This startling athletic dichotomy—a playful persona with running maturity beyond one’s years--was not new to the Kenyans themselves. Watch the Kenyan junior teams at any world cross-country meet. But for American eyes and ears these seemingly sheltered kids, who made a 24-hour journey from Nairobi on Tuesday, carried themselves with the unassuming panache of the future world champions they hope to become.
In fact, both Kenyan winners, 15-year-old Leonida Mosop, a sophomore, and 16-year-old Paul Lonyangata, a freshman, said they would compete in the Kenyan cross-country nationals in February to try and earn junior squad berths in the 2007 world meet, to be held in Mombassa, Kenya in late March.
Winners hoping to qualify for World Cross junior race
The two youngsters had much in common. Both Mosop, who attends Kapkenda High, and Lonyangata, from Moi Sirgoi—schools in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret, teeming with great runners--have been training a couple of years and began competing only last year. This was the first victory for each. And what victories they were: in a Kenyan sweep of the first four places, Mosop led her teammates across the line in 18:35 for the ultra-slow, mud-streamed 5,000 meters; Lonyangata ran 15:54 as his Kenyan quintet swept the first five places with a 41-second spread. By comparison—and such comparisons are inevitable—the U.S. championships went in 19:19, for Ashley Higginson of Colts Neck High in New Jersey, and 16:26 for Murdock, whose opinion of the Kenyans probably was, if anything, affirmed.
Mosop, elf-like with wary eyes as she confronted a new world of microphones and hullabaloo, and Lonyangata, all dimpled smiles as he reached out to shake the hands of any runner past the chutes, both said they hoped to eventually become professionals. It was not hubris but need that drove them. Their families subsist on farms. They sell crops like maize, wheat and potatoes. They herd sheep and goats. “I would like to help my parents,” said Mosop.
Kenyans impress Americans with graceful style
As Mosop dressed, she said she was freezing on the course. Despite rare, brilliant sunshine in Portland, the air was chilled in early morning with temperatures in the 30s. The Kenyan girls all ran with no hats or gloves, a mistake they said later, but to no avail. With a big lead nearing the 1,000-meter mark, the Kenyans seemed to float above the ankle-deep mud, as they raced toward the set of four moguls, or rollercoaster hills, situated close to a mile out. People along the rail gasped in awe. “Oh my God!” exclaimed a runner from Westfield, Indiana, entered in the girls championship race coming up later. “They’re so relaxed. They’re awesome.”
The Kenyans, who train 50 to 70 kilometers a week, doing pyramid intervals from 1,000 down to 100 meters, took the hills, the haybales, the mud, the sections of pond-like water, in full flight. Mosop said she’d not run in mud like this before. “The mud is very hard on you,” she said. This was Mosop’s first season of cross-country, her third cross-country race. Last season in track, she placed 3rd in the Kenyan national high school track meet, in the 10,000 meters. She could not recall her time exactly but said it was between 33 and 34 minutes. “I’d like to be the best runner in my country,” she said.
Paul Tergat is impressed too
Just then, Paul Tergat, NTN’s special guest for the weekend, came over to congratulate Mosop. Tergat, the 37-year-old marathon world record holder and five-time world cross-country champion, said of his young countrywomen, “I am elated at their courage. This is a new breed.”
A star was born. But Mosop didn’t know it. While she shied away from comment, American kids came over to touch the Kenyans and feed off their aura. A girl in the open race, mid-packer Katie Gordon of South Whidby, Washington, said, “I just want to shake their hands. It’s an honor to meet them. They know how to run their guts out. It’s amazing.”
Seeing Gordon’s exhuberance, Tergat approached her and congratulated her, saying, “You must come to Kenya.” He meant it. You can tell Gordon was thinking about it.
The Kenyan boys came next, picking up the pace, adding to the legend. While Tergat’s cousin on the team, Jonah Tergat, did most of the talking for the group in the days before, saying he hoped to finish first, it was Lonyangata, 5’7” and 110 pounds, who strode the course out front with elan.
“Running with the Kenyans is a great opportunity for us,” said senior Dustin Martin, who would place 12th to lead Albuquerque Academy of New Mexico to seventh in the championship race. Martin is going on to Columbia University to study international relations. “The Kenyans open our eyes. They go against the odds. They are humble.”
It was "hard, but not too hard" for Lonyangata
Bathed in mud from head to toe afterwards, Lonyangata said the conditions were “hard, but not too hard.” He was just learning cross-country. Last June, on the track in Nairobi, he placed sixth in a 5,000 meters, running 13:52. Asked about his earnest efforts on a tough day, Lonyangata said he was “envisioning himself psychologically.” That’s how team organizer Martin Keino explained Lonyangata’s remarks. It was Keino, a son of Kip Keino and former world-class runner, who organized the Kenyan team after Nike invited two high school squads to come to NTN as guests.
While Keino had said beforehand that he expected the Kenyan boys to compete as a team, Lonyangata wasted no time racing ahead. The boys coach at Kapsenda, Julius Kosetei, explained Lonyangata’s haste. “He’s a poor finisher,” said Kosetei, “I told him to go like that. I’m working on his kick.”