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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

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.”

Kenyan Runners on the plainOne 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.

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