By Charles Bethea
Certain nationalities and certain sports simply work together. Such is the way with Kenyans and distance running.
Dr. Jon Woo, 41, has his theories why—which boil down to the fact that they train harder, to the point “of being very uncomfortable,” he says. “But it’s enough to simply accept that they are the best. And they are here.”
Since 2002, 20 runners from around the world have paid nearly $1,000 to train for a week in the high, dry air of Santa Fe, at the beginning of each August, at Dr. Woo’s high-altitude running school, Camp Marafiki (marafiki means “friendship,” in Swahili).
The runners train with Woo’s tenants, described on the camp’s Web site as the “international stars of roadracing.” “International” is effectively shorthand for “Kenyan”—or East African, more broadly—the region that has dominated professional road racing over the past two decades.
The Kenyan coaches include Mbarak Hussein, 43, a two-time USA marathon champion and former New Mexico resident, who currently coaches the United Arab Emirates National Team in Abu Dhabi.
Hussein’s personal marathon record, set in Seoul in 2004, is 2:08:10, less than two minutes off the top time run by an American and faster than the best times of the three men who ran the 26.2-mile race for the US in Athens that year.
In fact, before Ryan Hall set his celebrated 2:06:17 in London in 2008, Hussein—who has lived in the United States since running his first Honolulu marathon in 1986, but wasn’t naturalized until 2005—had the best marathon time ever run by an American citizen.
A pious, blond Everyman with a face made for Nike commercials, Hall, 26, is possibly the best young marathoner the US has ever produced and, as such, he runs in a well-deserved spotlight. Yet foreign-born US residents and citizens like Hussein run a few strides behind him in relative obscurity: Hall trains in California’s San Bernardino mountains, while an increasing number of his Kenyan competitors, following in Hussein’s footsteps, run in the distant Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico, their shadows stretching out and contracting in the hidden arroyos and hills of a state that in some ways reminds them—with its muted plains and unforgiving brush—of home.
A family-practice and sports-medicine doctor based in Seattle who has been a Santa Fe homeowner since 2002, a landlord to world-class Kenyan marathoners since 2004 and a self-described “middling” marathoner (hardly, at 2:35-2:40) for more than a decade, Woo intends to make Santa Fe the running capital of the United States, “a better Boulder,” as he says.
And part-time trainers Jonathan Ndambuki, 31, Andrew Musuva, 38, Simon Sawe, 35, and Abebe Yimer, 28, are the heart and lungs of this plan.
“Whoever is ready can live in this house,” Musuva says. “Not just Kenyans.”
But, for now, the place is justifiably referred to, in running circles, as “Camp Kenya.” Two of Woo’s world-class tenants, who grew up running without shoes or grand ambitions, will likely stay in America when they stop competing, and two will likely return to Kenya. Two are on the downward slopes of their careers, while one has just crested and another is still a ways from his peak. One could compete in the 2012 US Olympics in London. Three will work at Woo’s camp this summer.
For all of these men, running is a job. It’s an interesting job, but a job nonetheless. And they run on along the streets and trails of Santa Fe like their lives depend on it—because they do.
In addition to learning the “running secrets” of Kenyans, spending an evening tailgating at the Santa Fe Opera and visiting various local pueblos, Woo’s camp offers the unique opportunity, its Web site states, to “sample a Kenyan meal!”
An ambitious eater, if not long-distance runner, I enjoyed such a meal at Woo’s house on the southwest side of Santa Fe in early December, when marathon season winds down and the international stars of road racing begin to hibernate.
The meal consisted of chapati, a flat, pancake-like bread reserved for special occasions, a Kenyan beef stew, barbecued chicken legs, cabbage, collard greens, white rice, a corn meal dish called ugali and a sweet orange drink apparently from Albertsons. We ate on low-slung couches in the shadows of some 60 trophies and plaques: first place at San Diego’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, second place at Albuquerque’s Duke City, first at Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, in addition to victories at lesser-known races, like Gum Tree, Great Falls and Trigon Bay. A small plaque above the television noted second place at Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race, a 10K I grew up watching every Fourth of July. The trophies covered almost every flat surface in the otherwise Spartan downstairs. In addition to the hardware, there were thin running caps and gloves tossed about.
