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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

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.

Kenyan runners with tree“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.”

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