Kenyan world-class long distance
runner Lornah Kiplagat.
|Record-breaking runner Lornah Kiplagat is the founder of the only camp in Kenya geared specifically to training female athletes. FRONTLINE/World's Alexis Bloom and Cassandra Herrman sat with Kiplagat during her breaks from training in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to talk about the challenges facing women runners in Africa. This interview has been edited for clarity.
ever try to stop you running?
Not really ... no. My mother, my father always supported me, but the only thing is that we had a kind of -- not a fight -- but we could not agree with each other after my high school because they didn't believe in running. They didn't know that I could make a profession or career in running. So they wanted me to go for further studies. And I had got a scholarship to go to India to study medicine ... they were telling me I have to study, but I wanted to run.
So you were lucky enough to have parents who didn't want to marry you off immediately.
When Lornah Kiplagat runs these days, Olympic gold is on her mind. (Photo courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
My father is not that way. And my mother is also not that way, and my sisters got married pretty late. Maybe the youngest was 27, and for Kenya that is quite mature.
Can you talk about your early days of running?
When I started to do training ... real intensive training, it was so difficult ... . I thought if I ever have a breakthrough in running or if I ever win the lottery or ever have some money, I want to give something back for the sport in Kenya, especially for the women.
When you say that you had a difficult time, can you give some detail? Did you have transport to the race? Did you have a place to stay?
My place was on a farm. Most of those athletes come from the farm. It's not in a city. It's not in a village. You are in the middle of nowhere, and no roads come there, and you have no transport. ... Nobody from my family was bringing me -- and I was still young. I had to travel by myself by public means for 350 kilometers to Nairobi. And it's a big city -- it's a huge city, it's our capital city -- and I really didn't know anywhere to go ... . I didn't know that you could sleep in a hotel, and at that time I didn't have the money.
Were you alone?
The high-altitude region of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya has produced some of the world's greatest runners. (Photo courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
Yeah, I was alone.
So what did you end up doing?
I got off a bus and I asked some security guards. I knew where the ... race was so I asked them and they showed me a special station for the bus ... . But it was late in the evening. The race was the next day and it was late and there was no place to sleep. For men, it was not a problem. For men, the army guards have their own team, and they build tents around the place where the race will be and you can sleep wherever you want. But there is no place for women soldiers, so it was very difficult.
So where did you stay?
Well, I spent an overnight in a, a toilet. A restroom.
How did you do the next day?
Um, made the team for Kenya world cross-country. I was number six.
So, that's pretty good -- to stay the night before in the public bathroom and then run like the wind the next day? I think that's pretty good.
Yeah, and no breakfast, for example. The most important thing to me was the running and to make the team for the cross-country. That was my main thing. I never thought even that you could take breakfast or whatever. (laughs)
Every second has been a motivation for me because I don't want that kind of thing to happen anymore. Not to anybody that I know. ... I was really grateful for [my husband] Pieter because he really supported the idea of a training camp for women. If he were somebody else, he would tell me, "What? You're crazy. Why would you spend the money for other people?" But I appreciate every moment that we are together because he is supporting my dream.
The High Altitude Training Center in Iten, Kenya, was opened in 2000 by world running champion Lornah Kiplagat to groom the next generation of female world-class runners from Kenya.
Now I want to reach the top as high as possible. Because I have done for the people in my mother country and now I want to do for myself. Win a gold medal in the Olympics ... . Then I would have it all.
Why is there a need for a women's camp? Why is that a priority?
Women have no place ... to train in a normal way, ... where they do not have to deal with jobs at home. ... Because I see in most families the ladies they have to take care of the things in the house and the men they can do whatever they want. Women don't have a lot of choices. ... The only thing they do is wake up, take care of the cooking, take care of the children. ... They run the whole family. And if they are at home training, it's not possible because there are demands ... . [They] need a place where they can be away from home and can concentrate only on running.
Describe what rural Kenyan women do.
Kenya is run by women. The economy of the country is run by women. A lot of Kenyans are farmers ... that means planting maize, planting wheat, milking the cows, getting the milk sold to cooperatives ... the women have to take care of all these things. In the morning, at 6 or at 5, they wake up and make sure the cows have been milked, and they take it to [the cooperative]. They have to make sure the dishes are clean, the house is clean, have to take care of the cows, the food, they have to take care that ... the maize gets fertilizers ... . And when it's planting time, they have to plant. And when it's harvesting time, they have to harvest. And they have to take care that the lunch is ready for the kids when they come back from school. And then in the afternoon, have to take care of the cows, because in Kenya you have to milk cows two times a day ... . Maybe the father or the man of the house will help with one thing, that means help in the fields for an hour ... . And we, the women are working for seven hours. So, it's not a man thing. Everything is women.
