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Kenya To Carlsbad: Valentine’s Day Fartlek

Chris Barnicle describes what it's like to train with some of the best runners in the world.

Elite American distance runner Chris Barnicle, a two-time All-American while competing at the University of New Mexico, is currently training in Iten, Kenya in preparation for the 2013 racing season. This article is the third in a weekly series that will chronicle his adventures in Kenya while getting ready for the Carlsbad 5000 on April 7. 

Chances are, if you’re a runner here in Kenya you’ll never struggle to keep track of the days. Monday is usually a moderate run, Tuesdays is always track, Wednesday a medium long run, Thursday fartlek, Friday easy, Saturday long run and Sunday off. The weekly Kenyan training schedule is holy. It amazes me that famed Italian coach Renato Canova was able to come here and take a few of the brightest stars and introduce them to his methodology of coaching where routine is less common, but then again the brilliancy in the mind of Canova and his confidence in his beliefs makes him highly persuasive and influential. Right now, I’m training with the training group, who follow the traditional Kenyan training week and today is Thursday [Ed. note: Barnicle sent this to us over the weekend] so that means today’s workout is a fartlek on the hilly, dusty and often rocky roads of Iten.

The only Swedish word in the vocabulary of all Kenyan athletes, fartlek translates to “speed play.” A fartlek allows the runner to run free and not worry about hitting exact pace and distance for every interval. The beauty of a fartlek is the ignorance. It’s a great early season workout for runners just striding out their legs after a summer full of base miles. It’s also a tremendous workout when the body is feeling run down and a runner may not be able to hit the desired times on the track.

Generally, I prefer to do fartleks on my own. It allows me the freedom of expression to control the interval and the rest. Everyone has their individual preference on how fast they want to run the surges and how slow they want to run the rest. I feel I achieve a greater workout running the rest just a bit slower than tempo pace and achieving a fantastic aerobic workout throughout. But, I came to Kenya to get my butt kicked into shape so I’m meeting with the run-fast group for today’s workout.

I walk down to the camp from my hut in the Lillies at about 7:15. I walk through the gate and greet Oliver, the camp’s cook, a cheerful man with a bit of a potbelly that classifies him as obese for a Kenyan. He sees the coffee I have in my hand and asks for a little. He takes just enough to maybe give a kitten a bit of a caffeine buzz. I need enough caffeine in my system that makes me feel like Jesse Pinkman relapsing on Walter White’s blue meth (“Breaking Bad” reference if you’re a poor soul who is confused) to try to run with these guys. Despite some of the world’s best coffee being grown here in Kenya, I’m unfortunately in a tea drinking region. The only coffee available here is instant coffee that makes a coffee snob like myself groan. My Mzungo friend and fellow New Mexico resident Ben Fletcher boil some water over the gas stove and try to enjoy a few cups.

Shortly after, the guys tell me it’s time to go and we file out the gate and begin a 4-mile warmup to the start. Thirty minutes into the jog I’m told we’re starting the fartlek in about 200 meters. There are only about six of us and I think that’s a perfect-sized group as I won’t have to worry too much about my footing while running in a small pack. Around the next bend I see about sixty guys stretching and ready to go. I’m speechless. Gilbert Kirwa, a 2:06 marathoner, is instructing all of us on the workout, which will be 25 x 1 minute on/1 minute off. I decide that I’ll just go for 20 on this day. Training here one really has to pick and choose the battles. I’ve been struggling on these fast paced long runs trying to make it past 25 kilometers, so I don’t want to kill myself today as I hope to feel fresh enough to make it 30 kilometers on Saturday. I look around at all the faces in the group, then I look down and look at all the footwear. I’m wearing a pair of neutral trainers, but most in the group seem to be wearing racing flats. One brave man is wearing the original Nike Zoom Kennedy track spikes, circa early 2000s. Another gentleman is wearing a pair of women’s Brooks Ariels, and with his flamingo-like calves he must be the lightest runner in the world who excessively pronates or he just got the shoes as a hand-me-down from a heavyset Mzungo woman visiting Kenya.

