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Kenya: Runners at Risk

Lornah Kiplagat

Lornah Kiplagat at her high-altitude training center in Kenya in 2004.

An interview with Lornah Kiplagat

She's still trying to train at her camp in the highlands of western Kenya, but renowned runner Lornah Kiplagat is shaken by the recent turmoil in her village, Iten, and the violence which engulfed the nearby city of Eldoret, where a mob set fire to a church, killing more than 50 people who had taken shelter there.

Marathoner Luke Kibet was injured during an attack in downtown Eldoret, and a former member of Kenya's Olympic team, Lucas Sang, was hacked to death.

The violence was triggered December 30th when the government of President Mwai Kibaki announced he had been re-elected, despite early returns showing that the challenger, Raila Odinga, had a substantial lead. Since then, Odinga's supporters, mainly from the Luo tribe, have clashed repeatedly with Kibaki's followers, who are generally from the Kikuyu majority.

Kiplagat is one of the best women long distance runners in the world. Born and raised in Kenya, she married her Dutch trainer, Pieter Langerhorst, and now competes for the Netherlands. In 2000, she and her husband started the High Altitude Training Center in Kenya for women runners, a unique camp that FRONTLINE/World producers Alexis Bloom and Cassandra Herrman visited in 2004 for their story, "Run, Lornah, Run."

When we heard about the violence in her region, we were worried about Kiplagat and her camp. Phone lines were down, but she was able to reply to our email questions. Fortunately, she's safe and the camp is intact.

Stephen Talbot: How has the post-election violence affected you and your camp for women runners?
Lornah Kiplagat: The post election violence has affected me mentally, not physically. We are in complete shock about what is happening in our great country, this was completely unexpected. We cannot train like we usually do. Also, running is not really on our mind when you see what's going on around you.

"The post election violence has affected me mentally, not physically. We are in complete shock about what is happening in our great country."

Describe what has been happening in your area?
Within 10 minutes after the announcement of who won the elections, there was a big crowd on the streets of Iten. People were very angry and frustrated and wanted to demonstrate. They made a lot of noise and it was very tense. Suddenly, several houses next to the camp were on fire and the fire came as close as 50 meters to the camp.

Are you and your runners in danger?
No, not at all. We live in a pretty much one tribe community so people won't hurt each other. No people died in Iten and we are very happy with this. They don't take it out on athletes, they are the heroes of the people. People have problems with the outcome of the elections and the government, not with us.

I understand that some European runners visiting your camp were evacuated.
We had about 16 visitors from Europe and we didn't know if they were safe when it all started. There was shooting, fire, a lot of noise and we didn't know in what direction the clashes would go. We are responsible for those people and when we had the opportunity to get them out, we did this immediately. Later on we realized that the visitors were not in danger but the atmosphere was not good, of course. The other problem was that food and water were getting scarce. We didn't want to take any risk so we evacuated them in cooperation with the police, the Dutch Embassy and KLM.

Woman running.

Kiplagat is the current world record holder for the half-marathon.

The ethnic violence that flared up in Kenya has pitted the majority Kikuyu against the minority Luo. From our report about you -- "Run, Lornah, Run" in 2004 -- we know that most of the famous Kenyan runners are from the Kalenjin ethnic community in the highlands. How has the tribal tension affected the Kalenjin?
Yes, in our area there are mostly Kalenjins, but there are also Kikuyu people. In Eldoret, the former world class athlete Lucas Sang, a Kalenjin, was killed and world champion Luke Kibet got injured. However, we hope that the Kikuyu and Kalenjin athletes can show together that they are all Kenyans. It is not a tribal problem but a political problem.

The violence was triggered by the controversial and contested outcome of the recent presidential election in which the challenger (Raila Odinga, a Luo) accuses the incumbent president (Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu) of stealing the election. How can this crisis be resolved?
At this moment most people believe the best thing is to have an interim government and have new elections. The U.K., U.S. and E.U. have seen some problems in the count of votes so this might be the best.

Kenya has had a reputation for relative peace and stability. Are things getting better or worse for the average Kenyan?
This is hitting the poor Kenyans very hard. Things were going pretty well in Kenya but this will push the country back, of course. Kenya had a very good image as a stable country and this is over now.

Are you still able to train?
Yes, we can train every day now and things are very calm.

Are you still planning to take part in the Dubai marathon on Janaury 18th?
Certainly, I want to run and show something positive. Sport is the best way to communicate and that's what we will do.

You ran in the last Olympic Games. Are you considering trying to qualify for the Olympic races in Beijing this summer?
Yes, the plan is to run the 10,000 meter and I have several qualification races in my schedule.

"We focus now much more on education and we hope the camp is able to fund this. We started the Lornah Kiplagat Foundation and the plan is to build a high school for girls in 2009."

At the age of 33, you have had an extraordinary year of success in 2007, setting the world record for the half-marathon. How are you feeling about your running these days?
Looks like I'm getting better and better. It's like good wine. I still have the idea that I get stronger and faster. We understand every time better how the body responds on the training so I still have a lot of plans.

In general, how is your camp faring these days? Is the focus still on providing a training facility for Kenyan women? Do you have adequate funding to keep the camp going?
We have many international runners who stay here. We focus now much more on education and we hope the camp is able to fund this. We started the Lornah Kiplagat Foundation and the plan is to build a high school for girls in 2009. We want to offer between 300 and 500 girls a free education, girls from a very poor background from all areas in Kenya. This is our plan and we will really focus on this.

The camp is open to guests from all over the world who will pay for their stay. We still have several girls training and we had many world-class athletes. Hilda Kibet won the New York City Half Marathon in 2007; Doris Changeywo won the World Military Championships 10,000 meter; Lenah Cheriyout won the Venice Marathon.

Can you tell us anything about Nancy Kiprop or Ruth Chebbi, two of the women runners featured in our story about your camp?
Ruth has opened a shop and is now a "business woman." Nancy is now in the police and is still running. She is married and doing very well. We hope she will have a breakthrough in running this year.

What can people do to help?
We hope that people will come and visit us at the HATC once things are calm again. This year we will show our plans for the school on our official web sites and The Lornah Kiplagat Foundation and people can help us by donating.

Education is the base of everything. We need to educate the girls because they are the mothers of the future and are a big influence on their kids. The better educated they are, the less poverty, the less HIV/AIDS, the fewer tribal problems.

Related Stories

"Top Runners Are Caught in Kenya's Rising Violence"
This New York Times story from January 5th, 2008, reports on how Kiplagat's athletic training camp was affected by the escalating violence in Kenya following election results.

"Kiplagat Leaves All the Rest Behind"
Here's another New York Times article about the 33-year-old Kiplagat's phenomenal track record in road and field, and what makes her such a formidable opponent.

Kenya: Playing the Tribal Card
In the wake of the ethnic violence that followed Kenya's recent disputed presidential election, FRONTLINE/World journalist Edwin Okong'o, a Kenyan, explains the tribal rift in his country and how it has been exploited by rival politicians.

Kenya: Run, Lornah, Run
Watch our popular story from 2004, when FRONTLINE/World reporter Alexis Bloom traveled to the mountain village of Iten in Kenya's northwest highlands, where Kiplagat operates her high-altitude training camp.


- new york, ny
Good to know that Lornah Kiplagat is OK. What a tragedy this is for Kenya. The country's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ms. Wangari Maathai, has called for international pressure to force a political compromise and avoid further violence.