For the past six years, Canada’s current fastest marathoner* and New Balance athlete Reid Coolsaet has spent 4–10 weeks training in the small Kenyan village of Iten. This year, his sights are set clearly on Rio.
Iten, Kenya, is the “Home of Champions.” Runners from all over the world come to train at this rural town 2400m above sea level, and this is where Reid Coolsaet comes to test his limits. He runs with locals who’ve finished a marathon in 2:06 and a half marathon in under 60 minutes, and he regularly runs a half marathon’s worth of kilometers in one day, ranging from 155 to 170km in one week. Whoa.
When you have just a few months to go before you race alongside the world’s best athletes in Rio, there’s a necessary predictability built into your daily itinerary: fuel, train, recover.
To give us an idea of what life is like leading up to such a big event, Reid shares an in-depth look at what goes into two days of his training stint in Iten.
My goal here is to leave fitter than when I arrived – it sounds simple, but because I’ve been doing this for so many years I can tell a lot by listening to my body, and it starts with fueling.
The High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) where I stay caters to Western athletes, and today’s breakfast includes eggs, porridge, bread and pancakes, plus tea and juice. Later I dip into Club Iten, a restaurant where the wifi is good and the mango juice is fresh.
I have lunch at my friend Thomas’s house. He lives with his wife Doris and daughter Grace in a one-room apartment adorned with race medals and posters; Doris has an upcoming marathon in Tanzania. There’s no running water, just a well outside and outhouses. Their small television plays dubbed over Spanish soap operas (very popular amongst Kenyans) as we sip a sweet milky tea with heaps of sugar. We also eat pawpaw fruit, which tastes like cantaloupe, as well as potatoes and beans. It seems crazy to me how simple their life is, and although many people don’t have much here they don’t seem poor in the sense North Americans are used to – they don’t stress about things they don’t have and aren’t in debt for a lifestyle they’re trying to capture but can’t afford.
For dinner at HATC, they serve Kenyan specialties. Ugali is close to polenta and made from cornmeal and there’s the nutrient dense and kale-like sukuma wiki. Kenyan runners swear by ugali as a big source of energy and even cook it in hotel rooms abroad before races.
Today I’m running at my own pace. I pass children bundled up as though it’s the dead of winter. At 10–12°C in the early morning, the locals find it very cold. There are athletes of all different speeds out running, and almost all have tights and a jacket. I’m one of the few wearing shorts (very Canadian). I run 18km in an hour and 20 minutes, which is quite routine for me. My legs are fairly tired from the last few weeks of intense training, but a little soreness and fatigue is just part of the game. Later I do another 10km in 45 minutes with fellow Canadian John Mason.
I spend some time at the gym at HATC and go through my core routine, which I do 2–3 times per week. It consists of functional movements on my feet, work with a medicine ball, planks and injury prevention exercises.
I’ve been running up to 170km per week lately, which isn’t really high for me, but it’s enough that I feel like taking a nap. I feel very comfortable in Kenya, it’s like a second home to me. The weather, the trails, the people and the atmosphere are great.
Breakfast is functional tea and oatmeal. I dive into my stash of protein bars mid-morning and round things out with lunch of vegetable soup, fresh bread rolls, rice, lentils and salad.
Ugali, sukuma wiki and salad are on the dinner menu tonight, as well as beef stew and roasted potatoes with watermelon for dessert. It was a solid day, so I decide to treat myself to a mango and beetroot juice, too.
Over 200 athletes use the track at Kamariny Stadium between 7 and 11am. Today’s work out begins at 9:10am and it’s hard. I prep by going through my stretching routine, listening to music and applying some much-needed sunscreen.
I lace up my New Balance 1400v1 racing flats and finish off my 5km warm-up around the track. I brought a slightly used pair of runners so I could give them away to a local athlete at the end of my training camp. I came here with 16 pairs and will leave with just three.
There are typically 40–50 athletes in the group I train with. About 10 guys who all have experience racing abroad are doing 15 x 1000m and are targeting 2:50–2:55 for each interval, with just over two minutes rest between them. I join in, averaging 2:55 for the first six intervals while hanging on to the back of the group.
Martin Matathi (2007 World Championship 10,000m Bronze Medalist) picks up the pace on the seventh interval and I trail the group by a few seconds. I’m pretty tired and I’d rather run with the group than fall behind, so I decide to run the first 600m of their 1000m for the last eight intervals, embracing the extra rest. They ask me to pace the last two. I’m a little nervous about screwing up, but I hit the splits right on and run 1:43 and then 1:42 while leading the remaining seven guys still in the workout.
Later, I do an easy 6km run to get my daily running volume up to 26km. I run some drills and a bunch of kids come over. They mime my running drills, lunges, high knees and jumps.
I venture over to Dan’s apartment for a massage. He’s a really good masseuse and only charges 500 shillings (about $7 CDN) for an hour. I’ve heard different stats but it sounds as though the average income is about $1000 CDN a year in rural Kenya, plus I’ve seen world record holders getting massages here.
In the 12 weeks leading up to the games in Rio I’d like to average around 200km per week. Physiotherapy, stretching and pool running will keep me in training mode. My goal for Rio? To finish in the top 15 in the marathon or top 10 if training is going really well.
We’ll be rooting for you in Rio, Reid. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes look at life training in Iten. – MEC
*Reid Coolsaet is the second fastest Canadian marathon runner ever, after Jerome Drayton (2:10:09 in 1975), and is the current fastest at only 10 seconds behind Drayton at 2:10:29. That’s pretty darn fast.