Saturday, March 13

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Kenyans running

It may have taken eight months,but I finally saw Kenyans running competitively. I have already written on this, but it bears repeating. Kenyans in Kenya don't run. Send them to Beijing or Berlin or Spokane on Bloomsday, and they'll run all over the place and not stop until someone gives them a medal. Not in the Rift Valley, though.

Coming in to Nakuru, I was expecting marathons every weekend. I was expecting kids to be cutting school to log more a few more kilometers on the backroads. I was expecting world-class runners to be absolute superstars, with fanatics fighting over their tossed water station cups. Nope. I had to wait until Friday for one of our oldest boys to advance to the provincial tournament in cross-country to see a race of any distance.

I've been in Kenya long enough that the general level of poverty shouldn't surprise me anymore, but it does. Race organizers handwrote the runners' numbers and stapled them to their shirts. Shirts, mind you. Forget school jerseys,they ran in whatever they had. I saw a girl in capris. I saw another boy in jean capris. Our boy ran in a knock-off English national team jersey.

Forget running spikes, too. If you had sneakers of any type, you were in the minority. Not that it seemed to hamper them much. None of the real top four finishing girls wore shoes. Third and fourth even ran in skirts.

The poverty wasn't confined to the runners either. It extended just as well to the organizers. The course was nothing like the landscaped golf courses that I ran in high school. It was three laps around the hosting school's others sports fields for the girls, four laps for the boys. The race rabbit was a motorcycle, and I'm pretty sure the timers all used their cell phones.

These things are understandable, even acceptable. I've been spoiled by team jerseys and water stations and running shoes and giant finishing clocks and timing chips and participation T-shirts at minor meets at the beginning of the cross country season and community-organized 5K's throughout America, but these things are hardly necessary to enjoy a good race.

Absolutely intolerable, on the other hand, was the outright corruption. On the second lap of the girls' race, when the motorcycle stopped rabbiting, the top four girls cut across the jag down and back between the field hockey and rugby fields meant to fill out the distance, and no effort was made to correct them. In all honesty, these girls had already built up such a lead that they could have been turned back after going two hundred meters off course, and they still would have won with ease. Instead, they were allowed to go on their merry way and were immediately disqualified at the finish. The fifth and sixth girls, coming in a good thirty, forty seconds later and students of one of the organizing coaches, advanced to the national race.

I can see why Kenyans wait to run until they get out of Kenya.

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