“I don’t understand the ones who run with no shirt in summer, or gloves in winter” Ndambuki told me. “It’s cold here.” American movies and Kenyan compact discs filled remaining surface space.
While the BBC buzzed on an old, grainy JVC monitor in the living room of this house where Ndambuki, Musuva and Sawe have lived and trained since 2004, we talked and ate like much larger men. Woo has always been curious about the eating habits of top marathoners, especially those from East Africa, who tend to eat neither great quantities nor conventionally healthy foods: “I once saw Andrew go into a convenience store after a race and come out with a bag of sugary Danishes and a big orange soda,” Woo says. “But who am I to tell a champion how to eat? They won’t listen anyway.”
Woo, who lives in Seattle where he’s a faculty member at the University of Washington’s medical school, acts, essentially, as the Kenyans’ benefactor: They live rent free, so long as they train at his camp. “Fortunately,” Woo says, “they love teaching.”
Ndambuki and Musuva, who’ve known each other since meeting in Kenya, back in 1993, when Ndambuki was in high school, were the first Kenyans to move to Santa Fe year-round to train and the first to become Marafiki faculty. Consequently, they’ve become Santa Fe’s ex-pat running core, the veteran marathoners who know the best routes, the right people and the important little things, like where you can buy decent pre-made chai (the Santa Fe Baking Company, “if you add three packets of sugar,” Musuva says) when you absolutely must.
Musuva, 38, grew up “lucky” in a three-room brick home in Mitaboni-Machakos, Kenya, an hour east of Nairobi. He is the son of a school master and the second oldest of seven children who still live in Kenya and work in law enforcement, textile manufacturing and trucking. “I am the only runner, the only one who made pain my friend,” he says, “and the only to come to America.” He first came to the US in 1994, when he was 24 years old. He spent time in Albany, NY, before moving to Farmington, NM in 1997 to join a group of 10 or so Kenyans already there. In 2004, as runners left Farmington, he moved into Woo’s house.
Approaching 40, Musuva stands at 5’8,’’ a slight 135 pounds and has the chatty enthusiasm of a younger man. Ndambuki, 31, an average-sized top marathoner at 5’6,” has a boyish giggle and gregariousness of his own—“I like to be with people,” he often says, but is initially the quieter of the two. He grew up more modestly, and piously, as the son of farmers who lived in a single-room dwelling made mostly of mud. Many Kenyan runners—and high-level runners in general, including Hall—are devout Christians. “Jonathan likes the Bible very much,” Musuva says of his friend, who attends Santa Fe’s Grace Community Church. “But I think it contradicts itself sometimes.” Running great distances at high speeds would seem to require a certain kind of faith, and Musuva’s is apparently personal.
His grandfather brewed and drank a great deal of potent Kenyan beer, leading Musuva to abstain from alcohol. But he admits he is “addicted to chai,” which he makes with a great deal of sugar—dumped straight from the package—and an equally generous amount of vitamin D milk. “This,” he says, “is my only drug.”
Marc Esposito, a 31-year-old director of physical therapy at Santa Fe’s Therapy Solutions, LCC and amateur marathoner, has grown close to the Kenyans, especially Ndambuki, since beginning to help out at Camp Marafiki in 2007. Esposito is convinced the timing and quantity of the Kenyans’ glucose consumption plays a significant role in their running success, beyond the particularly lean physiques, large lung capacities and concentrations of slow twitch muscle fibers that genetics and training may have bestowed. “I really think there’s something to it,” he says. “They ingest an incredible amount of sugar every day.”
After our feast, which put me in no condition to run, we drank more tea and watched the music videos of Ken Wambua Wa-Maria—sort of Kenya’s Bob Marley. As Wa-Maria danced and sang his way around Kenya’s small towns, followed by a shaky video camera capturing the spontaneous, trance-like dance parties he aroused, Musuva and Ndambuki looked on intently, as if seeing it for the first—not 40th—time. “He’s a music star, and university graduate,” Musuva says. “And he’s from our tribe. This means very much.”
