The Undulating Journey of the Forgotten Runner

“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible”

The Home of Champions
The Home of Champions

Every morning, as dawn breaks across the mountains and hills of Eastern Uganda, at almost 8000ft above sea level, a series of shadowy figures emerge from their wooden shelter to begin the first of the day’s extended runs. All driven by one ambition – to conquer the world of long distance running. Just like their neighbours Kiprotich and Kipsiro before them. Some of the runners barely have shoes to train in.. Others have no shoes at all.. Regardless, as a group, they slip away into the mist- motivated, driven and determined to one day emulate their hero’s and bring gold back to the hills of Kapchorwa.

These are the unknown runners of Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation, based in a small remote village called Cheminy, nestled at altitude on the slopes of Mt Elgon, Ugandas highest peak.

The athletes of Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation
Some with running shoes.. Some without.
Some with running shoes.. Some without.

I have been here for almost 3 weeks now, living with and studying the athletes of Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation. The air is thin. The scenery breathtaking. “We are almost in heaven” Pastor Alfred says. Pastor is the executive director of Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation and Cheminy Christain Junior Academy where the foundation is based. Both the school and foundation are fully integrated, with the senior athletes living in a small wooden hut based inside the school compound. There are approximately 15 athletes living in the camp, with around 30 others joining from surrounding areas for morning, mid morning and evening training sessions.

Kapchorwa Day 4 001
KAF Office

The nearest town to Cheminy is 21km away and only accessible via an undulating journey via rocks, valleys and a dirt road which becomes impassable at the first site of rain.

The road between Cheminy and Kapchorwa, the nearest town 21km away.
The road between Cheminy and Kapchorwa, the nearest town 21km away.
THe rod between Cheminy village and Kapchorwa town, 21km away
THe rod between Cheminy village and Kapchorwa town, 21km away
What happens the car when you drive on these roads
Kapchorwa Car Crash 038
The M65 between Cheminy and Kapchorwa town

A typical training week for the athletes consists of Monday/Wednesday morning long runs and easy 40/50 jogging in evening plus “exercises” (variety of gym, circuits, core etc). Mid morning on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday is speed work on track or road (reps, fartlek etc) with morning and evening filled with easy jogging and stretching. Sunday is complete rest with many choosing to attend church, relax and wash whatever small clothes they may have in their possession.

KAF athletes in the gym
KAF athletes in the gym
Over 8000ft above sea level here in Kapchorwa (according to my I-Phone App)
Over 8000ft above sea level here in Kapchorwa (according to my I-Phone App)

I sometimes join the athletes on their morning run and there is no doubting that these hills are unforgiving for an amateur like me. The local kids laugh hysterically when they see me jogging through the village. When I jogged the other day I had upwards of 30 kids join me.. I found it difficult to keep up!! I ask pastor the last time a “mazungo” visited this area- “around 1999” he says.

The Kapchorwa Mountains
Cheminy Christina Academy School Children

The Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation was set up in 2009 to assist athletes within the greater Kapchorwa area who lacked adequate support to further their running careers. It aims to empower people through athletics and sport. It is an initiative set up by foundation chairman John Chebaibai and Pastor Alfred. John has been with me throughout my visit and we have discussed, evaluated and implemented a number of programs for the foundation, starting immediately and for the future. Both John and Alfred have nurtured many athletes since the foundations inception in 2009 namely- Stella Chesang (world mountain running junior champion 2014), Nathan Ayeko (bronze medallist world mountain running championships) and Peter Kibet (international marathon runner).

        

Former KAF athlete Stella Chesang winning the recent World Mountain Running Junior race in Italy
Former KAF athlete Stella Chesang winning the recent World Mountain Running Junior race in Italy
Former KAF athletes before the recent 21km race in Kapchorwa
Former KAF athletes before the recent 21km race in Kapchorwa

However, because of lack of facilities and support, the foundation has failed to sustain many of the top athletes. John explains the problem they face- “we set up the foundation to help support athletes in the area of Kapchorwa. No such camps currently exist here but the talent base is huge. Many athletes are lost to the sport because of lack of support and opportunities”. “When one athlete succeeds we fail to maintain them in our camp. Simply because we lack the resources to do so. The athletes get an offer from a bigger club and we encourage them to move on to better their career. We hope that someday we can provide the right support so we can maintain our international athletes in the camp”. John, Pastor and the foundation have also assisted athletes to gain employment with the local police and prison services. Athletes who perhaps can’t make it as professional runners.

