Wed, 16 Feb. 2011 - 1:32 p.m. MT
Credit: Steve Nearman
Seat 11C on a Canadair regional jet is on the aisle, almost to the back. This vantage point allows one to watch other passengers board the airplane.
It is from here that I am affixed on Dr. Rosa, methodically making his way toward the back of this plane, a flight on Jetlink which will bring us from Eldoret to Nairobi. It is in the Kenyan capital that Dr. Rosa will head off to a Middle East destination while his staff and I fly north to Amsterdam for our connecting flights home, his staff back to Italy and me, to Washington, DC.
As Dr. Rosa approaches, he is distracted by Francesca who is seated two rows directly in front of me. After some discussion with her, he takes his seat right on the other side of the aisle from me.
Then I turn my focus to my left. Seating beside me, at the window, is a young Kenyan man dressed in street clothes. I size him up, then wonder if what I am about to ask him is a stereotypical question which might insult him – are you a runner?
It is a fair enough question to ask in Kenya, but at the same time it is ludicrous to think that every person in Kenya is a runner. Does every American eat hamburgers? Does every Dutch person wear wooden shoes? Does every German drink beer and wear lederhosen?
So I ponder.
Then I decide to go for it. “Are you a runner?” I ask.
Yes, the young man replies with a warm smile.
Then I look right to Dr. Rosa, who now is engrossed in reading some document in his hands.
My head turns to the left and I stare directly into the eyes of the young man in Seat 11D.
“Did you run in the half marathon this morning?” I continue, referring to the race I covered in downtown Eldoret earlier in the day, the 20th anniversary Discovery Kenya run founded and organized by the very man sitting to my right, Dr. Rosa.
“No,” he simply says. Then he points to his right knee.
And thus unfolds the story about a young man on a plane to Italy to see a famous doctor named Madonna or something of that sort.
Now journalists are a lot like cats – our curiosity tends to get the best of us. And in all my years covering the sport of running, I know I’ve heard of this Madonna guy fixing leg problems of many of the world’s great distance runners.
This kid next to me on this plane to Nairobi, then, is not some local recreational jogger from the dirt roads of Eldoret. He has to be somebody who is somebody.
I can no longer contain myself.
“What’s your name?” I ask, getting bolder now.
Does not register in my databank of world class names. I jot the name down on the back of my boarding pass, a journalist reflex.
“So Wilson, what distance do you run?” I counter.
I’ll admit that my first thought was to recruit him for my half marathon back home, the Wilson Bridge Half. No, wrong hat, I am a journalist here, not an event director.
“So how fast do you run the half marathon?” I query.
“59:39,” he casually answers.
Holy #@%@ was my immediate thought.
“I was the African champion,” he furthers.
I nod like I know what he is talking about, as if I had seen his race.
“Yes, that was the time I had to qualify for World Championships last year, but I only ran 60:09 at Worlds,” he continues.
Only, I think. Sure, only 60:07.
My thoughts are interrupted by the flight attendant giving the last-minute flight instructions, the ones about using your seat as a flotation device which would be difficult if we crashed into the mountains of the Rift Valley.
It is at this point that my new fast friend Wilson leans over and points to Dr. Rosa, now engrossed in some reading material, most likely not the emergency information on the Canadair jet.
“That’s Dr. Rosa,” he perks up. “I have only seen him in magazine articles and never in person.”
“Now is your chance to introduce yourself to him in person,” I egg him on.
And Wilson Kiprop leans further over me and calls to Dr. Rosa, telling him the same line – that he had only seen him in magazine articles.
Dr. Rosa looks over to his left, passed me and onto Wilson. This is not an unusual moment for Dr. Rosa, who has been a celebrity in Eldoret for his 20 years of amazing work with Kenyan distance runners.
Frankly, from his reaction, Dr. Rosa is not particularly impressed. But then again, he does not know Wilson Kiprop. Yet.
So I reach across the aisle and hold before him the back of my boarding pass, with the name “Wilson Kiprop” and “59:39” written in pen.
And I look up at Dr. Rosa, a smile now growing big on his face and eyes the size of saucers.
“I saw you win the world championships,” Dr. Rosa exults. “I watched you destroy Zersenay Tadese. It was a very gutsy race there in China.”
And as the plane ascends into the sky, Dr. Rosa and Wilson Kiprop have lots to say. Wilson explains why he was going to Italy and Dr. Rosa tells him if his patella doesn’t get better he should see one of Dr. Rosa’s associates in Italy.
They talk about who was coaching Wilson and there was a genuine interest by Dr. Rosa to continue this conversation long after the plane lands and we all go our separate ways.
Once on the ground, Wilson hands his card to Dr. Rosa and to me, assuring me that he would keep in touch via email. Remember I have this half marathon and to have a 59:39 guy on my line, oooo lala.
Then it is off on the airport shuffle, lugging our stuff from the domestic airport down the road to the international terminal and to the KLM ticket counter. It was there that I nearly have a heart attack.
The uniformed man at the beginning of that long maze one goes through, like the ole finishing chutes from the large races, stops me cold and requests my documentation. That’s just a fancy way of saying my passport and flight itinerary. Then looks at the paperwork, and eyeballs me with a stern face and looks back at the paperwork.
“Sorry, you cannot leave Kenya,” he says, as my heart misses several beats. “We want you to stay here!” Then he looks up and flashes a warm friendly smile as my heart resumes beating.
I clear Customs and take the escalator up to the gates. There I see Giorgio, the 69-year-old Rosa biographer, the tall, tanned confident man who splits his life between the Italian Riviera and San Diego.
Tough life! The other Italians have been held up at Customs re-arranging their luggage as Francesca has gone over the weight limit. Rephrase – Francesca’s bags exceeded the maximum weight allowed on the plane.
At this point, Giorgio is on a mission. I believe he is looking for a restroom. He queries the young Kenyan lady at the Information Desk and we are on our way through the terminal, a busy terminal with people of all types, nationalities, colors, hair styles, you name it. We seem to be at the crossroads of the world.
I point out the restroom as we pass but Giorgio continues down the hallway. I point out another restroom but he declines to stop here. I am left to wonder what is wrong with these restrooms that Giorgio continues to pass up. I take a step ahead of him, turn around and stop him in mid-stride.
“Giorgio,” I look up to meet his eyes. “What’s wrong with these restrooms? We’ve passed two of them already.”
And in his Italian accent, he replies back: “I’m looking for the RESTAURANT not the RESTROOM.”
Makes sense to me when Giorgio tells me he never eats airline food. Good call, yes. So we find an out-of-the-way restaurant and dine on some fine food. Why the airport insists on hiding this restaurant is beyond me. You go down this one hallway, right turn and down another hallway, and a left down a little passage to a small flight of stairs and to the elevator at the top of the stairs and to the fifth floor. Not a place you find by accident.
It turns out to be a huge dining hall – self serve which is perfect when one is in a hurry – filled to capacity with East African women in colorful garb with their babies strapped to the backs. Thankfully, by the time we return with our food, the entire dining has emptied and we are left in blissful peace.
From Nairobi, after a few hours of layover there, it was another eight hours to Amsterdam, eight hours layover at Schiphol, and another eight hours in the air over England, Greeland, Canada and the snow-covered Northeastern United States.
That is a long time to reminisce about a weeks-long journey in the running mecca of the world.
The children quickly come to mind, with their beautiful smiles and infectious giggles.
The stars come to mind. Seeing Edna Kiplagat, winner of the 2010 New York City Marathon, in a two-piece business suit rather than a two-piece racing uniform. Conversing with not one 2:04:27 marathoner but two! Duncan Kibet, the tall, sleek speedster who dresses like an American rap star, and James Kwambai, who made a 29:07 leadoff 10k at last Sunday’s half marathon seemed like an easy tempo run.
How can I ever forget seeing Moses Tanui once again. I spent many a moment speaking with him during the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996 and again during his win two years later. Some 15 years before, we were chatting in my hometown of Boston; this week we were chatting in his hometown, and more specifically his hotel Grand Prix.
After hosting a wonderful meal for our group, where he showed off his three children to us, he took me into a side room so we could talk about how he and Dr. Rosa formed the first of the running camps some 20 years ago. Tanui’s mission with the camps was to give the Kenyan runners the discipline that they lacked. The training camps would control them, he said.
Each of the side rooms was named after a city where he gained fame as a runner and of course, he chose a special room for us to talk – the “Boston” room.
He also was apologetic that he had put on weight and did not look fit. He went on to explain that almost a year ago, he and 1500-meter specialist David Lelei were in a terrible car accident when their small car collided with a large truck on the Nairobi-Nukuru highway. Lelei died on the spot. The 45-year-old Tanui got banged up pretty good and hurt his arm bad, curtailing his running over the past year. No need for apologies.
