The just concluded World Cross Country Championship in Mombassa turned the eyes of the world to Kenya, helping promote a sub-sector of the holiday vacation industry that has long gone neglected, sports tourism. The Cross Country in Mombasa led to attention focused on this town as the best in the world battled for the championship, as usual Kenya did not disappoint the world taking its usual place in athletics. The country’s dominance in athletics has drawn visitors into the country as they come to discover or experience where the worlds best marathon and long distance runners come from. The country’s athletes have excelled in international marathons making them one of Kenya’s major exports. Currently 43 out of the 100 best male long distance runners are Kenya according to statistics released early this year by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF).
When it comes to the IAAF Cross Country Championships Kenya has been known to dominate especially the junior races, as they did this year and their performance internationally is contributing significantly to Kenya safari sector as sports tourism catches on. Sports tourism is an emerging segment of the world’s largest and fastest-growing industry, tourism. It capitalizes on people touring for the purpose of participating in some manner of sporting activity. It has been known to change the economies of cities, regions and even countries around the world as towns increasingly become reliant on the visiting sports personalities. According to a report on Business of Sports Tourism, the sub-sector’s growth is driven by interest in sporting events on the back of the massive expansion in satellite and digital television coverage over the last ten years.
And in some countries, it can account for as much as 25 per cent of all tourism receipts. Increased leisure time, disposable income and cheaper travel have meant sport is no longer just added on to travel, it is a reason to travel. Estimates of the size of the sports tourism sector vary due to a lack of a single agreed definition of what constitutes sports tourism, ranging from its travel solely for participation in competitive sporting activity to broader definitions where the sporting activity might be more leisure or adventure activity. Kenya attracts both professional and leisure sports personalities, especially athletes. And one winner has been the countries highlands which have attracted athletes who want to train where Kenyans train, in high altitude.
Training in the highlands
Micheal Aspinall was in Kenya the past two weeks training in the Kenyan highlands for the first time, his decision to come was influenced by the opportunity to train with some of the best in the world and in high altitude he says. “At first it took me a while to acclimatise but now I am used to it,” he says. The 23 year old Briton has already participated in the Amserdam marathon and hopes to take part in the London Marathon later this year, seeing it as an opportunity to make the cut for the 2008 Olympics.
He is one among many others who can be found in the Kenyan highlands running. According to Peter Angwenyi, public relations manger of Athletics Kenya, close to 1500 athletes come to train all year round and most end up touring the country. In his short stay, Mr Aspinall has taken a trip along the rift valley and been on one Kenya safari tour with African safaris and Adventures.
According to Martin Keino, the proprietor of Keino Sports Marketing and a former pace setter in long distance running, at any one time up to 150 foreign athletes can be found training in the highlands across the country especially in Iten and Eldoret. At 8,000 feet above sea level Iten, a small farming town in the North Rift, has gained prominence in the international arena as having produced some of the Worlds greatest athletes. “Due to the winter session in Europe, Asia and US many athletes move to the Kenya highlands to train,” adds Mr Keino. In December 2006 a team of German police athletes were in Nyahururu town training for the 2007 German indoor championships.
Melanie Schulz, one of the athletes, has been to the town eight times for high altitude training while her team mate Stefan Eberhardt was training in the country for the fourth time. Over the years various training facilities have been opened in the highlands to meet the demand for both local and foreign athletes, most of which are in Eldoret and Iten.
One such facility is the KipKeino High Performance Training Centre (HPTC), named after Kenya’s famous runner Kipchoge Keino. It is one of the HPTC’s supported by the IAAF in the world. The centre provides year round support and training to international athletes and is also recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Leading to the Cross Country Championship the centre had 20 athletes from various countries training according to the Centre’s manager, Ian Keino. And expect to remain full through out the year as more athletes are expected to train for the All African Games to be held in June this year and later for the international marathons and in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.
