Frontline World

KENYA - Run, Lornah, Run, March 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Run, Lornah, Run"

Kenyan Women Run the Distance

High-Altitude Women

Training for Change

Economy, Running, Women's Rights

Background on Running in Kenya, Gender Issues




Interview With Alexis Bloom and Cassandra Herrman: High-Altitude Women

Cassandra Herrman films near the home of Nancy Kiprop

FRONTLINE/World co-producer and videographer Cassandra Herrman films near the home of Nancy Kiprop, a Kenyan runner training at the High Altitude Training Center, in Iten, Kenya.
Reporter and co-producer Alexis Bloom, a South African, and co-producer Cassandra Herrman, an American, have worked together in Africa before. In 2003, they produced "The Road North," a FRONTLINE/World segment about women and Islamic law in Nigeria. FRONTLINE/World's Kelly Whalen spoke with Bloom and Herrman about their latest journey, to the northwest highlands of Kenya. The co-producers visited the country's first high-altitude running camp for women. Started by a female runner, this camp is training the next generation of star runners.

You both have lived and traveled in other parts of Kenya and rural Africa. What was special about the area you visited and the predominant tribe there, the Kalenjin, who are renowned for long distance running?

Alexis Bloom speaks with Jane Kiptoo

FRONTLINE/World co-producer and reporter Alexis Bloom speaks with Jane Kiptoo, a runner, at the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, Kenya.
Herrman: The Kalenjin are mostly concentrated in this one region we traveled to. They are a minority tribe in Kenya, about 10 percent [of the country's population], but they are legendary in Kenya because of President [Daniel arap] Moi, who is also Kalenjin. They've received a fair amount of attention and have benefited a lot because of Moi. His political power base was here. So when you go to this area, you do really notice that it is very well developed in the sense that the roads are all very good, which is unusual in Kenya. While Moi was in power -- and he was in power 24 years -- the country's infrastructure completely deteriorated. ... So you notice a difference.

Running has become one of the very few means for Kenyans to establish any real wealth. Can you talk about the local economy?

Herrman: The economy is horrible. It's a very poor country. The major problem in Kenya is corruption, from the very top levels to the cops on the street. Everything is sort of run by bribes. But it's supposed to be getting better now with Kenya's new president, Mwai Kibaki, who has vowed to tackle corruption.

Bloom: Unemployment is rampant, and most women don't have jobs. People told us if there are jobs available, men are considered more learned and more educated, so they'll be first up for the jobs. Nancy, one of the women runners at the camp who we profiled, is trained as a teacher. But the government doesn't have a teaching post for her, so she could wait three to five years to get a job, even though she's completed her training.

Did you find women's roles in this region similar to other parts of Africa you've traveled to?

A woman working in the fields with a baby on her back

A traditional woman in rural Kenya spends much of her time doing household chores and farming the family's crops.
Bloom: It is, unfortunately, a widespread problem that women all over African bear the brunt of a lot of ... relatively unrecognized work. They look after the kids, they look after the farms, they feed their husbands, they provide for their families, and they sustain their families' well-being -- without actually earning any currency. Lornah [Kiplagat, top long distance runner and founder of the High Altitude Training Center,] told us that in Kenya, when you're driving down the street you'll see men resting under the shade of trees, chatting to each other and walking to each other's homes. But you never see a woman doing that. You never see a woman resting. Women are always hurrying, hurrying, hurrying, fetching water, fetching firewood.

You stayed at Lornah Kiplagat's High Altitude Training Center to experience it for yourselves. What were the conditions like?

Bloom: One of the ways the camp earns money is they rent out rooms to foreigners. So we rented rooms. The camp is very unusual in that all the rooms have hot water, a shower and flushing water ... . Every girl has that -- it's two to a room, and they have cupboards and flushing water and hot water. Most running camps don't even have running water -- particularly the girls won't have such a nice set up.

We got up around 5am every morning. The girls start their runs when it's still dark, and they have two main runs a day, one from 5:30am to 6:30 or 7am, then once again in the afternoon around 4 o'clock. Sometimes they'll do one continuous run and sometimes they'll go to one spot and just do sprints. They do exercises midday.

