By most measures, Kenya is a long way from Indiana. But not by every measure.
“Training in Kenya just makes you realize that you don’t need to have extraordinary means to be a good athlete,” said Morgan Uceny, who spent many of her summers in Plymouth, IN, helping her bricklayer father or washing buses for her mother, an assistant in the school transportation department. “All you need is a pair of decent trainers, some natural talent, and the work ethic to turn that talent into something greater.”
Uceny, a 2012 U.S. Olympian who was ranked No. 1 in the world at 1500 meters in 2011, relocated last fall to Loughborough, England, after her Mammoth Track Club coach, Terrence Mahon, joined UK Athletics as its endurance coach—hence the term “trainers” for running shoes. (“Every day at practice we end up laughing with our new Brit teammates over different jargon,” Uceny wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a never-ending source of entertainment.”) And when the UK team set off in early January for the distance mecca of Iten, Kenya, for a high-altitude training camp, Uceny and U.S. teammates Anna Willard and Jen Rhines went along.
The group lived and trained at the High Altitude Training Centre, founded by Lornah Kiplagat, the longtime distance star who won two half-marathon world titles, finished third in the 2003 New York City Marathon, and ran the NYRR New York Mini 10K nine times in her career, winning in 2003, ’05, ’06, and ’07.
Living in a simple room with a bed, a desk, and an adjoining bathroom, Uceny spent three weeks taking meals in a common dining room and enjoying runs on the hilly, rocky dirt roads amid cornfields and forests, under sunny skies with temperatures in the 70s and at an altitude of 8,000 feet.
“It was beautiful to look at when you weren’t gasping for air,” Uceny said.
Everyone, she said, is at the camp for the same reason: to train without distractions. A group would gather at a given time and athletes would just end up running with whoever was running the same pace or distance. Afterward, athletes might recover by watching the television or hooking up to the wi-fi in the common lounge, or walking to a restaurant down the road for a coffee and views of the Great Rift Valley, which was often dotted with para-gliders.
But a first trip to Kenya wouldn’t be complete without some wildlife viewing, as well, highlighted by a day-long safari and a trip to a giraffe reserve where a guide led Uceny’s party to within 20 meters of at least a half-dozen of the spectacular animals.
Which, appropriately, can run at speeds of up to 32 miles per hour. That’s somewhat faster than the goats Uceny raised for 4-H contests back in Indiana.
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg