Weighing only 84 pounds and standing a shade under five feet
tall, Tegla Loroupe seems impossibly small, even by the
diminutive standards of women's marathoning. Upon meeting her,
your first impulse is to give her a hug or at least to shield
her from the big, clumsy world. While she might accept the hug,
she needs no one's protection. Loroupe, who holds the world
record for the women's marathon, is as tough and determined a
person as you'll find.
How tough? Here is a story: As a girl of 14 in Kenya, she
journeyed 120 miles from Kapsait, her village in the mountains
near the Ugandan border, to the city of Nakuru, where she was to
run a cross-country race. The race was six kilometers through a
forest, and in the second kilometer Tegla, running barefoot,
stepped on a wooden spike that became embedded in her foot,
poking bloodily out the top. "I didn't have time to stop," she
says in her high-pitched, singsong voice. She finished second,
then sat down and pulled out the spike. "It was painful," she
admits, "but I couldn't wait to go to a doctor."
Now 25, Loroupe has let nothing stop her progress toward
becoming the best female distance runner in the world--not
multiple injuries, tribal warfare, snubs by the famously
incompetent Kenyan track and field federation, not even the
sudden death of her beloved older sister, Albina, who died of an
undiagnosed ailment just 13 days before the 1995 New York City
Marathon. Loroupe won that race, then collapsed in tears.
"I have a wooden head," she says, trying to describe the
obstinacy that has driven her to run in defiance of her father
and the repressive patriarchal society in which she grew up. All
her life people have bombarded her with reasons why she should
not run, and always she has soldiered on, a small, smiling
pillar of courage and will.
On Nov. 1 Loroupe is favored to win her third New York City
Marathon. That would provide the exclamation point to a superb
year. In the past seven months she has won the 10,000 meters at
the Goodwill Games, claimed her second straight world
half-marathon title, smashed the world record for the one-hour
run (covering 11 miles, 696 yards) and twice broken 15 minutes
in the 5,000. But her most eye-catching achievement came on
April 19, when she broke Ingrid Kristiansen's 13-year-old
women's world marathon record by 19 seconds, clocking 2:20:47 in
Rotterdam. With that performance Loroupe established herself as
the woman most likely to break the 2:20 barrier, which has
beckoned the top women runners like a siren, raising their hopes
and then dashing them on the shoals of a suicidal pace.
Surprisingly, Loroupe is the first Kenyan, male or female, to
hold the world marathon record. While Kenyan men, who dominate
distance running internationally, emerged as a force in the
mid-1960s, only in the last decade have Kenyan women begun to
assert themselves. Since they benefit from the same geographical
advantages as the men and log the same long miles to school, we
must look elsewhere for the reason that the women have lagged
behind. It is not hard to find. For generations Kenya's women
have been little more than servants in their own homes.
"The traditional system is, you listen to your father until your
husband buys you [in exchange] for cattle, then you listen to
him," says John Manners, an American journalist who lived in
Kenya for four years and is working on a book about the
country's extraordinary runners. "The idea cemented by Tegla's
win in New York City was that women runners can do this on their
own and should not be pushed into marriage right away."
Loroupe, one of the few top Kenyan women runners who is not
married, is eager to serve as a role model to other Kenyan
women. "I don't think she thinks about feminism as such," says
Anne Roberts, who as the elite-athlete coordinator for the New
York City Marathon has become a second mother to Loroupe. "It's
not male versus female. It's whatever's fair. It's equality,
just to be treated with respect. Women are so downtrodden in
Though Loroupe now lives in Germany, whenever she returns to
Kenya she visits schools, hoping to teach girls, many of whom
tower over her, about self-respect and independence. "I want to
show them that they don't need to feel like useless people," she
says. "They can use their brains. Women are capable of helping
Asked where her wooden head and its strange ideas come from,
Loroupe proudly cites her mother, Mary Lotuma. The first of her
husband's three wives (Kenya is a polygamous culture), Lotuma
has always resented the unfairness of Kenyan society and has
drilled into her four daughters the idea that they should aspire
to be more than wives and mothers. "On my mother's side of the
family, they are strong women," Loroupe says. Literally so, it
seems. The last time Tegla was home, she and her fiftysomething
mother ran 30 kilometers to visit relatives.
"She was faster than me," says the world-record holder. "It was
hard, because I was not used to the altitude."
The cradle-to-grave rigors of Pokot tribal life at least partly
explain Loroupe's remarkable talent for distance running. "In
the village no one is ever idle," says Loroupe, who, minutes
after winning $37,500 and a Mercedes in her first New York City
Marathon, in 1994, amused reporters by telling them she had to
get home fast--to help herd the cattle. There is no electricity
and no running water in Kapsait, and the nearest phone is 15
miles away. People go everywhere on foot, often carrying
40-pound sacks of maize or buckets of water.
Like the boys whom she often beat, Loroupe was six when she
began running six miles each way to and from school. "You cry at
first," she says. "There are lots of hills. After a time, you
get used to it."
Remember that this is at an elevation above 9,000 feet. Loroupe
ran her first races at age nine, at a school sports day, winning
the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters against boys and girls, all
in one day.
The other girls were puzzled by Loroupe's strange passion. "What
kind of woman do you want to be?" they asked. But Loroupe was
determined, as well as a little devious. When her father
pressured her to give up running, at age seven, she proposed a
"I said, 'Can I run if I do better than [her older brother]
Julius in mathematics?'" she says with a chuckle. She knew that
she was a far better math student than Julius.
The math comes in handy these days. With an income in the mid
six figures, Loroupe is surely among the highest paid Kenyan
women. She owns homes in Kapsait and Nakuru, and not too long
ago she made her way through the textbook Principles of
Accounting. "It's good to be wise as a woman," she says. "You
never know who will marry you and want you to stay at home. If
you have property, they will respect you."
Still, not everyone in Kenya is pleased with her challenge to
tradition. Recently she was criticized for bypassing the
Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. "She never runs for Kenya,"
says Peter Njenga of Nairobi's Daily Nation, the country's
biggest newspaper. "I think she is just money-oriented."
That certainly is not true. Loroupe may value the independence
that money buys, but she is extremely generous. She sends many
children from her region to boarding school, paying for their
tuition, board, books and clothing. "Always there is somebody
you can support," she says. A young man from her village is in a
Bombay hospital awaiting an operation for brain cancer on Nov.
3. Loroupe is paying for his travel and treatment and even for a
relative to accompany him.
"That is what the money is for," she says simply. And that, no
matter how fast she runs, shows what kind of woman Loroupe wants
property, they will respect you."