Iten, Kenya: A Runner’s Paradise

If you follow running even just a little, you are probably aware that Kenya produces a disproportionately high number of elite and long-distance running athletes. Many of these athletes come from the modest town of Iten, located about 1 hour from Eldoret, in southwestern Kenya. David Rudisha (800m WR holder), Ibrahim Hussein (3x winner of the Boston Marathon), and Florence Kiplagat (women’s half-marathon WR holder), have all trained here, to name just a few.

Thus, not surprisingly, Iten has become synonymous with running (it’s town motto is “Home of Champions”), and athletes from around the world come here to train and see if they can soak up a bit of the running magic and talent that seems to resonate here abundantly.

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Which is why I also ended up in Iten. I am by no means an elite runner or athlete, nor do I ever intend to be, but I do love running and I especially love the culture that running creates, and this is why I decided to check out the running mecca town of Iten when I was passing through Eldoret for a work trip.

I ended up spending four blissful days in Iten. Time was spent running (of course), reading, doing yoga, and chatting with the other guests and locals. Although the four days flew by, they were also slowed way down, something that inevitably happens in Iten. If you want to stretch for an hour, you do; if you want to read a book cover to cover, you do. Somehow Iten has a magical way of shutting off the outside world and reminding you to live in and enjoy the present moment. I ran an average of 20km each day, and although I was slow and tired due to the high altitude (~2350m), I also don’t know how the miles went by so quickly each day.

I want to keep this post short and sweet, but I think the take home message would be: if you are a runner (or even if you are not, but especially if you are), ITEN is a spectacular travel destination in Kenya. Seriously guys, I’m considering and trying to plan for at least a whole month here in 2018 if I can make it work – it’s that good.

Some quick travel tips for Iten:

Where to Stay:

There are a couple options, depending on the environment you are looking for and your budget. I stayed at (and would highly recommend) a family-owned placed called Kilima Guesthouse for 30€ a night (including three delicious home cooked meals a day). I had my own bungalow with a view of the valley right out my back door. Other notable (economical) options include the High Altitude Training Centre, which is great for staying with other athletes, or the Safari Guesthouse, which is great for groups that want to rent a whole house.

What to do:

  • Run! Everywhere and anywhere, there are miles and miles of paved roads, dirt roads, single-track trails, hills, and loops around the track to do while you are in Iten. You can run on your own or easily join (though good luck keeping up) the many running groups in town.
  • Local culture. Although Iten is attracting more and more tourists each year for running, the local culture and friendly hospitality of a small Kenyan village still remains strong in Iten. Get a bite to eat at a local restaurant (try ugali!). Strike up a conversation with a local. Barter for fruit and vegetables. Experience a matatu ride.
  • Paraglide: I didn’t’ know that Iten was a hub for paragliding until I showed up. Whether you are an experienced paraglider with your own equipment or want to go on your first tandem ride, Iten is a great place. For beginners, tandem rides are relatively cheap ($70 for 1.5 hours). For experts, some of the world records to longest rides have been set taking off from Iten, and apparently gliders can travel up to 200km using the wind currents. (I wasn’t able to go for a ride this time around because the winds were too crazy, but it has definitely sparked my interest and is on the bucket list for the next time).
  • Chill! Iten is a great place to just slow down for a bit. Read a good book. Meditate. Go for a long walk. Suntan. Unplug and Unwind.
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Black and white colobus monkeys in the forest canopy

 

How to get there:

You’ll first want to get yourself to Eldoret. You can get from there from Nairobi by flying (~$110/1 hr.), or by bus/matatu/shared taxi (~$15/6hrs). Once you get to Eldoret, you can hire a private car ($30), or, take the cheaper, but slightly more crowded experience of a matatu ($3), which will take about the same amount of time. Matatus going to Iten can be found on Kitale-Cherangani rd. (C48), just north of the main highway in Eldoret (just ask locals and they will point you in the right direction). I ended up taking a matatu (North River Shuttle) from Nairobi to Eldoret, spending the night in Eldoret, then grabbing another matatu from Eldoret to the bus park in Iten the next morning. From there I could have walked the final 5km, but I had all of my stuff and opted for a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) to take me the final stretch right to the guesthouse (~$2).

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The Kamariny track, where so many world-class athletes have trained and continue to train.  Everyone looks so fast here!

 

LASTLY,

I’d like to dedicate this post to my late running coach, Cliff Matthews, who passed away a couple years ago while visiting Iten on a coaching trip. I thought of you as I did the series of plyometric drills you taught me at Kamariny track every morning. It amazes me how your running knowledge and passion has stuck with me not only for the Love4Gambia run, but also with each tempo and interval workout to this day. Your passing was devastating for the running community in Halifax, but, being in Iten, I realize that you must have been so happy here. I know that you must have reveled in the same joy and peace that I experienced in this beautiful running town, and that makes me smile when I think of you as I dutifully do my plyos, trying to keep my elbows in as you were always reminding me. I’m so thankful I got to train with you and your wonderful group of runners and will always be thinking of you with each tempo or interval workout.

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