A Conversation from Kapsabet

Miles of trials, trials of miles...

Kibet stopped the car at the crest of the tarmac road leading us back to the Eden Spring hotel. Our guide, Willy Songok, had received a call from his cousin, Ben, and was eager to have me visit with him, if only for a few minutes. I happily agreed and together we jumped out of the white Nissan van, quickly sprinted across the always treacherous Kenyan thoroughfare, and slowed to a stroll down a pebbled encrusted dirt road. Just before driving away with Coach Thompson, Kibet shouted out to us from across the street, “I will pick you up here in 10 minutes!” He followed this message with a burst of Swahili, to which Willy nodded and continued leading me down the sloping dirt alley into the heart of Kapsabet.

This small western Kenyan town was similar to Iten. Rolling hills carpeted by green vegetation rippled out in every direction. These verdant undulations would gradually fade into the pale blue of the horizon, and even this divide between the heavens and earth would every now and then be confused by large, white clouds that floated both beneath the hill crests and directly above our heads. Standing in stark contrast with this endless natural beauty were the roadside stands and shops. These eye-sore stores were built in an ugly, makeshift fashion, using rotting timber and bark as the walls and corrugated tin as the roofs. The stores were painted when first constructed, but years of neglect and tropical weather had deteriorated the reds and greens and yellows into nothing more than shards of color on an otherwise dull and grayish brown exterior. The shacks resembled the lemonade stands one might find in a post-apocalyptic world, except that here in Kenya, these shops sold fresh produce, second-hand clothing, toiletries, and even cellular phone top-up minutes.   

The homes lining the dirt path we were now walking down looked only marginally better than the aesthetics of the roadside stores. These homes were part of long, one room thick complexes, more like condos than stand alone houses. The rows of condominium complexes were single level, and each followed the curvature of the hill descending or ascending in a staggered manner, like lego bricks trying to form a diagonal line. Their roofs were also made of corrugated tin and aluminum, but newer and not yet rusted. The building themselves were made of concrete, unpainted, with a single window and front door. Nature’s unstoppable encroachment surrounded the condos, leaving only small front lawns that were pierced by numerous wooden poles, used to run clothing lines where the sun was not blocked by acacia trees.

But for all the contrast between the works of nature and the habitation of man, Kapsabet was beautiful, even more so than Iten. Everything seemed more vibrant, more vivid and more alive. It was as if God had chosen to enhance the colors throughout this town, in the same way that one adjusts the saturation of a photograph to the point where the picture verges on the edge of unreal.

Color was not the only thing that saturated Kapsabet; Willy told me that the town was chock full of runners. Marathon runners in particular, and he was quick to remind me that Martin Lel called this place his home. 

“Over that hill” Willy says, pointing east, past the barbed wire fences, blue gum trees and silver corrugated roofing, “is where Stanly Biwott is building his new home. You remember, he finished second in London [Marathon]. Very strong runner. And it is a beautiful home, and right next door to doctor Rosa’s.” As Songok continued to ramble about Biwott’s newly erected estate, my mind turned towards his neighbor. I knew of Dr. Frederico Rossa from talk around Iten. He is one of the world’s greatest agents, an Italian who has represented many of Kenya’s best athletes. When Paul Tergat won the New York City Marathon in 2005 in a thrilling sprint finish, Dr. Rossa was the first person he embraced after crossing the finishing line. Today, his management team has become so prolific, that even Nike provides his athletes with kits that feature a color scheme unique only to the Rossa group. It is a high profile team, one that features many of Kenya’s brightest stars (here is a link to his management page with a complete list of current athletes http://www.athleticsmanagers.com/users/46/69/federico-rosa.html), but in recent years has become rife with scandal. Both Rita Jeptoo and Matthew Kisorio, Kenya’s highest profile drug-cheats, are managed by Rossa. The good doctor claims he knew nothing about the athlete’s wrongdoing, and assumes no responsibility for their actions, but still the whispers linger. Any time I have discussed the Rossa group with Kenyans, the rumors raise the same claim, “his athletes are dirty”. I find the talk troubling, not necessarily because I believe it, but because of dark meaning underlying this discourse. When we live in world that even Kenyans suspect other Kenyans of taking performance enhancing drugs, than it is obvious that the climate of track and field has changed. The cloud of doubt that hangs about every single great athletic performance is so thick, that it completely obfuscates the faith any fan once had at believing in the impossible. The doping talk is pervasive at each level of the sport, and even those willing to ignore the cynicism that follows Kipchoge’s 2:03 in London, or Farah’s dominance in the 5k and 10k, or Bolt’s unstoppable reign as King of the sprints, often find themselves naively clinging to an ideal they know, in their gut, to be dated. It was not always this way, and this pivot in perception is a terrible shame, but naivety and nostalgia are not the answer. I don’t believe that shutting our mouths about performance enhancing drugs will solve any problems, nor do I feel that turning a blind eye to this cheating problem will save the sport. The war with doping needs to be fought, and that fight begins with a healthy dose of skepticism. But the sad reality is that this battle has already laid waste to the spirit of athletics, and when I hear talk about how the cancer of doping has spread even among the “Home of the Champions”, I realize, with a heavy heart, that this sport has contracted a terminal illness. 