Riding a mountain bike behind Ndambuki and Musuva as they run just north of Pojoaque one day in late November when the ground is still free of snow, I watch Musuva spot a rabbit in the brush and briefly give chase. “In Kenya, I once chased rabbit for 30 minutes. Thirty minutes before I caught it!” he tells me. “Here, people do not hunt like this, with hands and rocks.” Santa Feans do, however, hunt for used stuff.
When Musuva returns home to Kenya, he brings some of the trophies, clothes and running shoes he has accumulated through races and sponsorships, as well as used movies he has purchased at yard sales.
“Everyone I know shows up at my house the first week I’m back. I give them shoes until they are gone.” He also brings intangible things, like word of snow and green chile and a place called Sam’s Club.
Musuva and Ndambuki are both from the Kikamba tribe, a subset of the Bantu ethnic group in eastern Kenya. And both are well known in the region, if not quite as celebrated as the rare Kenyan millionaire, Wa-Maria. Like many Akamba, both grew up around farming, and both intend to return to an agrarian life in Kenya when they stop running. Musuva proudly maintains an 8-by-12-foot collard green plot in his Santa Fe backyard, so he won’t lose touch with the earth. Ndambuki, for his part, also hopes to own a series of apartment complexes. The topic of retirement stirs his entrepreneurial ambitions, while it leaves Musuva more wistful. “My head,” Musuva says, “has never left Kenya.”
Woo attended Ndambuki’s wedding in Kenya in 2000 and was met at the airport by Musuva. The runner quickly got him out of a jam: “These guards were pointing their guns at me and searching my bags, which had lots of running shoes in them. Then Andrew shows up, and he’s like, ‘Relax, he’s an athlete,’ and they immediately let me go. Athletes there have great authority.” And athletics—running and soccer, in particular—are seen as a viable means of making a relative fortune. Upon arriving at Ndambuki’s three-room concrete home built at the edge of town, Jonathan pointed to an 8-by-12 mud hut, with a dirt floor and a thatch roof, close by. “That is where I used to live, before I ran.”
On the same trip, Woo visited Musuva’s four-room home. Nearby is the family store, which Musuva will return to tend, along with a plot of earth. In huge lettering, its façade says, “Twin Cities.” Like a Boston Marathon champion from a neighboring town, Musuva is known by the name of his greatest running feat: a three-peat at Minneapolis’ Twin Cities Marathon, the only one ever accomplished. In this corner of Kenya, a surprising number of local storefronts have American city names, to go with an American President of their own.
Musuva has a Barack Obama poster— Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope image—in his small Santa Fe bedroom. “I really liked the debates. Really liked,” Ndambuki says. Musuva admits they “made a lot of noise” when Obama won. Both know the impact Obama’s victory had on the people of Kenya. “They stayed up all night to see the results,” Musuva told me while sipping tea from a NASCAR mug. “And then they celebrated for three days! My friends in Kenya ask me why I don’t go to Chicago to celebrate. They don’t understand how far is Chicago from Santa Fe.” The distance from Kenya to the United States, however, is quite clear to all who have made, or attempted to make, the journey.
By Hussein and Woo’s estimation, more high-level Kenyan marathoners train in New Mexico than any other US state—most now reside in Albuquerque, Pojoaque or Santa Fe. The combination of the state’s high elevation, mild climate and Hussein’s influence here led to this fact. “You can train all year round,” Hussein says. “There are other great places, like Boulder, Flagstaff or Mammoth Lakes, but the winters in these areas are extreme. Guys from these places come to Albuquerque during winter. My brother, Ibrahim, was one of the first successful runners from Albuquerque. This created awareness from East African runners.”
There was Peter Koech, world record holder and Olympic silver medalist in the 3,000-meter steeple chase, Yobes Ondieki, the world record holder in the 10,000 meters, and then came a big wave of runners in the early ’90s. “We never had many Ethiopians at the beginning,” Hussein says, “since they would prefer to race and head back home. But that has changed the last couple of years. So Albuquerque became one of the places with the highest concentration of East African runners.”