Women in rural Kenya spend much of their time doing household chores, like collecting firewood. (Photo courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
...You see a lot of men sitting along the road and just talking, talking, talking. Just having a good time -- men together. You never see a woman sitting along the road with other women and talking. Never, never, never happen.
They're all in stress. Rush, rush, rush. The money that's come out of the farm goes to educating the children. So without the hard work of the women, there are no school fees. Without school fees there is no education for the children. Without education for children, there are no graduates. Without graduates, no people running the government. So that means, at the end, that women are doing all the jobs for the people to have food in their stomach. It's up to the women.
Do you think that you are a kind of social pioneer?
Kiplagat warming up for a run while training in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Yeah. A lot. Quite a lot.
In what way? Were people shocked, were people surprised when you began running?
Yeah, people were surprised when I said ... , "Look, you can have a career in running and also you can have a family."
You have to stand up for yourself and say that we do not have to work inside the house only, we can also come outside and do the running and we can make a career. So people ... a lot of them were not quite happy with it because that's not part of the deal. The deal is we have to stay home, of course.
Iten's a mecca for running. Tell me, what happens to girls in a men's camp?
We have several camps around [Iten]. ... Most of the girls who are in there, they're not running well. Or even if they're running well, they are still women. And still they are under men. So most of the time, the men use them as the cooks, to make them wash their clothes, to make them wash their shoes. And this was one of the really upsetting things.
You're saying that in camps where women are the minority they fulfill the traditional role?
Even when they are in the camps, they still work as cooks or washing clothes for the other men. And this is one of the things I was very much against because we all come to the training camp to train. You as a man, you as a woman, you come to train. You train two times, we train two times. We eat the same food. ... I thought it was not fair where some other people have to be overworked. And therefore in my camp or in our camp, when there are jobs to be done we split it. ... You have to clean your own room. You have to clean your own clothes. Nobody's washing that for you.
Did a male athlete ever say to you, "Lornah, please clean my shoes"?
Absolutely, yes. ...
Running shoes muddy easily in Iten, Kenya. (Photo courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
But my father would always split the jobs between girls and boys. And he would tell us, "If I see you doing something like washing clothes for your brother, I will break your hands." I really didn't understand how it came that my father was like that. ... He died two years ago and he was 81 already. So normally he should be very traditional.
So I had this idea, why should I do for someone else what I don't even do for my brothers? ... When I went to Europe I stayed in a camp where a manager had athletes from Kenya. There were men and girls. The men tried to get me to clean for them ... but they really had no chance. ... I never did that for anybody. No.
What did they ask you to do?
What I found upsetting was washing their shoes. Training shoes. Because if they train a lot in the mud, after two or three days they want to wash their shoes. And that I wash their shoes or their socks I really find upsetting. And that's what they ask most because that's one of the jobs they hate doing because it's really difficult. So they try to push that to women ... . But I didn't do that. But some women, I was with them, they still do that. And some are still even doing it. But not in my place. Not in my camp.
What would happen if you find that in your camp?
Athletes training at the stadium near Iten, Kenya.
There's no option. They can leave the camp. Just stay away from us. He either washes his shoes or he stays away from us. We had quite a few cases like that. And the girls come and say, "Oh, he's telling me to wash his shoes." And we ask him, we just confirm, "Did you do that?" And he says, "Yes, I did." And we say, "OK, find your own place."
In Kenya, we are so famous. ... Every athlete knows about [our camp]. And every athlete talks about it. Like, you're going there as a man, you have to work, you have to clean the floor ... . And that's one of the things they don't like about it. We are really famous. ... We don't have a good name. ... Because that's not how they like it.
I'm sure you're popular with some people, though.
Oh, for sure. And especially my sister Monica, who is running the camp. She is more popular than me.
Because the thing is, we never really had a chance to make decisions because all the time men are making the decision for us. A good example is if somebody is coming to my family and he finds that my dad is not there, but we girls are there and my mom is there. And he would say, "Uh, there's nobody home?" We'd ask, "What do you mean, 'Nobody is home'?" And he would say, "Uh, I mean your dad." I'd say, "Well, we are here, you have anything we can help you with?" So that means they don't consider my mom as anybody and they don't consider us as people.
Or for example ... if we meet with some people, and there are a man, wife and the children. The man would never say, "This is my wife and these are my children." He would say, "These are my children." ...
