January 17, 2015

Writing from Iten: Where red soil fuels dreams

The Journey

If you were to ask me about traveling to train in Kenya a few years ago or even as early as last summer, I would have said “little chance”. Kenya felt so far away, the logistics daunting, and besides…only world-class runners train there.

In September, I started to dream a little bit bigger and tackle something daunting – Kenya fit the bill. I knew I wanted to travel in early 2015, continue to focus on my running, and pursue my passion for writing (while I am here, I will be working on a number of amazing projects with ivivva).
To figure it out, I did what everyone does, paid a visit to Google. I watched a few YouTube videos and documentaries, read a number of articles, and asked two stellar Canadian athletes (Reid Coolsaet and Lanni Marchant) for advice on how the heck to make it happen. They are veterans to training in Kenya after a handful of trips each (both are also here right now training) and their tips were integral in figuring out my way to Iten.

“When you get there, you’ll know why you’re there.” –Conor Oberst

The Travel

The journey to travel to Iten is long, it can take between 36 to 48+ hours from North America. My route started in Toronto on a Tuesday afternoon with a long layover in Istanbul then on to Nairobi where I had another wacky layover before catching a domestic flight to Eldoret. Once there, I caught a taxi shuttle the last 30km to Iten, arriving at the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) on Thursday evening.

Interesting observations from my trip over include experiencing what it feels like to be an independent female traveler – no friends, family or tour operators picking me up or helping me with logistics upon arrival. While I have done a fair amount of traveling around the world, this journey marked my first official solo trip like this. Time goes by in a very quiet way, you have to constantly assess your surroundings, and there is no one to consult with, leave your bag with while you go to the bathroom, or share the experience with. Kicking off the trip with a flight to Turkey and a long layover there, I quickly felt the cultural differences of being a female solo traveler.

When I landed in Nairobi at 3 a.m., two Canadian government officials on the plane were shocked to learn that I was traveling alone. And like everyone else while I was preparing for this trip, they added a quick “be safe”. Duly noted. My first experiences in Nairobi weren’t perfect but I made it. They included crossing through a screening for Ebola (lovely), leaving my passport at border control so that I could cross to walk outside of the airport to find an ATM (guarded by an armed guard) to get money out to cover the VISA fee then proceeding to walk right back through the NO ENTRY area without any issues to pay and get my passport back (this is absurd by the way), and realizing very quickly that I had to figure out where to spend the next nine hours of my life before my third and final flight. There was nowhere to go in the airport, I was surprised at how basic it was. I felt flustered with a dozen taxi drivers asking if I needed a ride – in the daylight I would have felt more comfortable, in the early hours of the morning, not so much.

I found three women working at a booth who were able to find me a hotel to sleep at. I made one of them come with me as I didn’t trust what seemed like a standard white car with black tinted windows to take me. As I adjusted to driving on the other side of the road and the chaotic traffic at 4:30 a.m., I knew that something felt off. They brought me to a shady hotel on a dodgy street, showed me the room. I couldn’t do it. Everything about the place screamed bad news. I asked the women to bring me to another hotel, and thankfully she did. My next stop was much better but when I arrived they told me I had to pay $20 more. Call it $20 I won’t regret spending. I ate a delicious breakfast there and then slept for five hours straight, completely exhausted. The same cab that dropped me off was directed to come back to get me but it never showed up so I had to get another driver. I made it to the airport with five minutes to spare before the check-in cutoff.

Normally, I wouldn’t write this amount of detail about a travel experience so as not to deter or taint someone’s experience but the motto of the story here – if you are flying into Nairobi, fly in at a reasonable time and have a plan once you get there. Trust your instincts above all else.

The Reason

During my trip over and since settling in, I have been thinking a great deal about how we handle fear, resistance and discomfort. I was anxious to be here on my own but I had to embrace it. I am comfortable with the culture in Kenya though I can see how it would be a huge adjustment for many people. I’ve always believed that the more we open ourselves to what the world has to offer, the better off we will be. The world is so amazing and so big, don’t wait to see it.

I had many moments of self-doubt on my way here; where was I going, what the heck was I doing, and why? We all wrestle with these questions when we try something new or scary. We want to go back to what we are familiar with, do what works, and be around people we know. Fight that with all the positivity you can muster up, put your shoes on, and go train in Kenya. Or whatever your version of Kenya is.

All of the staff and athletes at HATC, and people around Iten have been lovely. I feel like I am right where I need to be. I am chasing my best, a remarkable experience, and I have to believe that if I give myself to the opportunity I will learn so much.

The Running

The cool wind here reminds me that I’m at altitude overlooking the Great Rift Valley. Iten sits at 8,000 feet above sea level. The sun is strong here as the town hovers against the equator and we’re closer to it with the elevation. Altitude is a word thrown around a lot during conversations with the other athletes – it has an elusive quality – you know it’s there but you can’t see it. Even the research is varying on the benefits of it as not all athletes respond the same way to extended periods of time at altitude. Words of wisdom that I have received, “take it easy for the first 5-7 days”. I’ve had a few great runs already but they have all been super slow and very easy minus the hills. Lots of time for hard work in the coming weeks.

There are runners everywhere you go – running is ingrained in the culture. My observations after a few days of exploring the labyrinth of dirt roads and spending a few days in Iten – Kenyan’s train hard, they wake up really early to run, the local diet is very healthy, and the terrain is relentlessly tough. Running is a job for the talented local athletes here; they push the pace up all the hills in pursuit of breaking out of poverty. I have seen Kenyan runners at races for years but now I’m on their turf and wow, they work hard. 

On my morning run today three women blew by me, making it look so easy, they aren’t messing around with that speed. Last night at dinner a runner told me that he had completed a 12x1km workout with the top seven women in the area – their 400m laps were 76 seconds through the workout – with 200m jog as the rest. That is CRAZY to me. There are groups of locals that leave nearly every morning around 6:10 a.m. You have to be fast and talented to find a place in one of these groups. The famous track workouts happen on Tuesday mornings at the Kamariny Athletics Track. I went to see the track and I can’t wait to go back to watch the group workouts while I’m here.

There are approximately 65 athletes staying at HATC from around the world. It’s neat. I have been running on my own for now but I do plan to hire a pacer for the majority of my running here based on advice I have received. There are three strength-training sessions offered per week and there are two physiotherapists on site as well. For the gym rats, there is a full weight room with everything you might need as well as a 25m outdoor pool (apparently the water is freezing and I’ve yet to see anyone in it). There are three meals per day at set times so everyone eats together which is nice and allows you to get to know the other athletes at the same time. It’s wild to see so many talented runners in training mode all in one place. Things are quiet by 10 p.m. and you can hear alarms (clocks and roosters) going off around 5:30 a.m. – it should be an interesting month, that’s for sure.

I will continue to upload what I can when the Internet works! Here is a brief look at my experience so far in Kenya.

Map of the trails and roads around Iten.
Throwing sticks in trees.
View heading into Iten.
Typical interaction during my runs here.
Ready to fly.
The red roads.