The men's 10,000-meter run in Kenya's Commonwealth Games trials is a race of many departures, many rejoinings. The leaders—exuberantly, incorrigibly Kenyan—surge and slow and surge again, flying willingly into the distress such tactics cause. That they race through the thin air of Nairobi's 5,500-foot altitude seems of no consequence. Most were born and trained at even greater elevations. With their incessant passing and jostling, they seem to consider the 25 laps not as a single long contest but as dozens of shorter ones. If you don't know how excruciatingly effective this manner of racing is, you think them impatient children.
By 6,000 meters, under the leadership of 1988 Olympian Moses Tanui, the front pack has been cut to four. They are three men and a boy.
Joseph Kibor, barefoot, shirttail out, the gap in his lower teeth a mark of his Kalenjin tribal upbringing, clings to the pace. Kibor turned 17 only the day before. This is his first year of competitive running. He had to sell a goat to pay his way from his home far back in the Cherangani Hills to the preliminary trials in Kisumu, on Lake Victoria. He is barefoot because he failed in a two-day search to borrow some spikes.
Each time Tanui surges, Ondoro Osoro and Kibiwott Bitok stick right with him. But the young Kibor, unpracticed at sprinting and recovering, must let them go. When they have gained 20 or 30 meters they ease slightly, and Kibor laboriously reclaims what he has lost, his arms swinging high and loose across his chest, his hips cocked back, his heels grazing the back of his shorts.
February 26, 1990
His form, it happens, is the picture of the young Kipchoge Keino, Kibor's idol and an influence on almost every Kenyan runner. Keino, now 50, is the man who let the world know Kenyans could run. More to the point, he let Kenyans know Kenyans could run.
Keino's world records at 3,000 and 5,000 meters in the mid-1960s and his defeat of Jim Ryun in the '68 Olympic 1,500 gave rise to a river of superb Kenyan distance men. Since Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in '63, its athletes have won 24 Olympic medals in men's running events, despite boycotting the '76 and '80 Games. Ten of those medals were gold, a total second only to the sprinter-blessed U.S.'s.
In recent years the river has deepened and widened. Kenyans won the 800-, 1,500- and 5,000-meter runs and the steeplechase at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and got silvers in the steeple and the marathon and a bronze in the 10,000. The most difficult race in the world is the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships, because it draws together champions from all the distances. Olympic 5,000-meter champion John Ngugi of Kenya has won this race the last four years. Kenya has been the team champion on each occasion. In the '88 race in Auckland, New Zealand, eight Kenyans finished in the top nine.
Traditionally these magisterial runners have come from a very few tribes, notably the Kisii and the Kalenjin, which constitute only 15% of Kenya's 23 million people (52% of whom are under 15 years old). The Kalenjin are actually a group of related tribes. One of them is Kenya's historic cradle of runners, Keino's tribe, the Nandi, most of whom live at an altitude of 7,000 feet or more in a small area near the northeast corner of Lake Victoria.
Nandi athletes have won nearly half of Kenya's Olympic and Commonwealth Games medals. But in recent years, champions have begun to come from other tribes. Ngugi and Julius Kariuki, the steeplechase victor in Seoul, are Kikuyu, as is the 1987 world marathon champion, Douglas Wakiihuri. The 800-meter champion at Seoul, Paul Ereng, who blossomed at the University of Virginia, is of the Turkana, an aloof, nomadic people only now coming to see any value in sport.
Kibor embodies this expanding excellence. He is Marakwet, from the mountainous district to the north of the Nandi. Though Kibor's tribe is of the Kalenjin group, there has never been a superior Marakwet runner. "The Nandi are very tough," Kibor has said. "But I hope to be for the Marakwet what Kipchoge was for the Nandi."
With 600 meters to go, Kibor is still a close fourth. He begins to move up, a development the others find intolerable. Osoro and Bitok cut him off twice, then hurl him three lanes wide. Kibor darts inside and passes, dangerously, on the rail. With a lap to go he is in the lead and sprinting with an expression of terrible anguish. A lap is too far, and he has used too much. He tightens. Tanui passes him on the backstretch, Osoro on the last turn. But Kibor holds third to the end.
