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Jonathan Ndambuki is one of many East African runners who now call New Mexico home. Photos by Ryan Heffernan.

Camp Kenya

The world’s best distance runners are from East Africa—but Santa Fe is where they train

January 7, 2009, 12:00 am

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.

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