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The Milimani Runners: Meet the new Kenyan Trail Running Team

On the track and road, Kenyans are a force to be reckoned with, but the same impact is yet to be had on the trail, until now. Introducing: The Milimani Runners. Seven elite runners hoping to take the trail world by storm.

 

Among Kenya's vast expanse of valleys and conservancies, you’d be forgiven for thinking Iten is just another humble town. A typical day in Iten has all the familiar sights of rural Kenyan life. Trucks roll out to the nearby fields, clouds of red earth rise around the workers swaying in unison in the back. Market stalls with welcoming faces, bustling mechanics' workshops, and school children hurrying to make their classes. The landscapes are vibrant with green crops, enriched with frequent rains and the seemingly endless sunshine of a town perched on the earth’s equator. But for some of our readers, Iten needs no introduction as a place that’s far more unique than it first appears. This 5-km-wide town in Western Kenya is home to some of the greatest runners ever to have graced this earth.

 

 

Walk through the town at sunrise and you’re almost guaranteed to rub shoulders with Olympic champions and world-record holders. Small groups of athletes adorned in new and unreleased gear from their sponsors cruise along the town’s central Kerio Valley Road from their training camps. An abundance of successful road and track role models.

 

Trail running has soared in popularity in recent years with a rapid rise in international competitions and millions of competitors entering the races, but the hype has yet to travel as far as Iten. Ask hopeful runners and eager school children what their goals are, and you’ll be met with the usual response of standing atop the Olympic track podium, or making history like sub-two marathoner and local deity, Eliud Kipchoge. Kenyan runners are easily scouted among the elite at the start line of most major international road races, their flag a sure indication that the stakes are high. But the story isn’t the same on the trails. The trail running scene is still predominantly white and distinctly lacking in the diversity and star-power that East African runners bring to competitions.

 

 

When Julien Lyon – a champion runner in his own right – moved to Iten, it didn’t take him long to notice the opportunity that trail racing could pose for a group of Kenyan runners hopeful for a win. Teaming up with Isaac Kadenge – an experienced runner and talent scout – as his Assistant Coach, they set out to form something new and ambitious. The On-sponsored Milimani Runners (that’s “mountains” in Swahili) was born with a shared goal; to shake up the trails. 

 

With Iten being perched at a cool 2400 m above sea level, rich in forests and steep winding trails along the town’s escarpments, it’s a trail success waiting to happen. The Milimani Runners have already begun taking advantage of the expansive trails and elevation at their doorstep in preparation for their debut at Sierre Zinal and UTMR in 2022. As they get set for their first season on the trails, could a new era of Kenyan-born running heroes be on the horizon?

 

 

If there’s something Kenyan runners know about training, it’s commitment. Julien and Isaac have tapped into their experience to formulate a recipe for success for the team. A daily program of sunrise and mid-afternoon training sessions with plenty of rest and fuel in between is what’s necessary to maintain and optimize race fitness. Each week, a balance of mixed distance, terrain and speed work is constantly adapted to steadily yet tactically build strength and endurance for the longer races that will take the team to trail greatness.

 

“There’s so much talent here in Iten – it’s incredible. It wasn’t easy to select the team,” Julien tells us. 

 

Meet the team

 

 

The team already have some impressive stats under their belt, and some have enjoyed life-changing success as a result. Mark smashed the Luxembourg marathon in 2018, breaking previous records for the race with a 2:12:12 finish. “He’s not always at the front during training, but when he races – he is just amazing,” Julien tells us. 

 

Rose’s career began in the early 2000s, where she competed against running legends like Paula Radcliffe. In 2005, she came 9th at the World Cross Country Championships and won the 3000 m at the IAAF Grand Prix in Turin. After a recovery from an injury setback, she’s back with no signs of slowing down.

 

The Kenyan community spirit runs deep between the athletes. Younger team members, like eager Nehmia and newcomer Philaris, look to their more experienced team members for guidance and pacing during training sessions and welcome all advice. “We really care about each other,” Julien tells us, “it’s more than a running team.” It’s a sentiment shared among the athletes. Each member looking out for the other, and no one starts until everyone is accounted for. 

 

 

A successful career as a runner, or just one big international race win, can afford a life of security and for some, a way out of poverty. But even getting to the start line of a race is no easy task. 

 

“For runners to make it to the big European races, they need to be scouted and sponsored to even make the trip. And the bar is set so high in Iten, it makes it very challenging to make an impression. Trail races could open doors to undiscovered talent and afford new opportunities to runners.” – Julien Lyon 

 

Just like so many in Kenya, strict lockdown measures during the height of the pandemic in 2020 left many runners in limbo. Training schedules were put on hold and with race fitness in decline and competitions canceled, many athletes were dropped from sponsorship deals. “I’m so happy to be running again,” Mark tells us when we visit his home – built on a plot of land bought by his race winnings, he tells us.

 

The team are already well on their way to making their mark internationally. Just weeks after the Milimani Runners was officially formed, the team have shown what they’re made of in their first international race. Mark stormed the prestigious men’s Course de l’Escalade race in Geneva, finishing an impressive second place, seconds behind his compatriot Boniface Kibiwott, leaving three-time defending champion Julien Wanders off the podium. Moses finished close behind in fifth while Sally took an incredible seventh place in the women’s race, starting just three hours after her delayed flight touched down in Switzerland.

 

With the commitment, drive and skill each of the athletes brings to the team, we know more wins can be expected. The Milimani Runners are only just warming up. We can’t wait to see how they’ll impact the running world.

 

 

Run like the Milimani Runners

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