The Internet Home of Track & Field

DyeStat News
NTN Finals
Portland Meadows Race Track, Portland OR
December 1, 2007

Open Race -
the Kenyans

The Kenyans: Showcase For The Perfect Runners
They dominate despite unaccustomed cold weather, round the world trip and a toothache.

story by Marc Bloom, of The Harrier

photos by John Dye

Valentine Koech of Kenya (left) , a 17-year-old junior at Singore High School, sat in her team tent grimacing after winning the Nike Team Nationals girls open race and leading three teammates across the line within 30 seconds in another dominant performance for the young Africans. Earlier the Kenyan boys had swept the first five places with a 19-second spread. As last year, the Kenyan boys and girls were each from the same school, both of which are boarding schools, grades 9 through 12.

It was not the 5k race itself that caused Koech distress. She’d run 18 minutes even on the ultra-muddy course at Portland Meadows, hardly conditions that would faze youngsters who’d run thousands of miles back and forth to primary school and now trained up to 80 miles a week at 7,500 feet in the hills of the Rift Valley. But the morning was bitter with a damp Oregon cold cutting to the bone. The Kenyans had left balmy 65-degree temperatures at home and made close to a 24-hour trip from Nairobi to Paris to Seattle to Portland. On raceday their athletes decided against wearing gloves because, as their top girls runner and Singore team captain, Mercy Kosgei, (right) an 18-year-old senior, put it, they were “too clumsy.” That proved a costly decision for Kosgei, who last March won the silver medal in the world cross-country junior 6k race in Mombasa, on Kenya’s east coast, and also had a 4:10 1,500 to her credit.

But after the race, Koech rubbed her hands for warmth and Kosgei did the same. Koech was unable to untie her shoelaces. Foil blankets covered them. Koech would sit and stand, look up and down, shake her hands, rub them, have a coach rub them. Kosgei was practically in tears from the cold.

“My body was not moving,” she said of her run. Also in tears was the fifth Kenyan scorer, Emmy Kerich, a 16-year-old soph, who placed 45th, buried among the mid-pack Americans. She was slowed by a toothache she’d picked up in the U.S. For awhile, it looked like the Kenyans, even with a 1-through-4 finish, could be defeated. But they scored 55 points with Dana Hills of California 2nd with 86.

Not merely the best runners,
but the most perfect

With their qualities of worldliness and wonder, bracing speed and embracing humility, the young Kenyans are not merely the best runners or the strongest, but the most perfect runners—symbolic figures who embody the austere ruggedness of their homeland, and the power that running can bring.

“Oh, my God, you want to be able to run like them,” said Hunterdon XC Club star Lanie Thompson as she limbered up for the girls NTN championship, in which she would place 11th. “But they’re so much stronger, so relaxed. They don’t even look like they’re breathing hard.”

Regarding the Kenyans with rock-star awe, Jackie Henderson of the Lake Central Club in Indiana, the NTN Midwest Regional winner, said she was able to break the ice and speak with the Kenyans over the weekend, exchanging gifts and appreciating their self-effacement. “They are so thankful for what they have,” she said.

Koech may have had cold hands but she led the Kenyan girls through a 5:36 opening mile in the slop. It was almost funny to see some of the front-running Kenyans, boys and girls alike, running far wide to find some token few feet of dry patch. The runners confronted not only the cold and mud but two passes on the section of five jarring rollercoaster hills and two sets of haybales covered twice.

In those conditions, which teenage runners could sustain much of a rhythm for long? Who but the Kenyans?

After the five Kenyan boys led by Justine Cheruiyot passed the 2k mark (below), onlooking parents of American youngsters far back in the pack were heard to remark: “They don’t even look tired. They look so relaxed.” The Kenyans would score a perfect 15 with a 15:35 average, 62 seconds faster than NTN champion Naperville XC Club of Illinois.

Cheruyiot, a 15-year-old freshman at Kapcherop High School, three hours north of Eldoret, the cradle of the Rift Valley, won in 15:25. It was his first victory. After crossing the line, he was composed. One of the Kenyan coaches relayed Cheruyiot’s assessment: “It was easy for him. He did not feel a thing.” This was his first plane trip, his first time out of Kenya. “He is so raw, he had no expectations coming into the race,” said Martin Keino, a son of Kip Keino whose sports marketing firm in Kenya promotes youth running and works with Nike to bring the Kenyans to Portland.

Other than running a few 3,000-meter steeples last spring, with a 9:14 best, Cheruyiot, 5’10” and 120 pounds, has done very little racing. He has only been training for two years. But, like all his teammates, he’s been running a lot longer. In grade school, he walked and then ran 10 kilometers roundtrip to school, barefoot and carrying schoolbooks, from his family’s grass-and-corrugated hut in nearly 8,000-foot altitude.

Likewise for the defending champion, Paul Lonyangata, who ran 15:54 last year as a freshman and said before the race that he was only in “okay shape.” He was the fourth Kenyan in 15:42. He’s run 23:23 for 8k cross-country and 13:42 for 5k on the track. He was 13 before he had his first pair of running shoes. He is on scholarship at school because his family is poor.

When he ran to school as a youngster, Lonyangata said he would see cheetahs and leopards in the brush but he was unafraid. From this experience, said Kenyan coach Byron Kipchumba, “he will grow and learn about life’s impediments. He will become fearless.” And in running, as in life—the two are no different in Kenya—the environment, added Kipchumba, “would demystify the element of fear.”

Surely Koech showed no fear challenging favored Kosgei in the girls race. Koech, solidly built, used aggressive arm action while Kosgei, a diminutive 5’1 and 92 pounds, tightened up to place fourth 39 seconds behind.

It was not a proud moment for Kosgei, who has medaled in a number of international meets and aspires to win the 2008 world junior cross-country title in Edinburgh in March. For eight years prior to high school, she ran 14 kilometers roundtrip to school in bare feet; on occasion, said coach Kipchumba, she did two roundtrips a day.

Did this regiman tire her? “It was not hard,” she said in perfect English.


NTN Finals index