Tuesday is track day in Iten and what this means, Hugo tells me, is expect to find 400 to 500 runners doing intervals at 10:00 a.m. today at the Kameriny stadium. He tells me this on our morning run, but the rains are just holding off right now and if the sky opens, morning sessions will be pushed to the afternoon. The track, like the roads, is red dirt and unrunnable when wet. Rains can strike quickly here, though, and move off with the calm even pace of something that knows it just kicked your ass*. A bit of late morning sun will burn off any moisture, and the dust will start to lift again and runners will converge at the track for reasons social as much as athletic. What we’re doing at 6:30 a.m. is the first run of our Kenyan triple. We’ll go to the track at 10:00 a.m., and in the afternoon around 4:30 p.m. we’ll run for the third time today. Like yesterday, near the end of our run it begins to rain.
Back at the guesthouse we’re watching the rain through the bay window overlooking the Rift Valley. It falls softly at first and then it whips and lets up, and we think maybe this is the end of it. The sky is lightening, I’m sure of it, and we zip our jackets and grab our umbrellas. We’ve decided to walk to the track. We want to take photos and we aren’t really training for anything, so we can push our workout to the early afternoon. It’s 4.5km to the track from home, and somewhere out there is Asbel Kiprop, Martin Lel. David Rudisha. These majestic Kenyans runners all coil and flight, 400 to 500 of them, but I’d be happy if I saw only one if that one is Wilson Kipsang. Even just a glimpse. Like spotting a leopard.
But out on the roads the rain starts up again and our shoes slip in the mud. I seek out the gravelly bits to stop from falling, and we make it to Lorna Kiplagat’s café halfway to the track before stopping. Nobody will be running in this. We sit inside the café drinking sugary tea and staring out the window at the sheets of rain streaking across the parking lot, and then we walk home.
In the afternoon the rain has indeed let up. At 4:00 p.m. Daniel and I decide to run to the track for our workout. On the way we catch up to two Kenyans also heading to the track. “I’m not passing them”, Daniel tells me, and I’m not keen to either but they’re running so slowly I don’t know how we can avoid it. We slow down, maybe we’re running 5:15 km pace, and finally we decide we’re going to stop being so self-conscious and just run. We pull up alongside them and they increase their pace to match ours and then they start chatting with us. The tall one tells me he has run very fast. What does that mean, in Kenya, I wonder, and he tells me 28:00 for 10km. In Nairobi, at altitude. Ok so he’s fast, however (and I hate to admit it but) here amongst guys who can run under 27:00 I’m almost disappointed. The guy I really want to see is marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang.
“Thursday”, he tells me.
“Kipsang won’t be here until Thursday?”
But we’re leaving Wednesday.
We reach Kamariny stadium and if the altitude hasn’t already done so, the view will leave you breathless. We’re again high up on the escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley, on a 7-lane dirt track. The stone steps leading up to crumbling stadium stands are so old they look Roman. There’s suddenly no wind, and runners stretch dynamically and jump and sprint and sometimes just move seraphically around the furrowed inner lane of the most spiritual track I’ve ever visited. There’s a man right there running 400m reps in 59 seconds, up on the shoulder of his training partner when it’s his partner’s turn to lead, and gapping him when he leads. That was another 59, and even from this far away it’s clear certain of the earth’s forces bend pivotally around him, one of those beautiful people you feel if you can get close to you’re getting closer to God, and I walk without meaning to walk until I’m tight up trackside before realizing it’s actually Wilson Kipsang himself. Now I’m stunned and have to sit down, and I'm vaguely aware Daniel is sitting beside me, both of us watching Kipsang and silently agreeing we won’t be running another step ourselves until this is over. But he keeps going. Another 59, and his partner is starting to lag. He’s taking about 75 or 80 seconds recovery here at 7800 feet of elevation, some of it walking and some of it jogging, really just circling around the start/finish until he’s ready to go again, and I’m not seeing any extra effort as though he’s anywhere near finished the workout. Well, we’re not doing anything but strides today anyway, so maybe we can do our strides on the track at the same time as Kipsang. We get our legs moving and do a few laps of sprinting the straights and jogging the corners, and then I see that if I jog extra slowly this corner I’ll be able to stride alongside Kipsang for the last 100m of his interval. And I do. For 100m we run stride-for-stride with three lanes separating us. It’s his last interval and I run one more lap before stopping and walking over to him. I’m going to say ‘Hi’. Actually I don’t know what I’m going to say but I need to meet him, and as I approach Kipsang says “Hey Mzungo!” with a big smile. I shake his hand and tell him how loudly I was shouting at my computer screen on September 29th of last year, cheering him on at 3:00 a.m., when he broke the marathon world record. He laughs and tells me a bit about this heavy training he’s in right now, preparing for the London Marathon in April.
* - DFW Girl With Curios Hair.