I wake up to the sound of my alarm and the cries of roosters beyond my bedroom window. The sun has not yet risen, and my room is still dark as the night. Switching on the bright fluorescent lights, I stagger over to my ever-increasing pile of clothes littering the second bed. After choosing a clean pair of red-running shorts, a long sleeve Ohio State Track and Field tee-shirt, and some recycled socks, I slip into my ASICS trainers and walk out the door into the still cool morning air.
Waiting at the gate to the camp is Billy. Billy is about 20 years old (he doesn’t know the exact day but does know that he turned 20 sometime this month), tall, nearly 6-1 and thin, like many Kalenjin males, with big brown eyes and large teeth. In fact, his teeth are stained along the front, giving him the appearance of being poor. But the reality is that Billy comes from a good family, not wealthy even by Kenyan standards, but well off. Running is in his blood. His mother was a multiple African Games champion in the distance races and even earned herself a Bronze medal at the 1992 Olympic games.
(It should be noted that 1992 was the first year that a married woman was allowed to compete in Athletics for Kenya, this according to Coach Canova [citation forthcoming]. The country was at that time very traditional and patriarchal, so as the top Kenyan women at the 1992 Olympic 5k final, her bronze medal is significant in many ways).
He is currently balancing working at Lornah’s with training to be a runner, and he agreed to join me on a 15-kilometer (almost 10 miles) run this morning. We greet one another and trudge up the dirt alley towards the tarmac in the growing sunlight with heavy eyes, neither of us eager to start what should be a tortuous seventy minutes. After we cross the road by the “Welcome to Iten, Home of the Champions” arch and scamper up to the red clay trail, Billy starts his watch and the run begins.
Morning runs in Kenya are always beautiful. Jogging down the hill towards the center of Iten, you are given a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and ever-stretching farmland. This morning is no different, and my spirits are lifted by another spectacular sunrise.
Billy and I reach the bottom of the hill and turn left onto what the local athletes call the “Boston Loop”. It is an 18-kilometer loop around the farms north-west of Iten, and it is given its name due to its resemblance of the Boston Marathon course: downhill at the start with a gradual climb towards the finish. I have never run the Boston marathon before, but I am willing to bet that it is easier than this loop. Last time I attempted it I was forced to walk back to camp.
Fortunately, Billy has a slight variation to the Boston Loop in mind, and after about a mile into the course, we turn left onto one of the countless red clay paths leading away from usual 18k route. Iten and the surrounding area is a labyrinth of trails and roads, and I am thankful that Billy is here to guide me home. But as we continue to turn down new roads, I am filed with an apprehension knowing that my only way back to camp is to keep up with Billy for the entire run. Now, for the first time this morning, I realize that I need to wake up and focus.
The run goes by slowly, driven forward by the harsh metronome of our feet pushing off the rocky soil and our lungs struggling to find oxygen in the thin air. To make the time pass quicker, I decide it would be a good idea to strike up a conversation with Billy. As we run by a group of children on their way to school, dressed in matching Oxford blue sweaters and navy blue shorts, I found my topic.
“Billy, are there specific colors of uniforms the children wear for each school. Or do the colors represent primary or secondary school”
“No, the uniforms are for each school. Some share the same colors. But the children have badges with the name of the school on them.” Billy responds between breathes, his english tinged with the Kenyan tendency to strengthen the sound of the vowels.
“Did you go to school in Iten?”
“No, I started primary school in Nakuru, but then there was an accident at home and my family moved to Eldoret.”
“What accident” I asked.
“Our house was burned down in a fire...“
“That’s more than an accident!” I interrupted,
Billy chuckled to himself, “Yes. That happened at the end of 2005. But then the election violence began around 2006, so we would have needed to leave to a place that was away from the Kikuyu’s. That is why we moved in with my Aunt in Eldoret.”
