It’s an area famed for a conflict described by international media as ‘The silent genocide’ and the presence of Kenya’s second largest mountain that gave its name.
The scenic Mount Elgon District has witnessed violent clashes perpetrated by the outlawed Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) in tussle over land.

The rebellion has left more than 600 dead and some 200,000 displaced since 2006 according to reports.

In March the Government sent in the Armed Forces to quell SLDF insurgency after efforts by regular, administration and Paramilitary General Service Unit police officers failed to stop the militia’s excesses. The military operation dubbed ‘Okoa Maisha’ (Save Lives) brought calm to what was one of the most volatile spots on earth.

With all media attention firmly focused on the Mt Elgon conflict, the region’s biggest success story has continued developing almost unnoticed.

Distance runners from the volatile region have quietly ascended to the pinnacle of the sport against the background of terror and abject poverty. Kenya won the overall team title at Edinburgh’s World Cross this year with six of the 30 athletes in the team hailing from Mt Elgon.

None of those finished outside the top ten where Leonard Patrick Komon, 20, won silver behind Ethiopia’s living legend Kenenisa Bekele.

In Edinburgh, the Masai siblings Moses Ndiema (fifth, senior race) and Linet Chepkwemoi (bronze, senior women), Titus Mbishei (fifth, junior race men), Doris Changeiywo (fourth, senior race women) and Levy Matebo (tenth, junior race men) also stood out. Mbishei went on to win 10,000m silver at the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland in July. At the Olympic Games in Beijing, Ndiema and Chepkwemoi finished fourth in the men’s and women 10,000m races. Amazingly, the entire Mt Elgon District that covers an area of 944 kilometres square does not have a single stadium, running track or training camp. Here, one comes face to face with the rugged terrain; biting poverty and threat of war that has made many youth in the area take to their heels in search of a better life.

“I have the talent to run and I intend to use it to escape to riches,” said Justus Ngeiywo, a 20-year-old prospective 800m and 1,500m runner hailing from Kaboiywo, a settlement scheme near Kaptama, one of the talent spots of Mt Elgon.

“In March, I went for training in mid-morning when SLDF soldiers caught me and forced me to run eight kilometres to deliver a message to their colleagues in Kapsakam,” adds Ngeiywo, who went up to the provincial level at this year’s track championships. “They were targeting athletes to use us as their messengers when the army came and disrupted their communication. However, I took advantage to warn four other runners and together, we escaped to the Mt Keboiywo Forest.”

Ngeiywo joined other SLDF victims fleeing to the mountains or neighbouring towns of Kitale, Chepkitale and Kimilili. The conflict did not even spare the notables.

Endurance training
“We moved to the high altitude area of Marakwet in November and fortunately, the region was not affected by the fighting, although moving to other parts became difficult,” Komon had said before he left for Edinburgh.
Exploits of Ben Jipcho, Shem Kororia (both retired) and the evergreen Edith Masai provided a template for success that has inspired the emergence of the region as a catchment area for distance runners. Kororia in particular has played a key role.

In 2005, the former World Half Marathon champion, converted one of the commercial buildings he had erected opposite Kapsakwony Secondary School to house the runners after training.

“I decided to establish a camp in Kapsakwony (District headquarters) after disagreeing with an agent whom I was assisting to tap talent from Mt Elgon,” Kororia told Feverpitch X-tra.

“Mt Elgon is the best place for endurance training due to its high altitude (2,800m above sea level) and that is why I was opposed to taking our athletes to Kaptagat (Rift Valley).” And it is at the red brick structure that constituted the Kapsakwony Training Camp where Mt Elgon’s brightest cut their teeth.

Komon, the Masais, Changeiywo, Mbishei, Matebo, Suleiman Simotwo, marathoner Solomon Busiendich as well as junior starlets Titus Masai and Ines Chenonges were housed at the ‘training camp.’ Others include the formidable James Kwalia, who runs for Qatar together with Uganda’s top trio of Moses Kipsiro, Boniface Kiprop and Martin Toroitich.

The SLDF insurgency imparted negatively on Mt Elgon’s rapid progress as a catchment area for distance runners.

“Were it not for the war, we could have seen more runners from here make the Kenya team for World Cross and Olympics,” Kororia said.

He added: “It was sad that while people like Komon were running in Scotland, their families were being pursued by the raiders. Such incidents left psychological scars.”

“I registered other camps in Kaptama, Kopsiro, Kitwamba, Trans Nzoia and Saboti but had to close them down when the fighting started since it would have been too risky,” Kororia who was recently elected as the Athletics Kenya Mt Elgon District chairman said.

Seasoned coach, Boniface Tiren, who has nurtured most athletes at junior level from the area says, “Athletes from Mt Elgon gain endurance naturally owing to the high altitude, uphill terrain and long journeys to school they have to run each day.”

“Let’s say it’s almost by default they eventually become runners when they realise that is the only thing they can do. Having people like Jipcho, Kororia, the Masai’s and Edith also made others realise that athletics can pay.” Tiren was one of the coaches that accompanied the national team to the Bydgoszcz’s World Juniors.

National head coach, Julius Kirwa, observes: “The fact that there is no track and stadium conditions young talent in Mt Elgon to become distance runners since they are the only races they can practise.” It will take more than war and lack of facilities to dent the resolve of the distance running talent in Mt Elgon.

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