His time is 28:51.1, one of the fastest 10,000s ever run by one so young at any altitude. After a vote of the selection committee, Kibor is named to the team that will go to Auckland a month later, in January, for the 1990 Commonwealth Games. He will be the youngest Kenyan male ever to represent the country in a major competition and will finish fifth in the 10,000.
Respectfully amazed, Kibor walks the infield, dripping, holding hands with an official. "Next time I'll wait. I'll sprint only the last 300," he says, the lesson indelible. "My feet are painful now. I do think shoes, spiked shoes, would have helped."
To Westerners, Kibor is a prodigy, but this is a land of prodigies. "We lost another like him two years ago," says Philip Ndoo of Nairobi, who ran at Eastern New Mexico University in the mid-'70s. "A kid named Atoi Boru did 3:42 for 1,500 meters when he was 14. His coach ran him too hard, burned him out. We don't know where he is." A 1,500 in 3:42—need one be reminded?—is equivalent to a 4:00 mile.
The questions are simple and irresistible. How can this be? What land, what history, what life has created such abundance in this specific sporting expression? And why are Kenyans getting even better?
Some factors seem obvious, until you think about them. It's a boon to grow up at high altitude, but lots of societies are located in highlands yet nurture no runners. Where are the Tibetans? The Peruvians?
A statistical case might once have been made for the Nandi's being a genetically superior strain of runner. But no one has found and measured any specific genetic factors that make the Nandi better than anyone else. And now that tribes once thought hopelessly un-talented are getting into the act, they seem to be showing that the raw material is wonderful all across the Kenyan tribal spectrum. Perhaps the Nandi were just first to develop it.
Besides, Kenyan tribes have intermarried and absorbed each other so much over the centuries that genetic distinctions are hard to make. Tribal differences are real—are they ever—but they are more cultural than physiological.
This suggests that to understand how Kenya's wellspring of runners has really come about, you must follow one runner home and live a little of his life. To assist in this, fortune offers Joseph Kibor.
Christmas is but two days away, and Kibor is shyly working the small crowd of track fans filing out of Moi International Stadium, casting about for a ride home to Kapchebau village to take the news of his success to his grandmother. Give him a lift, he says, and he will show you the way.
From Nairobi you head northwest over the Ngong Hills and into the Great Rift Valley. Near Lake Naivasha the roadside impalas shine as if groomed and oiled. Zebras standing out among the green acacias don't look natural. They look published. Pink dust drifting over one end of the distant lake turns out to be a cloud of flamingos.
In the car, Kibor takes out his chemistry and geography books—good, demanding texts—from Sambirir Secondary School. He rides along doing problems on his palm with a ballpoint pen. "I am trying very hard in school," he says. "I would like a scholarship to an American college." A couple of hundred Kenyan runners have had such scholarships, but Kibor is not ready. It's an effort for an American ear to process his (and much other) Kalenjin-accented English, and this will need work.
But Kibor is a patient communicator, and gradually it comes out that when, with the encouragement of a coach who has since left his school, he vowed to become a runner, it was an eccentric thing for a Marakwet to do. "Other boys opposed me," he says. "They would say, 'You are chasing air.' But this year I have got my courage. I have been trying hard."
Trying, in Kibor's mind, is very close to succeeding. He began running and immediately won at district, provincial and national levels. Yet his training is astonishingly light. He runs a couple of miles to school in the mornings, and three more after classes. He runs fast, he says, "only in competition, because alone, one person can do nothing. There are no others to push."
Past Nakuru, the land begins to rise and cool. At an elevation of 9,000 feet, amid stands of rushing eucalyptus, you cross the equator. Heading west, you drop through pine woods and maize fields into the Nandi Hills, beautiful for their tea plantations. The pickers seem to wade in verdant foam, their red and violet sweaters fire against the green.
Here, in the hamlet of Kilibwoni, were born the three most distinguished Nandi runners: Keino, Henry Rono (world records at 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters and in the 3,000-meter steeplechase) and Mike Boit (a 3:49.45 mile and a 15-year international career). Boit, up from teaching at Kenyatta University in Nairobi to inspect his family's tea acreage, takes you to a low hill from which you can see the birthplaces of all three. Last summer, Peter Koech broke Rono's 11-year-old record in the steeplechase. Koech, too, is a Nandi from Kilibwoni.
Here is how the Nandi came to be. About 2000 B.C., Cushites from southern Ethiopia began arriving in these highlands. Pastoralists, they displaced or absorbed the region's original hunter-gatherers. Then, during the first 1,000 years A.D., Nilotic people pressed in, again from the north. They intermarried with the Cushites, and the groups combined customs. From the Cushites came circumcision as a rite of passage. The Nilotes contributed the extraction of the lower incisors of adolescents (so they may be fed if they contract lockjaw) and a boundless passion for the milking, bleeding and worship of cattle.
The result of this union, the Kalenjin and related groups such as the Masai and Turkana, spread down the hills and across the plains, reaching their peak about 500 years ago. Then, as the Bantu expanded eastward from Central West Africa, the Kalenjin retreated to their highland strongholds, warred with their neighbors and split into half a dozen subgroups, including the Nandi, who have felt themselves a distinct tribe since the 17th century.
The fixation of all Kalenjin tribes was the cow. The tribes understood themselves to be the chosen of God and therefore the rightful owners of all cattle on earth. They had but to go forth and repossess. This they did, rejoicing. The Kalenjin's—and many other tribes'—incessant raids for cattle and women created a culture in which reputation, wealth and progeny came to the fighting men who could cover long distances quickly.
In the late 19th century, the British colonialists found Nandi raiding parties ranging more than 100 miles from their highlands, striking at night and driving cattle miles toward home before enemy warriors could regroup. Nandi ferocity was such that it took the British five military campaigns over 10 years to subdue the tribe, which they finally did in 1906.
To make men who could run a hundred miles on a handful of millet and a spurt of cow's blood, the Kalenjin tribes employed powerful means. The most potent was ritual circumcision.
To come of age in much of East Africa, a boy between 12 and 20 must command himself to remain stoic while an extremely sensitive part of his body is slowly cut away. Sir A. Claud Hollis, a British diplomat, wrote of Nandi circumcision in 1909: "The boy's face is carefully watched by the surrounding crowd of warriors and old men to see whether he blinks or makes a sign of pain. Should he in any way betray his feelings, he is dubbed a coward and receives the name of kipite. This is considered a great disgrace, and no kipite may ever attend another circumcision festival." Or claim full rights as an adult.
Boys are prepared with months of seclusion and instruction in the ways of the tribe. "Circumcision parallels what the military does to a draftee," Boit has said. "The elders shave his head, give him a new name and subject him to rigorous discipline, all to remove his individuality and replace it with a new identity of toughness and obedience."
Kibor was circumcised at 14. "Some other boys and I. It was important," he says. "But everybody does it." So how could it be extraordinary? Kibor doesn't think it the most difficult thing he's ever done. It was not as hard, he says, as leaving his childhood home to go to a distant school. The discomfort of running he does not see fit to mention.
"Once you feel the sweetness of winning," Ndoo has said, "running is not what you call pain. The pain is losing. Most of them don't even think about what they are feeling...until you ask them."
So widespread is circumcision that Kenyans can seem rather offhand about it. CIRCUMCISION RITUALS IN FULL SWING, reads a headline in the Daily Nation. "December is always a busy month...."
The story, by Waigwa Kiboi, details how the Kuria tribe near the Tanzanian border practices not only male but also female circumcision, or clitoridectomy, which is outlawed by the government. "As you walk along the roads," writes Kiboi, "you will see young men and women dancing wildly as they surround the initiates, who, despite the pain and bleeding, walk home majestically."
"There is no way," says Nelson Monanka, a farmer, "that girls can command respect here if they are not circumcised and ready for marriage."
Marriage means farm labor and childbearing. Circumcision, one is told, allows women not to be distracted by concern for their own pleasure. It lets them be good wives. In this way, and in many others, the plight of Kenyan women is dismal.
"Parents acquire cows as dowry," says Boit, "as the bride price for a daughter. It makes a wife more of an economic object than a partner in a joint venture."
So Kenyan women are seldom encouraged in sport. Time and again wonderfully talented 14-year-olds have gotten pregnant, married, quit school and given up running. There has never been a female Kenyan Olympic medalist.