He spoke in detail about the Moses Tanui Foundation he is launching next month for destitute children – orphans – to develop them into top running talents. May he rub off on each and every one of them.
And as I said goodbye to Moses after a night of reminiscing, I took one more glance back at him. During the mid-90s, Tanui was the face of the Kenyan presence at the Boston Marathon and sponsor John Hancock seized that moment and made Tanui their charming spokesman.
It was that endearing smile of his that made him an instant favorite of the media and the Boston fans. There always seemed to be an innocence about him, too, one that still remains on his face to this day.
That same smile that you see on the faces of the Kenyan people. A seemingly happy people living a seemingly simple life.
Which leads to that lasting question that I could not get out of my head, not in the eight hours to Amsterdam, not in the eight hours to Dulles Airport in Washington.
What makes the Kenyans such great runners?
The possible answers are too many to list but here are a few – genetics, I was told by Dr. Rosa, many generations of genetics. Another theory I was told was that while these Kenyan athletes do not have unusually high VO2 max, they perform at or near 100% of that VO2 max.
Another theory is that they work harder and endure tougher lives from birth than other runners from around the world. I wish I could buy that but I’ve talk with other runners from around the world – for example, the Mexican greats – who would leave their families for six months and also train high up in the mountains with as little to distract than as the Kenyans in the Eldoret training camps.
Another coach of three-decades of world-class Kenyans said that the secret to the Kenyan distance running success is that there is no secret. And actually, if you think about it, the Kenyan rise to world domination was stunted for at least 12 years when you consider the country boycotted the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games, dashing the hopes of a generation of possible Kenyan greats during that time.
So as I leave Kenya behind in the jet exhaust of a KLM 747-400, I am saddened because I leave not discovering the key to their success. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above, maybe not.
Maybe I need to go back there for a few more weeks and try to figure it out.
I am feeling very old again.
And it is not what you might think.
Traveling can be rough on the body, for sure. And with a trip like this, there is all that running, running. And I mean, actual running. Not to mention the constant barrage of body shots one takes being in the back of a van on a pothole-filled journey.
For the past week, I’ve taken any opportunity to run here in Kenya and I have always had willing partners.
I am not the only visitor that Dr. Rosa has invited to view his 20 years worth of masterful work, aiding Kenya in its meteoric rise to distance running prominence.
He also has flown in some of his staff from Italy – Francesca his communications/marketing guru, Giorgio the writer putting the finishing touches on Dr. Rosa’s autobiography, Ansel who is Dr. Rosa’s cousin, and then a young journalist from Italy and his photographer, Federico, who reminds me of the soft-spoken Elliott from the sit-com “Just Shoot Me.”
For much of the week, we travel together, in and out of the van, to the various activities of the day, and most always for an evening run and then off to dinner.
Yesterday’s hour on the dirt roads just outside the hustle and bustle of Eldoret was shared by Ansel and Francesca. Mainly Francesca, as Ansel’s pace is much slower than ours, so he trails.
But don’t judge Ansel by his speed – he is a man probably in his late 60s, who has kept up every day with the rigors of travel and he hasn’t complained about it. Ok, maybe he has but he speaks little to no English and I speak little to no Italian so I would not understand complaining if I heard it. I just know that I admire his energy levels!
We leave the hotel after 5 o’clock to avoid the piercing sun and soon after, the three of us emerge from the van. Francesca gives the instruction to the driver about where to pick us up down the road, which is very important since we truly are in the middle of nowhere.
I do a panoramic and you can see farmland and fields for as far as you can see, in every direction. And in the distance, Mount Kenya and a setting sun.
Francesca warns that she will be running slowly this evening, already putting 40 minutes on the morning run. But this is good for her, who at 38, is hoping this year to run her first marathon.
I am not surprised to hear this at all. She’s been with Dr. Rosa’s group of three months and I imagine it would be a requirement for the staff to run at least one marathon. Remember, the Rosa group trains marathoners so you need to walk the walk, talk the talk.
It is early on this run on the hard-packed dirt on a long stretch with the cooling breeze in our face that I reach an epiphany. It finally hits me why Western runners come home so inspired by their visits to Kenya, many who go on to write about their experiences for the rest of us to live vicariously through their word, much like I have been trying to do during my own visit.
For me, it is not a revelation of life. No, I found that some years ago in the slums of New Delhi in 1992 when a young man I befriended there offered me “the reality tour.” From the backseat of a bicycle-powered rickshaw, he took me to the stomping grounds of some of India’s richest natives and then to the subsistence of some of the poorest people on Earth.
Broken people, deformed and dying, right there on the busy streets where even the most focused eyes ahead could not escape feeling their misery.
For as poor as Kenya is as a country, you don’t see that kind of poverty, or maybe in all my travels this week around one of Kenya’s largest cities Eldoret, I have not been exposed.
The Kenyans on the face of it, anyways, appear quite optimistic in fact. No doubt for all the foreign lands I have travelled, Kenyans are by far the friendliest people I ever have met.
So it comes as no surprise to me that along this long dirt road leading far far off into the distance, with one-story farmhouses after another dotting a landscape speckled with cows, that I would realize what it is that us Western folk take home from Kenya that is so very powerful – positive energy.
For some 10 minutes into our run, we catch up to a number of children returning from school, most barefoot, and in one case, a boy wearing just one shoe. After our friendly exchange of “Hello” they counter immediately, “How are you?” We obliged with a “Good thank you.”
And with that, the children, with their beautiful white smiles against the backdrop of their dark skin, begin to run with us, just as we experienced early in the week.
And they run and they run and they run.
Minutes tick on my watch and they are still right behind us, then right beside us spread across the road, then behind us again. And as we continue on, more children join in. At one point, I slow a bit and drop off Francesca’s pace and behind her, extending my arm to butt fists with the boys around me. This seems to light them up and they laugh out loud. Francesca turns around to see what the ruckus is and I am running normally as if nothing ever happened. When she turns to focus ahead, I reach out my arm and butt fist again, which put the children into uncontrollable laughter.
You can see the joy of running in these dozen little faces that you rarely if ever see with American kids. And while there have been studies after studies trying to pinpoint a reason for the Kenyan dominance of our sport over the past two decades, I am quite sure it begins somewhere here with an innocent, enthusiastic and playful love of running.
That is just the beginning. Somebody during this trip, maybe it was Dr. Rosa or Coach Claudio who talks about the hard lives the Kenyans live and how tough it makes them as they grow older, which turns them into ferocious competitors over 26 miles. You certainly won’t find many American children with the numbers of miles on their walking legs before they reach puberty that Kenyan children have.
The great U.S. miler Steve Scott told me back during the 2004 Olympic trials that by the time Kenyans reach age 18, they have an incredible amount of miles on their legs. He was telling me this to explain why it was not absurd for a young Kenyan to run 26.2 miles while in America our runners wait into their mid- to late-20s to step up to the distance.
I look back at my watch and based on time, these kids have run at least a mile and a half with us, barely breathing hard. Francesca continues to tell the children that they need to go home because their mothers will be looking for them. Her worries go unnoticed by our new little friends as they keep pace with us.
By two miles, though, they stop and we continue. By now, Ansel is pretty far back and out of sight. When we get to a crossroads, however, Francesca is concerned about the van finding us, so we turn and head back, passing Ansel and running directly into the setting sun. But with that, we also are pushed hard by a friendly tailwind.
Some 50 minutes into the run, the van driver finds us and follows closely behind, occasionally dropping back when a passing motorcycle or van appears from the dust before us. Another new friend has greeted us but for him we will disappoint. At 60 minutes, Francesca says she is done, and so am I. But our new friend named Martin is still running strong. He stops with us and we chat.
I ask him if he knows the name Martin Lel, the Rosa athlete who has won London three times and New York City once. Of course the boy knows Martin Lel. It would be akin asking a teenage boy in New York City who Derek Jeter is. And Martin says he wants to grow up to be like Martin Lel. Again, as I have found myself doing all week, I take a long, hard look at his face, snapping a photo in my mind. Someday, on some podium a decade or so from now, I will see that familiar face again.
Tonight we are back at Dr. Rosa’s favorite Chinese restaurant. All week long, he was taken his minions to his favorite restaurants in town, except for a couple of nights ago when he entertained in fine Italian style in his own home, complete with spaghetti, wine, bread, cheese and romantic candlelight. The ambiance was not planned as such but moments before we arrive at the house, the power goes out for nearly the entire dinner.
My initial thought of losing some excess baggage while I was here for a week-plus has been dispatched by the fine food which has ended up before me each night.
And at this moment, it is no different. First the soup, then shrimp tandori, then the fried rice, whole fish, chicken and noodles and on and on. At one end of the table, Dr. Rosa passionately trades stories with Anselm on one side and Giorgio on the other and Dr. Rosa’s son Federico to Giorgio’s left. And Francesca and the journalist and his photographer occasionally chime in.
I trust they are stories, as the language of the week is not Swahili as I imagined but Italian, a language that is very easy on the ear, almost sung rather than spoken.
On the other end, where Claudio and Beppe and the Nike rep sit, the language there is good ole phone texting with an occasional dash outside to field a call. And in some case, these guys have not one but two cell phones.
I query, feeling a little phone envy as I eat phoneless and without my own personal distraction.
One is for Kenya, the other for outside Kenya.
Work never stops in this fast game, where the juggling of athletes, race directors, sponsors, who knows. Maybe that’s how they’ve all managed to stay so thin, working their fingers through dinner.
I pass on the ice cream, a personal favorite I have sworn off since January 1, some 27 days ago. Yes, I count them.
After much discussion, it is determined that we will be going to a night club for a bit. We load into the van and drive a few blocks and to The Spree, located in an area I had just visited earlier that day.
We walk down a flight of stairs and come upon a line of people. This is a happening place, with loud music and energetic well-dressed people. We pay the cover charge and enter. There are several bars and a large dance floor full of young and middle-aged Kenyans. Some gentlemen are shooting pool, others just carrying on conversation. This is not the Kenya you imagine. This is the typical scene in a Washington nightclub. Men dressed in ties and sportcoats, women in tight outfits, stockings and tall heels. It actually makes sense as I believe we are located close to a large university.
And yes, we stick out as the only white folk in the joint.
I order myself a beer and marvel that in America, I can pay $5-7 for a bottle half the size of the one in my hand and I paid just 150 shillings, less than $2.
As I scan the scene, I cannot help but feel somewhere north of 350 years old. These kids could be MY kids, then my thoughts shift across the room to Giorgio and Ansel, looking as grandfatherly as one can against the backdrop of these 20-somethings.
In the meantime, Beppe, a studly-looking soccer guy with a smoothly-shaved head and piercing black eyes, is chatting with a young attractive Kenyan lady with a broad bright smile and long straight black hair. She’s from Nairobi and comes to Eldoret from time to time, Beppe tells me the next morning as he drives me to Dr. Rosa’s home for my physical therapy session with a new technology called Human Tecar. Coincidentally, the lady’s sister in one of Dr. Rosa’s runners.
I am left to entertain myself as the Italians group together speaking Italian and I don’t think I’m just going to slumber up to a table of locals and pull some conversation out of the air. Instead, I watch a soccer game on one television and a boxing match on another. And then there is the third television.
Flashes of violence on this screen, CNN reporting from Cairo. I try to make sense of what is happening, and in this case I’ve been so “away” with no television and newspaper for a week and heavens, no internet for 24 hours as the hotel’s wireless router died. Seems like the Egyptian students are unhappy with the government. Nobody in this bar seems to be paying it any attention but me.
I watch the streaming commentary at the bottom of the screen as there is no way I will be able to hear over the excessive decibels of rap music on the dance floor.
For a moment, I access whether this problem will affect Kenya, affect me. Especially since there may have been some connection to uprisings in Tunisia.
No, I think we are safe here in Kenya, at least for now.
Then CNN cuts to the White House for comment.
No country on this Earth exerts as much power over the rest of this Earth as do the United States.
Yes, that is a bold statement but it is true. Sorry to the people of France, sorry to the people of Russia, sorry to the people of China. The world looks to the United States.
You really don’t see the impact America has on the world until you travel abroad. My trip to the Himalayas to cover a five-day, 100-mile stage race along the India/Nepal border, was about as perfectly timed as possible – late October/early November 2004.
If you know your American history, you will know the significance of this time period. You will know how it changed the direction of America for years to come.
I speak, of course, about the Boston Red Sox winning their first World Series in 87 years. Actually, the Sox threw out the first ball of Game 4 just as my plane was taking off from a runway at JFK Airport in New York to London, and none of the London ground crew eight hours later had any idea what the final score was. They had never even heard of the Red Sox. Get out! And I’ve never heard of the Beatles, either.
So maybe the Sox win was not THE most important event of that time, but certainly the U.S. presidential election was.
During the Himalayan run, attended by 44 runners from every corner of the world including South Africa and Argentina, Americans were heading to the polls to either keep George W in or vote for the other guy.
Once election day came upon us, most of the 40 non-Americans were bugging us Americans to call Stateside and query about the results. And a number of them said they would have paid for their own airfare to come to America to vote. In case you were wondering, the sentiment was unanimous against the W, which speaks volumes to the impact his White House had on the rest of the world for the previous four years.
Mind you, how many Americans every election do not even bother to cross the street in their own neighborhood to vote their beliefs. Most Americans has no clue as to the impact America has on the rest of the world, and as to their own power to affect the direction of America.
So I was not surprised earlier in the day to be brought into a political discussion by, of all people, a Kenyan van shuttle driver.
Having worked at The Washington Post in the ‘80s, I followed a syndicated columnist by the name of Colbert King. He writes about conversations he has with the cab driver with whom he just happens to traveling that day, as these people hear the variety of opinions of their passengers all day long. Who better to have a finger on the pulse.
Working my way across another busy road, I manage the proverbial hop, skip and jump to avoid becoming a hood ornament. And before I can even reach the other side of the street, I hear a man calling in my direction.
Seems he recognizes me, and why not. I am probably the only guy he has seen in the past 48 hours that evenly remotely looks like me. Because Eldoret is not a tourism destination, we really are a rarity of sorts.
He and his partner converge on me in the middle of the side street, leading with a warm handshake.
“My friend where have you been?” he asks, gently pulling me in the direction of his van. “You take a shuttle today.” I decline his offer, opting to tour on the ground. Next thing I know, the men are in discussion about President Obama with me.
I am not surprised how much these two men - a shuttle driver and his partner - know about Obama and America, even though I know so little about the president and political system of Kenya.
Lest I be too harsh on myself, but Obama’s father did come from Kenya so there is some vested interest here. The driver points out that Obama has not yet visited Kenya since he became U.S. president two years ago but he did visit twice as a U.S. senator, the man informed me.
Earlier in the trip, somebody mentioned that Obama did visit Africa once but sidestepped Kenya.
He goes on to ask me if Obama is doing a good job. I tell him I think Obama is doing a good job but half the people in America agree and half of America disagrees. And the driver agrees that this is a problem in America.
As I watch him speak, I have to laugh at the irony here. I rarely talk politics while I am in Washington with Washingtonians and here I am engaging in a political discussion about American politics with a Kenyan in Kenya.
In other words, it was time for me to go.
A handshake and a chest butt with my old friend and I’m back on the road.
I explore a few shops, even buying a bag of potato chips from a small supermarket. The chips are from India, and I should have known better. Once outside the store, I excitedly open the big bag only to find that they are much too hot to eat. Save them for my wife, I think, yea lover of spicy foods.
No, I have a better idea. For at this point, I’ve attracted the attention of a little boy, Turrs, who must have seen me coming up the road.
He shadows me for blocks, and I figure maybe I can get rid of him with the bag of potato chips. He gladly accepts, with a smile, but now I have only encouraged him. Every time I pop into a store, he is patiently waiting on the sidewalk when I come out.
At one point, I ask a uniformed officer for the direction to the Post Office, and Turrs jumps in and tells me he will take me there.
We walk seven blocks, Turrs attached to the hip, sidestepping people, cars, bicycles, he is not letting me get away. He leads me right to the post office, and again, patiently waits 20 minutes while I write out two post cards and figure out how to mail them home to the States.
And of course he is going to walk me back, too. Several times, I crouch down to this little 12-year-old boy and ask him why he is not in school. And every time he answers “California.”
I don’t think he is from California but maybe he sees my sunburnt face and thinks it is ME who is from California. I continue down the street, hands in my pockets, and suddenly he gently holds onto my arm. I will admit it makes me somewhat uncomfortable, especially in light of the fact that it appears people we are passing are one, now looking at me with weird expressions instead of smiles as before, and two, they seem to know this kid.
About a block from the hotel, I inform him that I must go to work now. He smiles at me and throws his open hand up towards me and says something I cannot decipher. I reach into my pocket and place a coin in his hand. He quickly closes his hand and in an instant, my companion of the past two hours, a boy about the very size of my own son, is gone into the masses of people flowing back and forth along this busy dusty thoroughfare.
“Come on Matthew, come on Dixon, that’s it guys, pick it up now for the next kilometer,” Claudio calls, as he hangs part-way out the window.
Claudio Berardelli is the coach, the man Dr. Gabriele Rosa has entrusted to take this boat-load of talented Kenyan men and women and make them even more talented.
We’re out in the country surrounded by farms and it’s 9 in the morning. I’ve been awake since 6:05, which is when Claudio calls, as I requested, to wake me up and tell me he is on his way.
Moments later, I am cramming into the backseat of the Rosa SUV, with Claudio driving and Beppe Picotti, another Rosa employee who works with Claudio on the coaching and with Federico Rosa on the agent work, occupying the passenger seat.
Over the next hour, we drive around downtown picking up athletes in two locations. Soon we are joined by a pickup truck, another Rosa vehicle, and runners are squeezed into the cab in the back like day-laborers going to work in the Washington suburbs.
Claudio introduces me to the man seated beside me in the backseat. His name is Matthew, as in Matthew Kisorio who four months ago triumphed at the Philly Half Marathon.
We head for the country, along the same rutty roads as we have driven all week.
I ask Claudio if there are any roads in town which are smooth and he tells me there is one smooth road which heads out of town toward the home of a former public official. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to going in that direction very often.
After driving for a while, Claudio turns right onto a nice flat hard-packed dirt road and he pulls over. Within seconds, Kenyans are leaping from both vehicles and removing their Nike sweats.
This stretch of real estate is one of the roads to Kenyan success. Over the course of the next two hours, Claudio and I will be watching from very close behind as 20 men and one woman run 35 kilometers with a series of pickups.
While Claudio gives the workout instructions, four older men standing in a row on the roadside are captivated by this gathering of Kenyan athletes.
“I want you to go 3:45 to 3:40 per kilometer for the first 10K, then pick it up for 3K, then the next 3K slow down to medium pace, then the next 3K fast, then 5K in a comfortable 3:45, then alternate 1Ks for the next 5K,” he says in English, his Italian accent obvious.
Now I am in the front seat as the Kenyans spread across the road and take off running. Below my feet are about a dozen water bottles.
Claudio points out Matthew from the crowd, telling me that he has run 12:57 for 5,000 meters, 27:10 for 10,000 meters and won Philly last year in 60:15. He went even six seconds faster in Portugal.
“He’s not someone with much of a kick,” Claudio explains, which is why he is being groomed to be a marathoner. “I’m sure he is going to run a good marathon this fall. We don’t know which yet but it is going to be a big one (possibly Chicago or New York). Patrick Lynch (elite athlete coordinator) from Boston really wanted him after Philly but I want to have him run the cross country season.”
Claudio tells his troops that they are doing just fine, keep the pace right where it is. All the while, he is watching with one eye the odometer placed high on the dashboard and with the other eye the stopwatch in his hand.
Somehow he keeps the SUV on the road.
“I focus on four to five guys, then the others join them on runs,” Claudio remarks. Then he points out Benjamin Kiptoo, on the far left, and begins to tell his story.
Kiptoo surprised a lot of people back on March 22, 2009, when as a pace-setter at the Rome Marathon, he never dropped out and won in 2:07:17, the fastest marathon time ever recorded in Italy, beating stud-runner Paul Kirui Kiprop along the way.
He had started running in 2006, inspired by another Rosa athlete Martin Lel. Coming into Rome, he had been victorious in two other marathons, a 2:09:24 in Brescia (Italy) and 2:10:14 in Beijing in 2008.
“I have to control the number of people who join,” Claudio says. “It is very tough. I can line them up in the morning and say ‘yes, yes, no’.” Sure guys could be in the program for three years but I have a young kid who can take their spot.”
We pass a school, the children wave as the runners trot by.
Then there is Dixon Chumba, who was second last year at Madrid in 2:11:54. Not bad for a guy who recently was cutting grass for 35 Euros.
“I offer him 50 Euros and then said to him ‘You work for me now’,” said the coach, who believes Dixon is capable of 2:07/2:08.
Recruiting is a challenge here in Kenya. You need only strike up a conversation with people in the know and they will tell you there are sponsored camps throughout Eldoret and nearby Iten, where the famous High Altitude Training Center is.
We talk about the Kenyans who make it big enough to travel out of Kenya for competition. Claudio knows a lot about this topic, as he has escorted them around the globe since Dr. Rosa trusted him with Margaret Okayo in New York City in 1993. She won the Big Apple and came right back the next spring and took London. But by then she already was a star to manage, having won Boston in 2002 in a course record.
“On their first trip outside Kenya, some get emotional, others couldn’t care,” Claudio tells me. “[Journalists] ask why after winning all the money, they don’t move to Europe or the U.S. They don’t last more than two weeks in Europe. They get homesick. This is their home. This is what they are used to.”
We pass a dog, sitting off to the side of the road. He hardly moves as the Kenyans whisk by him.
“He knows there’s no meat there,” Claudio muses.
Claudio goes on to tell the story of Martin Lel, who cruised to victory in London in 2005. The next year, when treated to a palatial hotel suite as is customary for the defending champion, he turned on all the television sets.
Claudio asked him why.
Martin told him that he was going to take advantage of the situation because he didn’t know if he would be back there next year.
Most others, Claudio said, don’t care about fancy hotel rooms and would rather stay in simple, modest lodgings. That should come as no surprise.
As I look up, a group of runners are moving quickly toward us. This is not our group, so I look over to Claudio. Just some local guys training, he says. “They probably could run 30 [minutes] for 10K,” he says with a chuckle.
I comment back – “30 minutes could win somebody $250 at a local road race back in DC.”
For all the glamour one might think being the crowned coach of the greatest human runners on Earth, life has not been so easy for Claudio.
While no 30 minute 10K runner, he was a decent long-distance cyclist before his studies became his main focus. While pursing his Bachelor’s Degree in Milan, studying “scienz motorie” which in Italian stands for sports sciences, he lucked out and was referred to Dr. Rosa who lived nearby.
He ended his studies to work for Dr. Rosa on Easter Day 2002, jetsetting off with Okayo the next year and working through the 2004 Athens Olympics. His professors, sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, allowed him to put his degree on hold and finish in 2008, which he did.
While still in Milan in 2003, he met Kenyan Janeth Jepkosgei, then struggling with a 2:09 800 meters. He coached her starting in 2004 and by the end of the season Jepkosgei clocked 2-flat!
Then they moved to Kenya to join Rosa’s Discovery group.
As he tells the story, Claudio requests some assistance. Time to pass all the water bottles out the window to his now-sweating athletes. As you will see Kenyans do in road races and marathons, they pass water bottles and share. After a couple of minutes, Claudio calls for all the bottles to come back to the SUV. He quickly passes them to me, and I drop them back to the floor below my feet. Then he beeps the horn to signal a pickup in pace.
It didn’t take long after the move that Claudio and Janeth encountered problems. Seems that while inter-racial relationships may be fine in the United States and Italy, it wasn’t so fine in Eldoret. He was accused of “stealing one of their women” and soon telephone death threats came.
At the same time, he wasn’t received as well as expected by the Kenyan runners who he was brought in to coach.
“It was very hard in the beginning,” Claudio said, breaking for a second to yell out ‘3:08 for the last 1K.’ It was not as much an issue that he was not Kenyan. He thinks it had more to do with his relative small physical stature. “I’m 30 now and I look 25. Can you imagine how young I looked five years ago? The athletes were expecting a bigger-looking coach. I just looked too young to coach, but what can I do? I need a salary, I need a job.”
He said he measures 5-foot-6 and 116 pounds.
“I look more like one of the athletes than a coach,” he goes on, obviously an issue of concern to him. “I’ll go to a race and people would ask me what time I’d be running. Even last year in New York City, I rode up the elevator before the race and people were wishing me good luck.”
Later on during the drive, he shows me his Kenyan driver’s license. I open it up and deadpan: “Your high school graduation picture?”
“I’m happy now and they respect me,” Claudio recovers. “I am flexible and they trust me. I’m very proud of that.”
If troubles gaining acceptance early on wasn’t enough, he has had malaria three times, the first so bad he couldn’t even lift his hands.
Then there was the violence in Eldoret after the 2008 elections. Claudio took his runners to Namibia, where Italian elite runner Stefano Baldini used to train.
The latest incident – a car-jacking in November by five armed youths who took him to his home to rob him. Fortunately, he was smart and did not get hurt.
Undeterred, Claudio is not going to let one of the greatest coaching jobs on Earth go by the wayside.
“I think I’m the closest person to Dr. Rosa, even closer than his son,” he offers as he shouts out the window for his runners to keep their pace. “And I’m not the easiest person either. I have a big respect for [Rosa]. He gave me the opportunity and he trusted me. He had me take care of Martin Lel when I was at a young age. Now he’s the one asking ME the things. [Rosa] is not the best coach in writing things but on the field he’s the best in understanding the situation.
“What pushes me in this job,” he continues in a serious voice, “is the 10 to 15 seconds after one of my guys wins a race. I say to myself ‘Oh man we really did it. That is special.’ A day later, I am already thinking where we go next week.”
We near the end of the run, and now Claudio is encouraging his two frontrunners to finish strong.
I ask him what some of the challenges are today with his job. He tells me that it is getting harder and harder to get a U.S. visa for his Kenyan athletes. Unless of course you have a P1 visa. So sometimes he flies his athletes to Rosa’s home base in Italy and then on to the United States.
“When Obama was getting elected, the guys here were saying that with Obama being U.S. president and his roots in Kenya, it would be easier for Kenyans,” he explains. “Now it is harder to get a visa than ever before.”
And with that, the first of his runners completes the 35K. “Very good, very good,” Claudio shouts, looking at his watch and seeing 1:59:16. Others quickly follow, with salty, glistening faces. Quick, out with the water bottles until they are completely dry.
The last runner finishes in 2:15-flat, not bad for a woman. Claudio congratulates Priscah Jeptoo, who ran 2:27 two months ago at the Milan Marathon and is one of Rosa’s leading female talents.
Claudio and Beppe load up the runners and by 10 o’clock, it is quitting time. But the last hurdle of the morning is maneuvering the rugged roads. Claudio points to the heavy track traffic heading our way, from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to Uganda. I turn to him and say that it must be tough on the truckers driving these bumpy roads all day.
“Yes,” he replies, “even for coaches. It’s worse in some areas where we drive to get to practice. We think this is unacceptable but this is how it is in Kenya.”
Once all the runners are returned to their respective locations to find their way home, Claudio and Beppe drop me back at the hotel. And hours later, they pick me up again. Duty calls and later in afternoon is track practice.
We drive to the local university track, this time with four men and four women. Claudio leaves them at the entrance gate to begin their jog warmup and drives the SUV up the driveway to park on the grass.
Between us and the track is a barbed-wire fence. Great, I say to myself, wondering how I will scale the fence. Fortunately, there is a tree we can used to help ourselves over the fence. Once on the other side, Claudio rolls up his pant-leg to bare a large scar under his knee.
“I tried to go between the barbed wired and not over,” he laughed.
We stretch and we drill and during the intervals, I attempt to keep up with the women running 400s in 70 seconds. First I must get used to running on the dirt track, uneven in Lane 1 from all the foot traffic. Then the dust. I am told there is only one paved track in all of Kenya and it is in Nairobi.
Off we go and I look ahead at the four women kicking up dirt and all I can think of is graceful gazelles. Until all I can think of is that my heart rate is going through the roof!
I cut my 400s to 200s to make it through the session. The number 187 may look good on an IQ test, but not on the heart rate monitor. The 7,000 feet of elevation is finally taking me down. Not surprising, just frustrating.
I back off because I’d rather be telling other people’s stories about their experiences with the Eldoret healthcare system than be writing my own personal stories.
While Claudio works one watch for the women and the other watch for the men, Jepkosgei, now his former girlfriend, looks on from the sidelines, taking the day off as a precaution.
All in all, a good session for his runners and Claudio appears pleased.
Then it is back to the hotel to drop me off, as the clock reads 6:30. But Claudio and Beppe are not done yet. There are emails to answer and calls to make.
“There are many coaches out there better technically than me,” Claudio tells me during the morning 35K run. “But I’m there all the time."
I looked back at the teller with a face that screamed “You have GOT to be kidding me.
Such a major fuss and all I wanted to do was to exchange some US $20 bills for some Kenyan shillings. My first inclination was to go to the local ATM but no, I wanted to complicate my life and use a real live bank.
I leave the hotel this morning for the first time by myself. There is a very good reason for this, the caution part, but I cannot tell you until I get home or my wife will freak out.
The first thing you need to do as an American traveling in Great Britain or a former Great Britain holding is unlearn everything your mother taught you about crossing streets. Americans drive on the RIGHT side of the road, as do Italians as I found out later today while sharing scary stories with Francesca during a run this afternoon.
Kenyans drive on the left side of the road. That means look RIGHT first, not LEFT as we have been trained in America. It is just our instinct but this instinct can get you run over and even impaled by a street animal, which could be against the law but consult an attorney before taking this advice. In the downtown part of Eldoret, heavy traffic flows as much as the federal budget rises. In other words, non-stop. Remember the game of double-dutch jump-roping when you were a kid, where you just wait and wait and wait and lean in and lean back and wait and wait until you commit and you go.
Yes, that is exactly what crossing the street in Eldoret is all about.
Thankfully because of how erratic the drivers and the pedestrians manage their driving practices, the people behind the wheel are expecting you to walk right out in front of them. This is a good thing – with all their experience avoiding potholes every day, there really is no challenge avoiding a pedestrian.
But the first order of the day was to exchange some money. Sorry but little Kenyan shops don’t do American money. Plus it was starting to freak me out when I bought dinner the night before on my credit card and the bill was 1600. Truthfully, the food was not that good.
But due to my extraordinary ability to do long division on bar napkins, I was able to deduce that on an exchange of about 80 Kenyan shilling per US$1, that meal still wasn’t worth it. The name of the restaurant will stay anonymous for obvious reasons.
Into the bank I go, the Trans National Bank Limited location three blocks from my hotel. I chose this bank against the better wishes of the woman who was filling her car at the gas station along the way. She recommended Western Union, but that just didn’t sound Kenyan enough. And for a guy who’d climb Everest to come back with a good story, I found my bank.
Where else can you feel safe inside your local bank than at a financial institution with a uniformed man with a riot helmet and rifle on his back. At least I know I will not get robbed INSIDE the bank. Outside is another story. The nice branch manager shows me that conversion sheet and I see 77 which I know is not a fair right, then she whispers to me to go to the teller and negotiate 81.1. Wait a minute, this is my vacation. I left negotiating back in Washington. I relay the story to the teller, sliding five fresh $20 bills through a tiny slit in his window with my passport. He looks up at me, then down at the bills, and up at me, and back down to the bills. It’s like one of those freaking drama movies where the guy at immigration is contemplating whether to allow you to leave some foreign country or throw you in one of their Turkish prisons.
I look back at the concierge wearing the riot gear and I realize that because I awoke real stiff from the run to 10,000 feet yesterday and sitting in the fetal position in the back seat of an SUV traveling over the landscape of the moon for three hours , I am shifting my weight back and forth and looking obviously nervous. I stop dead, like a mannequin in the Macy’s window. I don’t even breathe for about five minutes.
OK, so maybe I am a little paranoid now. There is nothing wrong with my passport as the teller put it aside. There is something wrong with my BILLS! Very wrong. Now sometimes I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, and maybe I haven’t studied the Kenyan accent enough because most of the Kenyans that win races in America say so little, but it took me nearly three minutes to understand why this teller was frantically pointing to the date on my $20 bills, pressing them against the window so I could see it better, and shaking his head NO. Frankly, I thought the guy was nuts.
Then I finally got it. My bills were too old! Call it Master Bills or something, but the teller was telling me these bills were too old and he could not accept them. They have to be from 2006 to 2010, he eventually communicated to me. Into my wallet I go, searching through dozens of $20s to find some young bucks to hand over to the patient teller.
Now is the scary part. Leaving the bank and trying to look like you made a deposit and not a withdrawal. I look right, then left, and hustle across the street hopefully without witnesses.
And right into a sea of people. What I am about to say may sound politically incorrect but tell me one person in my situation who does not think it even if they don’t say anything. Kenya, as many of you may be aware, is in Africa and is comprised of Africans. Africans tend to be black in color as opposed to my white complexion, which by now with three days of equator sun, has a very noticeable red rouge-like appearance which many people call sunburn.
I’ve had many serious conversations with my African-American friends and they agree that when they are in a place of all white people, it is weird. My mission – to blend in as much as possible.
So I headed out from the hotel an hour earlier, in jeans, sweatshirt, gray Nike hat and sunglasses to cover as much of my epidermis as possible. Like in other places I’ve traveled, it’s weird when you stick out so much. At first, you think you are being paranoid…oh oh everybody is watching me, staring at me, noticing me. Then you realize, THEY ARE! You begin to search frantically for another fellow Caucasian, or in my case, an elderly Indian man at selling textbooks in a shop. Trust me, I know those of you who have traveled are shaking your heads YES right now.
It is in the shops that you get service like you’d never see in the States. You could walk into a shop and be the fourth person in line and the clerk is waiting on you immediately. Then you start attracting attention because people associate white with foreigner with rich foreigner with rich and charitable foreigner – a little boy followed me for six blocks begging for whatever. A woman grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into her shop for something she said was “Free.” I know better so I ran out, nearly dislocating her arm until she released her Kung-fu grip!
