Nairobi — Arithmetically, Marakwet people form the formidable force that has seen Kenya dominate athletics in the international circles.
Talk of a Kenyan winner in any major athletics event in any part of the world and the chance is that this person is a Marakwet from the remote, hilly district found in the North Rift region.
A simple look at the runners who represented Kenya at the August 23 to 31, 19th World Athletics Championships held in Paris would reveal that people from Marakwet district dominated the team. This district, with some parts rising up to 2,800 metres above sea level, enjoys a fair share of world class athletes.
No district has dominated the steeplechase event as much as Marakwet. This is the home of Moses Kiptanui who apart from being the first man to run the 3,000 metres steeplechase under eight minutes, also won several world titles in the event.
He won the world titles in 1991, 1993 and 1995. In 1995 in Zurich, Kiptanui ran the distance in seven minutes and 59 seconds that not only was a new world record, but also beat the eight-minute barrier. Three of the steeplechasers at the Paris world championship - Reuben Kosgei, who also held both the world and Olympic title before Paris, Ezekiel Kemboi and Michael Kipyego were from Marakwet.
Abraham Chebii, who became an instant household name in Kenya after beating Ethiopia's Haile Gabrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele twice over the 5,000m in Golden League meets, Olympian William Mutwol, now a coach, Joseph Chemaringo, currently working with KVDA Eldoret, Paul Chemase and a host of others all hail from this district.
But is Marakwet content at being the leading provider of the country's top runners?
Three-time Honolulu marathon winner Eric Kimaiyo says the district is not ready to go to pasture and forget about tomorrow. He feels the district has to wake up and not allow itself to face what befell other districts like Nandi and Uasin Gishu which used to produce many world class runners.
Kimaiyo saw that the onus of ensuring the district continued to produce good runners lay squarely on the hands of the successful athletes from the district.
This is what led him to set up an athletics training camp in Marakwet.
Some of the athletes at the Kapsait training camp take their morning tea.
Photo by David Macharia
Located at Kapsait village in Lelan location of Kapcherop division, the camp is a full house. The number of attendants shoots up to over 100 runners when schools close.
He postulates: "Do you know that Joseph Chebet who at one time won both the Boston and New York marathon titles in the same year hails from Marakwet? Do you know the current Berlin, Amsterdam and Venice marathon champions - Raymond Chemwol, Boaz and Barnabas Ruto - respectively come from Marakwet?"
Others like Fred Kiprop and Simon Biwott trained here before becoming major marathon runners.
One thing common in all these champions is that they are all a product of the Kapsait village athletics training camp.
When we visited the camp last weekend, there were three categories of runners training here.
There were girls and some men who were training for the forthcoming cross country season while the third lot were marathoners.
When training, the distance covered varies depending on the group.
When it is a day for a long run, the marathoners traditionally cover up to a gruelling 38 kilometres while cross country runners cover 25 kilometres and girls 20 kilometres.
Because the camp is located some 42 kilometres from Kapenguria town, 15 kilometres from Kapcherop trading centre and 20 kilometres each from Iten-Keiyo district headquarters and Kapsowar-Marakwet district headquarters, the location is ideal for the runners to train in a serene environment.
The programme starts at dawn where the runners cover the longer distances either on the Kapsait-Kapenguria road or the Iten-Kapsait road, before returning to the camp for breakfast. In the afternoon the athletes perform light training.
The camp has also acted as a consolation retreat for those runners whose heart is broken by uncaring officials.
Remember Margaret Atondonyang, the girl who made the national cross country team twice and was dropped each time without any explanation?
The second time she was dropped, she nearly left Kigari teachers college at night because she could not stand the pain of being dropped from the team after working so hard to finish in the top ranks at the Ngong race course.
It took fellow runners time to convince her not to bolt out of the national training camp at night.
Since then she has kept off national championships. But Kimaiyo says Atodonyang is not finished because after joining the camp, she opted to train for the marathon and has already attained a personal best time of 2 hours and 13 minutes.