In anticipation of demand the centre is expanding its capacity from accommodating 40 to 55 people by building four new hotel bandas.The High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) in Iten is also expecting a large number of international athletes this year. According to the HATC manger, Monica Kiplagat, just before the 2004 Olympics they hosted the Dutch and Scottish athletics team for a month and are good numbers this year and early next year. In addition the centre also receives a number of recreational athletes who take Kenya holidays in the highlands to train with the Kenyan athletes. “Most of them just come for the experience, to train and stay fit before moving on to explore other tourist attractions in the country” says Kiplagat.
The visitors mainly spend on room and board at the centres, paying anything from Sh 4,500 to Sh 6,000 depending on the durations of stay at the HATC. This includes food which is sourced from their farm, the use of a top of the range gym among other facilities. Most of the athletes come with their own training schedules, which they keep to, though according to Martin Keino some join the Kenyan athletes who are known for their harsh schedules.
Other International Marathons in the country
In addition to hosting training athletes the country hosts a number of marathons and races throughout the year that attract a number of foreign athletes. One such race is the Safaricom Lewa Marathon which raises money to support major conservation and community projects in Lewa. Over the years the marathon has gained a reputation as one of the ten toughest marathon events in the world. Run on rough terrain, a game reserve located 5,500 feet above sea level, the race has attracted competitors form all over the world.
According to Sara Watson of Tusk Trust, the marathon organisers, out of the 750 participants in the 2006 marathon about 250 were non-Kenyans. While ‘the greatest race on earth’ marathon, better known as the Stanchart marathon, attracted 125 runners from 33 different countries last year, an increase from the previous year. According to the Tourism Trust Fund the industry is looking at ways to work with the ministry of sports to further enhance As sports tourism catches on in the country athletics is expected to play a crucial role in increasing the number of tourists in the country. “It’s a very big market that can be tapped further and earn the tourism sector even more money” says Kiplagat.
Wednesday, March 14
From our various points of origin, we arrive at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and are taken by a African safaris Adventures driver to the Fairview Hotel, an elegant, old-fashioned establishment on the outskirts of town, where we spend our first night in Kenya.
Thursday, March 15
After an early breakfast, we catch our flight across the Great Rift Valley to Eldoret, and move into our rooms at the Eldoret Club Hotel, a updated colonial-era country club that will be our base for a next few days. We spend the morning walking around the town of Eldoret, stopping at Kipchoge Stadium, where elite runners train among school kids, and dropping in at the office of the man, for whom the stadium is named, two-time Olympic Champion Kipchoge Keino.
After a quick visit to the school and orphanage that Keino founded, we return to the Club for lunch, driving past mansions belonging to newly wealthy runners. Next we set off, with running gear, for Kazi Mingi, the training camp Keino operates under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee for runners from all over Africa. After a tour of the camp and an easy run on its grounds, we take tea with the athletes and head back to the Club for supper, with a few local running celebrities as our guests.
Friday, March 16
We start with an early morning run on the Club’s golf course, and then bring along our running gear on a drive to Kaptagat (about 20 miles), the site of separate camps sponsored by Nike and Adidas. We visit the camps, chat with the athletes and join them for lunch at one of the camps or at a nearby village. Then we go on to Nyaru (15 miles) on the western rim of the Rift Valley and drive part way down the escarpment on a celebrated marathon training route used by Kenya’s elite (they run 13 miles from the bottom of the Valley to the rim, an ascent of 4000 feet). In late afternoon we meet a few runners from the training camps for a relaxed run along the picturesque edge of the Rift Valley then join them for tea at one of the camps. We return to Eldoret for supper at the home of a well known local athlete.
Saturday, March 17
after a morning run, we drive south into Nandi District (30 miles), home of the densest concentration of Kenyan running talent. Here we pass the childhood homes of Kipchoge Keino, Wilson Kipketer, Henry Rono, Mike Boit, Paul Bitok, Ibrahim Hussein and half a dozen other Olympic medalists and world record holders, all within a few miles of one another. This is the Kenyan equivalent of the Hollywood Stars tour. Lunch is at the home of one of the area’s newly prosperous runners, after which we move on deeper into rural Nandi (20 miles) for a look at the lives and traditions of these extraordinary people. We have tea at the home of one of Kenya’s first international athletes, then return to Eldoret for supper at a local Indian restaurant.
