The Kenyans did not have particular faces. The Kenyans did not
have particular names. The race unfolded in Adam Goucher's head
and all he saw were forms, the figures of fleet black men,
surrounding him. The Kenyans. The Ethiopians. The Africans. He
was right in the middle.
This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue
He ran alone along Magnolia Road (elevation 9,000 feet) in
Boulder, Colo., ran the South Boulder Trail, ran the Aqueduct
Trail with its strange signs that warn of CERTAIN DEATH if you
fall into the swift water. In his mind the Kenyans were always
running with him. The Kenyans. The Ethiopians. The Africans.
Ninety-five miles a week.
"You have to beat the Kenyans, the Africans, if you want to win
a championship," Goucher told himself as he approached last
weekend's 27th annual World Cross Country Championships in
Belfast, Northern Ireland. "That's what I want to do--win a
Truth is truth. No sport has been dominated more thoroughly in
recent history than men's distance running has been dominated by
runners from Africa, especially from Kenya. Africans had won
every men's world cross-country championship race since 1986,
and Kenyans had won all of those races except two. The
indomitable 29-year-old Paul Tergat, Kenyan, had won the past
four long-course races (12 kilometers) and was going for a
fifth. The first short-course race (four kilometers), added only
a year ago, also had been won by a Kenyan, John Kibowen.
How do you break the chain if you're a 24-year-old American,
fresh out of the University of Colorado? That was the daily
crossword puzzle Goucher had to work out while training in
Boulder. He thought he had filled in most of the blanks.
"The thing with the Kenyans, the Africans, is that they've been
running longer than me," he said. "They start running when
they're five years old. That's when they start to harden their
bodies for running. I was playing all kinds of sports beginning
at that age. I loved football. I don't think I ran in a race
until I was 14. It's a matter of time, not technique. I just have
to get older. My body has to get harder. I grow closer to them
Goucher used last year's NCAA cross-country championships to make
his point. Maybe it wasn't a world-class event, but the field was
stocked with African runners on U.S. scholarships. Africans had
won the race the past five years. What happened this time? When
the leaders came down the stretch, it was the exact picture from
his head: He was surrounded by four Africans. They surged. He
surged. They surged again. He stayed with them, step for step.
Two Africans dropped back. He surged at the end, nipping Abdi
Abdirahman of Arizona at the finish. See? It could be done.
"I'm looking to be in the top three," Goucher said, heading into
the world championships. "Anything worse than that, I won't be
He was entered in the short-course event and wouldn't have to
contend with Tergat. The other African runners to watch? He had
no idea. He bumped into the Kenyan delegation in Heathrow
Airport in London on Wednesday, traveled with the Kenyans on the
same plane to Belfast, stood at the same luggage carousel with
them. He didn't recognize one person. He wouldn't have
recognized a name if he had heard it. He only knew that he was
looking at fast people, people he would have to beat. No words
were exchanged. "You just kind of look at each other out of the
corners of your eyes," he said. "You size each other up. I think
some runners on our team get intimidated by the Kenyans. I don't
feel that way. I refuse to be intimidated."
Goucher believed the choice of Belfast as the site for the meet
was a plus. Forget the political troubles in the background, the
IRA and Ulster Volunteer Force murals that jump off the buildings
on Falls Road and Shankill Road, the long wall in the middle of
the city still dividing Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods as
the tortuous peace process continues; think about the cold
weather and the possibility of rain. How would the Kenyans, the
Africans, react to that?
The 1998 championships were held in Marrakech, Morocco, in
80[degree] heat, the course flat and fast. The Belfast course
was across grass and hills at the Barnett Demesne-Queen's
University Playing Fields. Daffodils might have started to bloom
on the side, but they looked like they were shivering. The
temperature was in the low 40s. Rain is a perpetual Irish
possibility. "I looked around for the first time just before the
race," Goucher said later. "We'd been staying downtown, busy,
and I guess I hadn't looked at things. I said, 'Gee, I hope we
don't get blown up.' That was my comment about Belfast. Now I
saw the hills, the grass, the countryside. I said, 'Hey, this is
beautiful. This is what Ireland's about.'"
The race began, and Goucher started well. He was out with the
leaders. That was his idea about how to run with the Kenyans, the
Africans. Forget strategy. Just go with them. There was no rain,
only low clouds, but earlier rain had left the course muddy.
After 500 meters Goucher was with five Africans, all Kenyans, in
a lead pack at the first turn. Heading past the grandstand and
the largest part of a crowd estimated at 8,000, he was where he
wanted to be. He was in that picture in his head again. He...
He was out of that picture. Just like that. "The Kenyans, they
just sort of floated away," he said after the race. "I'm not sure
what happened. They just sort of floated. They were gone, pulling
away from me."
The eventual winner was Benjamin Limo, a 24-year-old Kenyan who
pulled away from teammate Paul Kosgei on the final lap. Limo said
he had started running "seriously" only two years ago. Kosgei,
20, was second. Third and fourth were Ethiopians. Fifth and sixth
were two more Kenyans. Adam Goucher, U.S., finished 12th, 25
seconds behind the winning time of 12:28.
The African domination of the two-day championships had begun.
Gete Wami of Ethiopia took the women's long race (eight
kilometers) in 28:00. Werknesh Kidane, also of Ethiopia, took
the women's junior race. On the second day, when rain did arrive
and the course was pure slop, Tergat rolled easily to his fifth
title in the long race. Jackline Maranga of Kenya won the
women's short race, and Hailu Mekkonen of Ethiopia won the men's
junior title. Africans took every gold medal and 13 of the 18
medals awarded. Ireland turned out to be the same as anywhere
else on the planet when it comes to distance running.
"It's just good to get in and bat heads with these guys," Goucher
said, disappointed but philosophical as he changed shirts for a
five-mile cooldown. "It'll all pay off. I know that in a year or
two, I'm going to be there. They're going to look and say, 'Hey,
who's this guy who's running right with us?' It's going to
A U.S. teammate offered congratulations. Congratulations? For
what? The teammate said that by finishing 12th--if you overlooked
the fact that Moroccan-born Abdellah Behar, who finished seventh,
was running for France, his adopted country--Goucher was the top
non-African finisher in the short-course race, the fastest
non-African in the world.
"Big deal," Goucher said. "Come back and see me when they're
telling some African he's the top non-American finisher. That
will mean something."
Truth is truth. You have to beat the Africans. The Kenyans. The
Ethiopians. The Moroccans, too. Or it just doesn't count.