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The First Kenyan Trail Team: Milimani Runners

milimani runners mountain

No other country is associated with a sport like Kenya. Running equals Kenya. Kenya equals running. From the second half of the last century, Kenyan and Ethiopian runners dominated road running and beyond, only the former established themselves among casual fans of the sport as the best running country in the world. For the past twenty years, Kenyan runners detained the male marathon world record and won marathons worldwide.


As fast as you can be on the road, the trails will treat you differently. 50 males are ranked in the top 140 athletes according to the World Athletics Marathon and Half Marathon Ranking (as of April 4th). In contrast, only 6 athletes are ranked among the top 140 athletes according to the UTMB Index at the time of this writing. Despite only 6 names among the top, two of them, Kipngeno and Kiriago, are at the top of the sport winning races like Sierre Zinal and gaining top spots at the World Championships. We felt there is much more potential to be unlocked from Kenya that could drive to complete dominance of the sport.


We decided to go straight to the source and understand what is needed to see more Kenyans on the trails competing and winning. Milimani Runners is the first Kenyan trail team with athletes excelling in the Golden Trail World Series despite its short life (it was founded in 2022). We sat down with Julien Lyon, the founder and coach, to discover more about the team and the relationship between Kenya and trail running. He moved to Kenya years ago and he is a vital part of life in Iten, the Home of Champions - at least in road running.


How did your connection with Kenya and, in particular, Iten happen?


It’s from a long time ago. I came here for the first time in 2010 when I was 20. Kenya was not as popular as it is now. There were some articles about it and few people had been there. When I came here, I wanted to live directly with a family and not go to a camp or hotel. I’ve never spent a single night in a hotel in Kenya,


Of course, I came here to run, I was a good junior athlete from Switzerland. I immediately loved it. At the time, I found out about Kenya when I read a book by a Swiss journalist. He went to Kenya for one year and wrote a book about its economic politics. In the book, there was one chapter about running and I loved it. I contacted the journalist, and he introduced me to some Kenyan athletes.


Kenya changed a lot since 2010 and every year is changing more and more. There are more guest houses and more tourists. Also, more Kenyan athletes come to Iten from other areas of the country. They see Iten as the place where they need to go. This brought positive things, such as better roads and an education system. Everything is going fast because of tourism.


You lived in Iten for the past 7 years and are a local by adoption. How would you describe the relationship between local and international athletes coming to Iten to train?


Iten is super peaceful, and the athletes’ attitude reflects that. Of course, there are some opportunist behaviors. Locals see that they can have big opportunities by being friends with Americans and Europeans. This is not the norm. Kenyans are nice and they’ll help you. They’ll come to run with you and ask you how you are doing. They don’t force you to give them anything.


I spend a lot of time with kids through my charity called Simba Kids and I am concerned about them. With more tourists coming they get used to receiving sweets or other things. When I first came here in 2010, there was none of this. I don’t think it is healthy for kids to expect gifts. I hope this situation will balance for the best in the long term.


milimani runners iten track

What do you do with your charity foundation? Is it connected to running in any way?


Not at all. This was my plan. The charity supports education in Kenya for vulnerable children to give them access to school and better living conditions in general. We have a children's center where they can come and play. Even though some of the donors are athletes, we do not promote running more than football or painting. Running comes naturally to Kenyans so we don’t feel we need to promote it. On the other end, for example, we brought more bicycles. So now, kids have access to those.


Switching back to what you are doing with Milimani and what running means for Kenyans. With trail running evolving and professionalizing as a sport, do you see it becoming as attractive as road running for Kenyans, especially from a financial perspective?


Trail and road running are different in terms of prize money. In road running the prize money comes mostly from the race. Brands will add bonuses too. In trail running, the prize money from the race is small, even though it is growing. If you compete in the Golden Trail World Series and you win three or four stages, you can get close to 50,000€. So, it is not bad, especially for Kenya. Personal sponsors play a bigger role. But so far, On is the only brand supporting Kenyan trail runners.


The evolution of trail running will bring good competition among Kenyan athletes and more opportunities. The problem I face is that I can support only eight athletes, four men and four women. What is fantastic about trail running is that there are many distances. For now, we are focused on short distances but this year we have plans to go up to 50k. In the coming years, we’ll go further.


iten mountain view

Looking at your career in running, you’ve never run on trails but you founded a trail running team. How did this connection come about?


It's funny because I've always said that I don't want to be a manager or a coach for a road racing team. The competition is high, and I feel like it's not so healthy. The big teams eat you alive. If you have a good athlete, they take it from you because they have bigger budgets. So, I didn’t want to compete in this game.