Down through the generations, as the raiding life killed off slow runners and made fathers of the swift, the tribes must have distilled their talent. The genes that shape football tackles or sumo wrestlers would have been winnowed away. Always the culture exalted endurance. And so the Kalenjin men became not explosively muscular, but lean and tireless.
Then the British came in and couldn't tolerate all the cattle raiding to which this tirelessness was devoted. So they substituted sport. "They jailed the raiders and put them to work leveling and marking out running tracks," says John Manners, a former Peace Corps teacher in Kenya who has made an extensive study of Kalenjin runners and whose help in preparing this article was invaluable. "Because the Kalenjin, and especially the Nandi, were such frequent offenders, they got a disproportionate number of tracks in their districts and the biggest push to participate."
In the 1920s, British officials began to organize local track meets, putting up blankets and cooking pots as prizes. The Nandi flocked in to race, as much for the competition between younger and older warriors as for the worldly goods. Later, army and police recruiters came to these meets and importuned the victors as they crossed the finish line. Young Kalenjin men entered the ranks in great numbers and found in service careers a way to continue running. Two thirds of Kenya's champions first achieved international renown while in uniform.
The first modern hero was Kiptalem Keter, an 800-meter runner in the 1950s who was a corporal in the tribal police. As a child, Boit was transfixed by the sight of Keter. "He had a long mustache, and he never lost" Boit says. "He was always in front. He refused to let anyone else even lead." The effect on Boit was transparent. He usually ran exactly the same way.
Boit invites you to make a short side trip from Kilibwoni to the wedding of steeplechaser Joshua Kipkemboi. The party has gathered in corn stubble at sunset, and there is much passing of a celebratory gourd of pungent mursik, or curdled milk. The bride's smile and gown are incandescent. Kipkemboi, who will finish second to Kariuki in the '90 Commonwealth Games steeplechase, stands impassive, smooth-faced, and you think of the day in 1981 when Boit married Lillian Maina, a Kalenjin of the Kipsigis tribe.
She had gone to United States International University in San Diego. He was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Oregon in Eugene. When word of their engagement got back to Kenya, Boit's family conveyed a dowry of five cows to Maina's parents.
Maina came down the aisle of Eugene's Central Presbyterian Church in white silk and pearls. Boit stood at her side like a polished spear. When the preacher got to the vows, and Boit began to speak, it was in the dry-reed voice of the Nandi blood oath.
The hair stood up on the back of the guests' necks. The preacher stiffened, the church evaporated and the gathering was transported to hills covered with blazing green tea and thatch-roofed huts. These are not men who falter in ceremony.
Drive carefully says the sign outside Eldoret, BLOODLESS ROAD LOOKS GOOD. Eldoret, not far from where Keino now runs a farm and orphanage, is a fine place to spend the night. Kibor says his secondary school is about 60 miles north, in Chesoi, and his grandmother's house a bit farther on, but it is better to go in daylight.
On Christmas morning you awaken to the cries of hawks and the songs of children, and lie there thinking about how Africa can seem a sieve of afflictions through which only the hardy may pass. The largest, fastest, wildest, strangest beasts are here. Every poisonous bug, screaming bird and thorned shrub has arrived at this moment through the most severe competition. They have a history of overpowering more gentle environments. You think of lungfish, of killer bees, of AIDS. Of men. Of the great Repo Men, the Nandi, turned from their raiding and become runners.
In the rest of the world, sport serves as an initiation, as a true test. In East Africa, initiation is the initiation. Sport is a pale shadow of the competitive life that has gone on forever across this high, fierce, first continent. Is it any wonder that frail European varieties feel threatened?
There is pavement as far as the market town of Iten. Kibor asks twice if, "just for security reasons," you have enough petrol, and grows a little vague about precisely how far it is to Grandmother's house. Moist red paths have been worn on both sides of the road. Upon them walk brightly dressed holiday crowds, iridescent as birds. The people move with a cool economy. They keep a reserve.
But gaze across the land and you catch a different kind of movement. Sheep and goats at first, and then small children in dirty sweaters, running over the hillocks and the fields of dry maize. When you stop to photograph a few children who are tending sheep, they run away. They don't stop or hide. They keep going toward the horizon.