It will change, but ... it's ... a very small percentage. But we've seen changes already because the girls who have stayed at the camp, they will never go back to what's happening in that world now.
Do you think they've changed their view of themselves?
The girls who have stayed in the camp have really changed.
They don't understand why they couldn't share opportunities
with their brothers or with the boys in the camp. Nowadays it's
normal for them to share things, to talk. They don't fear. If
somebody's coming who says, "Do this for me," they don't
say, "Oh, yes, I do that." They say, "Why? Give me the reasons."
But I think the men are handling it very well. Really, ... it has to begin somewhere. In our area and in the athletics world, in the running community -- it's really changed a lot.
Do you think coming to your camp not only improved the girls' running, but also gave them confidence as human beings?
When the girls are staying in the camp ... first of all, we try to talk to them about what kind of people we are. We really don't care if there is an Olympic champion there or if there is a girl coming from the village today -- we treat everyone the same. And there is no "You are so-and-so, you are treated differently." We try to educate them. They're always very shy. ... They can't look you in the eyes. They are always like, "Yes, yes, yes." There is no "No, no."
And by the time they leave?
And by the time they leave, they're asking a lot of questions: "Now why should I do this? And how do I do that? What will this bring me?" At the end, you see that they really do get so much advanced. ... And we really try to tell them that they have to bring this into their families -- into their generation, into other generations and generations and generations. You have to be part of the deal to help us bring this message across. And it's been working very well. ...
Kiplagat and her husband, Pieter Langerhorst, with women training at the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, Kenya, before a race. (Photo courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
It's not just running, but all the other things we do in the camp. Those who are not very good runners ... we try to find them scholarships. We have one girl who is in Texas studying. We have two girls in Europe studying also ... and one who is studying sports management.
And we want these girls to finish their studies; they can come back and just teach the rest what they have learned and they can also speak out for themselves. They can say, "Look, we've done things. We've been in America. We've been in Europe. We've done this." And try to educate women also. ... It's a way of changing the whole lifestyle of women in Kenya, and I hope it should be for all Africa.
When girls hear about you all the time and see you in magazines, are you a role model for them?
When we went back to Kenya three months ago ... there were new girls in the camp, and they had never seen me. And they were so nervous. You could see that for them, I was this person whom they had been reading about for weeks in newspapers, in magazines ... and they just wanted to see if I was a normal human being, just sitting with them. They were so surprised because when I'm there, I don't separate myself from them. And we make stupid jokes.
Trying to keep up with Kiplagat. (Photo
courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
What do you think you have shown them?
I've given them a lot of courage. Because without courage, you can't stand and talk. Without courage you can't make decisions. I think I've given them a lot of courage ... . Lornah did it -- why not us? And they just have this ... power.
Because you come from a place similar to where they came from.
Yeah, I'm one of them. ... Because if you come from New York, they will say, "Ah, you're from New York; we're from Kenya, and things are different here." But ... I was born in the farms like them. I'm brought up like them. I was not from a rich family -- we're from the same class. I change things, and they can also change things.
And my father -- he wouldn't allow my mother to overwork ... . My father is a lot of courage to me, really. My parents were my hope ... they were the biggest motivation to me. And from that motivation, I got this motivation to give to other people.
He sounds like a fantastic man.
And my mother ... came to Holland and came to Israel with us one time for a race. And she had never seen a flushing toilet or a shower, and she just worked it as if it was normal. She flew from Nairobi to Amsterdam a lot. It was not a problem. The way she stayed in Holland, she just shocked us ... . I was like, is that my mother? ...
Kiplagat at home in Kenya. (Photo courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
Also very interesting ... still in Kenya and most parts of Africa, many women are still being circumcised. And my Dad didn't want that. And even the neighbors couldn't believe it, because my father was very traditional. And my dad was the oldest guy around, and the girls that had to be circumcised are often of older parents. And we felt very unlucky because my dad was quite old, so we have to undergo all the traditions. But he never did that to us ... he said, "It's your choice. You want it, you can do it. But if you don't want to, you don't have to." And we were so happy.
In your area, where you're from, is there still a strong tradition of marrying off girls for a dowry?
Yeah, but that's always there. Even for me, that happened. Pieter had to pay five cows to my parents for a dowry. That's a tradition that's never changed. It's OK with me. If they want to keep the dowry, you know, there is nothing that affects my body, that affects me.
Is it unusual for husbands to support a woman running?
