The newly minted American citizen is vying for a spot on the Olympic Marathon team.
Janet Cherobon-Bawcom is a lucky girl. It seems as if the 33-year-old, who grew up in the Kenyan village of Kimaam, was destined not only to become a runner, but also to compete as a citizen of the United States.
A few years out of high school while living with her parents in Kenya, Cherobon-Bawcom didn’t realize she lacked purpose until she randomly encountered Kenyan 1500-meter Olympic gold medalist Peter Rono, who picked her up while she was hitchhiking. During that car ride, Rono asked her many questions and, by the end of the trip, told her she should consider running to secure a scholarship and further her education.
Cherobon-Bawcom eventually did just that—she was offered a scholarship to Harding University in Arkansas and, by the time she received her degree in health care management in 2005, had racked up eight NCAA All-American titles and three Division II national championship titles. She also married that year and she and her husband explored several locations before settling in Rome, Ga. While studying for her R.N. license at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, Cherobon-Bawcom competed in local races for fun at first, but then began winning. She started the process to become a U.S. citizen in 2006; meanwhile, she won three marathons in 2009 and, after finally receiving citizenship in the fall of 2010, wanted to start competing in U.S. championship races. That’s when lucky encounter number two happened, and a man named John Elliott helped ensure that she could compete.
Cherobon-Bawcom proved she was worthy of this privilege last fall, when she won the USA 20K, 10K and 10-mile titles. Although her marathon personal best—2:37:27—is slower than the top entrants in the trials field, Cherobon-Bawcom says she’s never trained seriously for a marathon. She’s enlisted the guidance of the legendary coach Jack Daniels, and it’s anybody’s guess as to how she’ll respond on race day. Below is her remarkable, lucky story.
Has coach Jack Daniels taught you a lot about racing in the short time you’ve worked together?
Janet Cherobon-Bawcom: Some. I’ve run probably more than 150 races; I think with that knowledge that I have, it helps me racing with different people. It doesn’t matter if the level is high or low. I have a ton of experience, from 10K to the half-marathon. When I’ve run marathons before, it’s been me. I’ve never really had a coach. My husband would give me some feedback and support me, but I’ve never trained; I’d just go run. I think with coach Daniels being on board, he’s taught me a lot in terms of patience and consistency.
Mentally, I’ve seen the people Jack Daniels has produced, and I think I can relate to them. He told me I can do better than 2:37, and my workouts have shown me that I can do better than that.
Is it hard to be coached by a coach who doesn’t live in the same city as you?
It hasn’t been hard, and it’s not because I haven’t had a coach before. When I’m doing workouts, my husband rides next to me on the bike and he has the paces from Jack and he calls them out. Jack comes to Flagstaff quite a bit and I’ve seen him a whole lot more than I thought I would. I see him every three weeks or month, and I do enjoy that more than making this person be there for me all the time. I think I’m old enough and I have enough responsibility. If I really need it that bad, it doesn’t matter if he comes and stands beside me—it’s not going to work. He’s there for me anytime I need him.
Will you be patient in the marathon?
Yes, I have to listen to Jack again. Jack told me to be patient until 20 miles. I will stay patient mentally; if other girls push the pace, I will try to go with them.
Do you have a time goal for the trials?
A marathon is a different thing—you have to see how your body responds, you have to know the conditions and everything that plays into it. As for a goal time, I have something in the back of my mind, but I don’t know. I’m going to try to run a great race and whatever that puts me in, I will be excited by.
Do you look forward to racing in a women-only race?
It’s different; I do enjoy when we have so many women that you can key off, you can run with and you can help each other. I think that helps. It’s different when you’re running an open race and you try to run with the guys, and the guys you catch are dying off. The guys who go out with you are going too fast and they’re gonna die, so it’s not a good match.
So you prefer to control the race rather than react to what other people are doing?
How are you responding to “real” marathon training?
I’ve enjoyed it more. It was a struggle. When I started in July, it was tough. Somebody handed me a paper and said I’ve gotta run such and such, and this is your fast workout. You look at it on paper and and say, ‘that’s not gonna happen.’ Then, you go out and you do it and that gives you confidence. From [Daniels’] research and knowledge, he knows me more than probably I know myself. I’ve really responded to it. My first workout was eight miles and I didn’t have any workouts for two months before. I had time off and then I ran eight miles and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to work with [Daniels].’ But then, I did the eight miles and I gained confidence. I’m more confident today than I was six months ago for sure.
I’m stronger now because I have done workouts—he has me doing workouts every fourth day and I could do more after a half-marathon—some races I’d win in 1:15 or 1:14, then I’d come back four days after the race and run even faster than that or something longer than that. That’s proven to me that I’m stronger than I was before.
Did racing in the other USA championships give you a lot of confidence?
