In Africa

Kenya Running Camp | A Complete Guide to Iten

Humility. You don’t truly know the feeling until you’ve spent a week at a Kenya running camp.

After four days of luxuriating in the heavenly confines of Tsavo National Park and the Finch Hattons campground, I head north to Iten –– a rural Kenyan village that’s built a reputation as the Home of Champions thanks to its incredible roster of locally produced runners, like Eliud Kipchoge, Mary Keitany, and Wilson Kipsang.

For a week, I joined a Kenya running camp to run, eat, work out some more, and eat some more to fuel the next day’s run. When I’m not running, I’ll go to Iten town, hike to the nearby waterfall, shake fire ants out of my pants –– yowza –– and chat with Kenyans in an attempt to learn more about the secret sauce that makes runners from around here so successful. But hard as it may be to believe for some runners, there’s more to life than splits, paces, and PRs. So I’ll also head out to the countryside to learn more about how running is building homes for those in need.

Welcome to the Kenya Experience.

Running camps in Kenya

Iten home of champions sign

Few cultures are as inextricably linked to running as Kenyan culture. So it only makes sense that runners around the world would be interested in training in Kenya to, hopefully, learn a thing or two about running. Because it’s not just about where they run. Though the high altitude certainly helps.

Iten, at 2,400 meters or nearly 8,000 feet in elevation, is home to the aptly named High Altitude Training Center where I spent a week as a participant in a customized, week-long Kenya Experience program. Usually, The Kenya Experience hosts groups for two weeks at a time. But you can pay a little more to come outside of their scheduled groups, which we wanted to do. After all, I’m not an elite runner. So I wanted to spend time doing other Kenyan things, like my first African safari, besides running.

Of course, the bonus of planning a customized Kenya Experience trip is that you’ll get extra attention from the coach and your pacer. Then again, you do miss out a bit on the camaraderie of sharing an experience with a group. That said, other runners stay at the High Altitude Training Center who aren’t participating in The Kenya Experience. They’ve simply rented a room for the duration of their training. So you can meet other travelers during the various meal and snack hours.

Why choose a running camp in Kenya?

You’ll learn early on that not everyone in Kenya is a runner. There are 43 tribes in Kenya. And as Willy Songok put it, the head of guest relations at The Kenya Experience, only a couple of those tribes have really taken to running. They’re the tribes who’ve historically lived in the high-altitude regions of East Africa, like the Kalenjin –– a group of tribes indigenous to the region.

So by participating in a running camp in Kenya, you’re getting a look at a very specific segment of Kenyan culture and life. You learn more about the socioeconomic motivations many have for taking to running, how they fuel their bodies, what they do for training outside of running, and just how important rest is for these athletes. Our pacer and coach told us that most Kenyan runners will rest two hours after their morning run and another two hours after their afternoon run. Add that to 8 hours of sleep overnight, they’re sleeping or resting for a whopping 12 hours a day.

What to expect from a running camp in Kenya

Kerio View

First of all, expect very basic accommodations. I mention this first only because the folks on the ground from The Kenya Experience mentioned it themselves several times during our onboarding. Clearly, some folks have shown up and complained.

So what does “basic” look like? They’re essentially minimalist dorm rooms. Melanie and I each had our own bed with a mosquito net. Malaria isn’t a concern in such high altitudes, but it’s better safe than sorry. There was one desk for us to share and we each had our own dresser. This was attached to our own private bathroom with a shower, sink, and toilet. Flushing came with its own tutorial because the toilet needed some rest in between flushes. You’ll get used to it.

The meals were perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the camp. We had breakfast in the morning, a snack around 10:30 a.m. (usually mandazi, a kind of lightly fried Swahili bread), lunch, another afternoon snack, and then dinner. And the portions for the main meals were incredibly generous, but exactly what you need as a runner –– lots and lots of carbs. The kitchen staff is also wonderful and happy to accommodate any dietary restrictions.

In terms of actual training… I’ll break things down in more detail below.

Polepole – Starting off slowly

For the first couple of days, expect to start off slowly or “polepole” as they say in Swahili. Unless you’re used to living at such high altitude, you will notice the difference when walking around and running. Our coach had us start off with the slowest 30-minute run I’ve ever run. And truthfully, we would’ve continued this slow build-up throughout the week. But because we only had a week there and were more tourists than elite athletes, Coach let us speed things up a bit.

We arrived on a Sunday morning and did our first easy run that afternoon. Then, it was another easy, 30-minute run Monday at 6:30 a.m. There’s an optional afternoon run, which I took advantage of to make the most out of my limited time in Iten. This was also just 30 minutes and eventually, I would do these afternoon runs on my own, without a pacer.

Kamariny Track Day

On our third day, we ran 2.5 kilometers as a warm-up to the track for a proper workout. After some strides and a couple of easy l laps around the track, I hopped into the first lane for six hard laps with a minute or so rest in between.

