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Faith in hills

With a training regimen and a marathon dominance that is unequaled, Kenyan runners are country stars

By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 4/13/2001

APTAGAT, Kenya - As dawn pushes darkness out of the Rift Valley skies, every rooster in the area is battling for the right to announce that morning has come. Scores of them strut on farmlands and bellow as if silence were going out of style. In many other parts of the world, their crowing would usher in the start of a new day. By Kenya's standards, they're late. Very late.

Drive here around 5:30 a.m., while it's still dark out, and your headlights will illuminate runner after runner, many traveling along roads far away from any residence - an indication that they've been out there for a while.

Kenyans run. They run along dirt roads that weave through forests too thick for much light to pass through during midday, much less predawn. They run along craggy, hilly paths impassable for most cars. They run on the dry grass that lines busy thoroughfares, along city streets that runners must share with pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and farmers moving livestock - all without the benefit of traffic lights or stop signs.

That is the first step in any attempt to join the ranks of the world's best long-distance runners, winners of the last 10 Boston Marathons.

To run like a Kenyan, you must depend upon the soles of your shoes the way Americans depend on their tires. Develop a stride and motion that is conducive to all that training - a light, rhythmic bounce on the balls of your feet, so your steps kick up only a hint of dust in the driest of earth.

Then you must move to a hilly, high-altitude region, where the air is thinnest. Kenyans swear by the high-altitude lifestyle, and they say American runners would be just as prominent as they are if they try it.

Keep in mind, however, they've been out there for a while.

When two-time Boston winner Moses Tanui was growing up in the Nandi District, a high-altitude area where most of Kenya's top distance runners were born, he used to run 5 kilometers to and from the grocery store to get the ingredients when his mother baked cakes.

Two-time Boston champ Ibrahim Hussein was in charge of ringing the bell that signaled the start of a school day in the area, so he had to run 7 kilometers to school each morning to make certain he was there first.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Kipchoge Keino used to run 10 kilometers to school, then home for lunch, then back to school, and then, at the end of the day, back home. And there were two hours of mandatory physical activity at school.

At the time, none of the men had any idea that the high-altitude training would eventually make them among the best in the world, physically and mentally, for distance running.

''What really keeps me going after all these years is here,'' said Tanui, pointing to his temples. He is among several who have set up training camps in the Rift Valley region to attempt to harness what they believe are the keys to Kenya's success: high altitude, a runner's psyche, and a fierce dedication to training.

Tanui is among the few in the area who begins the day in an automobile. He arrives at his Fila-sponsored camp - 40 minutes from his Eldoret home - just as the cocks' crowing has dissipated, and apologizes for being late. He will employ his Boston training regimen today, and on this morning, Tanui is in for what he calls an ''easy run.''

One hour. Sixteen kilometers. Eight thousand feet above sea level.

Tanui sets out with 13 members of his camp up a narrow, thinly paved road. One of the workers at his camp, David Letting, follows closely behind in Tanui's truck, with a stopwatch in hand.

The runners move at a steady pace, and around the 5-kilometer mark they pass a group of children walking to school. Letting pulls over and most of the youngsters hitch a ride on the back of the truck. But one boy chooses to run with the group.

The boy moves stride for stride with Tanui and company for about 4 kilometers. Upon reaching school, he waves to the runners, breaks away, and waits for his friends to arrive by truck.

Letting glances at the boy and smiles.

''Many runners got started that way,'' he said.

Keino: Game has changed

Kipchoge Keino is arguably Kenya's most renowned Olympic gold medalist, in part because he won the 1,500 meters in 1968 (Mexico City) despite gallstones and competing against his doctor's advice. Having collapsed in the 10,000 meters the day before, he jogged from his hotel room just minutes before the 1,500 began.

Keino, chairman of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya, runs two high-altitude training facilities in his 500-acre Eldoret ranch - the Kip Keino training center and the International Amateur Athletic Federation's high-altitude Regional Development Center.

It is the third such IAAF center in Africa. The other two are in Senegal (for jumping events) and Mauritius (for multiple events).

The centers are just one of the areas in which track and field in Kenya has changed since Keino's day.

He said the talent pool has existed for years, but changes in the country's laws governing athletes who compete overseas has helped result in an explosion of Kenyan runners.

Athletes used to be allowed 15 days to be out of the country for competition, then had to apply for an extension for additional meets, with the maximum being 42 days for the entire year. The rules were changed in the mid-1970s.

''In those days we had less success in marathon,'' said Keino. ''People feared running marathon. It was taxing. But today ... the price award is part of the incentive. Years ago, the price award for someone who wins a local marathon, they would be given one cow.

''If you give someone a cow today for that mileage, you can't have him running the next week. In the nationals they gave you a trophy, and what is a trophy?''

