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Spartan running retreat forges Kenya's future champions

Updated: 2024-05-13 10:01
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Olympic champion, Eliud Kipchoge (fifth right) runs with his training group during a speed work session in Kaptagat on May 4. AFP

KAPTAGAT, Kenya — Daily training, frugal living, shared household chores: The Kaptagat camp, where Kenyan athletics stars Eliud Kipchoge and Faith Kipyegon are preparing for the Paris Games, is a protected retreat, known for its focus on self-discipline.

This small complex in Kenya's Rift Valley, perched at an altitude of 2,500 meters between forests and corn plantations, was founded in 2002 by former runner-turned-coach Patrick Sang and the Dutch athlete management agency, Global Sports Communication.

"The idea was to help young athletes develop their potential, because, here in Kenya, many don't have access to training facilities or to the support of a coach," Sang said.

"It is a place where elite athletes mentor younger ones, a place run by athletes that also became a school of life."

Its most famous resident — who has been training there since its establishment — is athletics legend Kipchoge.

"This is the calmest place ever. It's a good place to concentrate. We live a simple life," the two-time Olympic marathon champion explained.

This is where the 39-year-old laid the groundwork for his greatest exploits, including his 2018 and 2022 world records and his two Olympic titles, to which he hopes to add a historic third gold medal come August.

In 2019 Kenyan middle-distance champion Kipyegon, who is also aiming for an unprecedented hat-trick in Paris in the 1,500 meters, started attending the camp.

"This place really changed my life and my career," the 30-year-old said, adding: "It's our second home. We train and live as a team. We are focused 100 percent on running."

Everyone contributes

But it's not all about athletics all the time.

All the athletes live at the camp from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning.

During that time, they are expected to contribute to the running of the camp by doing household chores, including cooking once a week, cleaning the TV room and lavatories, and taking out the trash.

Far from the hi-tech training grounds in the United States, the Kaptagat camp offers minimal home comforts.

For nearly 15 years, athletes got their water from a well.

In recent years, running water and solar panels have been installed.

A few single rooms have been added to the double rooms — the only concession to the elite status of certain runners at a facility which wears its egalitarian credentials with pride.

In Kaptagat, "there is no world champion, no record holder — all of us are equal," said marathon runner Laban Korir, who is designated "president" by his peers, and coordinates the various committees which run the camp.

Here, even world champions reveal hidden talents: residents told reporters that Kipyegon prepares the best chapati (flatbread) in the camp.

Grueling regimen

Far from their families, the athletes devote themselves to their training, which follows a common program: for four days a week, they run 16 to 20 kilometers in the morning and 10 km in the evening. Then, there's a weekly "long run" of 30 to 40 km, and gym sessions twice a week.

While entry to the camp is strictly limited, local runners join training runs on surrounding roads, hoping to be spotted and recruited.

After their training, athletes can get a massage, grab a book from the camp library, where the eclectic selection ranges from A Promised Land by Barack Obama, Midnight Express by Billy Hayes and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to Running a Marathon for Dummies.

Distractions are few and far between.

The use of the telephone is prohibited in the dining room and during massages.

Instead, residents sit in the garden and chat over cups of sweetened milk tea.

"We talk about the prevailing situations in our country, like politics, and also soccer," said Victor Chumo, who has been training in Kaptagat since 2019.

"Here, we live like a family. We have different generations," long-distance runner Daniel Mateiko, 25, said.

"We learn from our mentors, we help each other and train with one goal: achieving our dreams."


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