About Blog Articles Contact

Any race, every weekend: There is no short cut. No secret to victory. Only grinding hard work.
The Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Page: B4
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 piled haphazardly.

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 admits.

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 for error.

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 three.

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," he explained.

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 it.

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 infinitum.

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 mediocre Kenyans."

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 dollars.

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 running waned.

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 that morning.

"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 Brae school.

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 prize money.

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.