Lessons in passion and perseverance on the running trailby kenya on Jun. 26, 2011, under Life
June 23, 2011
Dispatch from Kenya
By Fred Roberts, St. Gregory Dean of Students
(Written June 10, soon after arriving in Kenya)
I was 30 minutes into my run on a route I call the “long loop backwards.’’ This is more challenging than just the “long loop’’ because doing it backwards involves a mile and a half up-hill section that is a killer. At the top is a primary school, and on any weekday there are dozens of children making their way to school. Approaching the first group a few join me and I pick up the pace a bit, encouraging them along. They soon slow and I come to another group, and the same pattern ensues. Before I know it I am being pushed to run as hard as I can to keep up with the more aggressive young runners. Towards the top when a fresh runner takes over, I no longer have the wind in me to say natia, which is hello in Kikuyu, as I push myself to the top.
Today’s run was a different. As I approached the base of the hill I was joined by another runner moving at a brisk pace. It was my long-time friend Charles Wachira Maina. He had recently returned from Jakarta where he ran a 10-kilometer race and came in third. He is a professional runner and lives just past Manyatta Primary School, where Collin Maguire and Lauren Stern are teaching, about a mile up the road from Batian’s View.
I was surprised to see him, but then again, not too surprised as these are the roads he trains on when he is not running internationally. We exchanged greetings and updated each other on our recent races and our current training. I had to push my pace considerably to keep up with him, and I knew that he had to slow down considerably to match my effort. I was working hard but it was great to have a partner on this stretch of the run.
Wachira went to Manyatta Primary School and then to Naro Moru Boys School for secondary school. He then went to Kenya Polytechnic School and earned a degree in accounting. It was there he began running seriously and realized he was pretty good at it. But not good enough to leave school or not pursue a job after graduating.
He found a job at a tea factory in Karicho, in western Kenya. He worked in the accounting department and also monitored machinery. There he hooked up with a group of runners being trained by Mike Kosher, one of the better coaches in Kenya. In 2006, after two years with the factory and training under Mike’s supervision, he took a chance on running professionally. He had been successful in many local road races and had placed just short of making Kenya’s national cross-country team. Keep in mind that for every Kenyan we see breaking the tape at the New York Marathon or another renowned race, there are 50 or so others who are only a minute or two away from filling the same position. Wachira is one of those runners.
After our run we talked more about his decision to become a professional runner. He had the support of his family, which is huge here. Often if a family member earns a degree and has a steady job, much of one’s income goes back to the family. In Wachira’s case, considering that his father worked a small family farm to provide for his family, the pressure for Wachira to continue his job must have been significant. With the blessings of his father Wachira pursued his passion, which was now to be his employment.
His first two years were difficult. He moved to Ngong, outside of Nairobi, a hotbed for up and coming runners, as well as Olympic caliber runners. He moved into a house shared by other runners and trained without a coach. A few road races later he got the attention of an international manager who wanted him to run in Europe as a “rabbit.’’ A rabbit is the runner who pushes the pace early in a race so the elite runners have someone to go after. The rabbit is not expected to win, but rather to drop out three quarters into the race to that the elite runners can battle it out to the finish.
Wachira’s first assignments were to push the best runners in the marathon, often leading the pack to mile 18 until he tired and was passed by the better runners. After many races as the ‘rabbit’ he realized that his forte might be in the shorter distances, the 10 km races or half marathons. He still enters races as a ‘rabbit’ as this brings assured compensation, but he also runs the shorter races, and runs them to win. He currently is the defending winner in three races in Germany and has won others in Jakarta, the Netherlands and Singapore.
Wachira’s goal, however, is to become a premier marathoner. He has recorded times of 2:14 twice and several more below the 2:20 mark. In the U.S., this would put him near the top, but in Kenya he is in a large crowd and he must get under 2:10 to make a name for himself. He is only 28, just now approaching the prime age of most elite marathoners, and he is biding his time.
To the ordinary runner, Wachira puts in an insane number of miles per week. When training for a race he will amass 140 to 170, following a schedule that is equally intense. For instance, after our nine-mile run he was going home, having some chai and ugali, and resting. Just before lunch he was going out for another six miles at a steady 6:30 per mile pace. After lunch he would take a nap and do a few small jobs around the family farm. At 5:30 he goes out for another six miles, this time at an easy pace to loosen up before an hour of stretching and light weight work. He does this three days a week. One day is his long run, which is normally 25 miles or so. Another two days are committed to speed work, and one day is for rest.
When I tell him how impressed I am with his work ethic, he replies that what I am doing is equally impressive, holding a job, having a family and other responsibilities, and still managing to run daily. Besides, he adds, “this is my job and to do my best. I must work hard, just as you do with your job.’’ I feel much better when considering the 60 to 70 miles I put in each week when gearing up for an important race.
Wachira may be one of Kenya’s next Olympic hopefuls, but he is as humble as can be. During our runs he often slows down when approaching a neighbor or an acquaintance to exchange greetings. He isn’t pretentious and talks about other Kenyans who have been wildly successful and have squandered their millions of prize money on vehicles and fancy homes. With his first paycheck from a race in Germany he purchased his parents a posho mill, used to grind corn into flour, as well as three milk cows. The runners he admires most are those who give back to the Kenyan community, such as Paul Tergat who is a spokesperson for Unicef, or Catherine Nderaba who has established several running camps for women.
Wachira estimates his average “salary’’ at about $20,000, an incredible amount of money in a country where the per capita income is barely $600. From his gross earnings deductions are made for his agent, taxes, travel, living expenses in Kenya and abroad and a long list of other items. In the end Wachira has about half of that which he uses to help support his family and for a few projects of his own. One of those is a small shop he opened three years ago in Nairobi. His next project is to build a modest apartment complex. While Wachira has hopes of making the big time with his running, he is leaving nothing to chance. The small shop and apartment building will bring him a steady income for many years to come whether he becomes an elite level runner or not.
I have another six weeks in Kenya and will be running with Wachira twice a week, the days he does his longer, but much slower, runs. He then goes to Europe in late August to run roughly a dozen races in two months. I also have a race in August, an ultra marathon in Colorado, and if I can keep with my own training and runs with Wachira, I will be more than ready. In fact, I may be in the best shape ever for an ultra. Wachira has taught me many valuable lessons in my struggle to become a stronger runner. The lessons that stick with me, however, have more to do with passion, perseverance, character, and generosity; lessons I will have with me long after crossing any finish line.