"They are fearing," says Kibor. "They know their faces will be taken to a different country." The remedy is the miracle of Polaroid. Children watch the resolving images with rapt wonder. Their own faces appearing from the clouds. When they get the idea, they pose with an elaborate solemnity.
You are in the Cherangani Hills now, real Marakwet country, so steep that extensive cattle herding is impractical. The Pokot, Kalenjin people who live down in the Rift and despise the cultivation of crops, call the Marakwet Cheblong, or the Poor, for their scarcity of cattle.
The road grows steadily worse. Kibor says matatus, the crazily crowded, unsafe commercial buses, do make their way up here. One carried him out. Noon comes and goes. At a lunch stop you realize that nowhere in all these hills have you been out of the sound of human voices. They lift, soft and high, from every slope, testimony to the density of humanity here, and its youth. Sometimes kids chase the car, running with a smile and a will, staying there in the dust for long minutes until they make you nervous. After such a childhood, formal athletic training must be just polish, a final pat on the butt.
The subsistence farms give way to a forest preserve of trees hung with vines. Striking black-and-white colobus monkeys hurl themselves through the branches with great, heedless crashes.
Across the Aroror River, huts appear again, like mushrooms after a rain. Kibor begins to lean out the window and yell at people. "My classmates," he says. Sambirir School is a brutal climb up a hill from the village of Chesoi. "There is no field at school for practice," says Kibor, pointing out a cluster of huts down in the valley where he lives with cousins while at secondary school. "I run up the hill on a path. It's not far."
Grandmother's house is still quite far away, however, and seems to be receding. The road is now either a sandy track or a faint depression in the animal-cropped grass. Bamboo, laid down for traction in muddy streambeds, cracks and splinters under the tires. At 10 miles an hour, you are slammed around the inside of the four-wheel-drive Isuzu Trooper as if on a small boat in a sickening six-foot chop.
You're above 10,000 feet now, and climbing. Fantastically shaped trees seem like twisted, gesturing spirits. Clouds lie down on the road.
About four o'clock you lurch to a stop at last, before the most beautiful vista of the ordeal: a great, smooth field stretching away to three long buildings, Kibor's primary school. A track is visible on the thick turf. "We cut the lanes," says Kibor proudly, "with pangas."
Beyond, on a dome of green, are the tawny buildings of Kapchebau. The single approach is across a saddle, making the village seem like a medieval fortress. As you reach it, you see that there is nothing beyond but a precipice plunging a mile or more down to the desert floor of the Great Rift Valley.
At once you are surrounded by a dozen weather-burnished people. You have the honor of informing them that their native son made the team. Kibor points out his name in the newspaper account of the trials. The pages are received as if they were illuminated manuscripts.
"We are very happy," says a man. "Now others will come up the way this man has done. He has qualified, you say? We are happy."
From here, you go down on foot, carrying the gifts Kibor has specified: meat, candy and a case of soda. The earth is black mud under the drying maize. You cross a roaring cataract on boulders. "This is where I was running, up this hill to that school," says Kibor. "Jogging, jogging, for eight years."
Even descending you feel dizzy from the altitude. After half a mile you reach a compound of seven huts perched below cypress trees on the lip of the cliff. There, ecstatic in a shiny Christmas dress, is Elizebeth Kokibor, Kibor's grandmother. She hugs you delicately, her eyes tightly shut, and gives you rich, oily tea.
Kibor takes you to a promontory and points out settlements far down at the base of the escarpment. "That is where I was born," he says. "That is where my father and mother are. There are mosquitoes there, malaria, and it's always hot. So when I was small, my parents brought me here, for school and health. I carry stalks of bananas up from my father's. It is a five-hour climb, if you are a good climber."
It was a relative in the valley, he says, who knew that Kibor wanted to run in the Commonwealth Games preliminary trials. "He gave me a goat, and I led it up the mountain to Chesoi [a trek of 15 miles] and sold it there for 150 shillings [about $7], a very low price, because I was in a hurry. Then I took matatus to Kisumu. I hitched some and used the money I saved for food." He still had energy enough to run third, advancing to the Nairobi finals.
Kibor introduces his older brother Yano, and his cousins George, maybe nine, and eight-year-old Salome. His nearest neighbor, Benjamin Yator Kisang, 37, was born right here but has worked in Nairobi. "In advertising and design," he says. "But the city.... Well, I thought I'd better come back to the good life before I get old."