Herrman: It's all set up so they are pacing themselves in training. So one day they will do hill work, where they just go up and down hills. Then they do speed work, where they go to the local track and either go in circles or do sprints. They kind of vary it, so they aren't pushing their bodies too hard.

Bloom: It is regimented in that the girls have to do their runs, they have to do their exercises and they have to pull their weight around the camp -- chores, washing dishes and doing their own clothes. But they are not overworked. It's not boot camp. It has more camaraderie, more of a family vibe to it. The key thing is providing the women with accommodation and meals so they have the time and space to train, because many of them don't have families who can afford to look after them while they train.

How did you keep up with the women?

Alexis Bloom watches runners

Bloom and some curious kids wait on the side of the road for the Kenyan runners to sprint around the corner.
Bloom: Generally we were in a car. Otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to keep up.

Herrman: Sometimes we did tracking shots where we were driving alongside them in a car. But for most of the time, like in the mornings, we would try to drive ahead of them on these little dirt paths. You'd plant yourself, wait, and you'd get maybe one shot. You could go for an hour and if you're lucky you got three shots, because they're running. So that was a little bit challenging.

Was the high altitude tough to work in?

Herrman: It's strange, I didn't feel the altitude affecting us, and then the women at the dinner table, some of the runners from Holland staying while we were there, would constantly talk about it. You are just a little more lethargic than usual.

Bloom: And when you actually do exert yourself is when you start to notice it. I went for a 10-minute run with the girls and almost died. I did. I felt like there was a double-decker bus on my lungs. It was slightly absurd, us being such nonathletes, doing a story about athletes.

Herrman: The girls were asking us all the time, "When are you going to run?" ... And they'd tell us "OK, you need to go home, exercise, lose some weight, and then come back and run with us."

Bloom: They were really astounded that we didn't run.

Until recently, it's been mostly Kalenjin boys and men who were encouraged to run and compete. What motivates a girl or woman to train as a runner? Were there any at the camp whose families or husbands didn't want them to train?

Bloom: There was one girl at the camp whose mother had died and whose father had remarried. Her father was a polygamist, so he had different wives -- none of whom was this runner's mother. And it became incredibly uncomfortable for her to be at home, and she literally had gone to the camp as a place of refuge.

In another instance, the camp manager told us, there was a young woman there who had been training, and in December her family had come and taken her out of the camp and she'd never returned. There was some talk about whether she'd been married off or whether she had been circumcised, which is still a practice in the area. And they tried to track her down ... sent one of the girls to go find her in her home village, but they never did.

Then there were some women who had left their husbands [in order to come to camp].

Herrman: Most of the girls were single. There were a couple women who had children who weren't with the father anymore. But the majority were single, which is unusual for a rural area of Kenya. There were women there who were 24 and single. Very unusual.

Nancy Kiprop holds her baby

Nancy Kiprop, a Kenyan woman training to become a world-class runner, enjoys some downtime with her son in her home village near Kenya's Great Rift Valley.
You featured one married woman, Nancy, and met her husband, who cares for the children while she is away training.

Herrman: I hope it's clear in the film that that's unbelievably rare there. Husband staying home and taking care of the kids, that's even sometimes questionable here [the United States]. But in Kenya, it was very striking.

He tells you that he can't stand in the way of God's gift to his wife. What else motivates him?

Herrman (laughs):Smart businessman.

In all seriousness, as more female runners have brought race prize money home, have traditional attitudes about women changed?

Bloom: Yes, that's influenced women's running enormously because parents and families have seen that their daughters could be worth more than the four cows of dowry -- that they are potentially worth thousands of dollars. They see that if she is a really good runner and she doesn't get married, she might bring far more status and money to the family if she runs. And once they've seen successful examples of women running and bringing back money, it becomes a reality to them.

Herrman: This didn't make it into the piece, but we also went home with Ruth, another woman at the camp, and we spoke to her mother, asked her if she supported her daughter's running. She told us she did, and we asked why and how she changed her mind. She gave a one-word answer: money. So I think that has changed people's views quite a bit.

