How China’s Top Runners Moved to Kenya to Learn the Secrets of Marathoners’ Success

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
May 23 2014 10:16 AM

In Kenya, Running With Chinese Characteristics

China’s top runners are training under an Italian coach in a small Kenyan town that has produced some of the best marathoners in history.

Chinese national team training in Iten.
Ahead of the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing, 16 members of China’s national women’s middle- and long-distance running team are training in Iten, Kenya.

Courtesy of Jon Rosen

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ITEN, Kenya—The morning air is crisp as the minivan plods down a red clay road, trailing the pack of runners as they head toward the escarpment, past schoolchildren, cows, and simple mud huts, eventually doubling back through the center of Kenya’s pre-eminent running town.

Renato Canova, the man behind the wheel, has driven this route many times. One of the world’s most accomplished distance running coaches, the 69-year-old Italian has been working with Kenyan athletes since 1998 and now spends much of the year in the Kenyan rift, an area famous for minting world-class athletes in events ranging from 800 meters to the marathon.

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As usual, Canova is animated as he follows the progress of the run, occasionally pulling even with the pack to critique an athlete’s form or offer encouragement. On this morning, though, there’s an added layer of complexity. As Canova shouts out in heavily accented English, a young interpreter named Anna Lin repeats the words in Mandarin, and Wang Bin, a Chinese Athletics Association administrator, yells out the window to the athletes. 

These runners—Canova’s latest protégées—are 16 members of China’s national women’s middle- and long-distance running team, in the early stages of preparation for the 2015 World Athletics Championships, to be held in Beijing in August 2015. On this February morning, midway through a six-week stint in Kenya, it’s clear they have their work cut out for them.

“In this period they are not very strong, practically,” Canova tells me as he steers his Toyota TownAce alongside a runner who’s fallen off the pack, grabbing her side and wincing.

“Renato, she says she ate too much for breakfast,” Lin, sitting next to me in the back seat, translates, referring to the athlete who ate fried eggs and sausage less than an hour before the run.

Canova appears both exasperated and amused. “What does she think to eat a breakfast like this?” he asks Lin. “She is missing out on good training.”

Coach Renato Canova talks with athlete Wang Mei via interpreter Anna Lin.
Coach Renato Canova talks with athlete Wang Mei via interpreter Anna Lin.

Courtesy of Jon Rosen

Canova’s newest athletes might be forgiven if they appear to be in over their heads. Despite being China’s best young runners, their credentials are unimpressive in a town known as the Home of Champions, where thousands of Kenyan athletes—including Olympic gold medalists, world record holders, and past winners of Boston, New York, London, and dozens of other major marathons—can be found plying the dirt roads every morning.

Overlooking the Kerio Valley, Iten has several attributes that make it an ideal spot for training: a temperate climate, soft dirt roads and forest paths, and an altitude—7,500 feet—that falls within the “sweet spot” defined in David Epstein’s 2013 book The Sports Gene. Epstein argues that training between 6,000 feet and 9,000 feet helps stimulate an athlete’s production of red blood cells, and therefore aerobic capacity, while still allowing for vigorous training.

The town also lies at the heart of territory inhabited by the Kalenjin, a community of several closely related traditionally pastoralist tribes renowned for its distance running prowess. Though the Kalenjin represent just 12 percent of Kenya’s population, the group accounts for nine of Kenya’s 10 all-time fastest male marathoners, and seven of its 10 all-time fastest women—a dominance that extends down through other long and middle distances in the world’s most decorated endurance running nation.

Although no single factor is responsible for this success, studies have shown that the Kalenjin, as a group, have several physical attributes that lend to biomechanical efficiency, including thin lower legs and a high leg length to torso ratio. More likely to be born with frames conducive to distance running, Kalenjin children are thought to benefit aerobically by growing up at altitude and—because many live in rural locations—commonly walking or running long distances to school. Given the Kalenjin running tradition, and the prospect of financial rewards for those who make it to the top, many pursue the sport with the aim of escaping poverty—which is acute enough in the Kenyan rift to remain a motivating factor, yet not so acute that widespread malnutrition hinders the development of young athletes.

It is in this context that Iten, along with the larger neighboring town of Eldoret, has become a magnet for aspiring athletes from Kenya and beyond. Some—like Wilson Kipsang, a former farm equipment salesman who began training seriously only in his mid-20s and eventually set the marathon world record—will find riches. But most will struggle. Take Simeon Lelel, an Eldoret native who Canova has hired as a pacemaker for the Chinese women. As we chat after the morning workout, Lelel tells me his marathon personal best is 2:16, which despite being run in Nairobi at an altitude of 5,500 feet is still a time that would rank among the top 20 or 30 performances run any given year by U.S. men. In Kenya, though, this barely qualifies him as a serious athlete.

So Lelel supports himself with occasional casual labor and other odd jobs, including his gig as a pacemaker, which lasts the six weeks the Chinese are in town. Lelel tells me he’s thrilled to have the opportunity, though it won’t exactly bring him material comforts. Most of the money he’ll use to help pay his relatives’ medical bills and school fees.

“My family is very poor,” he says, adding that he rarely eats anything besides ugali, a cornmeal paste, and steamed sukuma wiki greens, both Kenyan staples. “Sometimes getting food is a problem.”

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