She was not at the camp during our visit but Kimaiyo said she had already left to prepare for the Chicago marathon. He said this is a runner to watch out for in the near future.
Other star products at the camp include medallists at the Africa junior championship in Younde Cameroon. These are Penina Chepchumba who won gold and bronze over 1,500m and 3,000m, Loise Kiptoo who won gold in 2,000m and Fridah Domong'ole who took silver in 5,000m.
Because of the success at the camp that was started in 1996 at a plot owned by Kimaiyo, a better one is being built at a cost of about Sh8 million.
The new camp set on a higher ground is almost complete after its foundation stone was laid by the Minister for Gender, Sports, Cuture and Social Services Najib Balala.
A road race would be among the events of the opening day.
A fitness health centre would be the next project after the completion of the training camp. The centre would in addition to treating athletes also provide health care to local people who travel long distances in search of treatment.
The minister is expected to perform the grand official opening early next year, according to Kimaiyo.
When completed, the facility will have a conference room, records room, hostel and cottages able to accommodate over 150 runners.
Kimaiyo hopes by the completion time, electricity will have reached the village from Kapcherop centre - 15 kilometres south.
He has a dream that one day the camp could also be used by the national team to train for major championships like the world cross country in addition to continuing to produce international stars.
The altitude, weather and availability of good food makes Kapsait the ideal training ground. Milk is plenty and Kimaiyo makes sure each runner takes a mug of it after dinner.
For those who are not runners, Kapsait is also a wonderful place to go for outings. It has good scenery and features that have sparked folk tales.. There is a hill - Kipteber that local people say dropped from heaven killing many of the Ogiek people and scattered the Marakwets towards the east while their Pokot counterparts moved westwards.
Because of the high altitude at Kapsait, other far places are visible from here.
With such a facility, Kimaiyo believes the country's dwindling performance can be restored.
He believes the Ethiopians are not a major threat to Kenyans if only Athletics Kenya can agree to sit on a round table with the athletes to plan the way forward.
He said since the demise of Kim Macdonald of Britain and the shifting of interest by Dr Gabriela Rosa of Italy from track to cross country and road racing, performance by Kenyans on the track has been going down.
Kimaiyo does not believe that the mushrooming of training camps in the country was one of the causes of the falling standards of the sport.
He says the country lacked a programme to tap talent and take care of upcoming runners. He feels coaches who nurture talent at the grassroots are not appreciated or recognised by the federation.
Some camps in the region had problems in taking care of girl athletes. But Kimaiyo says it is all a matter of discipline on the part of people managing such camps.
He has three coaches - Geoffrey Tormos, Thomas Mukhwana and Ambrose Suter, all drawn from local primary schools to ensure they also monitor the runners while in school.
Kimaiyo feels that the country needs a legislation to ensure sports girls are not mistreated in sports circles. This should include taking action against any person who marries off or impregnates an under age athlete. .
All training camps should be forced to sign a code of conduct that would ensure they protect and respect the rights of the girl child.
Kimaiyo was born in the Kapsait village in 1969, studied at Kapsait Primary School up to class three before joining Kabichbich boarding to complete his primary education. He joined Chepkorio youth polytechnic where he trained as a motor mechanic, a trade which was later to secure him recruitment into the Kenya Air Force in 1990.
It was in the Armed Forces that he met such runners as Paul Tergat and the late Richard Chelimo who inspired him to join athletics and he boarded a plane for the first time when he went to take part in the London Marathon in 1994 where he dropped out with only two kilometres to go.
The following year he went for the Tokyo marathon where he finished third in two hours and 10 minutes. It was during the Tokyo, Japan race that he met Gabrielle Rosa.
Their association has resulted in the building of the Kapsait camp through the support of Fila - an Italian sports goods manufacturing company. Since joining Rosa's stable of runners, he won the Honolulu marathon three times in 1997, 1998 and 2000.
He was runners up in 1999. Other exploits include finishing eighth in the 1997 Boston Marathon and emerging second in the Berlin Marathon in 1997 where he attained a personal best time of 2:07.00.