Any race, every weekend:
There is no short cut. No secret to victory. Only grinding hard
The Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Section: The Citizen's Weekly
Byline: Alex Hutchinson
Source: The Ottawa Citizen
One Monday morning in early May,
32-year-old Joseph Nderitu is getting ready for work. He shuffles
unhurriedly across the living room of the small Hamilton apartment
where he rents a room for $200 a month, toward the door, where a
half-dozen pairs of running shoes -- the tools of his trade -- are
Even at rest, Nderitu's long,
impossibly slim legs suggest motion -- not explosive power, but
the fluid, untiring stride of the long-distance runner. This
morning, though, he walks with a slight hitch. His right Achilles
tendon, connecting a bony heel to a sinewy calf, is thick and
puffy, the casualty of the sudden change to Canadian cold from
Kenyan heat. The delicate tendon became inflamed during a 30K race
in late March, just a few days after his flight to Canada, forcing
him out of the race. "Probably I didn't warm up enough," he
The tools of modern sports
medicine -- MRIs, ultrasound therapy, anti-inflammatories --
usually aren't part of Nderitu's injury philosophy. They're not
part of his insurance, either. By necessity, his approach is much
simpler: Just keep running. "If you stop running, then when you
start again, it comes back," he says. To make the pain tolerable,
Nderitu has carefully cut a vertical slit down the back of the
right heel in each pair of running shoes, to take pressure off the
Achilles. And when the swelling gets too severe, he takes a razor
blade and slices next to the tendon to drain the accumulated blood
and pus. Several long parallel scars run down his ankle.
With just three weeks until
Ottawa Race Weekend, the smart thing would be to stop running, let
the tendon heal and look ahead to a marathon later in the year.
That's what any Canadian runner would do. But Nderitu is not
running for pride or glory -- he's running for survival, and
moderation is a luxury he can't afford. Depending on him are his
wife and four children back in Kenya, as well as his elderly
parents and 13 siblings. Add the cost of a transatlantic plane
ticket, and rent and food in Hamilton, and Nderitu has no margin
Though he can run at a steady
pace, the injury still prevents Nderitu from sprinting or speed
training to achieve peak shape. The previous day at a 10K race in
Toronto, he was narrowly outsprinted for fourth spot by two other
runners after matching them stride for stride for most of the
course. The winner earned $2,500, fifth place won $300, and
Nderitu, three seconds behind in sixth place, got nothing. It was
the same story several weeks earlier in London: Nderitu placed
fourth in a 5K race, but prize money was offered only to the top
After six weeks in Canada, he has
earned a grand total of $200, for winning a small 15K race in
Guelph. So, pulling on his running shoe over the swollen tendon,
Nderitu heads out the door for his morning run.
- - -
About 28,000 people are toeing
the line in one of the nine races taking place in Ottawa this
weekend, seeking faster times, firmer bodies, or perhaps raising
money for charity. But for a select group of runners, including
Joseph Nderitu, the stakes are much higher: the top man and woman
in this morning's marathon each takes home $15,000 plus bonuses.
This purse, by far the richest in
Canada, has drawn some of the world's top marathoners, champions
at such major international races as the Chicago Marathon. More
than 100 elite athletes from around the world are in Ottawa to vie
for the money, split evenly between the ING Marathon and the MDS
Nordion 10K. But the drop-off after first place is precipitous:
place 10th in the marathon, win $300. The same spot in the 10K
wins $100. Eleventh place earns you a free T-shirt and a bagel.
About three-dozen of the top
athletes are from Kenya, a country whose domination of
long-distance running has become almost proverbial in recent
decades. At the Olympics, tightly disciplined national teams from
Ethiopia and Morocco have started to challenge Kenyan supremacy.
But in the chaotic free-for-all of road racing, Kenyans still
rule. There are about 500 Kenyans in North America at any given
time, turning up in small towns and big cities, weekend after
weekend, wherever there's a footrace and money on the line. Last
year in Ottawa, Kenyans took five of the top six spots in the ING
Marathon and six of the top seven spots in the MDS Nordion 10K.
Many theories about Kenyan
dominance have been advanced, ranging from superior genetics to
the lack of home videogame systems. Growing up thousands of metres
above sea level, which teaches the body to make do with less
oxygen, certainly helps. So too do the rigours of rural life,
where young children often run as far as 10 kilometres each way to
school. There is an apocryphal tale about a Kenyan coach, who was
asked about the difference between the good runners and the great
runners in his training camp. "The champions went home for lunch,"
But there is another, simpler
explanation: the average annual income in Kenya is about $500, and
the unemployment rate is 40 per cent. For a Kenyan runner in this
morning's marathon, even a 10th-place finish could help buy
freedom -- a piece of land, a few cows -- from a life of
unrelenting menial labour.
