Dozens of runners congregate near the concrete archway that caps the only paved road in Iten, Kenya on a recent Saturday…
Training with Jane Kibii
As the light bends over the horizon on an early morning in March, three runners come into sight on a red, rough, dirt road in Kenya. They run 5 minute, 40 second miles through a small village, where the inhabitants are just emerging as roosters crow. Saturdays are for long runs in Iten and Clif sponsored athlete Jane Kibii has been at this effort for more than an hour now. She is in the home stretch of training that started months ago and will culminate at the Skechers Los Angeles Marathon in two weeks.
At 5 foot, 3 inches tall and 85 pounds, the 32-year-old Kibii is the picture of efficiency. There is no wasted motion in her running form, not even the curl of a smile at the three legged dog that crosses their path in the morning light — this is work. The Kenyan native is quickly becoming one of the fastest women in the world with a marathon best time of 2 hours, 30 minutes. Today she’s running with two strangers she met just this morning (which is not uncommon here, as long as you can keep up). She wears a windbreaker and long pink running tights for the 54 degree morning temperatures. After their warm-up, the athletes don’t speak, they are all business. Kibii’s eyes are fixed and her expressionless face belies the pace they are maintaining — a speed most experienced runners cannot run for even a single lap around the track — but one that she hopes to run for the entire 26.2 mile marathon distance at her March 19th race.
Beginning in the 1960’s Kenya has increasingly dominated international running, as anyone who’s watched a recent televised marathon can attest. Most of these athletes come from the area around Iten, which has made the small rural town a world-renown training ground for the fastest runners on earth. Both the former and current marathon record holders live and train here. Kibii is one of many athletes in Kenya who have chosen athletics as a career.
Training camps have sprouted up in the region to support the boom, attracting elites like Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah, but also citizen athletes who come for extended periods of uninterrupted training. The level of competition here and the altitude are the primary draws. More than half of Iten’s 4,000 residents are estimated to be training for the international running stage, and Iten is 7,800 feet above sea level, an altitude that many sports scientists think is just the right amount of stress for training adaptation.
Kibii was born in the small town of Moiben, a rural area of eastern Africa dotted with farmland. Her father, John Kigen, who was also known for his running prowess as a young man, supported his 9 children with the family farm. Although one of Kibii’s sisters also showed early promise as a runner, Jane is the only sibling who pursued athletics as a profession. Her brothers and sisters now manage their own plots of farmland near the family home where they raise their children.
Kibii’s running life began as many do in Kenya, by running the three miles to school, back home for lunch, then back to school, and home again each day, often barefoot. By sixth grade she was competing and by 8th grade she was beating the local boys. In high school she was undefeated at 1500 meter events. She laughs as she recalls a vivid memory from a high school race with a neighboring town. Her father, exuberant at seeing his daughter in the lead, began running beside her when she came around, yelling encouragement. “He almost got me disqualified,” she says.
In May 2007, during her first international race, a 10km in Ottawa, Canada, Kibii finished second by running 32 minutes, 23 seconds. “It was from there I realized I can run and make a living from this,” she says. But she’s not just running for herself, the single mother of a 3-year-old daughter Belvia (who was born on the same day as the 2013 Boston Marathon) says, “In Kenya when you win money you come home and help your family.”
However, even with her pedigree, she wasn’t instantly successful at the marathon distance. In 2009 she traveled to America to run in the Las Vegas Marathon, her first time attempting the distance. Coming from Iten, Kibii was unaccustomed to the cold temperatures of the Nevada morning, and suffered dearly for it. “I felt stiff and sore,” Kibii says. “I ran 2:40 and came in fifth, then laid on the ground, and thought, ‘I don’t want to run marathons anymore.'” But she couldn’t resist trying to improve her time, and since then she’s won two marathons and come in second place twice, and now says, “One day I would like to win the Boston Marathon.”
With the sun higher in the sky and temperatures increasing the runners now have to contend with the African heat and subsequent road dust. None of this seems to phase Kibii. She finishes her long tempo run stoic, unaffected, yet glistening with sweat from the effort. She laughs and talks easily on her quarter mile cool-down walk home, stopping at a small local marketplace around the corner from her apartment. She emerges with a bag of sugar and a loaf of white bread.
Though they serve beet juice at the nearby hotels who cater to non-professional tourist-runners, the Kenyans themselves live more of a spartan existence, with fewer frills. Kibii’s diet consists mostly of what is available locally, which means lots of ugali (a mashed-potato like corn meal porridge) and vegetables. Today she recovers with a few cups of sugary chai tea and three slices of bread. Sitting outside her modest 400 square foot home, she says, “I think I can run under 2 hours, 30 minutes, that’s the next goal.”
To accomplish this Kibii runs between 80 and 90 miles each week. Sundays are usually her rest days, where she keeps herself busy with errands and spends time with her daughter. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are relatively easier days, with one or two runs of 1 hour, 20 minutes. The hard work is done on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These are the days for speed workouts on the track, and tempo or intervals in the middle of a medium distance run on the roads. Saturdays are, of course, for long runs. Kibii gets a massage every Tuesday and sometimes again after Saturday's efforts.
Ten elite women lurch off the start line in the Dodger Stadium parking lot on March 18th. With more than 24,000 runners from 63 countries participating today, the athletes with an actual chance at victory start the race in their own wave. The L.A. Marathon is the fourth-largest marathon in the U.S. and the tenth largest in the world.
Kibii gradually makes her way to the front of the pack and by the fifth mile the group has already shed half of the women vying for the win, those who could not maintain the blistering pace. The women form a tight pack, like a cycling peloton. “I had calves problems at mile six, so I was worried I might not finish,” says Kibii. After the eventual winner, fellow Kenyan, Hellen Jepkurgat, throws in a 17 minute, 20 second, 5-km effort, Kibii drops back from the lead pack of four women. They are half way done and Kibii doesn’t want to court disaster.
As Jepkurgat asserts her will, Kibii maintains a solid pace battling in third and fourth place until one of the leaders, Ethiopian, Biryuktayit Degefa, slowed considerably. Kibii is able to hold on to place second. At the finish line Kibii is relieved to be done, but in her exhaustion she can’t hide her slight disappointment. “Even though it was slower than I wanted,” she says, “I am happy.”