Athletes home housing upwards of 15 athletes currently
Athletes home housing upwards of 15 athletes currently
Pastor Alfred
Pastor Alfred
John Chebaibai, KAF chairman
John Chebaibai, KAF chairman

Cheminy village is very remote and far away from anything that resembles a normal life back home in Ireland. Donkeys are a regular feature on the roads and an essential tool in most homes- carting water, maize and other crops upwards of 20km on a daily basis. The primary school does not have any piped water so 5 donkeys transport water daily (upwards of 10 times per day) from the water well located 3km away to the school. The school has 550 pupils currently, of which most are boarding. There are only 2 televisions in the whole village- 1 in the primary school and 1 in the small cafe across the road. Most homes are mud or wooden structures with thatched roofs. The more privileged homes have iron sheets. 99% of houses have no electricity with regular blackout for those lucky enough even to have power. At night the entire village is practically in darkness.

A standard home here in Cheminy village
A standard home here in Cheminy village
school race and interviews 163
The reliable donkey

We organised a 5km road race a few weeks back for local runners. Around 40 athletes turned up to compete over the undulating out and back course. Steep unforgiving climbs greeted the runners at every corner. The winner was a young 17 year old athlete by the name of Kibet Oscar, brother to international mountain runner Moses Croyne. The winner of the senior woman’s race was amazingly a 12 year old primary school athlete. For sure a talent for the future!!

The start line- marked by hot ash
The start line- marked by hot ash
Heavy going
Heavy going
The Finish Line

We also organised a primary school race last Friday for the pupils of Cheminy Christian Junior Academy. Once funding is secured in the future, we hope to develop a scheme where young athletes who perform well in these races will be offered secondary school scholarships to recognize their athletic ability and academic talents. We are working with a number of local secondary schools to create a partnership that will assist with this program.

Before coming to Kapchorwa I visited the village of Iten, the famous village in the Rift Valley Kenya where the majority of the worlds distance runners live and train. Athletes from all over the world travel and train there all year round. Sport brands such as Nike, Adidas and almost all athlete management companies have camps there, identifying and nurturing the next distance running superstar.

ADIDAS high performance centre Iten
ADIDAS high performance centre Iten
Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation Centre
Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation High Performance Centre

I am amazed that there is nothing of the sort here in Kapchorwa or Cheminy. Or indeed Uganda. The potential here is huge!! Potential that could rival their Kenyan neighbours if correct structures and support were made available. When I watch athletes from the foundation train continually week in week out, I get the feeling that these athletes are perhaps the forgotten runners in the multi million pound industry that is now big city marathons, diamond leagues and sponsorship deals.

There are no camps here apart from the foundation camp (that gets zero support any outside organisation). No Adidas, Nike or Asics.. No athlete management companies.. No support for the next upcoming athlete to realise their potential. No one willing to support athletes like Chebet Alfred, an orphaned runner who has been at the camp since 2009. Chebet will train every day without fail hoping that one day, he will receive that big break and be given an opportunity. An opportunity he feels he so richly deserves, after years and years struggling up and down the hills of Kapchorwa.

Chebet on top of the world
Chebet on top of the world

It’s amazing to think that this small remote area of Uganda has produced numerous champions-  Commonwealth Games champions, world mountain running champions and indeed Olympic champions- marathon winner Stephen Kiprotich coming from just down the road. The talent pool is huge. At first I thought it impossible that an elite athlete could come from these mud houses and hills and conquer the world of athletics. When you compare with the facilities in Iten and indeed in the west, you think there is no chance.

But in truth, this place is a training paradise for long distance runners. Hills upon hills, altitude to match anywhere and the desire of the local athletes to overcome every obstacle to succeed tells me that with time and adequate resources, this area could become a leading training destination for distance runners throughout the world. A place for athletes and tourists to visit, train and learn from the best.

When they named Uganda “the pearl of Africa” they must have been referring to the village of Cheminy and the wider Kapchorwa area. And indeed, when we talk about the first athlete to run under 2 hours for the marathon- why can’t he come from these hills? And why not Kapchorwa Athletics Foundation?

“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible”

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One thought on “The Undulating Journey of the Forgotten Runner

  1. Collins Ciaran the adage that give a fish not a hook and you will keep the person begging.I hope you have have given hooks.The Kapchorwa story contains quite many successful stories. Empowering them is key.I hope we can share ideas at an appropriate time.

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