- - -
Joseph Nderitu is a fixture in
Ottawa, says Manny Rodrigues, the elite-athlete co-ordinator for
the Ottawa Race Weekend. Nderitu has competed here every year
since 2001, winning the marathon three times and placing fourth
twice. But his path to Ottawa was anything but direct.
Ten years ago, Nderitu was 22,
and had been supporting himself as a labourer for six years. His
course changed when he heard about the exploits of a rival from
his school days: Joseph Kamau was making headlines with top-three
finishes at the prestigious Boston and New York marathons. "Kamau
was running very well, and I heard it on the radio," Nderitu
recalls. "And I thought, 'I used to beat that guy.'"
Nderitu grew up about 20
kilometres from Nyahururu, which at 2,360 metres above sea level
is the highest town in Kenya. (Canada's highest town, Banff, comes
in at just 1,383 metres.) His father was in the British army, and
after Kenyan independence in 1963, became a farmer, earning about
a dollar a day to feed his family of 15.
True to the cliches, Nderitu ran
back and forth to Kirima Primary School, about three kilometres
each way, carrying with him books and water. Coming home in the
evening, he could slow down and walk. "But at lunch, I had to run
very fast." By the time he reached high school, Nderitu knew his
talent for running extended beyond transportation. He ran races
for his school -- and won -- but his ambitions didn't extend any
farther. "I was just a kid," he says. "I didn't know there was a
whole world of running."
What he did know was a life of
extreme, grinding poverty. At 17, he moved out of his parents'
house and into a hut of mud and grass that he had built. For the
next six years, he worked, digging ditches and carrying heavy logs
in the forest. He packed on muscle, got married and let running
fade to a memory.
Meanwhile, some of his boyhood
rivals were flourishing. Kamau was winning races in North America,
and Eric Wainaina -- who grew up a few minutes from Nderitu's home
-- was charting a course that would lead to medals in the 1996 and
2000 Olympic marathons. Nderitu decided maybe he, too, could do
In 1996, with help from Kamau,
the 22-year-old Nderitu received an invitation to a running camp
in Nyahururu organized by John Ngugi, a former world champion.
Like many successful runners, Ngugi was nurturing the next
generation of Kenyan runners by giving hopefuls a chance to train
hard and prove themselves worthy of a trip to Europe or North
America. The regime was intense and uncomplicated: an easy run at
dawn, followed by a very intense training session at 9 a.m., sleep
for most of the day, then another run before dinner. Repeat ad
Nderitu gambled everything. He
stayed at the training camp for three years, from 1996 to 1999,
earning no income. "They had to give me soap," he says. The camp
provided food, and his parents took in his wife and first child.
The training camp ran from October to August -- but in the
off-season, Nderitu stayed on and continued training, visiting his
family only on weekends, waiting for his chance.
There are obvious parallels
between a runner like Nderitu and an inner-city basketball player
in the United States -- the push of poverty and the pull of
sporting riches, and, never far below the surface, the desperation
of knowing it's this or nothing. But, although the odds of making
it to Madison Square Garden from a Harlem playground are
depressingly long, physically it's just a 20-minute subway ride.
Between Nyahururu and the cash prizes of North America, there's
the Atlantic Ocean -- a barrier that can only be surmounted with a
ticket that costs thousands of dollars. So Nderitu waited.
- - -
In the late 1990s, Tim Forrester
was a decent local-level runner who owned a running-shoe store in
Hamilton. One of his friends was a top over-40 runner, and as a
favour, Forrester acted as his agent, phoning race directors and
making travel arrangements. "At these races, you always meet
Kenyans," he says, "and they're always trying to find the Next
Best Thing." Runners would ask him to be their manager, or tell
him about their friends back in Kenya who were fit and waiting for
someone to bring them to North America.
As road races and prize money
continued to bloom, Forrester decided to give it a shot. At a race
in Connecticut, a runner told him about Jesse Maina, a runner who
was in Kenya but ready for the big-time. Maina was living at the
training camp in Nyahururu, with Joseph Nderitu and others.
Forrester arranged to bring a group of the camp's best runners --
Nderitu included -- to Hamilton, paying their airfare and
promising room and board until they won enough prize money to pay
him back. After that, whatever they earned, minus an agent's cut
of typically 10 to 15 per cent, would be theirs to keep.
It was the break Nderitu had been
waiting for. "I got here, and I was just thinking about making
money so I could start building a life back home," he says. After
arriving on Sept. 23, 1999, Nderitu won a low-key 5K race in
Hamilton (with no prize money), then went on a tear. He finished
fourth at a half-marathon in Toronto, picking up $600, then won a
10K in Hamilton, competed in a 15K in Tulsa, a race in Tampa, and
came second in another half-marathon in Jacksonville, Florida.
Eight weeks after his arrival, he
returned to Kenya with his expenses paid and $600 in his pocket.
