Iten - Part I

It’s a 90 minute drive from Mosoriot to Iten. We pass roadside banana sellers, three or four stalls in a row, donkey-drawn carts, stray dogs lying in the red dirt, their bodies heaving under the hot sun. We get pulled over by the police who inspect our van and shine flashlights into our eyes. There are 42 different dialects in Kenya and most tribes understand only their own. Every town has a hotel and butchery and they’re always paired. The butchery and hotel come together. The joke is if you don’t pay your hotel bill… We pass Joy Pub, Hope Pub, pubs promising panacea in these small villages. Here’s Rally’s Hair Saloon, which I think was a mistake. Daniel, shorn, squints to be certain.

When we reach Iten the first thing we see is an arch welcoming us to Iten, “Home of Champions”. This is where we will meet Hugo, the Dutchman who will host us for the next three nights. We pull over and get out of the van. John our 50 year-old driver cues “Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers on his phone and puts it on speaker for us. It’s a surreal moment, standing under this arch I’ve read about and has grown in my mind into fable, listening to what was my favourite song when I was a kid. The Gambler record is still at my mum’s place in Ontario, alongside Toto, Duran Duran.

On one side of the road is the London Marathon store. On the other side, Lorna Kiplagat’s high-altitude training camp. Runners pass on both sides, running in both directions, most of them jogging at speeds I could carry but some of them flying past gazelle-like, wiry and lithe and meant for this. Iten has an estimated 1500-2000 full-time professional runners, out of a population of 4000. Nearly half the town. And here they don’t run for health or exercise or pleasure, though they may still enjoy it. They run to earn a living. They run for a way out.

Here under the Iten arch, with Kenny Rogers’ dulcet voice traveling easily through this thin air, Daniel and I are starting to relax. Just being here. We’re letting go of the Mosoriot rain and thunder and mosquitos, and the stray dogs that were agitated and snarled into the night so that we weren’t sure if we should have been more afraid of the dogs or what they were snarling at.

Hugo arrives and carries our luggage to the trunk of his car. He is 37 years old, a 2h12’ marathoner, slight and direct and thoughtful. His wife is Hilda Kibet, herself a 2h24’ marathon and between them a case for the world’s fastest couple. It's a five minute drive to his house, perched on the escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley, high up at 2400m of elevation. An electric fence runs the perimeter. We’ll be staying in his guesthouse, a two-story, two-bathroom, three-bedroom place he recently finished building. He points down and to the right to Paul Tergat’s house, former marathon world record holder. “And there’s the tenth hill,” he shows us, the hill responsible for Iten’s name. Hill ten.

Daniel and I are excited to run. Once we’ve had a tour of the grounds we dress and head out. I don’t usually run the day after a half marathon race but we don’t want to lose a day here, and the soft ground has preserved us. Ten minutes into our run a Kenyan joins us. He lopes behind silently like he’s running between heartbeats, and a couple of times we look behind to confirm he’s still there. We’ve been told there’s a track ahead but we aren’t sure where. I turn and ask him, and he runs ahead of us and increases the pace. Daniel tells me to go with him. Ten minutes later we reach Lorna Kiplagat’s stadium, the rubberized oval we can use if we buy a membership at $1000 for the year. This is where I’ll turn around. I want to keep going but we’re running with the wind and I know eventually yesterday’s half marathon race will catch up. The Kenyan asks me if I have Facebook. I shake my head. He finds a stick and scratches Eluid Kiptoo into the red dirt, shakes my hand, and starts running again, away along the path beside the road that keeps going 35 km to Eldoret and doesn’t stop there.

St. Paddy’s day arrives without the usual ballyhoo. In the morning I wake to a dark world turning orange, a patriotic band of light spreading straight across the horizon where the Rift Valley arches and meets the sky. We’ve planned our first Kenyan double today, and at 6:30 a.m. we start jogging up the road heading to Lillie’s, the meeting point for most of the local runners. No wind this morning but the air feels heavy. We move our bodies slowly through 45 minutes and see only a few other runners. Near the end of our run it starts to rain. It’s a warm rain so we don’t mind, but it soaks us quickly and the roads become slippery. Back at our place we lean our shoes against the house hoping the sun will appear and dry them. We each brought one pair, and the plan is to give them to a local runner when we leave.

Hugo brings us a thermos of chai shortly after we’re back. The milk is from his cow, milked fresh this morning. He brings us his computer so that we can check email and send a Polo home to those who have been calling Marco for a few days. After a quick shower Daniel and I head to town to find a Guinness. When we first woke this is what I asked him if we could do after our run, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. First though, we stop at a general store to see if they carry SIM cards to fit our phones. They don't, but the owner of the shop takes a bigger one and traces onto it the outline of our card. He cuts the outline, then files it down until it's the exact size we need. We try it but it still doesn't work, and then we feel like fools when we remember our phones are locked. We give him the value of the card, $1.80, and he tells us he'll be able to use the filed card for an unlocked phone.

Guinness time. It’s still before noon and we’re the only patrons in Jumbo pub. We're on the second floor of a three-story building, sitting inside the balcony’s French doors while the wind billows white curtains contrasted with the red dirt roads below, and the place is silent except for someone in the hall mopping up after the night before. There’s a rhythmic swish of the broom and every now and then a motorcycle zips past on the road below, kicking up a bit of dust. The Guinnesses are 500ml and extra strong at 6.5%, and at this altitude one is all we need. They cost us $2.25 each and when I pay the female bartender asks “You’re leaving so soon?” and seems disappointed.

DSC_0028 Love this boy's toy. DSC_0054 View from our Guesthouse balcony. The Stop Cam shirt is a nod to Vancouver Islander Cam Levins, 10 000m Olympian. DSC_0059 Sheep coming down our road.DSC_9633DSC_9673Daniel having a Guinness on St. Paddy's Day at Jumbo Pub. DSC_9685 DSC_9793Hugo's guesthouse, and our home in Iten. DSC_9795 Sunrise from my bedroom.DSC_9814 Daniel looking confident driving on the British side of the road. DSC_9599 DSC_9603Daytime from Hugo's guesthouse balcony. DSC_9607 One of many Hotel and Butcheries.DSC_9624 DSC_9626 DSC_9629