Here I’ll note that the etiquette is to stay in the outer lanes if you’re going slow. But if you’re running hard, you need to be in the first lane. It doesn’t matter if your “hard” is much slower than the Kenyans or international elites also running on the track. They’ll run around you. If you do start drift, you’ll hear someone yell, “Mzungu! First lane!” (“Mzungu” is generally a catch-all term for foreigners.)

I wanted to do more by the end of my workout, but my heart was leaping out of my chest. It really takes time to fully adjust to the altitude. So we cooled down with a hike back to camp. But not before I spent a few extra minutes just taking in the scene. Visiting this track was hands down one of the most profound sports memories in my life. Enjoy it.

Sing’ore Forest

Usually you’d have an easy run after a track day. And as our coach kept saying, anything more than 30 minutes at a low heart rate (for me, around 130-140 beats per minute) was not easy. But we convinced him to let us do the Sing’ore Forest run because we had such limited time in Iten. Plus, we really were feeling pretty good.

So we left early in the morning, 6:30 a.m. again, for a short drive over to Sing’ore Forest. Trail running isn’t really a thing around here… yet. But for all intents and purposes, running around Sing’ore Forest is a trail run. It’s a rocky, dirt path that flows up and down for about 20 kilometers.

We were only permitted to run for 75 minutes, so we didn’t get all the way to 20 kilometers and a driver picked us up. But for Kenyan professionals, the 20-kilometer route is part of their regular training and likely would eventually become part of ours had we been able to stay longer.

The Boston Fartlek

Boston Fartlek Iten Kenya
Photo by Toni Hiram

Our fifth day started around 9 a.m. with a short drive out of Iten until we were about three kilometers or so from the group meetup point. We used that for a warmup.

There are different Fartlek groups around town. We joined the Boston Fartlek, albeit briefly. Our coach had us do one minute on, one minute off. That’s not what the Kenyans were doing. They likely had three minutes on and one minute off, or something like that.

Considering that plus the very obvious fact that they’re just faster, the Boston Fartlek pack sped away like a distant tornado as soon as the first rep began. So my Boston Fartlek run quickly turned into a solo trail run around the countryside for an additional seven kilometers.

Exploring Kenya Beyond the Running Track – Kessup Falls

Kessup Falls

There are opportunities to see parts of Kenya outside of the camp. We came from Nairobi and Tsavo National Park prior to the camp. They’re both a little far to work into the camp as day trips.

But you can do things like visit the actual town of Iten, walk out to the Kerio viewpoint, or you can organize longer excursions to places like Lake Nakuru National Park.

Our sixth day was meant to be a rest day, but only on paper. We ended up hiking five kilometers from camp to Kessup Falls. We had the join all to ourselves. And thank the powers that be that our pacer joined us because much of the route to the falls was improvised. Plus, in order to get a view of the falls from the bottom, we had to climb down using a robe tied to a log.

After that, we were picked up by a member of the Gathimba Edwards Foundation to view one of their project sites where they were building a home for a family of nine in need. This is actually part of The Kenya Experience. A portion of the fees support the Gathimba Edwards Foundation. If you have time, you can also volunteer and help build a home.

The Long Run

We purposely booked our flight out of Iten in the evening to allow ourselves one final run in the morning. Kenyans always do their long run on Saturday and rest on Sunday. So we followed suit, running our first official long run Saturday morning after breakfast.

In the end, our long run ended up being only a hair further than the Sing’ore Forest run. But such are the limitations when still adjusting to the altitude and on a truncated schedule.

Our pacer took us around Iten, straight from the campgrounds. We ran over a series of rocky dirt roads off the main road between Iten and Eldoret, even dipping into the forest at one point. It was a pretty solid way to end the trip.

Training Techniques and Tips Learned at a Kenya Running Camp

Throughout the camp, you’ll learn how Kenyans warm up for their runs, cooldown, and their general philosophy towards running. It sounds like they all adhere to a pretty similar schedule.

But you’ll also have the chance to participate in core workouts at the camp that take place every other day. Both local Kenyan runners and international guests participate in the grueling 45-minute workouts. So it’s a pretty full day if you do the morning run, bonus afternoon run, and the core workout.

Preparing for Your Kenya Running Camp Experience

The Kenya Experience will help you ensure that you’re ready to arrive once you book with them. There’s always the question of whether or not to take malaria pills, which the camp advised against. This is because it’s such a high altitude, mosquitoes aren’t a huge problem around here. But they do give you a mosquito net over your bed as a safety precaution.

The last thing I’ll note is to manage your expectations. I’m not talking about the basic accommodations (though I guess that’s important to keep in mind if you’re an unrealistic traveler). I’m talking about the amount of running you’ll do. It should go without saying, but the longer you stay, the more running you’ll be able to do and the more you’ll benefit. In general, you’ll need a full month at the camp to completely acclimatize and get the full benefits. I spoke with one runner who had to work up to acclimatization over two weeks before really starting to push it.

That said, a week-long camp is still worthwhile. I still feel like I got some benefits from the altitude, learned a lot, and generally had a wonderful experience.

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