In a league of their own
An American ventures into Kenyan marathoner territory.
"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."
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."
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!"
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.
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.