Where true champions are born

by Harvey Maguire / News / May 2nd 2017

Iten is commonly known as “The Home of Champions”, and for good reason, with a variety of Olympic and world champions living and training in Iten for several years.

This unsuspecting town, hidden away in the mountains of the Rift Valley, appeals to a vast quantity of elite athletes, with athletes of all calibre travelling here to train, or simply experience “the Kenyan way". Primarily, Iten’s greatest appeal is its altitude. Located at 7900ft above sea level, it provides athletes with the physiological adaptations that result from training in such hypoxic conditions. Combined with the endless array of training routes, as well as the sheer quantity and quality of likeminded athletes to train alongside, Iten’s appeal to an aspiring athlete seems almost a little too obvious.

However, these appealing features are also available elsewhere across the world, with other training locations offering similar altitude benefits and a comparable training environment. Yet the one thing that these places lack, is the one component that makes Iten so desirable; culture. 

I’ve spent almost four months here in Iten experiencing first-hand how this town can produce so many athletes who deliver world-class performances on such a consistent basis. I’ve been fortunate enough to live and train alongside some of the greatest distance athletes of all time, which has allowed me to better understand, not only the athletes themselves, but also their environment. 

The athlete centred culture is particularly evident during early morning training sessions. As it reaches 6am, various groups, some consisting of almost a hundred athletes, congregate across town to begin their day of training. The sun has yet to rise, but almost every athlete in Iten has. In every direction you look, people are running. 

Yes, this density of such high-quality athletes is incredibly rare, but for me, the crucial component is how the quantity of athletes training never waivers. The consistency is remarkable. Day in day out, week after week, for months on end, athletes train with a resolve that I’ve never experienced before. 

Surely this unwavering consistency is one of most significant contributory factors to Iten’s formidable prowess in the world of distance running. Yet underpinning this consistency are a collection of athletes striving for achievement, all with an unwavering self-belief combined with an inspirational pursuit towards delayed gratification. It would be hard fought to come across a group of athletes that demonstrate the same levels of sustained effort than those adopted in Iten. Unified by their unrelenting and passionate pursuit of their goal, or simply put, their formidable levels of grit (Duckworth et al, 2007).

This concept, with its ever-growing body of research, is most appropriately demonstrated by how these athletes choose to engage in these rigorous training programmes with such intent and purpose. There are no half measures, there is either commitment or relocation. As with any athlete the world over, athletes here report setbacks and obstacles, Iten is certainly not immune to its pitfalls. However, intriguingly, these setbacks prove to be somewhat redundant and thus unequivocal in the long-term pursuit of achievement. They aren’t met with apprehension or uncertainty, more so optimism or acceptance of adversity. Ultimately, their desire to become a part of the process never falters.

With this culture in fruition and the consequential approach towards training, those with achievements at the pinnacle of the sport opt to continue living and training in Iten, trusting its ability to facilitate world-class performances, despite having the option to reside elsewhere. It could also explain why little known athletes arrive from across Kenya, hidden in obscurity, yet with a strong and uncompromising desire to train, hoping to become engrained in this culture.

Behavioural characteristics that affect training habits, decision making ability and the underlying behaviour of an athlete, such as willpower depletion or the regulation of self-control, are researched throughout the world and all seem so prevalent today. Yet these considerations are irrelevant and almost obsolete when days revolve around going out for a run (or three) as is the case in Iten. 

Yes, these principles may be difficult to apply to different societies or cultures, with contrasting and conflicting lifestyles the world over, but a lot can be learned from how such ordinary people can accomplish such extraordinary things.