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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 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.

Kenyans in groupMusuva 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.

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