I’m coming to the end of my stay here, and with ten days left, I’ll give a little summary of how this altitude training trip has gone for me. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges of travelling to Kenya to train at altitude has been the weather.
At midday the temperature can reach the mid thirties. This obviously makes it very difficult, and a little bit dangerous, to run at that time. To overcome this training is done at 6am, and then again before 10am.
You get used to the weather, and so after a few weeks of waking up at 6am and going for a run, you find yourself feeling cold, even though it may be 14 or 15 degrees at that time of the morning, so you start to layer up a little more on the morning runs.
I live right next to the Rift Valley, one of the most famous places in Africa. Travelling 1km by road to the east means I will descend the valley by nearly 1.5km in altitude. This means that we frequently get flash fogs, which is really just when clouds from the valley get blown over our village. For anyone who has never experienced something like this, it’s like walking in very cold fog, and you just get very wet, very quickly. The water vapour just sticks to you, and your clothes soak it up.
Right now is also the start of the rainy season and so every night without fail, and sometimes during the day, we get tropical rain. When this happens it becomes very difficult to train. Most of the roads I use to train on are a mixture of dirt and clay or soil taken from the fields, and so they turn into mud very quickly. The soil here is red and just sticks to your shoes, so within a few hundred metres you can be carrying an extra kilo or two on both shoes.
All the Kenyans I know, including World and Olympic champions, refuse to run in the rain. They will simply put the training off until later in the day or miss it completely rather than go out and get wet. There is some sense to this, as the training is never of the same quality, and also it’s impossible to run on the local track when it has been raining, so putting the session off is sometimes the best thing to do.
Moving to, and living in, Eastern Africa for three months presents some other issues that would not have come up if you trained at altitude in American or France. The food out here is a little different to what I would have had available to me in Ireland. It’s obviously perfect for runners, as so many of the worlds best runners come from Kenya, but just adjusting to the different cooking styles and methods can be problematic.
Within the first week I suffered from food poisoning, and it’s not uncommon for most white foreigners to get food poisoning at some point during a trip here. The food hygiene standards, or lack thereof, creates another little problem to overcome. The butchers here do not freeze anything. Once an animal is killed, it is strung up from the ceiling and hacked away at by machetes. There is no fine surgery of the different cuts of meat, and not finding shards of bone in your beef stew is almost a disappointment.
Until your immune system becomes used to the food here, there can be a few issues with stomach problems. The local wildlife can also be an issue. I sleep under a mosquito net, but it doesn’t keep everything out. Waking up and finding you have been bitten is never nice, but once you get used to it, it’s not worth worrying over. Not knowing which insects are going to cause a problem is the worst thing. There is a fly in Kenya called the Nairobi fly, and it’s perfectly harmless, until you kill it. If you squash it, the insides spray out and it’s full of a some form of acid. It doesn’t leave a permanent scar, but will leave a mark on you for a week or two, and it’s extremely painful. Luckily, a little toothpaste on the scar stops the burning.
While running on Sunday I got hit in the left eye by an insect. Whatever it was, I had an allergic reaction to it. My left eye and eyelid swelled up to the size of a golf ball, until I couldn’t open it. I decided to leave it until Monday to see if the problem swelling would go away. Monday morning it was much worse.
A trip to the local hospital was needed, and hour later I had eye drops and tablets to reduce the swelling. The total cost, including doctors fee of 320 shillings, came to around €3.
While €3 isn’t going to mean much to anyone reading this article, it can be two days wages for most people here, three for some. So although it’s a good service, it’s still relatively expensive for Kenyans themselves. In many ways they are way ahead of us in Europe, but then there are so many things they are way behind us in also.
Overall, I still believe this is the best place on the planet to train at altitude. Going to the United States and France and training there means you can have snow at altitude, and it’s easy to get food poisoning here. In fact, all of the top French runners come to Kenya to train, because it’s a little higher and less expensive to live here for a longer period of time, but the facilities are much worse than they are in France.
In fact, the local track in Portlaoise or the track in Mountmellick and St Abban’s are of a much better standard than the track here, and yet some of the fastest middle and long distance runners the world has ever seen can train here with no complaints.
I guess once you make the most of where you are, all the little things that could become a problem just seem to fade into the background. Anyway, most of the time I’m too tired to worry about anything apart from the next training session!
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