In trail running everything is developing now. I had the idea when the French trail running team came to Kenya. We spent a lot of time together. The French National Team coach told me that the potential of Kenyans is amazing and it's crazy that they are not excelling on the trails. This gave me the impulse to start the team in 2022. On decided to support the project from zero. They gave me the facilities and some financial support. We started the team from scratch, and we had 30 athletes at some point, but then I decided to keep only eight athletes. The talent was there from the beginning.


How did you convince On to support Milimani before the team even started?


I was lucky because I didn't think they would support any project. I had good timing. This was three years ago when they were developing and investing their marketing budgets in several projects. From there, I proved quite fast that Kenyans can have good results. Unfortunately, we had a doping case. [Mark Kangogo tested positive after winning Sierre Zinal in 2022. Kangogo was dropped from the Milimani team after the fact.] That was a big shock. Despite that, we continued to have good results. The support from On helps us to travel to races, accommodation, and so on. None of the athletes has a personal contract with On yet, but we are confident that this year’s results will bring one.


milimani runners mountain

Doping allegations are always a hot topic in road running, but they are rising in trail running as well. How did you deal with Mark Kangogo’s case, and more in general with speculations about Kenyan runners?


I am biased because of what I work here. But I honestly think that we are all different human beings. People can make mistakes. I believe that Mark made a big mistake. He never admitted that he doped intentionally. His version is that a friend gave him a painkiller telling him it wasn’t doping.


Regarding Kenyans, I think there is a small percentage of them utilizing doping. The difference between them and Europeans or Americans is the lack of knowledge. If a friend of mine tells me to take something I would be careful, research on the Internet, or ask my doctor. Kenyans are naïve and take a substance thinking is allowed. Their level of education is lower compared to ours. Mark left school when he was 10. The Kenyan Anti-Doping Agency started a program to educate and test athletes competing in all races in Kenya. They test the top 10 men and women. Athletes know how dangerous doping is for their careers. They will lose their spot in the team and sponsors. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I believe that. Kenyans will be more careful, and I think the cases will reduce in the coming years.


Kenyans have been at the top of road running for decades and the sport is associated with them around the world. What is needed to see Kenyans excel on trails in the same way?


Trail running is specific. Training is not enough; you need the race experience. A road is a road, while a trail is always different. You need to get used to the surface and its technicalities.


Anyway, the biggest thing is that they need they need more opportunities. The sport is not inclusive at the moment. Nobody ever said they didn’t want Kenyans, but, on the opposite, nobody ever tried to invite them to a race. This is changing and more opportunities will come. Kenyans will grow their presence in the sport. We are trying to lead this change as the Milimani Team too. Last month we organized our first trail competition here in Iten. This is a way to discover talents and introduce runners to the trails. In the end, Kenyans need time and experience to succeed. You can’t succeed on the trails if you only train on the road. I have no doubts that they will succeed in the future.


milimani runners mountain

In terms of opportunities, do you think that the fact of not having popular trail running in the country, and even in the continent, prevents Kenyans from rising in the sport, knowing the financial barrier of traveling to Europe to race?


I don’t think this is the main reason for the current situation. Two days ago, I read an article about how Ethiopians hold indoor world records on middle distances, but the country hasn’t got an indoor track. So, sometimes you don't even need to have the competition in your country. Even in the 80s, there were no road races in Kenya, but they still won the Olympics.


Do you think Iten can become a tourist destination for trail runners like it is for road runners?


Yes. All the trail runners that come here are impressed. They don’t expect this kind of terrain. Media will start talking more about it and more runners will come to train here during the winter. January is a great month to train in Kenya. So, I believe it will become a destination for trail runners too.


Historically, African athletes had great results on short distances or VKs. What is the reason behind this trend?


They can win the VK World Championship or the up and down. They can do this by wearing road running shoes and using the same training they would do for a half marathon. If they leave this space, it gets hard for them to win right now. The main challenge is to bring them to longer distances. They can win a race like UTMB, but it will take time. It is a different challenge with many other factors than just running. My athletes will follow a progressive approach, moving from 50k to 100k.


What are the team's plans for the team in 2024?


We will focus on the Golden Trail World Series. In addition, we will also compete in some 50k races of the UTMB Series. This is the plan till May, then we’ll see.


Is there any race that you dream of winning with one of your athletes?


A Kenyan winning UTMB would be amazing and a big achievement. I believe that a Kenyan can win OCC in the next two or three years, CCC four or five, and then UTMB.

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