With his earnings, he bought two calves for $100 each. Life was
changing for Joseph Nderitu. He spent one happy month with his
wife, before returning to the Nyahururu training camp.
The next year brought even better
results, and Nderitu was able to buy a three-quarter-acre plot of
land for $2,500, and build a five-room house to move his family
into. Just thinking about it makes him pause, eyes half-closed,
and shake his head in disbelief. He bought another cow -- "the
first cow for milking ever in my family," he says with pride.
From Forrester's point of view,
the results from the rest of the group were mixed. Maina was
running several minutes slower than Nderitu over the
half-marathon, making it impossible to earn money,
Forrester recalls. "And there was one other guy and a girl – the
guy stunk and the girl was terrible. They still owe me probably
$2,000 between them," he says.
As word spread about the agent
who was bringing runners to Canada, Forrester began to receive a
steady stream of e-mails from runners in Kenya, desperate for a
ticket out. Forrester says he still receives 15 to 20 messages a
week. The problem, for an agent who has never been to Kenya and
has no plans to visit, is figuring out which runners will pay off.
During the past seven years, Forrester estimates he has brought
about 50 Kenyans to Hamilton, relying on recommendations from
other runners and coaches. "Of them, I'd say probably 10 could
actually make a living here no problem," he says, with another 10
capable of scraping by.
The successes could be very
lucrative: "I had one girl, Lucia Subano, she came here the second
week of April (in 2000). By July 3, she'd made 62 grand," he says.
"She just won everything." But such successes were outnumbered by
runners who struggled. And as Kenyans with agents based in the
United States began to eye the prize money north of the border,
the competition became more intense -- and the economics of being
a running agent became even more precarious.
"The pie is getting sliced too
thin," says Ken Royds, who coaches and manages a small group of
runners, including Kenyan road-runners Pauline Githuka and Abel
Ondeyo, in Milton, Ont. "There are too many guys, and there just
isn't enough out there."
Royds flips through a thick book
listing just about every prize-money race in North America, along
with the previous year's results. "There are 50 agents, all trying
to figure out which race was weak last year," he says. He points
out the Utica Boilermaker, a 15K race in upstate New York that
offers $6,000 for first place: 18 of the top 19 finishers were
Kenyan, with Tanzanian Fabiano Joseph breaking up the sweep.
The situation is the same at the
opposite end of the spectrum, Forrester says. Small-town races
offering $200-$150-$100 will attract five Kenyans. "When I first
started doing this, you could go to these races and run (the
comparatively slow 5K time of) 15:30," he says. "But it's not so
easy anymore, even at these Mickey Mouse races. There's more
The cut-throat competition may be
hard on the agents' bottom line, but it's even on harder on the
Kenyans who don't find immediate success. "They come over with a
gym bag ... and that's all they have," Forrester says. Suddenly
they're carrying the debt of an airline ticket, rent and food --
and finishing a few strides out of the money becomes a
catastrophe. "If you're not running well, or if you get an injury,
then pressure builds, and that makes it worse," Forrester says.
"It just spins out of control."
- - -
Every Kenyan runner is acutely
aware of the scant few seconds that can separate feast from famine
-- witness Joseph Nderitu's run of near-misses this spring. For
Nderitu, the pressure was relieved two weeks ago, when he won the
Forest City Marathon in London. After running side-by-side with
Antony Gitau, another Kenyan who trains in Hamilton, Nderitu
sprinted to the tape to take the $1,500 winner's cheque.
For those with the luxury to pick
and choose, most coaches recommend a maximum of two marathons in a
year. For Nderitu, attempting two marathons -- London and Ottawa
-- just two weeks apart is a financial necessity, thanks to his
injury and the disappointing race results that had followed. The
gamble paid off -- but not everyone is as lucky.
Last December, a few days before
flying back to Kenya for the winter, Nderitu dropped by a Hamilton
apartment shared by several Kenyan runners, including 26-year-old
David Njuguna. "He asked for money for food," Nderitu recalls.
This was by no means an unusual occurrence -- knowing first-hand
the difficulties, successful Kenyans routinely subsidize new
arrivals and those struggling with injury or poor form. Nderitu
gave Njuguna some money, and, a few days later, returned to Kenya.
When Njuguna first arrived in
Hamilton in 2003, he had every reason to be optimistic. He started
by taking an impressive third at the MDS Nordion 10K race in
Ottawa. During his first year in Hamilton, he earned thousands of
But in 2004, Njuguna struggled.
He managed a fifth-place finish in Ottawa, but ran a minute and a
half slower than the previous year. Similar results at other races
put him out of the money. At the end of the year, he decided to
stay in Canada over the winter, apparently to take computer
courses. But in the cold Canadian winter, he was unable to train
properly, making success in the 2005 season impossible.
