Loping down dirt roads in Iten, Kenya as the sun rose in the sky, Sophie Rose Cope was amazed as she ran through what’s been called the “Home of Champions.” Cope, who visited Iten in 2017, was running with a group from The Kenyan Experience, a running camp that allows runners to not only traverse the same roads where Kenyan elites train, but to also connect with those talented athletes.
“I absolutely loved talking to many extremely excellent, extremely gracious and friendly super elite athletes who affirmed the fact that the main secret is that, ‘There is no secret,’” said Cope, a student athlete at the University of Cape Town. “They’re not out there looking for shortcuts or ways to explain their own success. They’re just showing up every day and putting in the work in an environment where everyone else does the same all their lives.”
Locals from Kenya are among the fastest of elite distance runners, and for many who are neither pros nor Olympic contenders, a trip to the country is a chance to run with some of the world’s most talented athletes. “I think Kenya is a bucket list destination for a lot of runners, and rightly so,” said Gavin Smith, founder of The Kenya Experience. “But it can also be intimidating and daunting. We take the hassle out of the logistics and our expert staff provides a safety net, which allows our guests to simply get on with enjoying themselves and their running.”
Smith and his wife Lauren started the camp in 2010 after the couple visited Iten. Professional runners often travel to the town to train on the high-altitude dirt trails, but Smith said he and his wife wanted to provide that same experience to “regular runners like ourselves.”
“We have since been able to share the wonders of Iten with runners from across the globe and to create employment opportunities for local people,” he shared. The Kenya Experience offers a range of camps, including the Running with the Kenyans training camp, where runners hear from Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans, and Godfrey Kiprotich, a Kenyan runner and part of the winning team in the 1994 World Half Marathon Championships. Campers also have the chance to run with Kenyan runners Japhet Koech and Beatrice Seronei.
Another camp is the Kenya Experience Original which Smith said is about “combining running with cultural immersion.” Runners will take part in guided runs with local runners, but also take day trips to visit a Kenyan runner’s home and a local primary school to meet the children and teachers living and working in Kenya.
The group’s newest camp, Training Focus Weeks, will launch in March 2019 and will be geared toward returning visitors to Kenya who want to concentrate on training. Prices for the camps range from $1,300 to $1,800 for a two-week trip. “The environment is paradise for any runner. You see farms, acacia trees and shops along the roads,” said Nick Grinlinton, a New York musician who visited the camp in 2016. “There is also a special view of the Great Rift Valley when running in Singore Forest. A common misconception is that Africa is hot, but we experienced perfect running weather due to the high elevation. It does take a few days to acclimate to the high altitude, but it beats running in 90-degree weather.”
Grinlinton said he and his wife are planning a return trip to the town—this time with their son. “When you visit Iten, you make a lot of friends,” he shared. “When we shared that we were expecting our first child, everyone kept asking about the baby. So we want him to meet all our friends.”
Cope is also planning to go back to train after she graduates, but until then, it’s a memory that she won’t forget anytime soon. “One simple thing that I will always remember with huge waves of nostalgia is just running every morning with the group and the pacers with the dew everywhere,” she recalled. “…and the sun rising red in the sky, and the children waving and running next to us on their way to school, and the feeling of the whole day stretching ahead, filled with things I had never seen before and might never seen again.”
For more information about The Kenya Experience, visit TrainInKenya.com.