Today, runners see Tanui's elaborate, mansion-style home and cars, and the posh homes of former marathon winners nearby. They see firsthand how Kenyans with similar backgrounds have used running to improve their quality of life; that bolsters their dedication to the sport.

''Now, it's a business,'' said Keino. ''If you win you get a [financial] award and then you'll recover in a short period to win something else.''

Training, said Keino, is different as well. Regimens weren't as detailed and technical. He said athletes of his day put in a quarter of what the country's athletes do today, and that has helped aid the Kenyan runner's psyche.

''An athlete has to prepare and most of that preparation is mental,'' he said. ''Competition is easier than training.''

An altitude attitude

One thing that has been constant, however, are those who preach the benefits of altitude training - people like IAAF development center director John Velzian, a 40-year coach who has seen training techniques he taught in the 1960s used successfully today.

''Ultimately,'' said Velzian, ''the great middle- and long- distance runners are going to be guys who have a massive pair of lungs, a very high proportion of slow-twitch fibers and a well-established fuel system for eating the right sort of foods over the right period of time in which to prepare their source of energy.

''[Nandi District runners are] born, bred, live, and train at altitude. That gives them an enormous advantage in terms of their lung capacity - the ability to suck in and utilize their oxygen intake. That's what the altitude factor is all about - it's about developing lung capacity and oxygen intake. So when you get back to sea level, there is a residual effect.''

Surprisingly, though, Velzian said that the effects of altitude can be seen from 800 meters on up, but from the 10,000-meter mark, the effects aren't as great.

''Which is why you see so many different body types doing the marathon,'' he said. ''And that's what makes it such an exciting race. Everyone can have a go at it sooner or later.''

For Kenyan marathoners, the altitude factor lays the groundwork for what many here say is the most important aspect to their success: an exceptional runner's psyche.

Having run or walked great distances all their lives, training that way is routine. A hard work ethic is also ingrained in a country where most people farm to provide for their families.

Said Velzian: ''Having all the advantages in terms of the right body shape, having the right proportions and quality of slow-twitch fibers, it's of no avail whatsoever unless you can put in the tremendous volume of hard work that every single Kenyan thrives on. I have to stress that.

Ian Keino, Kip's son and manager for the Keino camps, said their athletes' regimens vary. Generally speaking, runners train six days a week and begin on weekday mornings at 6, with a minimum one-hour run. Some days are easy runs (jogging) and others are hard (fast paced).

They also undergo daily flexibility training and track workouts and on most days have a late-afternoon distance run. On Saturdays, runners do speedwork, which consists of running two kilometers 10 times. Sundays are for rest.

The regimen at Tanui's Fila camp consists of a 38-kilometer run every other day. On alternate days, they run 16 kilometers. Tanui has selected 20 roads on which to run; several were chosen because of hills similar to that of the Boston course.

''When I start my training, it's every morning and every evening,'' said Tanui. ''I usually train seven days a week until Boston. The 38 kilometers is very hard training. Then we have speedwork.

''Then hill work, and you have to push yourself up the hill, and the hill we usually run on is 21 miles uphill.''

Said Paul Ereng, former 800-meter Olympic gold medalist and IAAF coach, ''You look at Moses's group, and you say most people who run a marathon need six months' rest before they run another one. They do 38 kilometers, just a few miles short of a marathon, every week.

''And out there the competition is very tight, because you can't have an all-Kenyan marathon. So maybe there are 25 guys out there running these 38 kilometers every week, and six of them will be selected for a marathon.''

That is why Velzian said it is not the regimen that sets Kenyans apart. ''If you asked the top marathoners to put down a program most of them would be alike,'' he said.

''There are no secret formulas in training that are not known to everyone. The incredible discipline for Kenyan athletes is to get out of bed, and day after day run close to their aerobic threshold. They have total dedication and discipline to their training regimen.''

It's not American way

Many Kenyans scoff at talk that they are a superior race of marathoners, rather than a nation of athletes whose work ethic and background make them ideal for the sport.

Said Ereng: ''The US has 260 million people. If I want to find 200 guys with the Kenyan physiological appearance, you want to tell me I can't find those 200 guys?

''What I don't want people to believe is there are some special guys in Kenya, and everyone has to be like that. That's not true. I believe what is going on in the US now is that people are scared of Kenyan runners now, so they feel, `Oh, you can never beat them.' So you don't make the personal commitment to make it a challenge.''

Keino, too, believes Americans could duplicate the Kenyans' success if they emplore a similar lifestyle. Then he smiles and raises an eyebrow when told most American children don't walk 10 blocks to school, much less 10 kilometers at high altitude.

Kenyans believe Americans should at least train in high regions. ''You cannot convince me of otherwise,'' said Hussein. ''You can see the results. The Moroccans train in high altitude. The Ethiopians train in high altitude. As long as the Western world doesn't believe in it, it's good for us. We'll just keep pulling away.''

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