After some light shopping, including a fascinating trip to what looks like a Costco or BJs, I got lost for about an hour until I finally found the hotel and set off to work.
And it didn’t take long for 5 o’clock to roll around, just as you East Coasters we getting to work in your snowy rainy mix of pathetic weather and all I was concerned about was getting more beautifully warm sun on my already fried body parts. Don’t you hate the irony here.
We meet in the hotel lobby, the Rosa group, four of us dressed to run, two of them dressed to laugh at us. Actually, one of them had a camera which is always a plus. But unfortunately no matter how good a photographer he is, I am just not photogenic.
We load into the van and within a couple of miles, on a long straight dirt road, the van slows to a halt. I look around for street animals and there are none impeding our progress so this must be the place we start to run.
Francesca, the communications and marketing whiz of the Rosa group, has been the glue keeping this group together for the past several days. She’s also taken on the unlikely role as my wake-up caller since the hotel staff does not have that task in its repertoire. She is a fit-looking woman with that naturally curly hair and a gentle Italian accent that you’d hear from the lead woman in a foreign movie.
She warns me before the run that we are going to run slowly, and that I should run ahead if I want to. Naw, slowly at 7,000 feet sounds fine, and I am scared stiff of getting lost out there. Armed with my heart rate monitor, my hat covering my sun burnt head and sun glasses, I begin the trek down a long straight dusty dirt road. Quiet dusty dirt road. I know already that when I blow my nose after the run, I’m going to be snotting black. That is a guarantee.
But the view is fantastic. Just fields and farms and flat lands you could see forever until they turn into mountains. As soon as we begin to jog, a couple of Kenyan guys passing us yell “Faster faster!” Then the cows start in with us. So we pick it up a bit.
During the run, I experience something so powerful, so intense, so overwhelming. For the very first time in my life, I got a chance to feel like a movie star. Let me explain.
We pass some little boys in uniform walking home from school. When they see Francesca and me running, they start laughing at us. I look over my shoulder and to my amazement, they are running with us. As we continue, kids race from their far-off farm homes to the fence near the street to wave to us and yell “How are you?” I’m starting to feel like First Avenue during the New York City Marathon (that’s a plug for my good friend and PR machine Richard Finn of the New York Road Runners). The farther we run, the higher my pulse got! But more importantly, the more kids join us on the run.
If you are a Rocky fan, you’ll remember in Rocky I when Sly Stallone was running down the street in Philly with all the kids running behind him. Now we’re talking!
We made a midway stop at the van, and those kids still in the running were fascinated to hang with us. Especially fascinated by my hairy arms. Several of the children took the liberty to squeeze my hand and gently stroke their little fingers down through my sweater, as my friends in Falmouth like to call it. “Part man, part animal” I replied, and they laughed some more. Boy were they going to have stories to tell mom and dad tonight.
Then an elderly man on an ancient bicycle suddenly stopped within inches of me and put out his hand for a shake. I clench his hand with both my hands and gently rock his frail arm. He smiles and wishes me good luck, for no apparent reason.
Maybe a long time ago, he was a teller at a bank. Or a local farmer. Or a solider. Whatever he was, his eyes are still full of life even if his body is not.
Again, as has become the case in Kenya, sadly it was time to go. I release his hand and disappear with Francesca down the road while he continues in the other direction, slowly pedaling his way through the rest of his life.
Think of a paved highway that hasn’t been maintained for decades, with mostly bumpy dirt and a few remnants of asphalt remaining. Then the potholes, which are deep enough to consume an entire wheel.
Federico Rosa, son of Dr. Gabriele Rosa and the group’s agent for more than 250 of its athletes, is the driver of our SUV as we pull out of the city with the group’s other four SUVs ahead of us. For my money, he is the man I want behind the wheel – extremely focused and calm, swerving right to left and back to avoid as much of the roughness as possible as if he were a professional giant slalom skier.
This is NOT the place to be texting while driving!
Once out of the city, the roads are so bad that at times, Federico has to pull off the highway onto dirt paths that parallel the road for miles, some right next to the highway, others 10-15 feet off the road. It’s a hoot to watch, as we drive on the dirt paths while the children are walking to school down the middle of the vacant, ripped-up highway.
We head for Kapsait, the original training location. It takes about three hours in the SUV, including a couple of stops to take pictures. Between the bumpy road and the curvy mountain passes, I am praying that I can hold down the little breakfast that I ate.
While I have been known to have a steel stomach (including eating chicken left in the refrigerator for four weeks or so), as I have aged, motion is not particularly my greatest friend. Pretty much have cut out most roller-coasters. But this drive is not for the faint of heart, or stomach. And apparently it was not for at least one other passenger.
An hour into the drive, we come upon one of the other SUVs, pulled over, and a woman leaning over beside the vehicle heaving. This may sound cruel but it actually relaxed me knowing that if I had to request a quick stop, I wasn’t the only one and I was not going to be embarassed.
The mountains are filled with farms, and the farms are filled with animals. And sometimes the mountain roads are filled with animals. These are not the animals I was excited to find in Kenya. Instead, we pass cows, calves, lamb, sheep and asses. More specifically, lots of dumb asses. They will just stand there in the middle of the road, even as you pull within inches of them which Federico liked to do, and just look at you and then look away as if you do not even exist. The sheep aren’t particularly bright either, and at one point, as we sped around a curve, all I could see was my next wool sweater.
Finally, what we have been waiting for appears right before our eyes. More than two dozen Kenyan elites waiting in the street for us. Kinda looked like the starting area of the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler! This is the usual Rosa run, done maybe every 10 days or so, a 20-kilometer run up, up, up the dirt road, some 4,000 foot climb to the top near 10,000 feet.
These men and women pose for us as we take every conceivable shot, from every vantage point and angle. They don their white “Discovery Kenya” t-shirts and they patiently oblige us for 15 to 20 minutes. Now it is time for them to show us their stuff. Off they run, on a day made for running, with its 70-degree temperatures and a light breeze to keep things a bit cool.
And we’re off, too, soon passing them, all five SUVs kicking up dust so you barely can see these fit, flying men and women behind.
Now the game is to keep dropping off runners as we climb, so they can run 15K, 10K or 5K up to the camp. My friend Robbie and I choose the 5K, which will take us from 8,500 feet to the top. Federico pulls ahead and then parks off the side of the road, closes his door and off he is running, slowly. He certainly does not fit the runner mold, maybe more like a lineman on a football team, with strong wide shoulders. But I totally respect that he is out there trying, on such a challenging piece of real estate.
Robbie decides he is going to wait up for the three Kenyan women, who were dropped off at 15K. Then he will run them in the last 3 miles or so. At 38, he still has that youthful exuberance (i.e. foolishness) that as a life-long sea level boy, he is going to keep up with these women who have lived their 20, 25 years at altitude and compete with the best distance runners in the world.
There is where my age and wisdom wins out!
While we mull around, a local woman walks down the road to greet us. Actually, she’s looking for shoes, money, anything she can get from us. Beppe, Federico’s assistant and also an agent, communicates with her while Robbie and I prepare to run.
Along come the elite women, looking so smooth, so relaxed. We quickly jump in behind them. I realize within seconds that I’ll never make it to the finish at their pace. I drop back and enjoy the run, every once in a while waving to some locals who look at me like they have never seen a white guy. Probably not often, anyways. Some good uphills sweetly mixed in with some nice downhills as we straddle the side of one mountain and go over the top to the next mountain.
Following me, like a sag wagon, is Beppe. I finally find out what it’s like to be the last runner in the race with the driver behind me betting on which mile I will stop and request a ride home.
After 2.5 miles, I hear what sounds like a truck coming up fast behind. No truck – it’s the Kenyan men. They roar by me like I’m running backwards and then they are gone up the road. I look far across a ravine, and there’s Robbie, breaking away from the women. Fool, I say to myself.
Around the next corner, I reach a very steep hill. I try hard to keep running, even at a 10-minute-per mile pace. I’m starting to hurt and I don’t want to do something stupid because it is a long awful drive home. I’m 2/3rds from the top and up ahead of me, a Kenyan elite stops. And another is dropping back fast. In a flash, I realize that if this is tough enough for a 20-something Kenyan born within miles of here and who competes on the world stage, it’s tough enough for me! I walk to the top and catch Federico. He tells me Robbie got to the hill and was quickly eaten up by the women. We run to the finish together.
It turns out to be about four miles, but that coolest part was seeing the “welcome” sign at the top for the Kapsait training center, with the words “3,000 meters.” That’s 9,842 feet high and like Rocky, I am still standing! Robbie is waiting for me, taking pictures and shaking his head after getting his butt whipped.