The Kapchebau life is simple and rigorous. "Our diet is goat's milk and millet," says Kisang. "Sometimes eggs or meat, and always ugali. Ugali is our staple."
Ugali is the maize porridge that you hear Kenyan runners yearning for wherever they travel. "You plant the maize on May first," says Kisang, "and you harvest January first." By then the kernels are as pale and hard as porcelain. Grandmother shows you her storehouse of millet, the grain a deep variegated red, the door secured by a strong new padlock.
The huts have no electricity or plumbing, but back on the hillside is a small, stone-lined channel of clear, cold water, quite separate from the stream. A spout of split bamboo allows little Salome to fill her jug. This is not a spring but part of a vast network of ancient channels that apportion water to every clan on the escarpment. The Marakwet have lived a thousand years on these slopes, yet they say they inherited the channels from previous users, possibly the lost tribe of the Sirikwa.
The light fades by seven. You are cordially invited to Christmas dinner and to spend the night. You would accept even if there were an alternative.
Chickens roost in the cooking hut. This is where Grandmother sleeps, on a cowhide folded on a cot. Along the dim back wall are round earthenware pots. "She drinks maize alcohol all day, so of course she is happy," says Kibor.
The fire is surrounded by three stones. A fair percentage of the smoke goes out a hole in the roof, after warming and drying green wood in the rafters. Salome sifts ground maize. Yano cuts and washes the meat and puts it in a pot to stew. A chicken lays an egg. Kibor goes to the main hut, which has two rooms, and does a few more chemistry problems by the light of a kerosene lamp before dinner is delivered. He breaks the sad news to the family that he must leave in the morning. He has to get back to the training camp in Nairobi.
Yano pours water so you may soap and rinse your hands. You eat with your fingers. The beef is tough, the sauce delicious. Ugali is kind of scratchy on the palate, as if there were some earth in with the corn. It is bland but satisfying. You really dig in, to the contentment of your hosts.
Kibor pours water so you may wash your hands again. Dinner concludes with bottles of orange soda (which Kisang opens with his teeth) and goodwill all around.
You pass the night rolled in a blanket on the hut's immaculately swept earthen floor. It is not as uncomfortable as, say, a night on a 747. The dawn is announced firmly, repeatedly, unnecessarily, by a rooster. You awaken thinking that if you need to know where a man lays his head to understand him, well, now you do.
The Rift Valley is filled with vapor. Clouds shoot up from the gorge as from volcanoes. Breakfast is strong tea and bread. "It was always tea and ugali and a run to school," says Kibor with as much nostalgia as a 17-year-old can summon.
"I hope you've seen that it's a good neighborhood," says Kisang. Kibor and his grandmother walk into the fields and grasp each other's forearms in parting. Hiking up the dewy, slippery slope to the village, little George carries your bag. You stumble and sway. He darts and hops. You gasp. He is inaudible. Strength, efficiency and athletic coordination, there they all are, vanishing over the hill.
The ride back seems shorter. At the roadside Chebaimo Hotel and Bakery you get sponge cake, biscuits and corn bread that all taste exactly the same. On the wall is a sign:
"Struggling is the meaning of life. Victory and defeat are in the hands of God, so one must enjoy in struggling."
Kibor, his mouth full of cake, agrees with a nod and laugh. "I do enjoy it," he says, spraying crumbs. "Struggle."
Safely back in Iten, you call at St. Patrick's High School, a most remarkable institution run by the Patrician brothers, an Irish Catholic teaching order. Brother Colm O'Connell, originally from County Cork, is headmaster and coach. In the 14 years he has been here, the school has sent more than three quarters of its graduates to college and has turned out more than 40 international-level runners.
In the cafeteria, Kibor gazes up at an imposing set of school records. There is a 1,500 of 3:34.9 and a mile of 3:52.39 by Kip Cheruiyot, and a 5,000 of 13:18.6 by his twin brother, Charles. Other boards name the 12 athletes St. Patrick's has sent to the Olympics.
O'Connell's enthusiasm grows as he finds words for it. "My great advantage," he says, "was that when I came, I knew no athletics. I learned about the athletes first, then the sport. Normally, there's not a lot of attention paid talented runners in the schools. We're more successful here because we take a personal interest."