One of these Ethiopians is Abebe Yimer, who was in Las Vegas at the time of my meal at Woo’s home, competing in the city’s annual marathon, which he won. Yimer spent time residing in Nevada, but has since moved to Santa Fe where he lives with his American girlfriend. Young and talented (with a personal record of 2:13:53), Yimer has a shot at making the 2012 US team, if his citizenship, which can take five to seven years to process, comes through in time. Simon Sawe, who, along with Hussein, was one of five Americans on the 2007 US world championship team that competed in Osaka, Japan, is also a candidate for the team. At 35, he has more experience and has run against Ryan Hall three times, losing narrowly once. A very tall runner at close to 6’2,” whose best time is 2:13:33, Sawe is probably the most accomplished marathoner training in Santa Fe, but Osaka, his greatest stage, “came at the wrong time,” and he bowed out due to injury. “It might have been my best chance in my prime,” he says. In 2012, he’ll be 38 in a sport where runners tend to peak in their early to mid-30s.
Most of Kenya’s successful runners are Kalenjins, who win as much as 40 percent of international distance races. Sawe was born into this ethnic group, 300 miles west of Nairobi in the Great Rift Valley, on the Ugandan border, in a town called Eudoret. He moved to the states in 1994 to go to school at Lubbock Christian University in Texas, which has a strong running program thanks, in part, to a Kenyan tradition there.
Woo has come a distance himself, from a rough neighborhood near Compton, Calif., to the upper echelons of marathon running and the medical profession. In 1998, three years out of medical school, he came to Shiprock, NM to work as a medical officer for the Northern Navajo Medical Center. “My ulterior motive,” he says, “was to learn how to run better.” Woo was out training one day when he came upon an unlikely sight: “I was at the track, and I looked up on the horizon, and I saw three or four African runners running along the plateau. I got back to the center and ran into a nurse and said, ‘You won’t believe what I just saw. It must have been a mirage, but I thought I saw African runners.’ She said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a group of them that run at the college.’”
At Diné College, he befriended Coach Bill Silverberg, who was one of the first college running coaches to actively recruit Kenyan runners. “Silverberg had been close to the Native American population for a long time, and one of his hopes in Shiprock was to help develop the next Billy Mills,” Woo says. Silverberg had also known a lot of the great Kenyan runners, and his feeling, according to Woo, was that these were hardworking athletes and wonderful students. “He said that if he could mesh them with the Navajo, who have a great running tradition in their own right,” Woo says, “maybe one or two of them would be inspired to take it to the next level.”
This was the impetus for Marafiki: “Maybe we can bring in other folks who aren’t just in Shiprock and let them train with Kenyans.” Silverberg died of an aneurism in 2001, his vision unfulfilled, but Woo took up the cause and moved shop to Santa Fe.
In 1988, Kenya’s Ibrahim Hussein—the famous older brother of Mbarak Hussein—became the first African to win the Boston Marathon, the oldest and one of the five most prestigious marathons in the world, alongside New York, Chicago, London and Berlin. In the past 20 years, all but two of Boston’s male winners have been Africans, and all but two of those have been from Kenya. The current world record, 2:03:59, is held by an Ethiopian, Haile Gebrselassie, who set it in Berlin in September of last year (that’s a 4:44 mile average). Nonetheless, 68 of the world’s top 100 runners in 2007 were Kenyan.
The marathon fixation in the country is largely a result of economics: The male and female winners of Boston each received $150,000 in 2008, a fortune in Kenya where the average per capita income was approximately $680 in 2007. Of course, the prize money drops precipitously once you step off the podium: Fifth place at Boston got $15,000 last year; 15th place got $1,500.
At the lesser-known marathons that Ndambuki, Musuva and the rest of the Kenyans run throughout the year to make their living, the finishers who are in the money—usually the top five—get far less. Musuva made $500 at a marathon in Seattle early last year for finishing third in a pack that all broke the course record. Ndambuki made a little more than that when he finished 10th at the New York Marathon in 1998.
Musuva and Ndambuki will make $10,000 to $12,000 this year, nearly half of which will go home to their wives and children in Kenya. “In Kenya, we live well off of $100 per month,” Musuva tells me. “My wife does not work.”