From here, we view the training center. Very sparse rooms, just two beds with mattresses, no pillow, no other furniture. Again, you see that Kenyans will live in conditions most American elites, except for maybe Josh Cox who came here years ago, will not. The toilets are like peeing against the wall. There is no sitting down, either – you put your feet on the footprints, bend and aim for the hole in the floor. This is typical of third-world countries.
Obviously, it works.
After a nice lunch in which I unknowingly ate sheep for the first time, we’re back in the SUVs to check out the other camp in Kaptabuk. Same setup, lots of sparse rooms, lots of Kenyan elites. We hang around this small collection of shops and chat with the locals. They, too, oblige us and we take pictures, lots of them. The moms with the little babies, the older men of the town sitting on a log, shop owners, etc
Then we crawl back into our vehicles for a most interesting destination – a nearby primary/secondary school.
This is not just any school, either. This school has produced more elite runners than you can possibly memorize. But you don’t need to memorize. Their names are painted into the “Wall of Fame” at the administration building of the school, some 23 international athletes.
As we roll up the long driveway, hundreds and hundreds of children in uniform – dark green sweater, light green skirts – race across a flat field to wave to us. It is as if they had seen Santa Claus landing his sleigh nearby. We wave out the windows and continue to drive to the parking lot. Once there, the children entertain us with several running races, then they sing for us, class by class, and pose for more pictures.
And Robbie and I entertain them by running with the back-of-the-backers, with the other children lining the course laughing at us. We start to low-five them and this only causes more laughter and silliness.
They were expecting us. They had been expecting us for a few weeks. And their own version of Santa Claus – Dr. Rosa – walked amongst the children, touching as many as he could. The irony could not be missed. Dr. Rosa has been touching this school for years, through financial support along with Nike which helps sponsor his training camps. Last year, Nike paid for a new classroom and Dr. Rosa brought electricity to this school for the first time.
And none of this is lost on the school officials, parents and the children. For as the students chanted their songs with their beautiful voices, their words paid homage to Dr. Rosa for all he has done for them. I watch from the front row of seats as they sing, and I look to my left at Dr. Rosa. At times his eyes welled up, this humble man who looks the part of your beloved grandfather with his wispy white hair and matching white beard.
Not to be outdone, the community singers and dancers come out and entertain too. And they re-create a tribal ritual with spears and a long horn, they dance and leap and stomp on the ground to the point you can feel the vibration under foot. They come to us and by hand bring us into the act, my aching knees now inspired as I feel – through the touch of the hand – a connection with another fellow human far from where I live.
The visit would not be complete without a tour of the school. Again, the classrooms are sparse, bare, dim. And packed with children, wide-eyed and eager to learn. I notice through crowd of visitors that the girl in the front row and center is holding a certificate. I peer closer and it confirms my speculation. She was one of the winners of the Discovery Run on Sunday, one of many winners from this school including the victors of the junior men’s and women’s race. I look closer and the certificate displays “under 10.”
I look up and lock eyes with her for a second, eyes I know I have seen before. Eyes of the girl in the ankle-length red dress who dusted her competition on Sunday. We smile at each other and I can feel a chill as I imagine 10 years from now gazing across the press room of the Boston Marathon and seeing this girl, Brenda Chemisto, being interviewed for her Boston triumph.
Not out of the realm as she has just been discovered for the Discovery program.
We head back to the field, where the children in huge masses are pushing each other to get to the front row so their picture can be taken. One girl grabs the hand of her little brother and swings him into the front row so he can be included. A photographer holds his camera high and shoots down on the crowd of children, so beautiful, so precious, and seemingly so happy with so little. The children surround him, lighting up their smiles and energizing the photographer to keep shooting pictures with arms outstretched as much as he can above his head.
But now sadly it is time to go.
They wave as we drive back down the long driveway, and in a cloud of dust we are gone. But they will never be gone for me as their very images have been etched into my memory – those smiles, the shy faces of the little girls, the feel of little fingers in my hand - only to be rejuvenated forever by the miracle of photography.
Today was one of the big events in Eldoret – the Discovery Kenya run, now in its 20th year. It is your typical cross country meet, 10 races lasting all morning and into the afternoon. They start with the kids, 500 meters for the kids under 10 years of age, then ends with the “senior” race which is the adults – 8K for women, 12K for men. That is 5 miles for women, 7.2 miles for men for those who are metrically challenged.
While you might think I left the DC area in the middle of January just to get out of freeze, this is really the reason I am here, to report on this race and its companion half marathon on Saturday next weekend and the Discovery program of training camps for aspiring Kenyan runners so people in America will know about this.
Top finishers are invited to train in organized training camps which are sponsored by Nike. Yes, how people think it is a bit weird that a footwear giant like Nike sponsors a race where the kids are shoeless. But don’t lose the meaning of this – Nike has poured money into this poor area and on its own has increased the standard of living for many athletes by significantly leaps.
While this meet looked like a typical cross country meet in America, note some differences. One is the huge crowds lining the course, albeit it was just a 2K loop run as many times as the race distance necessitated. As I watched the kids on the starting line, I couldn’t help but wonder which if any would financially prosper from a professional running career and move out of poverty and all the rest who are destined to be poor for the duration of their lives. In America, I would look at that same starting line and wonder which kids would become doctors, lawyers, graphic artists, etc.
The Discovery race is a mega-lottery and the kids and their parents take this very seriously. Winning isn’t like getting a blue ribbon in an American kid’s race – it could turn into a lifetime of wealth here.
Another startling difference is this – in America, how many elite runners and former elites show up at even as significant an event as the High School XC Championships? Not many, if any.
Today, I met Olympic legend Kip Keino, Moses Tanui, Robert Cheruiyot, Nancy Langat, Ibraham Hussein, Ismael Kiprop and many other past and current Kenyan running heroes, world record holders, Olympic champs, world champs, major marathon champs. The point is that these legend and future legends come out and support the sport in Kenya, something severely lacking in the United States.
Don’t think for a minute that this doesn’t count for anything for the kids, pre-teens, juniors and even seniors who came today to run or spectate.
And by the way, just like I have been witnessing in most major U.S. distance races, today once again the Kenyan swept all the races! Ok, it’s a joke. Funny was watching the lone white person in the open 12K race with the “USA” logo on his shirt. He was pretty far back, but he still can sleep tonight knowing he was first American. Too bad there was no American money.
Speaking of money – first prize men – 20,000…not dollars, but Kenyan shillings. Converts to $247 which goes far here. The women – 15,000. Wouldn’t be able to get away with the gender disparity in America.
The cutest thing was watching this little girl in the under-10 division run all 102 competitors into the ground, wearing an ankle-length pretty red dress and running barefoot!
When I got back to the hotel after the races, I wrote a recap for Race Results Weekly. It was interesting reporting on the races…even though English is the official language in Kenya, there is a lot of Swahili spoken here. So when we were interviewing the winning athletes, they were talking Swahili which I did not understand and none of them could understand my English questions.
But I got lucky…there was a young Eldoret native from a radio station who could speak both English and Swahili but he didn’t really know what questions to ask. So we worked as a team. I told him what to ask each runner and he translated into Swahili for the runner, then he translated the answers back to --------English for me.
While you are enjoying the 32-degree weather, I was sitting poolside at the outdoor pool during lunch at the hotel here watching kids swim. I did not swim – not safe. Too many bad bacteria that could be in the water. It’s probably 70-80 degrees here during the day and 50s at night. The sun, however, is very strong. Even with 110 sunblock, I have a red face today like a lobster from Boston.
Remember we are at 7,000 feet. When you are this high, there is not as much oxygen in the air as when you are at sea level. Unfortunately for us runners, our bodies must have oxygen to live. When you run, you start to breathe heavily because your body is telling your brain that it needs more energy to keep your arms and legs moving. This makes your lungs work harder to produce the energy to feed the cells of your body to make your body move faster.
So you can imagine when you start to run at 7,000 feet of elevation, you will be out of breath a lot. Of course, these Kenyan runners were born at 7,000 feet. I was not. I was born in Framingham, MA and have lived at sea level all my life. This is where the Kenyans have the advantage. When they come to places like Boston or Washington, DC, to run the Boston Marathon or Cherry Blossom 10-Miler, our sea-level air is so full of oxygen that they don’t need to breathe as heavily as we do.
When we go out to run with the Kenyan runners tomorrow, it will be very difficult for me to keep up. First, they are very fast – I will be running with the women at this training camp but they are very fast too – but also we will be running 5 kilometers from 7,500 to 10,000 feet. That is steep and VERY VERY high! I will be breathing VERY hard from the start! This is no time to be mucho or a hero. Altitude sickness is very serious.