What happens to female runners who don't return with prize money?

Bloom: There's disappointment, but I don't think they are worse off. An interesting thing is that when both women and men win prize money, it is often distributed to the whole family. Kenyans have a very strong sense of extended family, so even if they win a large sum of prize money, very quickly it will be broken down to, say, 20 family members. And there are lots of stories of Kenyan runners who are very successful, but themselves not personally rich because they have huge families to support. It's pretty much expected that if you win prize money, it's communally owned. So it's very different than America. Kenyan athletes find it very hard to hang on to their money.

When you visited Kenya, Lornah Kiplagat was away training for the 2004 World's Best 10K race in Puerto Rico -- which she ended up placing first in -- as well as for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. What was it like when you finally met and interviewed her in New Mexico?

Alexis Bloom and world champion long distance runner LornahKiplagat

Bloom and world champion long distance runner Lornah Kiplagat in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Herrman: It was incredible to meet her because you're surrounded by her and in her shadow when you're at the camp. Everything there is inspired by her. She definitely lived up to her legend. She's an incredible woman, but very humble, down to earth. Unbelievably driven. Very passionate, obviously, about her running and also the camp.

Bloom: She has a great sense of social responsibility and she really hasn't forgotten where she's come from.

Herrman: It was clear from very early on that it [the running camp] was her plan. It wasn't like she started to run, made tons of money and thought, "What should I do?" It was always her vision, even when she wasn't doing as well in races. This was something she wanted to do. And I think it's all the more unusual and impressive in light of where she comes from, because there are other female top runners in Kenya who have made enormous sums of money and haven't done what she's done. Pieter [Langerhorst, Lornah's husband,] and Lornah were telling us that at one point they went to some of them to ask for help to support the camp, and they got no help whatsoever. To some degree I understand it because of the situation with extended family, because of how poor it is in Kenya. You grow up wanting to cling to any money you get. But it is incredible in light of that, that Lornah donated all her money to this.

While you were in Kenya, you also met Brother Colm O'Connell, an Irish priest and athletics coach at St. Patrick's, a boarding school for boys in Iten. He's coached some of Kenya's greatest male runners.

Bloom: Yes, he's sort of the godfather of Kenyan long distance running. He's been instrumental in so many runners' lives, and they all keep in touch with him. Very charismatic, and he really does it for the love of the sport and for the love of the people. He took up a teaching post in Kenya in 1976, when there was no electricity or running water or anything. He was living in a little shack, and gradually St. Patrick's was built up and developed, and running became a proper sport that people took much more seriously.

Herrman: He really is this fantastic character, and it's also sort of strange, because you're in this tiny Kenyan town, and here's this Irish priest. And today the school is just amazing. The dining hall looks like one of those old British boarding school dining halls, just table upon table, and you come to the end and there's this unbelievable wall of photos of champions. Brother Colm is pointing to each one: "I worked with him then" and "I worked with him then" and "He won this championship." He's just been there through the whole history of Kenyan runners.

Have any Kenyan girls' schools followed his lead?

Herrman: There are two girls' schools, one called Singore and the other Kapkenda, and they've both produced a lot of top female runners.

Bloom: Following the lead of St. Patrick's, in fact, there were three nuns who ran Singore, and Brother Colm worked in close collaboration with them. He teamed up with one in particular for his first sort of ladies' camp of six or seven women [in the 1980s]. This was one of the first groups of really talented female runners from Kenya who were taken abroad internationally. Brother Colm went with one of these sisters to America and to Europe with these women runners, entering them into races. He did that as extracurricular to his work at St. Patrick's. He is very supportive of women's athletics and very keen to see women improve and get as much attention as men do.

Herrman: Still, I think one of the major differences [for male and female runners] is still the coaching. Women don't benefit yet from the coaching that men get. When we were at the track, you'd see some of the coaches for male runners, and they are just really enthusiastic, pushing them hard and playing a pivotal role. Whereas with the women, that's kind of the hardest thing, finding someone good to coach them. People still just don't take as much of an interest in girls' running. That's even been a problem at Lornah's training camp, trying to find a good coach, someone who is dedicated and motivated.

