A last-minute invitation to travel to Africa turned out to be something of a life-changer for South Surrey runner Spencer Jackson.
The 23-year-old White Rock Christian Academy alum – who also ran at Liberty University in Virginia from 2008-’11 – returned this month from the Kenyan city of Iten, widely considered to be Mecca for runners.
On a recent Friday night, Jackson received a call from his former Liberty University teammate, and roommate, Sam Chelanga, who explained that he was leaving for Kenya that Sunday, to attend the funeral of his grandmother.
“Do you want to come with me?” he asked.
“Did you just say you’re going to Kenya in 36 hours?” Jackson replied. “OK, I’m in.”
Next, Jackson had a few calls to make, the first of which was to his employer – Kintec Footwear – to get some last-minute time off.
“It was such a spur-of-the-moment thing, but it was OK,” he explained.
“They all understood. When you work at a running store, it’s hard to criticize somebody for wanting to go to the place that is the heart of the sport.”
After a few days spent in Chelanga’s family’s village, the pair travelled to Iten, which has produced more Olympic medallists and top marathon runners than anywhere else on the planet.
“It was amazing. The gold medallist from (the 2012 London Olympics) in the 800 metres, the champion in the 1,600, the steeplechase, the five-kilometre, the 10K – they all train in Iten,” said Jackson, who added he was well-read on the city and its running culture long before visiting.
“And Wilson Kipsang, who holds the world record for a marathon, is from there, too.
“I was just so excited to finally be there. It’s really the only place I have ever had any motivation to go.”
Once in Iten, Jackson and Chelanga spent time with various runners and running groups, and also struck out on their own to learn the training routes of some of the city’s renowned runners.
“You hang out with them, see how they run,” Jackson said. “It was inspiring. You’d drive or run down the street and you’d just see gold medallists all over the place. Every second house was a world-record holder, it seemed like.”
Iten has become a hotspot for distance runners for a number of reasons, Jackson explained.
For starters, the town sits about 8,000 feet above sea level, which he said is a “perfect elevation” for running.
The town is also the home of St. Patrick’s High School, at which an Irish priest named Brother Colm O’Connell began teaching in the mid-1970s. O’Connell started a running program which has since taken off, to put it mildly.
“Now, this school just produces an outrageous amount of talent,” Jackson said.
Though he was already well-versed in Kenyan culture – especially when it came to running – Jackson said he was most intrigued by a local training method referred in other parts of the world as “the Kenyan triple.”
The method includes three running sessions, of varying intensity, throughout the day – which Jackson pointed out is one more than in a typical training day.
“It’s something I’ll try to incorporate into my own training,” he said.
These days, now three years removed from running at the university level, Jackson admits his own athletic pursuits have taken something of a backseat to other things, though he still runs “just for fun.”
He’s already planning a return trip to Iten, he said. “It’s a place I feel very connected to… I’ll be back. Probably soon.”