonder, given the prevailing attitudes toward women.
According to tradition in one Kenyan tribe, if you killed a man, you owed his family 100 sheep or goats. If you killed a woman, 30 would do.
The custom has disappeared; the mind-set has not.
“In some areas,” said Dr. Emily Obwaka, a public health worker in Nairobi, “if a man walks into the home and there are only women and children, he will say, ‘Is there no one here?'”
Attitudes are gradually changing as the number of women doctors, lawyers, teachers and elected officials grows. But in a nation that especially reveres long-distance runners, the rise of Kenya’s women into the global running elite has enormous potential to open doors for women and improve economic conditions for everyone.
“We can run, and we can change the world,” said Esther Kiplagat, who finished fifth in last year’s New York City Marathon. “The day you return home, and your neighbors see what you have accomplished, you become a model. And then in 10 years to come, Kenyan women will not be under men.”
Kip Keino, national hero
The Kenyan running mystique can be traced to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Three Kenyans won gold medals — Naftali Temu in the 10,000 meters, Amos Biwott in the steeplechase and, in the 1,500 meters, Kipchoge Keino, the most famous and beloved.
Keino arrived at the Games with stomach pains that were later diagnosed as a severe gall bladder infection. He still managed to lead the 10,000 meters until two laps remained, at which point he collapsed. Keino was helped to his feet, which disqualified him from the race, but he finished it anyway. Two days later, he placed second at 5,000 meters.
By the day of the 1,500 meters, doctors had told Keino he was too ill to compete. So he remained in the athletes village until deciding that he owed it to his country — which had been independent for fewer than five years — to at least participate. He left the village in a taxi, and when it got stuck in one of Mexico City’s notorious traffic jams a mile from Olympic stadium, he got out and jogged the rest of the way.
The warm-up served Keino well. He won the race by 20 meters, still the largest margin of victory in an Olympic 1,500, and he defeated world-record holder Jim Ryun, who hadn’t lost at that distance in more than three years.
This courageous performance established Keino as one of the great Olympic champions. More important, it made him a national hero, a unifying force in an infant nation struggling to assemble more than 70 ethnic groups and 42 languages into a coherent whole.
Thus began one of the world’s great athletic dynasties.
Kenyans, particularly members of Keino’s tribe, a subgroup of the Kalenjin called the Nandi, began to treat running as a livelihood and a means to glory, not merely a way to get from place to place.
One of Kenya’s early track coaches, Hussein Ali, likened Keino to a drop of ink on the tip of a pen perched above a piece of blotting paper.
“The drop must fall somewhere,” he said. “After that, what happens to the ink? It spreads. So that drop is important. That drop is like Kip Keino. Then the Nandi had a hero — you do what the hero does.”
Built for speed
The rise of the Kalenjin runners has fascinated exercise physiologists and sport sociologists around the world.
That a country the size of Texas with only 29 million people has produced so many champion runners is amazing. Even more astonishing is that 75 percent of Kenya’s top runners are Kalenjin, who make up only 10 percent of Kenya’s population.
The Kalenjin tribe is Kenya’s fifth largest ethnic group. The name, which means “I tell you,” is a catch-all term for eight subgroups, all of which settled in the highlands overlooking the Great Rift Valley in the 1800s.
Before the 1968 Olympics,the Kalenjin were known mainly for their resistance to British rule. The Kalenjin were not “subdued,” as they put it, until 1906.
Nowadays, when it comes to running far and fast, the Kalenjin have subdued everybody else.
John Manners, who has been researching and writing about the Kalenjin for decades, has determined that from 1987 to 1997 Kalenjin runners won 40 percent of the biggest international honors in men’s distance running. In an essay titled, “Kenya’s Running Tribe,” Manners wrote, “I contend that this record marks the greatest geographic concentration of achievement in the annals of sport.”
Dozens of researchers are trying to figure out why.
There’s no shortage of theories, ranging from hero worship of Keino, to the drive to escape poverty, to a pet idea of Manners: that the male circumcision ritual, in which boys are shamed if they react to pain, uniquely prepares Kalenjin men for the pressure of an Olympic final.
There are physiological theories, too.
The Kalenjin have lived for generations at high altitude, between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, and their hearts and lungs have adapted to low-oxygen air, making their cardiovascular systems exceptionally strong. They eat a diet rich in protein and starch, providing the carbohydrates and energy needed to endure for long distances. They also tend to have a slight body build, ideal for distance running. Combined with their strong hearts and lungs, the result is, as American runner Keith Brantly once said, like having “a V8 engine in a Volkswagen.”
Most researchers agree that the remarkable success of Kalenjin runners comes from a combination of factors, some of them genetic. Assuming a genetic factor, however, it stands to reason that Kalenjin women should have been succeeding like the Kalenjin men.
