Why don’t Kenyans run ultramarathons?

In the world of ultrarunning, one race stands out as the most competitive, the Super Bowl, the London marathon of ultrarunning: it is the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc.

Since getting involved in ultrarunning a few years ago, I have followed the race online each August. The start is stirring stuff: more than 2,000 athletes gather in the town of Chamonix in the Alps, with the sport’s crème de la crème gathered at the front. These are the supermen and superwomen who will race around the 105-mile route at mind-boggling speeds. They are among the greatest athletes on Earth.

Yet, watching it, I saw a big, red flag flying that no one else seemed to mention. Everyone on the start line was white. If these were the world’s greatest distance runners, where were the Kenyans?

I don’t need to explain to readers of this blog that Kenyans, along with their neighbours in Ethiopia, dominate the world of long-distance running in distances up to and including the marathon. After that, however, they don’t feature. Why?

Asking people at the centre of the Kenyan running world, in the town of Iten, about ultrarunning brings mostly puzzled looks. What is this thing you speak of, they ask? Running further than a marathon? Is that possible?

I told one 2hr 4min marathon runner that I had run 100km. He looked at me in disbelief and asked me how many days it had taken. I know 100km is a long way, but if you can do 42km in just over two hours … well, do the maths, it is less than a day. But the concept was so alien that he couldn’t get his head around it.

Left with this puzzle, I decided to do something potentially disastrous, but also potentially gamechanging for Kenyans and for ultrarunning: I decided to introduce them to each other.

The big barrier to this is, of course, was money. In Kenya, there are no managers looking for ultrarunners, no one willing to pay for a plane ticket to a race in the hope of cashing in on a share of the winnings. This is because the winnings are small or non-existent. Money is a key motivator for many Kenyan athletes: running offers them a way to change their lives, to escape poverty and to help their families and communities. They don’t always have the luxury of doing it just for the love of it.

Yet, as the sport of ultrarunning grows, so do the opportunities to earn money. A handful of top ultrarunners now have agents securing them big sponsorship deals and a few races are putting up big cash prizes in the hope of luring the top competitors. So, for those thousands of Kenyans who dedicate themselves to training and live like professional athletes, but who can never get a spot in a road race, ultrarunning could offer an outlet for them to express their talents.

Not everyone in ultrarunning loves this idea. One senior person in an ultrarunning company told me he hoped Kenyans would never discover ultrarunning, for fear they would “kill it by winning all the races”. He said he believed it was a question of branding, that people don’t care when a Kenyan wins a marathon, because they are “machines made for running”.

But Kenyan runners are not machines: they work hard to achieve what they do and they deserve the same opportunities as everyone else. Their stories are just as compelling if people take the time to listen.

Luckily the rest of the ultrarunning community has been more welcoming, with top US runners Sage Canaday and Gary Gellin already putting some money forward to help the project. Ultrarunner Zach Miller told me he would relish the opportunity to race some top Kenyans and had invited them to train with him in Colorado.

My belief is that Kenyans taking part in ultrarunning can only elevate the sport and add another layer of interest by making it even more competitive. It will be a global sport only when its doors are open to everyone.

So, a wheel has been spun. Some friends in California and I are crowdfunding to cover the costs for two Kenyans to train for and race in the Lake Sonoma 50-mile ultra race in northern California in April. The race team is delighted, with race director John Medinger saying he was “thrilled to have them” at Sonoma.

Convincing Kenyans to take up the challenge has not been easy, but two athletes agreed to put their marathon-running aspirations on hold for a few months to see what would happen if they took to the trails.

The first is Francis Bowen, a 2hr 8min marathon runner at his best (he ran his PB in 2011). Now 43, Francis may be the fastest marathon runner ever to try a trail ultra. That is an exciting prospect. The second is Risper Kimaiyo, who has in fact run one ultramarathon, the 50km world championship in 2016 in Qatar. She won.

“I just enjoy running long distance,” she says. She trained in South Africa for a while – where ultrarunning is more common – and says she used to run 70km every Saturday. That is why she decided to put herself forward for the world championships. “I went to Qatar and I came up liking it [ultrarunning],” she says. Yet, despite being the world champion, she hasn’t been able to race an ultra since. The opportunity just didn’t exist. Until now.