The simple secrets of altitude running town Kapchorwa

Sean is a passionate runner from the U.K. who has come to Kapchorwa several times. And the last time for altitude training in preparation for the New York marathon. In this interview I ask him about his experiences in the cradle of Uganda’s running talent.

1) You have been coming to Kapchorwa since 2012. What’s the major reason you keep coming back?

I first visited the Sebei region back in 2012, mainly to visit Sipi Falls and to do some hiking. I then came to Kapchorwa in 2014 once I had started running. As I heard Kapchorwa is the place where a lot of Ugandan runners lived and trained and I thought I would do some training before the Kampala marathon. I then waited four years before returning recently which was longer than planned. However, I knew I would be back at some point given the friends I had made, how much I enjoyed the training and trails in Kapchorwa and knew how much Ugandan running was improving in that period.

2) What changes / developments have you observed since your first visit?

To be honest not a great deal has changed which is partly the attraction of training in Kapchorwa. Training is simple and day to day life is simple. There is obviously construction underway for the high altitude training center in Teryet though not much has changed in running infrastructure in Kapchorwa, other than possibly a few more running camps being established.
I guess the main changes are just in terms of the number of people regularly training in Kapchorwa and possibly slightly greater structure around training that makes it easy for a visitor like me to arrive and train with the group. The 50 or so runners that train most days from Kapchorwa are broadly on similar training schedules which means that there are big groups training most mornings in the week. There is a bit more specific training on certain days depending on the management or preferred race distance, but it is really good that for the most part so many of the Kapchorwa athletes train together every day. I think this has certainly helped to accelerate the development of the junior athletes and has seen continued success for Uganda at events such as the World Junior Championships in recent years.

3) How do you feel about your preparation for the New York marathon later this year? What role did the Kapchorwa training have in this preparation?

With three weeks to go I am feeling really good about my prospects at New York marathon. I’ve split my training mainly between Kapchorwa, Iten (Kenya) and Flagstaff (Arizona) which are all at altitude. Therefore training has been hard but will hopefully have prepared me well. Kapchorwa has had a big role in my preparation. I probably spent 3 to 4 weeks in total training in Kapchorwa and logged lots of miles in the area. New York is a relatively hilly marathon by World Marathon Major standards and obviously in Kapchorwa there is no shortage of hills! For that reason I feel a lot stronger and confident on hills than I ever have before. Even my easy runs in Kapchorwa involved 4 or 5 hills so I certainly won’t fear hills in New York and should have an advantage versus my fellow competitors. Altitude and training surface are obviously other key advantages of training in Kapchorwa. Training at altitude is tough initially but once adapted in can be very beneficial and make racing at sea-level a lot easier. Almost all runs in Kapchorwa are off-road on dirt trails which has two benefits: 1) notably working on strength of feet and lower legs compared to the roads and 2) also that it allows greater volume than training on tarmac, due to the softness.

4) Kapchorwa or Iten? Why?

Tough question! I only spent 8 days in Iten versus a month in Kapchorwa so I probably still have a preference for Kapchorwa as I knew a lot more trails, people and places in town. To be honest Iten and Kapchorwa are very similar hence why they both produce their countries’ best runners. Iten is maybe 5 or 10 years ahead of Kapchorwa in terms of running infrastructure. Kenya has been producing world champions for decades whereas Ugandan success on the world stage has been more recent since the likes of Kipsiro and Kiprotich won global medals. The main differences are, therefore, that Iten has more running infrastructure such as tracks, gyms, cross-training options, physiotherapists et cetera compared to Kapchorwa. For the most part, however, running places are judged on their trail options and both Iten and Kapchorwa have miles and miles of rolling dirt roads which are at optimum altitude levels.
I am sure I will train in both places again. Iten is maybe preferable for track athletes as there are a number of tartan tracks in town whereas Kapchorwa has none. Kapchorwa is a lot hillier than Iten and I think is therefore a better place to train for hilly marathons, cross country season or mountain races.
In both places there will be lots of people to train with, miles and miles of beautiful trails and lots of sugary tea to refuel with afterwards!

5) What are the things you learned about living and training in Kapchorwa?

I think the main message that I take away from training in Kapchorwa and will look to continue in my training is to keep things simple. There are no big secrets in training or day to day life that make the runners in Kapchorwa so successful. Training is simple: a mix of hard days and easy days with a good mix of speed and endurance almost all of which is on hilly terrain. Beyond the actual training the athletes are good at keeping things simple. Time is spent stretching after runs to prevent injuries, meals are nutritious, fresh and healthy and sleep is prioritized. Runners in Europe and the US can focus too much on the new technology et cetera but if the above simple things are focused on then the majority of time the body will be able to handle the training well.

6) What does Kapchorwa need to develop professional running? What is your advice to local stakeholders?

I’m not sure Kapchorwa needs to do anything to develop for running necessarily. Stakeholders such as the athlete management companies are actively involved with a number of athletes in town and clearly think the training conditions in Kapchorwa are working for their athletes. Tartan tracks, gyms, swimming pools et cetera might all help to an extent but the lack of these hasn’t hindered the athletes so far. For local stakeholders the message would just be to support the athletes that train in town as much as possible to ensure the success of athletes from Kapchorwa and surrounding areas continues.

7) You have been telling me that you would love to bring more running friends from the U.K. to Kapchorwa. How can we convince them to come over?

I will definitely bring a group from my running club to Kapchorwa at some point. I don’t think it will take too much convincing, a few beautiful photos of Kapchorwa should convince them. The main issues will just be finding the right time in the U.K. racing calendar to ensure it is beneficial for people to come. This is because it needs at least 10 days to acclimatize to the altitude. It would be good to coincide a group trip with a race such as MTN Kampala as it’s a fun and very different experience to race in Uganda.

Do you want to know more about altitude camps and holidays in Kapchorwa? Go to the Runners Experience information page of From Coach to Coach.

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