Iten, Kenya – Runner Lornah Kiplagat was not going to let a lack of money or contacts, and especially distance, stand between her and the biggest race of her life – the 1994 Kenya Cross Country Championship.
Kiplagat, 20 years old at the time, travelled to the competition with a fellow athlete, and the two slept in a public bathroom while making the 350km journey from their home in Kabiemit in Nandi county to Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi.
“My friend and I looked for some boxes [cardboard], locked the toilet from inside and covered the mouth of the toilet and slept on either side till morning,” she told Al Jazeera. “It was the safest place we could think of to sleep since we didn’t have money”.
By the eve of the race, held over brutal, open-air natural terrain, Kiplagat had not eaten in 24 hours.
She had easier options to make a living. Born in a remote Kenyan farming village, she had just earned a scholarship to study nursing in India. But she turned it down to chase her dream of being an athlete; a road less travelled, and especially for women from her Kalenjin community in the 90s.
“We were so scared, but to do that and succeed gave a statement of what we could be in the future,” said Kiplagat.
Her self-belief paid off – and keeps on paying.
Kiplagat, now 46 years old, is an athletics legend – a four-time world champion and former holder of multiple world records – and a business mogul.
Like many athletes, she has her own branded line of athletic apparel: Lornah Sport, the official kit of several sports teams in Kenya.
But she is also deeply enmeshed in the business of minting future champions, as the owner and co-founder of the world-famous High Altitude Training Centre (HATC).
Built 20 years ago, HATC has risen from a camp in a nondescript Kenyan village to a global force in athletics, with a stellar client list that includes top stars such as marathon legend Paula Radcliffe and four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah.
Like all businesses though, HATC has been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions.
HATC is based in Iten, a small highland town in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley region, aptly named the “Home of Champions” due to its abundance of stars who train and live there, such as 800m world record holder David Rudisha and four-time New York City Marathon winner Mary Keitany, amongst many others.
“I chose Iten because of the altitude,” said Kiplagat.
Located 2,400m above sea level and close to the equator, the town creates an almost “too good to be true” running atmosphere that naturally builds up the body’s ability to carry oxygen, said Kiplagat. It’s credited as one of the drivers of Kenya’s successful athletics history.
Primoz Kobe, a Slovenian long-distance athlete, has been coming to HATC for the last nine years. The 39-year-old, who has run in three of the five world marathon majors, first visited the camp to prepare for the 2012 London Olympics marathon.
“It’s a great environment since the weather in Europe is too cold and not appropriate for training plus the altitude here changes your body for the better,” Kobe told Al Jazeera. “The air is actually a quarter less than my city in Slovenia [Ljubljana].”
Chasing his maiden success on the global stage, Kobe, who is in Iten preparing for the Tokyo Olympics, has spent an average of six weeks at HATC over the past nine years. He even managed to train there in 2020, before COVID-19 restrictions took effect.
But he doesn’t have as much company now as in years past.
Prior to the pandemic, there would be anywhere between 500 to 1,000 local and international athletes in Iten training in packs. Add to that an Olympic year, and the sleepy town would be buzzing this time of year.
“In normal times, this place would be full pre-Olympics … things are very different, people are in lockdown and can’t travel here,” said Kiplagat.
And that’s following an already difficult year. The Kenyan government suspended all sports in the country and ordered all training camps to close for the majority of 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Those who depend on the country’s athletics economy had to dig deep to hang on.
“Lots of athletes turned to menial activities such as casual construction work or subsistence farming to make ends meet,” HATC manager Richard Mukche told Al Jazeera.
HATC has had to tighten its belt.
“We cut back on a few luxuries in the camp to be able to support everyone,” says Kiplagat. “We did not lay off staff or slash salaries but we had to go into pocket to support them because they had nowhere to go.”
Iten, which is based in Elgeyo Marakwet county where the predominant economic activity is agriculture, has also suffered as sports tourism has fallen off.
While data on the sector is not specifically tracked, Elgeyo Marakwet hosted over 23,000 tourists annually prior to the pandemic. A significant percentage of them were attracted by the advantageous climatic conditions to train at camps such as HATC.
Boniface Tiren, Elgeyo Marakwet Athletics Kenya Secretary General, estimates that slightly over 1000 athletes visited the county annually pre-COVID-19, with HATC drawing roughly a third of them.
HATC is the only sports training facility in the area with a 25m swimming pool, fully equipped gym, two saunas and the first and currently only professional tartan track in North Rift Kenya – part of the Lornah Kiplagat Sports Academy, which is named after its famous founder.
HATC also strives to be self-sufficient with its own farm and livestock supplying food, and solar panels generating a portion of the centre’s electricity.
But Kiplagat, who is also a Dutch citizen, didn’t just set out to build a world-class training facility 20 years ago. She was and continues to be driven by her mission to nurture women athletes in Kenya.
“People back home didn’t believe it when I first went abroad to compete and encouraged me to pave way for other girls,” the four-time world champion adds. “HATC came about as a result of helping young women in the community develop into athletes.”
Kiplagat has also inspired women athletes to follow her example and become entrepreneurs in their own right, including 5,000m Olympic bronze medalist Sylvia Kibet.
“Sports has really helped us come up, women are the breadwinners in their homes now, we see female world-record holders owning big buildings, houses and cars – but before we didn’t have that here,” the 36-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Kibet used prize money from her athletics career to build two fuel stations in Iten, and a 17-bed guest house.
Her businesses are part of a wider ecosystem that has developed around the HATC, including shops selling groceries and wares to tourists – important drivers of jobs in a county where the unemployment rate tops 50 percent and fewer than 20 percent of adult workers have a high school education or better.
“HATC has changed so many people’s lives, this has been a kickback to the community” Mukche reflects.
He speaks from experience. When he was 22 years old, Mukche met Kiplagat while the HATC was under construction, and became her pacemaker. He now works as the manager of both the centre and the Lornah Kiplagat Sports Academy.