Most of Kenya's top runners -- male and female -- come from the Kalenjin tribe. What is the leading theory to explain this?

Bloom: Brother Colm had a great answer to this. He told us that he thinks there's a combination of different reasons, that there is no one answer. There is no essential, neat resolution to this question that so many Westerners pose. He says Westerners are obsessed with reason and analysis, and they want to know "Why? What is the reason for this?" In fact, it is more mystical and unknown than that. Yes, the Kalenjin live at high altitude at the top of the Great Rift Valley, so their pulmonary systems are very well developed, which makes them better runners. But there are other high-altitude places in the world that don't produce such fantastic runners. If that was the only reason, any mountainous people would be great runners.

It is the subtle combination of factors: living at high altitude; running a lot every day beginning with childhood; that there aren't cars and transport services available; their diet; and genetics, built up over centuries; that they have the economic motivation to do well and because the alternative is poverty. Hard work and sheer force of will play a huge role in it too.

Herrman: What was that line Brother Colm said? "Maybe the secret is, there is no secret at all." The mystery of it in a way is more compelling than the actual answer.

More professional athletes from developing nations are being recruited by other countries to represent them in international games. How is this trend affecting Kenyan runners? Are women being courted too?

Alexis Bloom cheers for the runners

Bloom cheering at the sidelines during a race in Iten, Kenya.
Bloom: Some of Kenya's top male runners have literally gotten phone calls that said, "I'll give you X amount of money if you run for us." Qatar is a country that has recently taken two Kenyan runners -- really top men -- and in return they promised the Kenyan ministry of sports to build a stadium. But I don't know of any women runners who have been poached by other countries for purely economic reasons. Lornah, in fact, represents Holland now, but not so much for economic reasons as because she felt as a runner she'd have a better career if she ran for Holland. Kenya is famous for saying, "Yes, you'll be running in the World Championships" and then at the last minute, the runner finds he's been bumped because another coach has used his influence to get his own runner in. Holland's athletic system is more organized and better run and less idiosyncratic than Kenya's. Lornah is also married to a Dutch man, so her change of citizenship is not unnatural.

Herrman: It's a touchy situation because I think Kenyan runners have loyalty to their country, to run for Kenya, but it's incredible how [differently] they are treated. You go overseas and top runners have bodyguards, limousines, and they get treated incredibly well. But they come home to Kenya and they're lucky if anyone shows up at the airport. So I think it's very tempting to leave.

The use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs by professional athletes continues to plague competitive sports, including running. Is this a pressure for Kenyan runners too?

Bloom: On a local level, when people don't have cars or many tracksuits, and they are really scraping to get by, they certainly aren't going to use steroids or other drugs because they just aren't available ... but once runners start running on an international level, I think then the pressure starts. Lornah's husband, Pieter, told us about how a few Kenyans who run abroad become particularly vulnerable -- a greedy coach or agent might try to get them to take steroids. And because the Kenyan runners may not be knowledgeable about vitamins and protein powders and other products, their agents or coaches might say, "Here take this, it's a vitamin," and they'll just take it, really not knowing what it is. They have enormous trust in their agents and are vulnerable to abuse. Lornah's husband said that many Kenyan runners end up with great coaches and great agents and do very well. And then there are others who end up with coaches who see them as cash cows, and they will do anything possible to ensure that their athletes win. They'll enter runners into too many races, and runners will burn out too quickly, or maybe they'll give them steroids or other drugs. That really does happen.

What did you take away from this story?

Bloom: It was an incredibly inspiring story to produce. Cassandra said something really valid too, that whenever you see images of [rural] African women, you see women with buckets on their head. And even though this story is a quiet, sweet piece, it's quite subversive -- you never see footage of African women in sports or running or doing anything other than digging in fields.

Herrman: You never see that -- African women exercising, working out, training. And even to me, someone who has spent so much time in Kenya before, these images are very strong and surprising.

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