But they haven’t — until recently.
Lornah sets up camp
Emily Rotich knows all about Kip Keino and the legacy of Kalenjin champion runners. But even as she was running competitively in secondary school, she never considered trying to join them on the international circuit.
Since graduation, she’s had the same goal as most Kenyan sons and daughters: “I want to assist my family.”
For boys, that often means continuing to run, with the support of parents and spouses. Athletic success has so permeated Kalenjin culture that boys assume they can best help their families by running fast enough to attract the attention of an agent, who will send them abroad to enter races with prize money.
Girls are less likely to consider this path, although they do have more opportunities than they did three decades ago when Kip Keino opened the way for Kenyan men. Girls today have a better chance of finishing secondary school, avoiding the often-debilitating female circumcision ritual and being valued for more than the dowry they might fetch their families at marriage.
Still, when Emily completed the Kenyan equivalent of 12th grade, she decided the best way to help her family was to return to the shamba, the family farm. For nearly three years, she worked 12-hour days in the fields, planting and weeding and harvesting. Then a neighbor stopped by to talk about his new job.
He had joined a construction crew and was helping to build Lornah Kiplagat’s running camp. He said Lornah wanted to use the money she won on the international racing circuit to help develop the next generation of female runners. She planned not only to train girls to run, but also to teach them skills — such as how to account for their money and operate computers — that would serve them well even if they never became star athletes.
The very next morning, Emily got up even earlier than usual. She began running before her workday began, wearing canvas shoes with rubber soles, the strongest ones she owned. For the five months leading up to the 10K race in Iten, she trained every single morning.
A rough ride to Iten
When Emily’s big chance came on that August Saturday 18 months ago, she had to hustle just to get to the race.
Her family’s shamba is prosperous by Kenyan standards, encompassing 30 acres. The family grows corn, wheat and vegetables, and raises goats, sheep and 17 cows.
It is also remote. The nearest village, Burnt Forest, is an hour away by foot.
The Rotich family doesn’t own a car or truck, so when they go to Burnt Forest, they walk. Walking isn’t exercise or recreation in rural Kenya — it is transportation. It’s not unusual for 60-year-old women to walk 45 minutes to the nearest tarmac road, where they can hail public transportation.
It never occurred to Emily that a one-hour hike through the Kenyan highlands, more than a mile above sea level, might sap some of the strength she needed to compete that day. If Kip Keino’s determined performance at the 1968 Olympics showed nothing else, it showed that Kenyans aren’t ones for making excuses.
Emily’s trek to Burnt Forest ended only the first leg of her journey. The rest of the way she traveled in matatus — minibuses or covered pickup trucks that serve as public transportation.
To maximize profits, matatu drivers cram as many people as possible into their vehicles; 30 in an 18-seat minibus is typical, and when there’s not an inch of space left in the back of a pickup, people stand on the back bumper and hang onto the door. This would be dangerous even if there were speed limits on Kenya’s rough roads. There aren’t.
Lonely Planet’s East Africa travel guide jokingly calls the matatu “Kenya’s contribution to world culture,” but it cautions, “Matatu travel is not a bed of roses. In fact … the beds most often associated with matatus are the ones in hospitals.”
Having no choice, Emily wedged herself in for the 45-minute matatu trip from Burnt Forest to the city of Eldoret. There she caught a second matatu for the 30-minute ride to Iten, a village nestled at the edge of the Elgeyo Escarpment. It overlooks the western side of the Great Rift Valley at an altitude of 8,000 feet.
Iten is best known s the home of St. Patrick’s, a boys’ boarding school run by Catholic missionaries that is a distance-running powerhouse. So many Olympians have attended school there that the tradition of each gold medalist returning to plant a tree has been discontinued for lack of space. Recent winners have settled for shrubs or flowers.
These days, Iten is gaining attention as the home of Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Trainings Center, the first Kenyan running camp built by a woman.
Running the red dirt roads
Emily arrived intact and finished third in that 10K race on that Saturday in August. Lornah invited her to join the camp.
She has spent the past 18 months there, lowering her 10K time to 34 minutes, befriending the Kenyans and Europeans who train at the camp, and adjusting to her first pair of real running shoes.
She still wakes up before sunrise. Not to fetch or cook, but to begin training on the red dirt roads that wind up and down the green hills surrounding Iten. Some mornings, she and the other young women from Lornah’s camp pass 60 or 70 other runners. Most are Kalenjin. Most are men.
Emily also passes girls on their way to primary school. Sometimes they run behind her. Sometimes they cheer her on. Sometimes they simply stare.
In rural Kenya, it is still unusual to see a woman on foot without a load.