Despite Athletic’s sorry state of affairs, the hope that one can achieve a better life through running is still untarnished in Kapsabet. I interrupt Willy, (who is in the midst of pondering how difficult it must be for Biwott to rise each day at six AM and train while sleeping in such a comfortable mansion), to ask, “Willy, are these homes used by the athletes?” motioning to the rows of condominiums on either side of the alley.

“Oh yes! In each row of homes, there may be ten people living inside. Of these ten people, six are athletes. Just look at the clothing lines!” Sure enough, draped across the black wired clotheslines, I could find dozens of running shorts and brightly colored athletic tops drying in the sun. Willy ducked beneath one of the lines as we approached a bend in the dirt road, and beckoned me to follow him. Stepping over an upturned plastic wash bin and across a small grassy patch that may have been a lawn, Willy walked up to a door recessed into the bare concrete wall. After a few knocks the door was opened by a young Kenyan woman with a broad face and beautiful smile. She seemed overjoyed to see Willy, and the two embraced and chatted swiftly in Kalenjin. After the excitement settled, Willy introduced me as, “Andrew, my friend from America!” I learned that the woman’s name was Regina, and she welcomed both Willy and I inside her home.

The small condo was segmented into 4 parts. The first was what could be considered a mud room, although it was only about the size of a broom closet and was stuffed with dirty running shoes, old clothes, mops and other storage items. Following the mud room was a tiny Kitchenette, with a stove top, sink and fridge somehow crammed into the tiny space. The walkway continued adjacent to the kitchenette and opened into the largest room in the home; the living room. It was still no bigger than a child’s bathroom in the US, but Regina had managed to fit two sofa’s and a short table that supported a 32inch flat screen television. The room was decorated with various poster’s and news clippings. Above the sofas hung a poster featuring a white couple embracing one another and smiling, with a cliche message of love printed next to the image. Next to this poster hung a few printed bible verses transcribed on inspiring photographs of sunrises and sandy beaches, a popular combination of visuals and messages that I’ve noticed throughout Kenya. But hanging above the TV was something more unique. 

Lining the wall above the television and the back wall of the room were dozens of news clippings featuring a small, thin Kenyan man running across the roads of Europe. Many of the articles were in French, but pinned next to each news clipping was a race bib number and a competition medal. In the back left corner of the room, just between the Television and sofa, sat a pile of large trophies. They were all elaborate, and large, with elegantly designed handles branching off the large, polished cups. It was glittering assortment of sculpted silvers and golds that were unceremoniously stacked on top of each other, not out of neglect, but because the house simply did not have the space for a proper display. The living room reminded me of my college dorm. My walls were also covered in posters and race bibs and memorabilia, a working collage that served as a billboard, advertising my interests and passions. This living room was no different, except that the athlete who owned it was far more accomplished than I will ever be in running. Printed on the news articles and engraved on the marble bases of the trophies was the name, “Ben Solit Bitok”, Willy’s cousin, and he was busy reclining in one of the loveseats, obviously fatigued from the morning’s training session.   

Despite being tired, he warmly welcomed Willy and I into the room, insisting that we take the available seats. The television was turned to Citizen TV, a Kenyan news station that Kalenjin’s watch religiously, but Ben lowered the volume to talk with us.

Willy and Ben began by speaking in Kalenjin for a few minutes. The language is quick paced, and causes conversations to seem on the edge of argument, but that is rarely the case. Willy and Ben laughed abruptly, after which Willy turns to me and explains in English, rather apologetically, “Some things are just easier to discuss in Kalenjin” Ben cracks a smile at the confession, but Willy continues, “I have told him that you are doing research with National Geographic, and that you would be interested in interviewing him in the future. Ben is a very talented athlete, like many people in our family”

Ben chimes in, “It’s true”, and Wily carries on,

“You see, I was the first person in our family to use athletics to improve my life. When I received a scholarship to go run in the US, I realized how important athletics can be for your future. That is why I told my cousin Ben to run. He had good form, but when I encouraged him, he told me that he hated running.”