It's very unusual ... . It often happens that a lot of them get married and just stop. They've just been stopped because the man don't want to see their women running with running kits -- you know, with bare legs. They think they are naked.
What is employment like in Iten?
Employment chances all over the country in Kenya are very, very limited. There aren't a lot of opportunities for employment now. I think even a high percentage of recent graduates are without jobs.
I have friends, even graduates, in Iten now who have no jobs. And I have a friend, we started together, we grew up together, we played together, and she has a master's now, but has no job.
Is employment lower for women than it is for men?
It is lower, because even women who are working, when they get married or when they have children the husband stops [her] so she can take care of the children. If he's working, he can keep his job, and the woman stays at home. So most of the women are housewives ... . The men don't want to come home and have to wait for their women to come home from their jobs. They don't understand that.
Kiplagat stretches before running. (Photo courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
Do you think running is one of the great employment opportunities in Kenya?
Running is the number one employment for women right now in Iten.
How else has running helped you besides giving you a career?
Running has also given me the opportunity to travel all over the world, to meet different people ... being in a place where I would have never been. And as well as struggling, and making friends from all over. ... It's always a good feeling. You feel like you're part of the world. You know what's going on.
What goes through your head when you're racing?
What's going through my head when I'm running? When I'm competing it's that I want to win and be the best in the world ... . It's all "gold medal" or "medal, medal, Olympics, Olympics" ... when I'm running.
You don't think about family or -- ?
Sometimes when I'm running, especially in the evening runs, and I've left Pieter cooking, I think about getting back to eat the nice food he's cooking. I'm really curious what he's cooking today ... because I like eating. So, it's not always "Olympics, Olympics." Sometimes it's "What's going on at home tonight?" But when I'm training seriously on a trip, it's "Olympics."
Kiplagat training in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in anticipation of the 2004 Summer Olympics.
How did you feel when you won your first big race? What's it like to win now?
When I won my first big race, it was such an emotional moment ... . Winning is like a memory. No one can take this away from me. It will always stay there.
... If you win a big race that's been part of your dreams, it's very emotional. The whole world is watching this. It's very encouraging. You feel like crying, and sometimes you cry even, because you've reached what you want. You've worked so hard; you've trained so hard and finally you get what you want ... and after that you make a lot of celebration, a lot of party ... more than even for your birthday.
Me winning the New York Marathon ... would be one of the biggest achievements I've had. I was number three last year, which was very good for me, but still I'd like to win in that race.
Will the girls at your camp make it?
The girls will not all make it ... . Not all of them have good talent for running. But a good part of the story is that they have talent for something else. ... Like when they're in the camp, we don't let them only train. First of all, we teach them how to cook ... how to use computers ... how to do bookkeeping. ... Therefore, if they can't make it running and they don't have good grades to go for further studies, they can go to computer schools. They can start their own small businesses, small shops. They can make their own farms.
Kiplagat visiting a classroom in her
former high school. (Photo courtesy Giuliano de Portu)
Do you think some girls might go back to the villages they came from?
Yeah, they will end up in the village that they came from, but the good part of it is that they will not stay the same they were. For sure, there will be a change ... to be business-minded people -- not only sitting and receiving, but doing something for yourself. And to use the knowledge that you've got. I'm sure that some will go back to the village, but they'll never be the same.
It's a challenge to run a camp like this. What challenges have you seen, and where do you want to go?
We've had ups and downs ... . But so far I see a lot of achievement, a lot of improvement. Right now, the girls can take care of themselves ... and that's the reason we really didn't want to spoon-feed them, you know ... . When one of the managers is not there, one of the girls can run the camp. So I see a lot of achievement. They know what they are doing now. It's a lifestyle for them. ... The only thing I hope is that the camp is self-sufficient. Right now, it's dependent on me.
Who supports the camp financially?
[My husband and I] support the camp. We don't get financial
support from the government or from any company. And it is still
going very well because, of course, I'm running well. But the
moment that I'm not running well, then it might be a bit of
But what we are doing now is trying to make it self-sufficient. We're trying to set up a fund to get alternative energy, like solar or wind energy because we end up spending a lot of money on electricity ... . We have to buy a farm ... so that we can plant all the vegetables, all the food that we need so that we don't have to buy these things. We have our own cow, so we don't have to buy milk. ... If this can be done, then we have nothing to worry about anymore. If there are no financial strings, then it will always run. If I will not be there or if my husband is not there, it will always run ... . We have educated those people about what is the goal. ... In a hundred years, I expect that not only Iten, but all over the country, people will have the same ideas, the same goals. And then what we wanted will have been fulfilled.
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