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In a league of their own

An American ventures into Kenyan marathoner territory.

(Page 2 of 2)

Mustafa Mohammed was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and runs for Sweden. He's competed in the 3,000-meter steeplechase around the world and even in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. (This might be an odd thing to keep track of, but he's the first Olympian I've ever touched.) Name a distance race (New York, Boston) or an event (World Championships, Olympics) and it has likely been dominated by someone familiar with these trails.

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Richard and Dorcas aren't on that level yet, but that's the goal. Richard has been running professionally for 10 years and is the gym director of the High Altitude Training Center, which is owned by world-champion Lornah Kiplagat who holds multiple world records. Lornah saw talent in Dorcas and provides her with room, board, and training facilities free of charge.

Not all of the runners are so fortunate.

A random high-five is more likely to find a runner who hasn't taken a single stride off Kenyan soil. A runner who is supported by family, who barely can make ends meet by farming. A runner who carries the hopes and dreams of parents, siblings, and aunts and uncles. A runner like Everlyne Kosgey. The 20-something runner hits the trails twice a day when she's able. Sometimes she has to forgo training to find work. Her brother pays her living expenses, hoping that she'll excel in the local races and catch the eye of a coach who will sponsor her in races abroad for a percentage of her winnings.

"After running a race abroad and getting money," Everlyne told me, "I hope my life will change totally because the life I'm living now – I'm not happy with it. I wasn't expecting to live a life like this."

Richard and Dorcas become specks on the horizon before disappearing.

Technically, I am still running. I'm bending my knees and moving my arms back and forth with purpose. Kind of like that old guy at your gym who wears the headband, going nowhere fast. They wouldn't know if I walked. I'm tempted.

Hollering kids spill forth from a schoolyard, hollering "Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?" (Mzungu means white person.) At this particular moment, I don't want to be reminded of my well-being.

I am bad.

It's getting dark. A light sprinkle begins to fall causing a layer of clay to stick to the soles of my shoes that already felt like cinder blocks.

I'm lost. The path Richard laid out for me is long gone. Maybe I turned at the wrong mud hut or missed the turn altogether when a herd of cattle forced me from the trail.

Part of me wants to swear off running altogether, and I have to remind myself why I run.

I run for my health because I spend most of my day staring at a computer screen. I run for my sanity. I run to challenge myself. I run to feel the air in my lungs and the sweat on my brow. I don't run to make a time, unless you count trying to be back for lunch. I run alone and for my own reasons.

Olympic and world champions return to Iten to train and support other runners who hope to turn miles and minutes into acres and cows. To the Kenyan runners, running is a way out of poverty, not a way out of town. They chase the dream together.

My pace slows. I look back to where I came from. I look forward to where I'm going. I do the one thing the Kenyan runners don't have the luxury of doing: I stop.

While Kenyan Festus Langat was winning the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon in my country, I was lost on a half-marathon in his.

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