What I’ve learned in the past four years: I’ve raced in these open races, and you go to the open races and you never see the best Americans there, so this gives me the opportunity to race the big dogs for the U.S. It’s a different racing strategy for the U.S.; it’s not like going to the open races in New York or other places. It’s different the way you race a championship and the way you race an open race. When you go to a championship, everyone is watching the back of everyone and trying to see what everyone is going to do just to get the title. When you go to an open race and somebody wants to win it, they want to run a good time. I think that’s the big difference, for sure.
I have proven that I can do both. For the USA championships in the 20K, I came from the back. I was in fifth and I kept picking off people, and the 10K, I took it from the gun and I still won, and the 10-mile I waited until the half way and took it out. I’ve proven that I can do all sorts of strategies.
What would it mean to make the Olympic team?
It would mean the world. Probably a lot of people would be in shock.
Did you watch the Olympics when you were growing up?
Growing up in Kenya, running is the sport of Kenya. We had to go watch the Olympics; it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, you would be dragged to watch it. There was probably about one TV per community, and so you had this crowd of 200 people standing around. You had to watch the marathon to the end. The first Olympics I saw was when Tegla Loroupe and Tergat competed.
When was your chance meeting with Peter Rono and can you describe what happened?
This was in 1998 and it was in Kenya. It was after high school and I wasn’t a runner. I got a ride from him and I didn’t know him at all. I was going from my home to my aunt’s house. I was just looking for a ride; I had only a quarter and so I said anybody who could take me even halfway, I would pay for the ride for half. I didn’t know who he was and didn’t care to know who he was. It was very sad, but true. He asked me what I was doing, what my name was to strike a conversation. I didn’t want a conversation; I wanted a ride. So I told him just a few yes or no answers and that was it. He asked me my name and I didn’t ask him his name. I was in the top 25 in my country for academics. He asked me why I didn’t go to college. He told me I could get a scholarship if I started training. He told me I needed to get my life together; I had been at home for two years doing nothing. He started telling me the story of going to the U.S. and going to the Olympics and I still didn’t ask his name. That’s how naïve I was with running. We parted ways and he told me what village he was from.
Six months later, I was still at home—no job and living with my family. I thought I should have listened to him. I decided that I was going to hunt for this guy. So, I knew I was looking for someone who won a gold and went to the U.S. Anyway, I was walking down the street and there he comes again, and he stopped and we talked again. I said I knew he was going to come and look for me again. That’s how I ended up in college.
Does he know you’re running in the trials?
Not quite. I haven’t really told him—he’s in New Jersey now—I haven’t talked to him this year at all. I got inducted into the NCAA Division II Hall of Fame for Track & Field last year, and he called me, so he knows a lot about my career.
How did you meet your husband and is he a runner?
He’s not a runner. He went to Kenya for missionary work and I met him at college when he came back. My mom sent a care package with him and that’s how we met. He’s an American.
How often do you go back to Kenya?
Once a year. I try to go more often. I go to see my family and not for training. I was hoping to go straight from Houston to Kenya, but I’m getting inducted into the Hall of Fame at Harding in two weeks, so I have to wait around for that.
When did you become a citizen?
There is an eligibility process to participate in the trials, but you were able to get permission. How did you manage to do that?
We tried several times but it was in August of this past year that we contacted John [Elliott, founder and owner of MarathonGuide.com], and John did everything. I just got a phone call from him telling me I’d been cleared; I didn’t do anything.
John Elliott: There’s a spot in the rule that states in exceptional cases, IAAF council can wave or reduce the wait period, which is two years. There were just so many things about Janet that are exceptional, so we put together a letter. We had to go through USATF and IAAF council meets three or four times a year and one of those times is during the world championships, so we managed to get the letter to the IAAF council while they were meeting in Daegu [South Korea], and they agreed that Janet’s case was exceptional. It was a combination of many things. The rule was really built so countries like Katar and Bahrain could be foreign athletes one day and then compete as citizens another. Janet began the process six years ago—it takes that long. Her eligibility period would have her miss the trials by three months and what a shame. There is one thing she had done when she started her process to become a citizen: One doctor had forgotten to check a box and she had to start over again. Had that not happened, she would have missed the rule altogether. And she’s just such a big factor in U.S. running, and you put all the different pieces together, they agreed that Janet should have the chance.
Why did you decide to help Janet—aside from the fact that she’s sponsored by MarathonGuide.com?
John Elliott: There’s two parts. Janet is awesome and deserves that chance. When the rule came about, I was outraged for no reason other than the USATF was following all the same rule with all of the USATF championships. If you become a citizen, all of a sudden you cannot participate in any of the championships for two years, so immediately I started to embark on getting that rule changed with USATF to give people the opportunity. I read the rule and we put together a petition for a rule change for USATF last year and it didn’t get passed at the USATF meeting last year, but it did this year. And, I knew all the people at USATF; I knew whom I could talk to about Janet, so to miss by three months seemed like such a shame. I told her at the NYC Half-Marathon that my job was to get her to the trials and ensure that she’s eligible and the rest is up to her.