Billy was referring to Kenya’s Presidential Elections in 2006. This election erupted into violence because cheating had taken place in the voting process. The two nominees each represented a different tribe in Kenya. One was Kalenjin, and the other was Kikuyu, the two largest tribes in Kenya. Each claimed that the other had cheated, and the country was torn-apart by a tribal civil war lasting more than a year. In the end, a solution was settled by forming a new political position [prime minister] and both were given seats of power. The Kikuyu nominee became president, however, and ended up being one of Kenya’s best. Today, people of all tribes hold him in high esteem. But during the peak of the violence, it was dangerous to be a Kalenjin living among Kikuyu’s. Nakuru is deep in Kikuyu territory, so I could understand why his family elected to leave.
“Was your house burnt down by Kikuyu’s?” I naively asked.
“No, it was burnt down accidentally” Billy calmly replied. I didn’t press him for more info on the topic, but instead pivoted to the conversation towards his background in running.
“So you went to primary school in Eldoret?”
“Yes”, affirmed Billy, “And Secondary [high school].”
“Did your mom encourage you to run as young kid?”
If it wasn’t for the hill we were climbing, Billy would have burst out laughing. Instead, he replied through a wide smile, “She is ALWAYS encouraging me to run. Every day. But when I was in primary school, I had a friend to train with. We ran almost everyday together, until form 8. Then he moved to Nakuru and finished his secondary school there. Last year, I saw him again. He was third at Nationals in the 5k, and then ran on the relay team for Kenya. He become a very strong runner”
I didn’t ask, but I assumed Billy meant that his friend competed at Kenya's secondary school nationals. It is a great honor in this country to be fast enough to compete at these national games, but they are a far cry from the true National senior and junior competitions, the winners of which go on to represent Kenya at the Olympics and World Championships.
“So how did your training change after your friend left for Nakuru?”
“I still ran.”
“How many times a week?”
Billy paused to think, “Maybe once a week. On Saturdays. My school had a rugby and football team, but no athletics. So I wasn’t permitted to train during the week.”
I was surprised to hear that a Kenyan “High School” in Eldoret did not have a track team. But I have come to discover that Kenyan secondary schools are extremely competitive and all sports take a back seat to academics. Education is of paramount importance all across Kenya. The adults I have talked to all firmly believe it is the best way for their children to develop a future, and this vicarious attitude is accepted by the children I have witnessed. For example, the family I stayed with in Nairobi sent their boys to the prestigious Swarthmore Secondary School, and during my stay, I was shocked to find Alfred and Andrew, their third and fourth child, waking up at 5AM each day to continue their studies from the night before. This level of discipline was impressive, especially given the fact that both boys were frequently up to 10PM doing homework. I have even discovered that when I explain my grant to Kenyans, my mentioning of going to University in the United States elicits a more impressed response than the fact I acquired a National Geographic grant. Many elders would often introduce me as a, “University student from the United States”. This is probably because University is the end all be all of Kenyan academic life. The high pressure secondary school culture climaxes with a single exam to determine college placement. The KCSE (The Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education) is a nationwide exam that all students must take to enter university. The scores determine not only college placement, but financial-aid as well. Get one “C” on the Exam, and you may not be eligible for university. Get one “B”, and you may have lost your chance at a scholarship. For rural students with poor parents, no scholarship often means no University. This high stakes examination has a terrible attrition rate and can effectively close the door to furthering one’s education. By simply opening the envelope containing their exam scores, the options of thousands of adolescents across the country are drastically narrowed. It is also why many Kenyan youths elect to start training as athletes after secondary school has ended. Billy fell into this latter category.
“So how did you do on your Exams?”
“The KCSE’s? I got a B’s and C’s” He replied sullenly.
“But you still want to go to University?”
“Yes. My older brother is attending Eldoret University now, but my parents can only afford send one of us at a time”
An earlier conversation about US schools with Billy now begins to make more sense to me, “So that’s why you want to go to school in the US?”