Sunday, March 18
We’re up and packed early for a short drive to the village of Iten (20 miles), where spend the next few days at the well-appointed High-Altitude Training Centre, run by Lornah Kiplagat, one of the world’s top road racers. For group members eager to compete in Kenya, today is the day. A low-key 10 K to benefit the charity Shoes 4 Africa will set off in mid-morning on Iten’s dirt roads. In spite of the race’s relative lack of consequence, members of our group who take part will find the competition quite ruthless (Kenyans don’t do fun runs). After the race, interested group members can drive back to Eldoret for the Club’s festive Sunday afternoon barbecue, regularly attended by running luminaries. We’ll regroup in Iten in late afternoon and join the athletes at the Centre for tea and an evening run. Supper is at nearby Kerio View, a spectacularly situated lodge that overlooks a vast panorama of the Rift Valley. There be joined by several members of Iten’s fast-growing running community.
Monday, March 19
we join athletes at the High Altitude Training Centre for a morning run and breakfast at the Centre. Then we head to nearby Kamariny Stadium to watch (and join, if anyone is inclined) some of the world best as they tune up for the World Cross Country Championships and the coming road and track seasons. Lunch is at the Centre, followed by a visit to nearby St. Patrick's High School, founded in 1961 and since then the alma mater of more world-class runners than any educational institution in the world. We tour St. Patrick's with retired headmaster Bro. Colm O'Connell, a garrulous Irishman who still coaches the school's track team. Back at the Centre, we take an afternoon run and tea with athletes there, and then join a few local runners for supper at the house of a distinguished international marathoner.
Tuesday, March 20
after a morning run, we leave Iten, packed, for points south. Our first stop is the village of Nandi Hills (50 miles). There we walk to the historic hilltop Ketbarak, which offers a dazzling view over the Lake Victoria basin. The spot is also the site of the most notorious incident in Kenya's early colonial history – the assassination of the Nandi "orkoiyot" (ritual leader) by a British officer, ending the fiercest resistance the British experienced from any Kenyan tribe. After lunch at the home of a local teacher and running enthusiast, we drive to Kericho (60 miles), center of Kenya’s vital tea-growing region and the southern end of Kenyan running territory. We move into our rooms at Kericho’s Tea Hotel, a once-grand colonial establishment overlooking rolling green plantations that stretch for miles, and we join a few local runners on a leisurely run through the tea. Supper is at the nearby Kericho Golf Club with a few prominent runners from the area.
Wednesday, March 21
we go on a morning run through the tea plantations with local athletes, and after breakfast at the hotel, we tour one of Kericho’s tea processing plants, guided by its manager. We then join the manager and his family at his home for, what else, tea, before setting off for Lake Nakuru National Park (100 miles). We stop for lunch at an upscale hotel in the large town of Nakuru and reach the Park in time for an afternoon game drive, on which we can expect to see buffalo, rhino, giraffe, zebra, antelope and the lions who prey on them as well as vast flocks of flamingos clustered near the lake shore. Supper is at our lodge overlooking the lake.
Thursday, March 22
after a morning game drive and breakfast at the lodge, we're off to Nairobi (100 miles) with a packed lunch from the lodge. Immediately upon arrival, we board a plane for Mombasa, arriving at our hotel White Sands Beach Resort, in time for tea and a late afternoon swim. Supper will be at one of the hotel’s restaurants with our guests.
Friday, March 23
Options abound for a day on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast: relaxing on the beach, snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing, golfing at nearby links, exploring Mombassa’s ancient streets and markets or
Saturday March 25
after another day on the beach, most group members will be flying back to Nairobi in late afternoon in time to catch onward flights to Europe and North America.