In good years, Hussein has made six figures, and he has been able to pull in more than a half million dollars in prize and appearance money (which well-known runners are sometimes offered to boost the profile of a race) during his career. But he is one of just a few.
Four days after my meal with the runners, Musuva would run a marathon in Costa Rica that would net a few hundred dollars and a lot of grief. “Where, exactly?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he responds before leaving. “They just called me last week. So I go.” It would turn out to be the most poorly planned and difficult race of his life—the course wasn’t marked, and runners were repeatedly forced to stop and wait for arguing officials to determine the right direction, officials who then repeatedly sent them across lanes of dangerous speeding traffic. “I don’t think I will go to another marathon like that,” he says afterward. “That one was supposed to be easy win.”
At that moment, Simon Sawe, 35, was driving 1,000 miles from Santa Fe to Memphis, Tenn., for a race. He would finish fifth—good for a few hundred dollars—turn around and drive back. Ndambuki would soon go to a major race in Sacramento, alongside Esposito, in which he finished a rather disappointing seventh, out of the money. These men each tend to run five or six marathons a year, depending on sponsorship opportunities and money in the bank. Fewer, if they perform well. As was the case for most Americans, 2008 wasn’t a particularly good fiscal year for Camp Kenya.
As such, they’re not wasting any time in 2009. At the moment, Yimer plans to run PF Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona marathon on Jan. 18. Simon and Andrew both plan to run the smaller Mississippi Blues Marathon on Jan. 3, in Jackson, Miss. It won’t be the first time the housemates compete for their bread, nor, in all likelihood, the last. Musuva says there’s no love lost, that they only race against themselves, not each other. Racing, for him, is 70 percent mental, and he must keep a clear head. But tension, of some kind, can be felt in the house.
“Here, I do not leave the house very much,” Musuva says. Except, of course, to run. On an average summer day, the guys get up at 5:30 am, drink a cup of tea—except for Musuva, who must run on an empty stomach or else he cramps—and head out for a run around 6 am that generally takes less than two hours. In the winter, they do the same thing, but rise around 8 am, once it has warmed up a bit. Back at the house, they eat and then nap. Maybe they’ll run in the afternoon, maybe not. Bedtime is typically no later than 9 pm. They get up the next day and repeat.
Ndambuki runs six days a week, taking off Sundays for church. Musuva and Sawe run every day. Musuva and Ndambuki log approximately 120 miles a week, while Sawe runs perhaps 90. In the meantime, they squeeze in a few visits to the Santa Fe library to write home and read the Nairobi Times. “They train intensely and they rest intensely,” Woo says.
The day after our chapati feast, a friend and I take Ndambuki and Musuva to see the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. While Ndambuki has trouble sitting down for the 90 minutes required of most films, Musuva is a relative cinephile who can sit motionless in front of a screen for entire afternoons. He has a particular interest in the early films of Clint Eastwood and the later films of Vin Diesel. “I like to watch the violent film,” he tells me moments after saying grace.
Like just about every adult male the world over, he and Ndambuki appreciate Bond. Still, this is only the second movie Musuva has ever seen in a theater—the first was The Wedding Singer, back in Farmington—and questions arise: Is there assigned seating? Are these movies on DVD yet? Are theaters always empty at 2:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday? Ndambuki drinks bottled water, and Musuva, the chai addict, has a coke.
Three days later, Musuva will finish 3rd at the Costa Rican marathon, and Ndambuki will finish 7th at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, a race he won in 2006. (Musuva, more fatigued after this race than any he has ever run, will not even turn on the TV before passing out. “I needed help putting on my clothes the next day,” he says. “I could not move.”) As for Quantum of Solace, the Kenyans pretty much agree with the critics: entertaining but not quite as good as the last one.
In mid-December, after 48 consecutive hours of snow, I drive across town to see how the guys are faring. They’ve been inside all day, drinking chai, watching movies, marveling at the distance they’ve traveled here to the other side of the world. There would be no training, only the beginnings of nostalgia. “I’ll miss the snow in Santa Fe,” Musuva says, laughing, “because I’ll be talking about it to everyone in Kenya every December. I’ll know what the people here are going through.” SFR