“Yes. That is why I am training now, in hopes to get a scholarship”
The realization that Billy’s family cannot afford to send him to school makes me feel slightly ashamed of myself for a stunt me and Kenyan professional runner Timothy Limo (Timo) pulled about a week ago involving Billy.
At that time, I had barely known Billy. We had interacted only briefly around the camp, and his shyness did not lead to many conversations. But one the day inside HATC’s small wooden Sauna, all that changed. After walking into the Sauna, I took a seat next to Billy, as well as a Singaporean athlete named Rui, and two Parisians Laurent and Nikko. It was comical having people of such different cultures all crammed into a 115-degree confined space, but we made light of it through conversation. Inevitably, the discussion turned to track and field and our personal best times at various distances. Billy shocked us all when we asked him his PR (Personal Record), “3:40 in the one-thousand five-hundred”, he muttered. The four of us were stunned, 3:40 is the equivalent of a 3:58 mile. That time would place Billy in the top 10-15 runners in the NCAA, and he was only 20-years old. When I asked him where he ran this fantastic time, he claimed it was done in Eldoret. We became even more impressed. Eldoret is at an altitude over 6,000 feet, making his time worth 5-seconds quicker at sea-level. We four foreigners looked at each other in amazement. Sweating with us in that broom-closet of a Sauna, was a young man who very well could become the next Olympic champion. “Would you ever consider running in the US?” I asked, “Yes. I would love to run for an American University” said the future superstar.
That affirmation sent me on a collision course with a group of US college recruiters the following day. I had gone to Kerio View (A beautiful restaurant/ hotel owned by a Belgian named Jean-Paul) to hijack their quicker WiFi. While typing up some e-mails, a group of American’s dressed head-to-toe in “University of Missouri Track and Field” gear came walking up the stairs. After spotting my LETSRUN.com tee-shirt (Not-Rupp Certified) we struck up a conversation, and I learned that they were in search of young Kenyan athletes to add to their team roster. “Well, you’re in luck!” I proclaimed, “I know a kid who has run 3:40 at altitude! And he’s just around the corner.” I then proceeded to tell them all about Billy, gave them my e-mail, and sent them off in search of who I was sure would become the next Edward Cheserek.
Or so I thought. The next day at lunch, Billy’s bubble burst. Rui, Laurent, Nikko and I were finishing our meals while discussing the implications of Billy joining the NCAA. Being track nerds, we were trying to figure-out Billy’s chances of winning the NCAA 1500-meter title in 2017. The Missouri coaches had already e-mailed me about connecting with Billy, and so I was proud of my tangential position to getting this Kenyan talent into the US, and eager to imagine what may come of it. That was when Timo walked by and overheard our excited chatter regarding Billy. His interest peaked, he took a seat and asked what we were talking about. When I told him how I was trying to get Billy recruited for running track in the US, he exploded with laughter, “And how are you going to do that?”
Confused, I replied, “By showing them his PR in the 1500. He’s run 3:40!?”
Timo was grinning from ear to ear, like a kid who has just discovered some secret that is still a mystery to everyone else in the room, “And where did you hear that Billy ran 3:40 in the 1500?”
I began to suspect the source of Timo’ amusement, “From Billy, he said he ran that time in Eldoret. Back in January. He told me it was recorded and everything?” I explained, sounding less convincing with every word.
“My friend, you remember the races in Nakuru? Bendan Karoki could only manage 3:42. Three-forty-twoooo! And he crushed everyone. Now, do you really think Billy could have run two seconds faster than that, in Eldoret, at a higher altitude?” Timo grins again, satisfied by his impeccable logic. I, on the other hand, am growing embarrassed.
“So you’re telling me he lied?!”
“I am telling you that he did not speak the truth” Timo confirmed.
Rui and the Frenchmen could barely contain their laughter, and I felt like someone at the butt end of a practical joke. It was a crash course in learning how and why Kenyan athletes often embellish their times and ages, usually making both numbers lower than they really are. But there was no point in getting angry, so instead I begrudgingly explained to Timo the embarrassing predicament I now faced with these track coaches from Missouri.