As seems fitting for a man of the cloth, O'Connell encourages runners toward the essential vow. "It helps them if they make up their mind, if they say, I am a runner,' " he says. "Joseph here is typical of how quickly they can come to prominence, but many Kenyans are quite late developers. Ibrahim Hussein graduated from here and then New Mexico before he really took it seriously."
When he did, Hussein, one of a small group of Islamic Nandi, won the New York, Honolulu and Boston marathons between November of '87 and April of '88. The key is not age—Hussein was 29 years old when he won those marathons—but resolve.
"It's not just altitude, diet and climate," says O'Connell. "It's a very subtle combination of those with their tradition. They come from great, extended families. You hear them speaking of my father and my other father and my other father,' because they're brought up to think uncles are fathers. Cousins are brothers or sisters. The mentality is community. They run for their people, and when they come back they aren't put up on a pedestal. They're absorbed back into the family. That's a great release of pressure for them. They don't have a great fear of losing because the loss is distributed over the group."
As is winning. "When a girl wins a race," O'Connell says, "her first reaction is to run into the middle of the crowd and hide."
Most of O'Connell's runners do not come to him burning with inextinguishable ambition. "If you want to motivate them, they must enjoy it," he says. "If you bring the painful or boring aspects in, they may lose interest. You try to get them over the stage where the novelty's done, to where they say, 'Yes, I'm an athlete.' Then they can be single-minded about it." Then they can tap the deep seriousness their culture has planted within them.
Only rarely does O'Connell burden St. Patrick's boys with running much more than 50 miles a week. They need the energy to study. "And Kenyans have an amazing ability to get fit quickly," he says. "For example, in 1987 John Ngugi finished only 76th in the national cross-country, but he was still selected to the team going to the world championships because he'd won the year before. He had a mere three weeks to prepare. He won easily. It's built into them. In their daily lives a lot of Kenyans are training completely unbeknownst to themselves."
O'Connell swears the talent at St. Patrick's is equaled by that at other schools. He does not recruit. "One season we had fine 400-meter runners. That was the year I told Paul Ereng, 'Go away. You wouldn't even make our relay team.' " Ereng is now the Olympic 800-meter champion.
"I wish I'd taken him," says O'Connell, but his tone is free of regret. "When I see Kenya's team going off to the world junior championships, I know you can find another group just as good being left behind. It takes a teacher or headmaster, someone to give a boy a lift or a hundred shillings. Joseph, are there others in your school who can run?"
"There are," says Kibor. "But they have no transport. They have no chance of coming to races."
"So what we see," says O'Connell, "is the tip of the iceberg."
O'Connell trains his less talented team members to be assistant coaches. "Peter Rono was coached largely by a classmate," he says. "He was a small boy and always struggling. He ran the 5,000 when he came, which was O.K., but in 1983, Kip Cheruiyot was selected to run with the national team in Helsinki, and suddenly I had no 1,500-meter runner for the Schools Championships. I went to little Peter Rono and said, 'You're going to be a 1,500 runner. I need you.' "
Rono gave his grave consent. "That was his breakthrough. He won the Schools 1,500 and 5,000 double three times. He's really a 5,000 man. He has no hope in a real sprint, but if everybody's tired, he can maintain his speed."
Thus it was that in Seoul little Peter Rono led the last 800 meters of the Olympic 1,500 final and made everybody tired. In the stretch, with Steve Cram and Peter Elliott of Great Britain straining on his heels, Rono smoothly maintained his lead to the finish. He was the first St. Patrick's boy to win an Olympic gold medal.
In his honor, the school planted the Peter Rono tree in the courtyard. It is of the species Spathodea nilotica. The Nandi Flame.
Kenyan runners endure a few things Kibor cannot yet know much about. There have been complaints since Keino's time of Kenyan Amateur Athletic Association (KAAA) officials' pocketing appearance money meant for athletes, but recently, with the growth of de facto professional track, the habit has reportedly grown into serious corruption. KAAA general secretary Robert Ouko, who won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympic 1,600-meter relay, has long been accused by runners of letting them race only in meets where their earnings were paid directly to Ouko or to his minions.
