watch video >>
Kenyans have been leading the pack of world-class
long distance runners since the late 1960s. They've brought
home 38 Olympic medals for running events between 800 and 10,000
meters in distance -- more than any other country -- and routinely
sweep marathons from coast to coast in the United States. Most
Kenyan runners are from the Kalenjin tribe, whose homeland lies
in the lush, equatorial hills of northwest Kenya. But until
recently, women have only watched from the sidelines as men
But when Lornah Kiplagat emerged from the highlands as one
of the best female runners in the world, she committed herself
and her prize money to building the first women's running camp
in Kenya. In 2000, Lornah set up her High Altitude Training
Center, where women athletes can dedicate themselves wholly
to their sport and experience a new sense of independence.
FRONTLINE/World correspondents Alexis Bloom and Cassandra
Herrman traveled to Iten to meet the emerging athletes at Kiplagat's
unique camp. Runners there hail from villages all over the highlands,
looking for success in what Kiplagat calls the No.1 source of
employment for local women.
Bloom and Herrman meet the camp's newest arrival, 25-year-old
Nancy Kiprop. Her goal is to make the Kenyan National Team,
a career accomplishment that could offer Kiprop the economic
self-sufficiency she craves. "Maybe I run," Kiprop says, "I
get my money. I am free. I can get whatever I want."
Ruth Chebbi is another young woman living and training at the camp. She came from a farm where her mother raised eight children alone. Chebbi also hopes that she can make enough money running to free her from a lifetime of dependence and domestic toil.
Lornah Kiplagat funds the High Altitude Training Center entirely from the money that she wins racing. She sees it as a social experiment and an oasis where Kenyan women can escape their traditional roles and flourish.
Kiplagat has broken four world records, and she won the Los
Angeles Marathon in 1997 and 1998. On a bright winter day in
Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bloom and Herrman catch up with her
while she's training for the 2004 Summer Olympics. Kiplagat
sees her success as a source of courage for the women in her
camp, saying they can look at her career and think, "Yeah, Lornah
did it, why not us?"
Many people following Kiplagat's career expected she wouldn't be able to split her energies between running and building the camp. "Since the moment I started building up the camp in Kenya," Kiplagat says, smiling, "I won every race I entered, but still they think I'm crazy anyway. I don't mind."
Back in Iten, Bloom and Herrman want to see the homes runners have left to train at Kiplagat's camp. They make the two-hour journey along a bumpy track to the village where Nancy Kiprop lives with her husband, baby son, Victor, and five others in a two-room house with walls papered in newspaper clippings of champion runners.
Kiprop acknowledges that "the burden of bringing up children
and at the same time taking up the career of being an athlete"
are a challenge. Her husband, Joseph, stays at home to take
care of their son. His support of his wife's career is the exception
in rural Kenya. People in the village are surprised at Joseph's
decision, but he is proud of his wife's talent. "Who am I?"
Joseph asks. "Am I God? I'm not God. Let somebody go and use
On a rainy Saturday morning in Iten, Bloom and Herrman watch
women from the camp run in the first qualifying round for the
Kenyan National Team. Both Nancy Kiprop and Ruth Chebbi have
a lot at stake; in a country where more than half the population
lives on less than a dollar a day, a top runner in a race can
win thousands of dollars. Women and men from around the region
compete in separate events, some without tracksuits, some without
Though people around the world speculate as to why Kenyans
are such good runners, Kiprop explains that for children growing
up in rural Kenya, running is an integral part of daily life.
"Our schools were located very far away from our homes, so we
had to wake up very early in the morning," Kiprop says. "You
take the breakfast, and you run very many kilometers away from
the home -- maybe 6K. You run lunchtime, then you come back
6K again, and then you go back to school for evening classes,
and in the evening you come back again."
For Kiprop, today's race is her first big test since arriving
at the High Altitude Training Center. Competing against the
best women runners in the district, Kiprop ends up placing third
and qualifies to move on in the series of races heading for
the National Team.
Chebbi places sixth, also qualifying, but barely.
Disappointed, Chebbi expresses concern for her future in running
and for what will happen if she doesn't succeed. "Because if
I have nothing, what kind of a life am I going to lead? So I
am worrying about my future."
Back in New Mexico, Lornah Kiplagat admits "the girls will
not all make it." Not every woman training at her camp will
become an international competitor, but Kiplagat feels confident
that the experience of taking themselves seriously and not just
seeing themselves as bound to traditional domestic roles will
be life changing. "So that it is not only about the running,"
Kiplagat tells Bloom. "It's a way of changing the whole lifestyle
of women in Kenya. We want to change the whole generation. At
the end, all of a sudden, you see a different face, a different
way of life, and you're like, 'Wow, it's possible.'"
Produced and Reported by
LOS ANGELES MARATHON
"BOMAS OF KENYA" PROVIDED BY ARC MUSIC INTERNATIONAL, UK
UC BERKELEY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM
back to top