Suddenly, everyone takes off before I even get a chance to start my watch. I begin toward the back with the goal of picking off as many as I can throughout the workout. I estimate the surges are run anywhere between 4 flat and 4:45 mile pace while the recovery is jogged anywhere between 7:30 and 9 flat mile pace. After the first ten surges I’m still there and turn around to see that many have already been gapped. After the fifteenth surge I’m struggling to breath in the thin air and covered in dust from the back kick of the smooth strides ahead of me. “Just 5 more,” I tell myself. The last three intervals were mostly downhill and I felt like I was getting a second wind. I decide to do one more but really hammer it. The watches beep signifying it’s time to pick it up again. I zigzag through about ten guys and find myself in a place I imagine no Mzungo has been before, the front. I pick up the pace once I’m there and the whole group responds by clipping my heels behind me. Guys are going wild and screaming, “Alright, Mzungo!” One guy even screamed a wailing war cry that really got my adrenaline going, “AY YAY YAY YAY!” A very petite and light frame that had been leading the fartlek from the first surge looked at me with shocked amazement in his eyes as he enhanced his turnover.

“Beep beep beep,” rang a series of watches around me. The interval — and my workout — was over. I ran the recovery with the group and told the guys I was done. Some expressed disappointment and encouraged me to keep going. Others sounded relieved that they didn’t have to worry any longer about getting dropped by a Mzungo. I was just happy to have enjoyed my moment at the front and jogged back to campo with one of the guys who had dropped off earlier.

Tea is the choice for a post-workout recovery drink. I’m no sports scientist, but I think it has a lot of benefits; whole milk is used and is a rich source of protein and calcium, sugar is added for glucose replacement, and the tea itself obviously has the health benefits of the antioxidants. Many of the runners here drink up to ten cups a day and enjoy a healthy addiction to the beverage known as “chai.” Breakfast everyday is bread and tea. I watch as one of the guys in the camp, Geoffrey, impressively stacks five pieces of white bread on top of each other, shovels it into his mouth and then chases it down with half a cup of tea. Geoffrey could maybe challenge Takeru Kobayashi in an eating competition. He has a motive for eating so quickly today. It’s Valentine’s Day and he’s single and lonely. “See you later, Chris,” he says walking out the gate, “I’m going to Eldoret to look for jiggy jiggy (Swahili slang for sex).” A few days before, he asked to see some pictures of my family back in the U.S. After seeing my sister, Geoffrey told me he’d give me ten cows to marry my her. Now, I think I may have to ask for fifteen or more, but that’s a different discussion for another day.

For the rest of us, the remainder of the day is filled with sleep and recovery. The late afternoon allows for a 5-mile jog that can often be painfully slow, yet regeneration runs are more than needed after hard workouts like this morning. I come back to camp later in the evening for a dinner of ugali and cabbage, a staple of the Kenyan diet that is surely an acquired taste. After walking the half mile home I already feel the ugali digesting through my stomach and I’m hungry once again. I stop by the local hotel or restaurant and have a couple pieces of chapati (flat bread). It is here more than anywhere I feel like a local. Everyone knows me by my Kenyan name, Kipchumba, given to me by the elder Kipchumba who is a retired police officer in town suffering from a head injury after falling off the back of his motor bike. When I first met the elder Kipchumba my first week here and told him my father is also a retired police officer, he said he is adopting me as his Mzungo son and that I would be called Kipchumba as well.

Tonight the usual crowd is here. My friend Kirwa, a 2:11 marathoner, waves me inside. Frederick, a young talented runner who was working out with Mo Farah during his time here gives me a handshake that transforms into a hug. Sara, a beautiful and young road racer who enjoys having older men here occasionally pay for her cups of tea, sits with Kipchumba’s daughter  on the opposite side of the hotel. Finally, there’s the owner, Mama Masai, her 2-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter, and 17-year-old son Rambo who has Down’s syndrome. Rambo always greets me as I walk in with a military salute and then raises one arm and starts scratching his armpit. I wonder if this is him telling me I need to put on more deodorant. I converse with everyone here for a half hour or so. The environment feels similar to that of a local bar in the U.S. I eat my chapati slowly and take the time to value all of my friendships here before walking about a hundred meters back to my hut for some more sleep.

Tomorrow is Friday. Just an easy run. A much needed one.