Both cousins couldn’t help but laugh, and I smiled thinking about the irony of it all. Ben just grinned and let Willy continue (Willy is an excellent storyteller, his facial features are incredibly expressive, and his voice causes merely funny statements to become hilarious), “So I went off to school thinking that Ben would NEVER become a runner. But after a few years, I returned home and heard from my uncle that Ben had started training.” he then turned to Ben with a playful smirk, “At first, I did not believe him. So I drove out to Kapsabet, and then realized that my cousin had in fact become an athlete!”

Ben seemed honored by Willy’s flattery, and thanked his cousin in Kalenjin for the support over the years. After looking around the room and at Ben’s trophies, it was obvious that Ben had become an accomplished athlete. Very few Kenyans have the financial means to travel over to Europe and race, so I was curious as to level Mr. Solit had reached in the sport, “So Ben, what distance do you race?”

“The marathon” - Ben replied, so softly that I had to strain my hearing to make out the words, (Kenyan’s are usually soft spoken), “I race in Europe, but mostly France. I will sometimes run the half marathon or 10k as a road race, but the marathon is my favorite.”

“What is your best time in the marathon?”

“My best finish is two hours ten, in France”. The quantity of trophies and news clippings suddenly made perfect sense. A 2:10 marathon would once upon a time been good enough to win any world major, and was not too far off the world’s best marathon finishes. It is a time that would currently place Ben in the top 5 marathoners in the USA. But the sport has advanced at a frightening pace since the Bill Rodgers days, and unfortunately for Ben, the depth of marathon talent in Kenya dwarfs that of the US (and the world, for that matter). This striking discrepancy was illustrated by my next question, “So who are you sponsored by?” I expected an athlete of Ben’s calibre, who has been able to travel to and race in Europe, to certainly have some kind of shoe sponsor.

But Ben’s response shocked me, “I am not sponsored” he confessed, with a sheepish smile, “To be sponsored as a Kenyan marathoner, you need to run under 2:08. I have a fine manager who gets me into European road races, but they are smaller races. I hope to one day run 2:07 or better, then I should have a sponsor and entry into the larger races, like Paris or Boston or London.”

Willy smiled in agreement, both men clearly certain that such a time was possible. I, meanwhile, was astonished. If Ben were to better the 2:07 mark in the marathon, it would mean he would have run the third fastest marathon in US history, a time that would eclipse the best marks of Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar, and Dathan Ritzenhiem by a wide margin. And even then, after delivering an athletic performance of historical proportions, there were no guarantees that Ben would gain a sponsorship. All because he is Kenyan. 

Had Ben been born anywhere besides East Africa, his little room would not only have a pile of trophies in the corner, but boxes of Nike, or Adidas, Brooks, ASICS, or Saucony gear stacked to ceiling. His country’s athletic federation would be paying his way to run the streets of Chicago and New York, London and Berlin. His wife would be cooking in a kitchen, not a kitchenette. And he certainly would not be living in relative obscurity as just another athlete in Kapsabet, one of the six of the ten tenants that reside beneath the silver aluminum roofs and behind the blank white concrete walls of each condominium row. Just as there are economies of scale, Ben is an example, and victim, of the same principle, except that in his case the capital is not currency but performance. 

But just before I grew frustrated at the unfairness of it all, a thought occurred to me. Was Ben’s success as a marathoner buoyed by his being Kenyan and living in a culture where 2:10 is average? Was the fact that he had spent the past ten years training every morning at daybreak, up and down the hills of Kapsabet, surrounded by the likes of Stanley Biwott and hundreds of other elite athletes, cause for his profound ability to run 26.2 miles? Or, conversely, had Ben been a Kenyan born in America or Europe, would he still be a 2:10 marathoner? Perhaps not. Maybe he would only have run 2:20 in the marathon, winning just a handful of low-key races, and still be holding out on that sponsorship deal or big-race invitation. The environment may have changed, but his situation in the sport would have remained the same. Maybe living in Kenya is a double edge sword. There is no doubt that the environment brings out your best as an athlete, but it's also "Home of the Champions". Ben was a big fish, in an even bigger pond.

My thought was broken by the ringing of Willy’s phone. It’s Kibet, and that means it’s time to leave. I thank Ben and his wife for their hospitality, Willy gives his cousin and Regina a departing hug, and we both promise to return soon. After crossing the small stretch of lawn and ducking under the wire clotheslines, Songok turns to me with a smirk on his face, so I already know that his next question will feature some mischief, “Do you want to race back to the car?” I raise an eyebrow. Willy has to be 45 years old, and hasn’t competed in at least 20 years. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself, Willy.” 

“My friend, I am Kenyan. Hakuna Matata!” and with that he takes off up the hill towards Kibet’s car. 

Perhaps his cousin’s success in running has rekindled Songok’s competitive spirit. Maybe, for a Kenyan, that spirit never fades. But I didn’t have time to contemplate, I was already losing too much ground…