By Ulrich Fluhme / Markus Roessel for mzungo.org, Iten / Kenya, 09.01.10
If you are moving through the highlands of Kenya and in particular the epicentre of long distance running, the Rift Valley Province, you quickly get familiar with the strong green and brown environment. The dirt roads and the beautiful scenery of trees and fields give the general impression of a naturally rich environment. Your eyes soon get used to the typical colours and shades of this extraordinary piece of nature.
But all this strikingly beautiful serenity may suddenly be interrupted by bunches of runners who literally fly by. They are dressed in bright yellow, pink, red, blue or any other imaginable colour or a combination thereof. Their clothes show the logos of the strong brands on the running market. It's what a British journalist recently called "the lycra army".
Some wear old, heavy used gear. It may say "Fila", which was an elite distance running team that disappeared years ago and much resembled the (Italian) style of the late 80s and early 90s. It may say "Chicago Marathon 1996" on the jacket and be coupled with a worn out training pant more suitable for a warming up basketball player than a skinny elite runner.
But then there are those who sport the latest gear on the market. On the market? Not really. The lucky chosen ones with a new contract thanks to their sub 2:10 marathon or equivalent result, serve as role models and sometimes as testers for their sponsor's latest gears. This is not yet or actually will never be available to the ordinay runner.
With this distinction, the trained eye can divide the top guns from the runner ups from afar.
More striking than anything though is the fact that literally all Kenyan runners train in what US Americans would call "track suits". While tight fitted long or short pants coupled with egually tight fitting, breathable upper wear seem to be the current worldwide running standard, the cream of the crop in distance running sticks to flapping and rather warm clothing no matter what the weather is like.
"I train in warm gear so I will feel like flying when I race in shorts and singlet", one runner explained the Kenyan way of making the training hard to "win easy".
As for shoes, most Kenyan runners have to be happy with whatever they get their feet on: usually heavy second hand shoes from overweight Westerners. But even those who actually have a choice due to a contract with a running company, seem to prefer the heaviest pair of kicks available to them. As with heavy and warm clothes, their explanation is similar. When race day comes, racing flats make them feel faster.
That said, if you ever train on Kenyan clay roads, another benefit of thick shoes quickly becomes obvious: the roads are riddled with sharp and thick stones that only seem to wait to drill through your skimpy racing flats.