Timo, upon hearing that news, suddenly grew serious, “That is not good. Billy should know better than to lie about track times. Now his lie has made you look like a liar. It is never wise to lie about track times, because you cannot hide from that lie. Eventually, you must run. And when you do, you will get caught. We must make Billy run now.”
Timo’s African proverb was lost on us Mizungu’s, so Rui asked him to clarify what he meant.
“We will make him race the 1500-meters tomorrow at Lornah’s Track.” Timo was grinning again, “Billy should know, if you are going to start fires… you must be prepared to put them out.”
The time-trial was set for the next day, around 10AM. Billy shocked everyone by agreeing to run it, and now the excitement and predications turned to what time Billy would manage on Lornah Kiplagat’s newly built, mondo surface track. Soured by Billy’s lies, I predict 4:22 as his finishing time (Frank, the Belgian agent who joined me in my trip to Nakuru, and Nikko predict closer to 4-flat)
Timo guided Billy through a quick warm-up routine, and then over to the start line. Meanwhile, I prepared the camera equipment to document Billy’s trial, thereby leaving no doubt regarding the time of this 1500-meter effort. Nikko, Frank and a few other spectators join me by the first turn, and the excitement builds as we wait to send Billy off to what should be sweet vindication.
Timo started the event with a loud, “Go!”, sending Billy sprinting down the straightaway. His running form looked exceptionally smooth, with long, powerful strides that reminded me of Asbel Kiprop. “Maybe he can actually do this?” I thought to myself.
“61” called Timo as Billy finished the first lap. It was a great start, but after ten more meters mortality began to catch up with Billy. His pace visibly slowed, and his once Kiprop-like stride transformed into a labored jog.
“72, halfway done!” Timo cried, as Billy rounded the turn with a look of agony on his face. Everything we suspected about Billy’s true form was materializing before our eyes, but I can’t help but feel a bit of admiration for him. The kid bravely decided to walk out onto the track and test his form among a group of complete strangers, strangers who he had purposely lied to concerning his running ability. I doubt I could find a young man in America with the courage to face a trial such as this one, and when Billy approached the turn for the final 300 meters, I couldn’t help but shout encouragements.
“Finish strong Billy!”
He did, in a time of 4:23. Timo was smiling as usual, and Nikko and Frank were chuckling about how close I came to predicting the right time. I switched the camera off and walked across the infield to the limp body of Billy hanging over the chain-link fence. I was expecting to find a dejected, embarrassed young man, but instead encountered something entirely different. Billy turned and gave me a hug, clearly exhausted but pleased by his effort. “I will train harder, and soon, I will run 3:40.”
That statement stopped me in my tracks, and completely changed the way I perceived Billy, and many Kenyan runners for that matter. The faith in their ability to grow and improve was so great, that they were not even afraid to speak about times that they have not yet run. In the US, lying about your track PR’s is sacrilege, but at least for Billy, he didn’t see it as lying. He was forecasting, speaking into existence a future that had not yet come to pass. As he stood on that track, sweating and trying to catching his breath after running nearly 40-seconds slower than his alleged “PR”, I couldn’t detect any shame or defeat in his eyes. All I could see was a greater fire, a new-found dedication that caused me to reflect on my own ambitions and determinations. Ironically, walking away from that time-trial left me with a deep feeling of respect towards Billy, equal to the level I felt when leaving that Sauna three days before…
We made our turn back towards camp, and as the road begins to ascend, the run proportionally increases in difficulty. Our breathing is gradually getting ragged during this steep climb, and our conversation becomes impossible to continue. Between gulps for air, I declare, “We’re going to get you that scholarship Billy”. He did his best to smile, and then put his head down, pumping his arms while pushing into the red clay hillside with renewed vigor. Camp is about 5 kilometers to go, and I could see that Billy intended to make them count…