Elite American distance runner Chris Barnicle, a two-time All-American while competing at the University of New Mexico, is currently training in Iten, Kenya in preparation for the 2013 racing season. This article is the second in a weekly series that will chronicle his adventures in Kenya while getting ready for the Carlsbad 5000 on April 7.
Everyone should spend an extended amount of time abroad. The United States is an amazing country with many different sites, groups of people, cultures and environments. Yet, there are still elements of homogeny that can be seen throughout our culture. I encourage every one of my friends to travel outside our great nation, but everyone has excuses, most of it on the lack of money to travel. This issue is easily remedied if you don’t spend over a hundred bucks every weekend at the bar, refrain from buying the latest gadget, or simply take your girlfriend to McDonald’s for date night. Traveling abroad expands your consciousness and changes your worldview in a way watching Fox News or MSNBC all day won’t.
My first two weeks here in Kenya had me on the verge of homesickness. I missed New Mexican green chile, missed wireless internet, missed coffee, missed my girlfriend, and most of all I missed watching NFL games. Africa needs more HIV education, an end to corruption and violence in politics, famine relief and NFL Network. Being a diehard Patriots fan I need to watch every regular season game. Living here and missing playoff games was beyond hard for me. I told myself that if the Patriots made the Superbowl again this year I’d change my ticket and come home early to watch the game. Every Monday morning at 5:30 AM Kenya time, I’d call my father in Massachusetts, where it was still Sunday night. Long distance calls from Iten, Kenya to Charlestown, Massachusetts aren’t cheap. After the Pats’ big win over the Houston Texans I listened to my father turn into Bob Costas as he gave me offensive and defensive stats, injury reports, quarter by quarter analysis and overall enthusiasm. The next Monday, after a tough loss to the Ravens, I called him and knew the result of the game just by hearing him say “hello.” His tone said it all. I knew the of a disappointed old Irish Bostonian all too well. His tone told me I wasn’t coming home early to catch the Superbowl.
After my first week here I met Jake and Zane Robertson. I knew of the brothers before traveling here, since Letsrun and Flotrack had already made them “runner famous”. The two moved here seven years ago at the age of 17 and have been locals ever since. Zane currently lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, having moved there for his girlfriend, who looks like a sister of Olympic 10,000m champion and 5,000m world-record holder Tirunesh Dibaba. He is currently spending a few months here in Iten to train with his twin brother. Jake, on the other hand, continues living the spartan Kenyan lifestyle and dates the sister of 2009 world 10,000m champion Linet Masai. Befriending them really transformed my idea of traveling, running, and life.
Going on a run with Jake and Zane is entertaining for a variety of reasons. The two of them love to argue amongst one other. Whether the argument is about who trains smarter, or if Kenyan or Ethiopian girls make for better girlfriends, the arguments are hilarious. Mostly, I’ll just listen but I do enjoy egging on one of them on to turn up the intensity of the argument.
The two of them are different from other Mzungos (what Africans call white people) who train here on a temporary basis. When out running or walking in Iten, local children scream an array of phrases at you. The most common is definitely, “How are you, Mzungo?” followed by “What is your name?” or “Give me your watch.” The kids are absolutely adorable to me except when they’re demanding of my women’s Timex watch I borrowed from my mom and never gave back. Jake and Zane, however, mostly ignore the kids. Once, while running, Jake told me that training is a sacred act in which you only speak amongst your training partners who are sharing endorphins and exhaustion with you. After a few weeks in Iten, I also adopted this belief. The twins have been here long enough for some of the kids to know they do a good job at annoying them, so they’ll often make noises to make fun of the English language. I once grew worried when Jake turned around on a run to confront one of these kids. Was he going to hit him? The kid looked to be about 15, but he was amongst six of his friends. What if the kid’s friends retaliated? Would I have to jump in to aid Jake and lay the smack down on some Kenyan preteens? I certainly didn’t want to do this, and thankfully the peaceful Jake told the young man that he was being extremely rude and then surprised me when he said, “Enda shule” — Swahili for “go to school”. Having just finished my Master’s thesis in the Linguistics department at the University of New Mexico, I’m very impressed by these guys’ language skills in Swahili and Amharic, two languages that are a challenge for native English speakers to learn.
Another trait about the Robertsons that makes training with them enjoyable is seeing firsthand how living in east Africa has transformed their mentalities. They came here with modest track times and now are world-class athletes. The brothers have posted times just outside the World Championship A Standard (Jake 13:22 in the 5K, Zane 3:36 for 1500m), and it seems the move was well worth it. Zane is in the best shape of his life. He has the fitness that every runner will only see a few times in their career, when they are ready to make a huge breakthrough in racing and surpass their dreams. Despite having track times that would land them a shoe contract if they were American, not to mention an incredible life story, they are without the support of a sponsor. One day, while running with Zane, I tell him that hopefully both of us will hit the A Standard in our respective events at Stanford’s Peyton Jordan Invite later this spring, and find that support. He disagrees. The A Standard isn’t good enough for him. He wants the New Zealand national record in the 5K. Recently, he hasn’t just been finishing long runs and workouts with Kenyan medalists, he he has been dropping them — often. For both of them, coming to Kenya and training with the world’s best has given them the necessary confidence to raise their own expectations. I find training here extremely humbling at times, especially when you’re getting your ass kicked every day, but when I finish a workout with a group of guys a level ahead of me, and they’re giving me emotional support by telling me how far I’ve come along since arriving here, it’s a tremendous feeling.
When they first came here their countrymen thought they were crazy. People may think they are missing out on college. What did they miss out on that the average American college student experiences? They missed out on thinking final exams are going to either make or break their lives, striking out with sorority girls, drinking until blacking out and experimenting with recreational drugs, and for many close to a hundred thousand dollars of debt. I don’t think they missed anything too important. They’ve formed fraternities of world class talent training partners and made friendships with people here that will be cherished for their lifetimes. I look at kids our age in the United States with degrees from even some of the top schools in the country. Jake and Zane are a lot more worldly than kids I know in the US drinking shots of cheap tequila and screaming “YOLO” or “Yeah buddy!”
I remember the first time I read articles and watched video about Jake and Zane online. I thought it would be so cool to come out here for a bit and live that lifestyle. It is. I’m not homesick anymore and with just three weeks to go I’m making sure I value the rest of my short time here. There’s a lot of Mzungos here now. Ryan Hall is coming out soon and I see plenty of other Mzungos staying at Lornah Kiplagat’s place and a few more living cheaply like myself and the Robertsons in the Lillies neighborhood. My mentality has changed since being here. I’ve been humbled by all the talent around me but know that I have also definitely gained tremendous fitness and confidence. I’m looking forward to racing with Jake in his 10K debut at Peyton Jordan in late April, but first, I’m very excited to test my fitness at the Carlsbad 5000 on April 7. I know there will be a lot of Africans on that starting line, and standing there with them I won’t be a frightened Mzungo.