The Kenyan Marathon Running Cluster
Wilson Kipsang is a millionaire. In 2014, he won a $500,000 prize as the most successful man in the Marathon Majors. In 2015, he won it again. But his experience is so atypical that, to really understand marathon running in Kenya, it is necessary to look elsewhere.
Earlier this year, Joel Maina Mwangi (above) was second in the Three Hearts Marathon in Slovenia, for which he won prize money of $840. His most lucrative race came in 2014 when he won the Bratislava Marathon and took home $3,015. He has career earnings of just over $40,000, accumulated in six and half years, or $6,000 a year before deductions.
And deductions are substantial. He has to pay his agent and his manager and has to pay tax twice, once in the country in which he races and once in Kenya. He keeps maybe 15%.
It is trite to say that Kenyans run to escape poverty. It is possible that this motive makes them train harder. But the main reason why Europe has fewer runners is much sadder – wages in Kenya are low. An athlete can survive on the tiny sums for which he competes.
There is little money to be made from being the fifth best heptathlete in Great Britain, or the sixth best discus thrower in Poland, but Maina Mwangi does have a career as the 557th best marathon runner in the world. While, even in Kenya, the state funds a lot of athletes, the development of marathon runners has become a commercial enterprise.
This explains the sheer number of marathon runners but it begs the question: Why are they all in the same place? The running camps which try to profit, by producing stars of the future, occupy the orbit of Iten, an otherwise unremarkable town in the Rift Valley.
The answer is that Iten opens doors. Everybody wants to recruit a runner who has been to Iten, for a variety of reasons. Sammy Wanjiru, the tragic gold medallist from the 2008 Olympic marathon, was scouted from a camp 150 miles from Iten and coached in Japan. Philip Boit (above) left a town 20 miles from Iten, to be trained as a cross-country skier.
Because Iten opens doors, parents want their children to go to Iten. Stephen Kiprotich moved from Uganda to Kenya at the age of 17, and then won the Olympic title in 2012. New Zealand twins, Zane and Jake Robertson, left home to live in Iten at the same age.
Fast Feet in the Andes
Harder to explain is why the running camp managers choose Iten, where they have to compete to recruit local talent, and compete to attract the attention of foreign agents. On the face of it, it might seem more appealing to set up a running camp on a different continent altogether, another place with high altitude but low wages, Bolivia perhaps.
But this wouldn’t work. Agents can see hundreds of camps in Iten so they are not going to make a side trip to La Paz to visit a single camp. Just as fashion shops have to cluster together because that is what their customers want, running camps must do the same.
Large global industries have multiple clusters – there are shoe clusters in India as well as Brazil, for example. But the amount of money in marathon running is tiny compared to the vast profits in shoes. There is only room for one cluster and Kenya got there first.
Unlike the Robertson twins, most people are not willing to travel to Iten, and so those who live locally have an advantage when it comes to the chance to run. But it is not all medals and roses. It is not lucrative for many, and it is the only opportunity they have.