Rise of Iten from a small rural town to the Mecca of athletics

A view of the entrance to Iten, Elgeyo Marakwet County.

A view of the entrance to Iten, Elgeyo Marakwet County on July 3, 2022.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • This is no false advertising; it’s the Mecca of athletics. No town has given athletics more champions than Iten.
  • The national anthem will be played several times at the 2022 World Athletics Championships in the US next week, and some of the winners would have trained here.
  • Iten has also attracted investments in rentals, hotels and guest houses. 

As you enter Iten on the western escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, six fabled words emblazoned on a red metal arch scream at you: “Welcome to Iten – Home of Champions”. This is no false advertising; it’s the mecca of athletics.

No town has given athletics more champions than Iten. It has produced Olympic medallists, world champions and Big City Marathon winners. The national anthem will be played several times at the 2022 World Athletics Championships in the United States this month, and some of the winners will have trained here.

When the first rays of the sun clear the thin air and dissect the landscape into a kaleidoscope of chromatic fields and red soil, athletes hit the hardpacked earthen paths that meander through the hills and valleys.

If you stray in their way, you risk being mowed down. This is the ‘expressway’ of distance running. Nestled at 7,800 feet above sea level, everything feels like the end of the earth. It’s a track paradise. 

The success of Iten town in producing star athletes has been speculated about for a long while. The descriptions have been varied and sometimes convincing, if not outright laughable. They range from biological body structure, the staple food and the benefits thereof, the ‘gigantic’ set of lungs, and even the shape and length of legs and feet. Others pull in the environment, the thinness of the oxygen and the hilly terrain.

But is it the altitude or the attitude?

The story began at St Patrick’s High School-Iten more than four decades ago. Its alumni include the 800 metres world record holder David Rudisha, 1997 World 3,000m Steeplechase champion Wilson Boit Kipketer, 1992 Olympic 3,000m Steeplechase champion Matthew Birir, 1988 Olympic 1,500m gold medallist Peter Rono and three-time Boston Marathon winner Ibrahim Hussein.

In 1999, former world champion Lornah Kiplagat launched the High Altitude Training Centre, a modern facility with furnished rooms and a communal dining room, which enticed foreign athletes to chase the distance medal dream. The centre transformed Iten into a global production “factory” of world-class distance runners.

Bro Colm, a legendary coach who came here in 1976 and has handled many champions, attributes the success in churning out world-beaters to discipline and hard work. 

“If you look around Iten, you see all the small subsistence farms. If they have a child with a talent for running, they will exploit it and support it. The child sees it as a way out of poverty, a way to get on in life,” Bro Colm told World Marathon Majors.

“They see the successful athletes in this area. They build houses. They buy farms. They educate their siblings. They help their parents. They build hospitals, schools – all sorts of facilities for the community.”

Located about 32 kilometres from Eldoret, Iten has reaped big from athletics. It attracted investments in rentals, hotels and guest houses. On the grounds of Iten View Point Restaurant, looking out on the scenic valleys, birds whirling above, Kenneth Kiplagat breaks down the benefits of the training facilities with a smiling articulation.

“Iten has changed in the past 30 years because of athletics. Many built houses to accommodate the influx of runners who wanted to train at high altitude. We are always full during the weekends. We are now considering putting up guest houses,” says Kiplagat, the restaurant manager.

“Business is doing well because this is more about sports tourism. You will always find an athlete in every restaurant you go to. There’s also good security,” he adds.

Erastus Limo, a retired athlete and businessman, started his business in 2002 with his wife Sylvia Kibet, a former long distance runner. “I saw an opportunity in real estate because of the foreign athletes. There were very few rental houses at the time. Some athletes camp here for up to a year preparing for a big race,” he says. 

Kibet, a mother of three, bagged two silver medals in the World Championships in Berlin (2009) and Daegu (2011), a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

Limo says many athletes make good money but misuse it and then suffer once their careers take a nosedive. “We also entered the oil business because there was none in Iten then. There are only three filling stations, and two are mine (breaks into laughter). Athletes must plan well with the windfall they get from the track,” he offers.

The Elgeyo-Marakwet County government has upgraded school fields so that teachers can help pupils to develop their talents at an early age. They have also refurbished Kamariny Stadium.

“We had pumped Sh70 million into the stadium to improve its facilities. We hope it will be one of the best in the country because it’s in the Home of Champions,” says County Executive Committee Member for Sports Shadrack Yatich.

They also work with Brand Kenya and the Kenya Tourism Board to market the region as a sports hub.

“We were privileged to be awarded a plaque by World Athletics in 2019, and this makes Iten a heritage centre for its contributions to the development of sports, where athletes have done extremely well,” says Yatich.

Other towns can quickly pinpoint the industries that have made them grow economically. Cities near the oceans can boast of their ports and beaches that attract business opportunities in tourism and marine commerce. Others may thrive academically while hosting the best universities and colleges.

Industrial centres can point out their belching factories; transport hubs and agricultural towns can do the same. But Iten stands out since it has been growing fast and neatly with little agriculture and more athletics and training centres that are now attracting athletes from all over the world.

Iten is the home of two-time world marathon champion Ednah Kiplagat, the marathon women-only record holder Mary Keitany, London Marathon champion Joyciline Jepkosgei and the 2018 World U-20 10,000m champion Rhonex Kipruto.

Athletes have also changed the skyline of the nearby Eldoret town. Many landmarks are owned by former Olympic, world and marathon champions. Former world steeplechase champion Moses Kiptanui owns the iconic Komora Centre and the Tulin supermarkets. Kiptanui claimed the gold in 1991, 1993 and 1995.

Three-time New York Marathon champion Mary Keitany owns Winstar Hotel in the central business district. Former London Marathon champion Vivian Cheruiyot runs several petrol stations in the town.

“I would like to urge my fellow athletes to use the money they get wisely so that when they retire, they will have something to do,” says Ms Cheruiyot. Daniel Komen, who holds the world indoor record in 3,000m, owns Potters House Academy. Two-time Boston Marathon champion Moses Tanui, the first man in the world to run the half marathon in under one hour and among the first to win IAAF Grand Prix races, owns the GrandPri Building.

The legendary Kipchoge Keino, who runs the International Olympic Committee of Kenya, has also funded Kipkeino High School next to the IOC/IAAF High Performance Training Centre and Kipkeino Primary School. He also owns Kip Keino Sports House.

Laban Rotich, who won the prestigious IAAF World Cup 1,500m final in Johannesburg in 1998, named his building Johannesburg Plaza while 1999 Amsterdam Marathon winner Fred Kiprop owns Kirem Arcade.

The first Kenyan to win the New York City Marathon, Ibrahim Hussein, owns the ‘Lobo Village’, which hosted the Memorial Agnes Tirop World Cross Country Tour in February. Evans Cheruiyot, the 2008 Chicago Marathon winner, dedicated his Rotterdam Centre to his half marathon victory in the Dutch city in 2007.

Kenyans recall with pride the feats of these heroes and heroines. And as long as the training facilities and the right attitude prevail, Kenyans shall do even better.