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In a league of their own

An American ventures into Kenyan marathoner territory.

By / April 12, 2011

Runners in Iten, Kenya, get in a morning workout.

Kelsey Timmerman


"When I'm running," says Dorcas, a young female runner, "I feel like I'm flying. But when you are not in shape, you feel really difficult."

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I feel "really difficult" ... and like tripping Dorcas who is running a few steps ahead of me.

I was scheduled to run the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon – all 13.1 miles of it. But I was called to Kenya on a writing assignment and I didn't want my months of training – OK, weeks of training – to go to waste. So I thought, for some crazy reason, that it would be fun to organize a half-marathon of my own design here at 8,000 feet in Iten, Kenya. Iten is a village in the western highlands that just might have the highest concentration of elite athletes in the world.

This was not one of my better ideas.

"Go ahead and run your normal pace," I told Dorcas and Richard, the only two runners I could convince to spend their afternoon training session with me. "I want to see what that's like."

They exchanged a knowing glance that I've seen before. The cook and the housekeeper at my guesthouse shared it with each other when I told them my plans to complete a half marathon, and so did the guard and the groundskeeper. If there weren't bets on whether I'd make it or not, I'd be surprised.

Richard is my age, 31. He's a middle-distance runner who has won races in the Netherlands, Israel, and Germany. Whether standing or sitting, his head is pitched forward a bit as if saying to his body, "Let's go! I'll leave without you."

Dorcas is 21. She's shy. Her voice has a musical quality about it like a bird's. Her legs are a little knock-kneed like a bird's too. She has won races in India and in Europe.

And as for me, I've run one race – the New York City Marathon. I finished 29,989th, a mere two hours and 30 minutes slower than the second-place finisher, Robert 'Mwafrika' Cheruiyot, who trained on these same hills.

When we started to run, Richard's body caught up with his head and Dorcas was knock-kneed no more. Everything fell into place. Their legs became easy-flowing pistons. The trail seemed to be made of rubber.

"Hmm," I thought, "that's not so fast."

Thirty seconds, and one slight incline (hill would be an overstatement) later, and I'm about to pass out. I make a pact with myself: No matter what happens, I won't walk.

Richard and Dorcas don't look back until I stumble on a rock.

"Sorry," Richard turns to say, as if he is the reason my legs are too heavy to step over small rocks.

We follow one of the many dusty red trails that divide the green world into farmyards with mud huts and fields with cows. We pass group after group of other runners. They swoosh by in their nylon and Nikes, lean limbs covered in spandex, wearing brightly colored jackets, like out-of-place superheroes leaping cow patties in a single bound.

I give a passing runner a high five.

"Do you know who that was?" Richard asks. I don't. "That was Mustafa, the European champion!"


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