Frontline World

KENYA - Run, Lornah, Run, March 2004


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

TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK
Kenyan Women Run the Distance

INTERVIEW WITH ALEXIS BLOOM AND CASSANDRA HERRMAN
High-Altitude Women

INTERVIEW WITH LORNAH KIPLAGAT
Training for Change

FACTS & STATS
Economy, Running, Women's Rights

LINKS & RESOURCES
Background on Running in Kenya, Gender Issues

MAP

REACT TO THIS STORY

   


The Story
Reporter Alexis Bloom and runner, Stand for winners, Bare feet in the grass

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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 competed.

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 their talent."

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 shoes.

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
ALEXIS BLOOM
CASSANDRA HERRMAN

Videographer
CASSANDRA HERRMAN

Editor
DAVID RITSHER

Additional Footage
LOS ANGELES MARATHON

Music
"BOMAS OF KENYA" PROVIDED BY ARC MUSIC INTERNATIONAL, UK

Special Thanks
UC BERKELEY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM

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