By Janet Bawcom

It’s a question I get a lot. “What’s different about the training in Kenya?” Recent doping news aside, when I look deeper and give it some real thought, I see two things that really separate the training in Kenya from the training elsewhere: Hills and Fartleks.

I’ll start with the hills,and my long run last weekend – an 18 mile loop with 3 uphill stretches longer than 2 miles each at a constant 4-7% grade. That loop doesn’t even pass for “hilly” around here. The reality is, when I train out of my mom’s home in Kapsabet, I’m running hills, hills and more hills. Not little inclines, but stretches 2-3 miles long that climb 500 feet or more – and I’m running them day in and day out – easy runs, workouts, and everything in between.

For me, running hills makes me stronger, and it turns those hills on race courses from challenges to advantages. While my competitors are worried about surviving the hills and making their moves on the flats and downhills, I’m like Pavlov’s dog hearing a bell!

Now, on to the Fartlek. In Kapsabet, the fartlek – a run with deliberate shifts in speed – has evolved into a very unique form: “The Hour”. Once a week, huge groups converge on one or two relatively flat roads (see above!) for one hour of pain. One week will be 1 minute hard, 1 minute easy X 30. Another will be 2-1×20, and sometimes folks will go for 3-2×12. The Hour is the constant, how it’s broken down is variable.

It’s not exactly just a “hard/easy” run either. It starts that way, but by the end it’s pretty much just “hard” and “not quite as hard!” Case in point, June 2013, I had been injured much of the spring and came to Kenya for 5 weeks to look for my mojo. I needed to relax, to regroup, and I set aside my training program and spend a month just running – no real workouts, no real objective but to feel better.

10 days before I was scheduled to return home to race the US 10k Championships at Peachtree, I decided to jump in the weekly fartlek to test my fitness. I figured an hour of trying to keep up would tell me where my fitness was! I showed up on a day of 30×1-1, AKA the “Die Hard.” There were probably 100 men and 25-30 women in the group, and to my surprise, we actually started kind of slowly. In fact, at the start I sprinted clear of the entire group – they were only going about 6:00 pace for the “on,” and like 7:00 pace for the easy.

But as we went, the paces – hard and easy – ratcheted down, and by halfway I was the one struggling to keep up. By the 20th rep, I glanced down to see that we were running 4:30 pace for the on, under 6:00 pace for the “easy” – and my vision was getting blurry. 59 minutes later, we’d covered a few yards short of 10 miles – under 6:00 pace even with the slow start and the recoveries! If I could do that, on rolling dirt roads at 7,000ft, I liked my chances in a US Championship Race – and I was right – 10 days later I won my 3rd US 10k title.

So there you have it – two things I see when I train in Kenya that I don’t see done quite the same anywhere else – two things that might just help you unlock something in your own running! Enjoy the video!

Janet Cherobon-Bawcom is an American distance runner. In 2012, she made the U.S. Olympic team in the 10,000 meters and placed 12th. Learn more about Janet’s private coaching services here