It is a far cry from the high-tech gymnasiums athletes are used to in Europe or the US, but this sleepy Kenyan farming village has become an unlikely global training hotspot for Olympic champions.
Perched on the dramatic cliff edge of the great Rift Valley at 2,400m above sea level, this remote village draws top athletes, including world and Olympic champions, for high-altitude performance training.
With the London Olympics later this year, athletes are training hard to get an edge over their rivals at the Games.
“Iten is a great location, due to the altitude and the environment,” said Lornah Kiplagat, a Kenyan-born Dutch runner who won the world half-marathon in Udine, Italy, in 2007, but who now runs a specialized hotel for athletes in Iten.
Athletes to have recently trained at Iten include the British Olympic team, led by the women’s world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe, and the double European 5,000m and 10,000m champion, Mo Farah.
Every dawn, the village comes alive with the pounding feet of dozens of runners, as they train along the winding mud tracks through the quiet countryside, dodging the chickens and goats that share the route.
Having such top-end runners “attracts other athletes from all over the world,” added Kiplagat, with the small settlement of about 4,000 people seeing visitors from across Europe, the US and Africa.
“There are hundreds of kilometers of dirt roads to train on,” Kiplagat said, adding that the 72-bed hotel she runs is regularly fully booked with athletes.
Two-time Linz marathon champion Elias Maindi, of Kenya, moved to the town four years ago to seek success — saying the altitude and clean air have all helped him achieve recent victories in several European marathon races.
“When you want to run a good time, you have to train the hard way,” Maindi said.
Exercise at high altitude increases an athlete’s -oxygen-carrying capacity, encouraging a better performance later in races at lower altitude.
“You have to train at high altitude to really boost your speed and the level of the blood cells in your body, so you can really run fast when running at a lower altitude,” Maindi said.
Local Kenyans travel to Iten in the hope of joining the potentially lucrative ranks of the top athletes.
Brother Colm O’Connell is a Cork-born member of the Patrician Brothers, a Roman Catholic order founded in Ireland, and he has trained several world and Olympic champions in Iten for the past 35 years. He believes it is not only the high altitude that keeps his runners at the front of races.
“This is a very little, isolated village in the highlands of Kenya, away from the big city or town, so there are no distractions, people can just concentrate on their running,” the 63-year-old O’Connell said.
“The fact that so many world champions, Olympic champions and world record holders come to train in the Iten area is a great role model for the younger kids growing up — the kids even join in the running,” he added.
In the past decade, Iten has grown, with land prices tripling in value as athletes build houses for when they use the village as a training base.
However, despite the taxes the athletes who live here contribute, there are few facilities.
The only sports gymnasiums are privately run, and too expensive for many of the runners who have yet to find fame and fortune.