"He went to Ottawa, and dropped
out after two kilometres because he was behind the ladies," says
Forrester, who stopped representing Njuguna as his interest in
While Njuguna the runner had been
a valuable commodity, Njuguna the ex-runner drifted off the radar.
On the morning of Dec. 31, Njuguna's roommate, Peter Ntabo, woke
to find blood on the kitchen floor, leading in a trail to
Njuguna's bedroom. The young runner had committed suicide early
"David phoned me that day,"
Forrester says. "I just got a message, I didn't actually speak to
him. 'Tim, it's David, just wishing you happy New Year, I'll speak
to you soon.'"
- - -
These days, Joseph Nderitu
doesn't have an agent. After seven years of twice-yearly trips to
Hamilton, he knows his way around, he knows the race directors,
and he can pay for his plane ticket upfront. Hamilton knows him,
too. A local massage therapist, Donald Smith, donates his time to
help keep Nderitu's wiry muscles loose. And two years ago, a local
Grade 7 teacher named John Smith (no relation) recognized Nderitu
at the airport and convinced him to speak to his class at Glen
After hearing Nderitu speak, the
class organized a fundraising race to build toilet facilities for
schools near Nderitu's village in Kenya, raising $3,125 the first
year, and $6,580 this year. Nderitu supervised the construction
while he was back in Kenya, returning with photos -- and receipts
-- to show the class. "People here need verification," he says.
"They want to know what they have done."
Nderitu has made the transition
from young runner struggling for survival to local benefactor, and
he's well aware of the distance he's travelled. The apartment
where he now rents a room, which belongs to a friend of the Grade
7 teacher, is located next to a small, two-storey strip-mall on
Hamilton's Main Street West. In 2002, Nderitu was one of 16
runners sharing an apartment above a run-down Chinese restaurant
in the same mall. "We had bunk beds and double beds, and some
slept on the floor."
It cost $800 to rent the
apartment, but each runner was paying $200 a month. "We didn't
know anybody," Nderitu says. "We were new." After that year, he
decided to organize his own trips, though he still considers
Forrester a friend.
In the years since, Nderitu has
earned a reputation among race directors around the province as a
reliable performer. His consistency in Ottawa has earned him a
reward this year: he will be paid a guaranteed fee to reach the
halfway point of the marathon in one hour and eight minutes, to
help pace those just below international class. (The top Canadians
in the race have run around 2:18 or 2:19 in the past few years;
the Olympic qualifying standard is 2:16.) After hitting the
halfway point, he is free to race as hard as his fitness -- and
Achilles -- permit, ideally finishing in the top 10 to earn more
The arrangement makes a lot of
sense, Rodrigues says: the competition will be tough this year and
Nderitu would be hard-pressed to challenge for a victory, even if
his Achilles was full-strength. And time is passing. At 32,
Nderitu may have a few seasons of good racing left, but he is
unlikely to get much faster.
- - -
As hard as the races are, leaving
his family behind for months at a time is just as difficult. In
the drawer of a small bedside table, Nderitu has a stack of
phonecards as thick as a quarter-deck of cards -- his only link to
his wife, two sons and two daughters during these months. His
eldest daughter, born during his long apprenticeship at the
training camp in Nyahururu, is already nine. "She's running good,"
he says with a smile.
Despite the hardships, Nderitu
isn't ready to leave Canada, or the running life, just yet. He is
interested in coaching and is looking into the visa requirements
to be able to pursue that when he stops racing.
But that's still in the future.
Jogging easily around the grassy perimeter of a park near his
Hamilton apartment, Nderitu focuses on the present: the marathon
in Ottawa. Despite the hot sun, he wears a full tracksuit, the
green jacket tucked tightly into the brown pants. He circles
slowly around the two-kilometre loop, allowing plenty of time for
the tender Achilles to loosen up. As joggers go by in the other
direction, shirtless in the 20-degree heat, Nderitu shakes his
head. "You must let the heat rise up in the body," he says.
After 15 minutes, a local runner
recognizes him and settles in alongside. The runner peppers
Nderitu with questions about how to train for an upcoming 5K race,
and Nderitu answers each question carefully. Patience is key, he
says. Start by running long, slow runs for several months until
the body is ready to run faster. Then add hills into the program,
and begin to increase the pace. Don't work on sprinting until the
very end, just before the race.
But the race is in three weeks,
the questioner says. Nderitu smiles, sweat streaming from his
brow. He has no shortcuts to offer. There is no secret, just
grinding hard work. "You must come and train with me in Nyahururu,"
he says finally. "You will work very, very hard, and at first you
will be far behind. But eventually you will catch up -- and when
you come back here, no one will catch you."
After 40 minutes of running,
Nderitu's muscles within the green tracksuit have warmed up, and
even the troublesome Achilles has loosened up. "Now the muscles
are ready to run," he says, and accelerates.