Just getting to this camp, I am told, will be the first challenge. The dirt road is very long and filled with potholes enough to shake out your kidneys. I am thinking this will be akin to the time I covered a 100-mile stage race over five days in the Himalayas. One very long section was on cobblestones and the jeep in which I was riding had no shocks. So after 10 miles of feeling to a Muhammed Ali sparing partner, I stopped the jeep and ran the final 10 miles, from 9,000 feet elevation to the top at 12,000 feet. Not sure to this day I made the right choice.
So until tomorrow, I must sleep and be awake by 5:15 a.m. to begin a new day…
Many people wonder if the current Kenyan domination of the sport of distance running ever will wane. From what I witnessed this afternoon, I am going to shut the door on this discussion right now. The dominance will continue for at least another generation. I was invited as a long-time journalist of the sport to Kenya – specifically Eldoret – for a little more than a week to scribe the life and times of Dr. Gabriele Rosa and the 20th anniversary of the birth of his brainchild Discovery Kenya. Rosa, a 67-year-old cardiologist from Italy, is arguably the greatest marathon coach ever. And while I certainly am not arguably the greatest running writer, it didn’t hurt that I have friends in the business who referred Dr. Rosa to me for what will be one of the most memorable weeks in my professional life – my first visit to the mecca of distance running, a place I only have imagined through the hundreds of interviews I performed with Kenyan athletes over three decades.
It was some 20 years ago today that FILA, an Italian shoe and apparel company, came together with Dr. Rosa and two-time Boston Marathon champ Moses Tanui to establish Discovery Kenya. While Tanui is legendary as a world-class marathoner, his investment in his own people will make him a bigger legend.
The goal: to identify and develop young talent into a force that wins Olympic gold, World Championships, and all the world’s major marathons like Boston, London, New York, Chicago and Berlin. Since Tanui and Dr. Rosa opened their first camp in 1991 in Tanui’s hometown of Eldoret, other camps in the remote Rift Valley venues of Kaptagat and Kapsait, and other remote place have sprung up under Dr. Rosa’s watchful eyes.
To say the project works would be one of life’s greatest understatements. So today, standing before me and nearly 50 interested parties, is the sixth Discovery Kenya training camp, and standing before the residence building of the camp is a proud Dr. Rosa. He said that the camp is comprised of 16 rooms with a two- to three-person capacity. He is hoping to launch soon with 30 athletes, mostly marathon men and women and some juniors. Impressive, in that it brings Dr. Rosa’s total head count to more than 100 athletes in his camps.
Speaking of which, many were on hand to watch the ribbon-cutting. Marathon heroes like Robert Cheruiyot of four Boston wins and one Chicago triumph, Duncan Kibet Kirong (#2 fastest marathoner ever in 2:04:27); Janeth Jepkosgei (2008 Olympic 800m gold medalist in 1:56.07, Viktor Rothlin, an up-and-coming Swiss kid with a 2:07:23 during his 2008 Tokyo triumph.
Many of the Rosa disciples are not there – Edna Kiplagat, winner of the New York City Marathon two months ago and Sammy Wanjiru, the reigning Olympic marathon victor with a 2:05:10 personal best to his feet. These are the most obvious not in attendance.
You can hear lots of Italian spoken amongst Dr. Rosa’s team and a handful of Italian journalists and photographers who like me, were summoned to the altitude by Dr. Rosa. The Italian I expected but the Chinese? Dr. Rosa explained to me that for the last year or so, he has been working with the Chinese national team, much like what might have been the beginnings of his Kenya experiment with the Kenyan 20 years ago. Accompanying three promising Chinese ladies were officials from the Chinese running federation and of course more journalists. Today, for lack of a better term, was more of a meet and greet.
Tomorrow, Sunday, is the meet. Not just any meet. This is the 20th anniversary of Discovery Run. Kenyans from around the country will come tomorrow as Kenyans have for 20 years to compete with the hopes of finishing well enough to be “discovered.” As in, end up being invited to a training camp where he or she could blossom into the next Boston Marathon winner. Far fetched? Don’t tell that to the affable and playful Cheruiyot, who years ago competed here, was ushered to a training camp and ended up shadowing the legendary Paul Tergat in training. I don’t need to take this thought any farther. Tomorrow, registration for the Cross Country races sponsored by Nike in its multi-faceted role here begins at 6 a.m.
The last race of the day – the one in which I am most interested – is the men’s senior 12-kilometer at 12:45 p.m. I scan the list of volunteers and it is truly overwhelming to me. The names Moses Tanui and Daniel Komen and Ibrahim Hussein and Yobes Ondieki jump out at me like salmon launching out of the water during spawning time. Dozens and dozens and dozens of names, all Kenyan greats I have interviewed and covered during my career. Then next Saturday is the half marathon race. Maybe I can recruit a few for my half marathon in the DC area. Just kiddin.
Now let’s go back to my original statement at the beginning of the journal entry – the one about future Kenyan dominance. The first two races of the day are the 500 meters for girls’ and the boys’ under age 10, the boys’ and girls’ under age 12 one-kilometer and the girls’ and boys’ under age 14 two-kilometer. How many American girls and boys are proficient in a 1.2-mile race before their 14th birthday? For Kenya, a country struggling with poverty, disease and political unrest, the future appears to be now, at least in the running world.
Getting to Kenya is no simple task. From home in Northern Virginia to Eldoret some 7,000 feet into the sky, my travel totaled 34 hours, 17 of them in the air. The layover in Amsterdam was an all-day affair, which was fine as it necessitated a trip downtown to the sights and sounds of Amsterdam. That of course include a walk through the then-docile red light district. I walked the streets in the quiet morning, with weather quite similar to that of the Washington I had just departed: 32 degrees, damp and overcast. My arms still sore from two shots in each from the day before – tetanus, yellow fever, flu and Hepatitis A. Lest you think I am a procrastinator on the shots, I really only found out I was going to Kenya less than a week to my departure hour. By the way, there are dozens of more shots against dozens of more disease and afflictions, if you are so interested. I decided my arms had had enough with four stabs and called it quits there.
The 8 ½ hour flight from Amsterdam Friday night to Nairobi Saturday morning was uneventful, thanks to a fine flight on Kenyan Airlines. I knew I was in Kenya as I was walking down the aisle of the plane to depart and sitting there discarded on a seat is the latest issue of Runners’ World! The choice when you get to Nairobi and you need to be in Eldoret is to fly or drive. Not a decision – fly.
The roads are not so great, mainly because of the tremendous amount of pass-through truck traffic from the coastline city of Mombasa to Uganda and other destinations west across Africa. These trucks tend to carry great weight, which tears up the roads.
I find this out after we have landed in Eldoret, having spotted the Kenyan Athletics Federation President Isaiah Kiplagat. He lives near the airport and kindly invites my Nike friend and I to breakfast. From the sky, I just don’t see many paved roads so I save that as a topic of discussion for Mr. Kiplagat. A former athlete, he is a well-built man who is proud of the accomplishments of Kenyan athletes and the direction he has led the federation. He understands the challenges not just of the athletes and the federation but also of Kenya as a whole. I tell him I’d like to spend some time with him over the week and he is very receptive. He must know an awful lot being around Kenyan sports and its federation for a long time. I tried that same request of a former USA Track & Field CEO for years and got nowhere. After a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and fresh fruit, we shake hands again with Mr. Kiplagat and his grandson who explained that the drive from Nairobi to Eldoret would have been four to five hours. Good choice we made. I find out later thanks to a Google search that another Rosa legend Stephen Kipkorir lost his life on that same road on February 8, 2008 in a military vehicle crash. Our driver takes us to Dr. Rosa’s home, where the fun begins. World class runners coming and going from the home and into the garage for massage, a time to chat with Edna Kipligat and Cheruiyot and another man I covered on the U.S. road scene – Gilbert Koech. He gives me the primer on the derivation of Kenyan’s names. Too much to repeat back, trust me, it has something to do with taking your father’s name and a piece of another name and putting all together with your first name.
A few hours later, we pack into vehicles to head to the ribbon-cutting. The potholes are pretty bad, necessitating at times for the driver to go into the oncoming traffic to maneuver, much like watching the Hermanator doing the giant slalom. After the ceremony, we head back to our hotel. I make one strategic mistake I will not make again while in Kenya. I jumped into the van knowing I needed to relieve myself and figuring I could wait until we get to the hotel (ok, somewhere in a runner’s story, there will be this discussion of relief). In Virginia, a 30-minute ride in that urgent condition would not have been a problem. In Virginia, you don’t have hundreds of crater-sized potholes in a 15-mile drive…
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