At the Los Angeles Invitational indoor track meet last week another chapter was added to the implausible adventures of Kipchoge (Kip) Keino, that self-taught Kenyan distance runner who emerged suddenly last year out of equatorial Africa and began running fast races and breaking world records as if his country's independence depended on him. In his first try at the totally unfamiliar experience of running indoors he not only ran far and fast but he accomplished the rare feat of doing it twice in one night. Keino warmed up with a second-place finish in a near-four-minute mile, then got back on the track a short time later to win a fast two-mile race against a strong, experienced field. He has now emphatically added his name to that short list of athletes who can consistently make sports news read like fiction.
In the previous installment (SI, Jan. 3) this trim, high-spirited hero had just concluded a bittersweet tour of New Zealand and Australia. Joyously flinging off his bright orange cap as he started his victorious finishing sprints, Keino set a world record for 5,000 meters, won seven races against formidable opponents and even defeated Australia's fine distance runner Ron Clarke. It was definitely Horatio Alger stuff. Only one thing had marred the otherwise triumphant tour. Running in the mile against East Germany's crafty J√ºrgen May, he set a fast, exciting pace, only to be passed by May at the very finish. Undaunted, Kip vowed to return home and train with new vigor. "I'm going to learn how to sprint that last lap," he said as the chapter ended.
Well, he went home and he worked on his speed and he was still determined to get that mile record, but in the meantime he also decided to tackle something strange and new. So he paid his first visit to the U.S. and made his first attempt at indoor competition.
The week began quietly enough on a cold, rainy afternoon. Keino, looking dapper in a checked wool cap and a royal blue overcoat, arrived at Los Angeles Airport after a 30-hour trip from Nairobi, accompanied by Tony Vaz, an Indian born in Portuguese Goa who had been appointed as Keino's manager only three days earlier. The two scarcely cleared customs before Vaz whipped a notebook out of his blue blazer and began asking Meet Director Herschel Smith questions from a prepared list. What about transportation? How far is the Sports Arena from the hotel? Keino has never run on a board track before, so when can he take a look at it? Could they have the quarter-mile times from the races in which Jim Beatty and Tom O'Hara had set their indoor mile records? This last request prompted a counterquestion.
January 31, 1966
"Does this mean that you will run in the mile and not the two miles?"
"Maybe I will run in both," Keino replied quite calmly. Vaz, however, appeared staggered by the thought of the exhausting double. "We will have to see how he feels after the mile race," he said. "I have been directed to schedule him only for a mile race here in Los Angeles and a mile race at the Millrose meet in New York. But if he will insist on running the two-mile also what can I do about it?"
Compared to the fast-paced schedule that Keino was now swept up in, his competitive plans for Saturday night seemed no more taxing than a stroll in the park. Shortly after checking in at the Sheraton-West Hotel he was jarred out of a short nap by the loud metallic concussion of an automobile accident on Wilshire Boulevard just below his window. Then at a press conference a short time later he found himself blinking politely into a battery of spotlights and the inquisitive stares of a dozen or so local journalists. His English is not too articulate as yet, but he manages to get his points across.
Would he try to break the world indoor record before returning home?
"It is easy to try to break world records," he said slowly and carefully. "It is not so easy to break them."
Did he have special feelings about being the first great Negro distance runner?
"A special feeling? No. There will soon be many at home as good as I."
Later in his room Keino underwent a thorough grilling by more reporters, and his shy, prompt responses provided a picture of a remarkable background, but one hardly designed as the springboard to world records and world tours. Keino (pronounced Kayno) was born a member of the Nandi tribe sometime in January 1940 in Kapchemoiywo, a primitive farming village that overlooks the steeply walled Rift Valley about 240 miles northwest of Nairobi. It was back-country Africa as Stanley and Livingstone must have known-it: mud huts with thatched roofs, the sole source of potable water a spring-fed well in the village square. Swahili was Kip's native language, but he learned rudimentary English at a Protestant missionary school in the village and developed a strong, fast pair of legs chasing after his father's herd of 16 cattle. At 18 Kip decided a policeman's life would be happier than a farmer's and enrolled at the police school in Kiganjo, 200 miles to the east. He graduated and became an instructor at the school in volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey and cross-country. By 1962, in cross-country at least, he had become his own best student. By 1964 he had married, fathered a daughter and represented Kenya in the Olympics. And by 1965, still his own coach, he had gained world prominence as a distance runner.
Now here he was in a spacious hotel room in a large cosmopolitan city, wearing a thin mustache and a conservative, well-fitting suit. If Africa seemed a long way off, it was never far from his thoughts, because he is intensely concerned about his role as a roving ambassador of goodwill. "I am so annoyed with myself," he said despairingly. "My English is bad and I am confused. It is O.K. to answer questions one by one in an interview, but when you have to think of everything by yourself it is very hard." Still, he found time for a trip through the 20th Century-Fox Television lot, lunch in the commissary, more interviews and a long chat with a two-man delegation of Kenyans.
Keino's race preparations were sandwiched into gaps in the schedule almost as an afterthought. Fortunately, in Vaz's notebook was a virtual primer on indoor running that came from Mal Whitfield, the two-time 800-meter Olympic champion who is now employed by the U.S. Information Service in Nairobi. While Keino was not looking forward exactly with pleasure to his forthcoming races, he was determined not to get discouraged. "It is a new kama," he said, using the Swahili word for experience or possibility.
Entering both the mile and the two-mile on his first evening indoors was not only a new kama, some of his fellow runners thought, but a foolish one.
"It's crazy," said Gaston Roelants, Belgium's Olympic steeplechase champion and an opponent in the two-mile. "It sounds like too much to me," said less excitable Bill Crothers, the Canadian half-miler. "Running on boards can not only blister your feet, but it can also strain the knees. I've known runners who couldn't walk for days after their first long race indoors."
Only Keino's major opponent in the mile, Jim Grelle, seemed to think that the Kenyan runner could negotiate a fast first assignment and be fully recovered in time for the second. "The mile is a short race for him, and he has great recuperative powers," said Grelle. "It shouldn't be too hard."
Grelle proved to be a superb prophet, but an even better tactician. After allowing Keino to build up a lead that reached 20 yards with only three of the 11 laps to go—Keino sped past the first quarter in 59.8 seconds, the half in 1:58.4 and the three-quarters in 2:59.2—Grelle cut down the margin quickly and burst into the lead on the last turn to win by five yards in a very fast 4:00.9.
"Keino was making the race," said Grelle, "but he was not aware of the stress his legs were undergoing. You have to learn that about indoor running."
Keino proved a fast study. Ninety minutes later, in the two-mile, he ran as if born to the boards. At the slightly slower pace, he settled into his long, graceful and supple stride, leaving the pacesetting chores mostly to others, and floated past leader John Lawson midway through the last lap to win in the good time of 8:42.6.
It was a memorable evening for Keino and 13,419 spectators, but it merely closed out another chapter in the unlikely adventures of this amazing athlete who promises so much—and keeps his promises.