Under IAAF rules, athletes' winnings must be kept in trust funds. At first Ouko refused to set up such funds. Some Kenyans chose to have their trust funds supervised by The Athletics Congress of the U.S. rather than by their own body. They were smart. Ngugi reportedly had $185,000 siphoned from his Kenyan trust fund.
At the 1987 World Championships in Rome, the most impressive Kenyan performance was that of Paul Kipkoech in the 10,000. A Nandi soldier from Kapsabet, he destroyed a strong field by surging through the last 5,000 meters in 13:25, which was actually 1.44 seconds faster than the winning time of Morocco's Said Aouita in the 5,000.
Immediately afterward, a promoter offered Kipkoech what one source calls "a small fortune" (it was probably about $15,000) to run at a track meet in Rieti, Italy. Kenyan officials, though, insisted that all team members return to Kenya immediately and, according to an official KAAA report, confiscated athletes' passports, including Kipkoech's. Ouko and Kipkoech reportedly came to blows in the Rome airport.
Ouko finally was suspended, along with the KAAA treasurer, Timothy Musyoki, in late 1988, and things are looking up. But Kipkoech, perhaps the most graceful of all Kenyan runners, is said to have abandoned all serious competition.
The KAAA has its share of tribal infighting, too, which explains why a few deserving athletes have been left off some national teams. The country has a chronic shortage of the most basic equipment. Kenyan runners' desperation for shoes is legendary. Asked what size he wore, one runner told Boit, "Eight...and up."
Yet all these problems must be kept in perspective. By African standards, Kenya is as stable and prosperous as Sweden. Stray from its borders and you enter regions of famine, war and dislocation: Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia.
Kenya's stability has allowed its athletes to shine despite Kenyan mismanagement. The greatest harm to Kenyan running was done by the 1976 and 1980 Olympic boycotts, which removed the ultimate goal from a generation. But now the runners are better than ever. When Ereng stepped from the plane that brought the triumphant Kenyan team back from Seoul, two things happened. His mother washed his hands, symbolically purifying the son as he returned from the decadence of the outside world. And people began to argue over what tribe Ereng was from.
His parents were of the nomadic Turkana. "But he was raised Nandi," says Boit, "in the town of Kitale. He was circumcised Nandi." The Turkana do not circumcise.
So Ereng seemed to affirm that it is culture, not some gene, that makes the difference, and in Kenya the racing culture is making converts of even the nomads.
An hour south of Iten, Kibor bids you stop at Kapsabet Stadium, in Kapsabet. A brick wall surrounds low, roofed stands that have the aspect of cattle barns. This track is the source, the one from which so many great Nandi athletes sprang. It was here that Henry Rono, watching Keino from afar, made his silent promise to become a runner.
Boit is lobbying the IAAF to install a modern all-weather track in Kapsabet, and he has a case if the idea is to place the track in the exact spot in Africa where there is the most interest in running. "The only trouble with that," British distance runner Tim Hutchings has said, "is the rest of the world no longer will have a chance."
Kibor is such a novice that he has never run here, and he wants to put in a few laps of devotion. The track surface is moist sand and clay, and is unaccountably springy. Upon it, Kibor runs like a freshly released antelope.
Soon he goes blazing down the straightaways, and he doesn't slow much in the curves. He obviously has terrific natural speed, which makes it curious that he has never raced anything shorter than a 10,000.
"I watched them running the 1,500, and I saw they ran fast" he says, panting. "I didn't know if I could run that fast, because I had never specialized. And in the 3,000 and the 5,000, too, they looked like they were running fast. But in the 10,000 I saw I could just run along slowly and catch everyone at the end."
He rockets away. "I can run the 1,500," he says when he passes again, "if I specialize."
He has never even done any track training. He has simply grown up Kalenjin in the Cherangani Hills, and come to a decision. Had you known in high school that people like this existed, it would have darkened your dreams of running.
Here, though, it has the opposite effect. The vision of Kibor in full stride has drawn a flock of kids. They watch for a while, poker-faced; then, told it's O.K. to go on the track, they fly into motion like a covey of quail, boys and girls, forming a ragged pack. They're impatient, they surge and elbow and squeal, and when it's time to go, you can't get them stopped. But never again will you quite think of them as children.