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 first in a weekly series that will chronicle his adventures in Kenya while getting ready for the Carlsbad 5000 on April 7.
Under the illumination of the stars I’m guided back to my hut. No need for a flashlight or even my cell phone to grant me a little light as I step over the rocks, mud and animal feces without stepping into anything that will dirty my sneakers. Coming from Boston, where light pollution is evident, I always loved the glamorous night skies of New Mexico, especially in mountain towns of Santa Fe and Taos, where the visibility is spectacular. Yet, the night sky of Iten, Kenya is incomparable to anywhere else I’ve ever trekked. I’ve been here now for over a month and on each clear night I still can’t help but marvel above and feel that the Milky Way is casting a shadow on my Mzungo-framed body. Whether the stars are leading me home or just granting me some serenity and beauty after a hard day of training, they are definitely not taken for granted.
At six in the morning, just before the sun rises, the stars are still there. Runners are congregating at the bottom of my neighborhood (known as the Lillies) getting ready for their first run of the day. Thirty minutes after sunrise the stars are closer to the ground, kicking up dust or mud if it rained the night before. These stars — Mo Farah, Augustine Choge, Asbel Kiprop, Abel Kirui, Wilson Kipsang, Sally Kipyego, Vivian Cheruiyot, Florence Kiplagat, Sharon Cherop, and of course the Masai Prince, David Rudisha — are all over the hilly dirt roads of Iten or inside Kamariny Stadium completing workouts that Mzungo mortals would view as absurd at sea level, never mind in this oxygen-thin air of 7,800 feet.
Though maybe not as bright as the Olympic champions or world-record holders, there are thousands of other stars running these same roads — literally thousands of runners you’ve never heard of who see their neighbors winning major races and buying cars, cows and farmland off their riches. Some will become so inspired they’ll thrive off another’s success, but most won’t. Not every soccer player from a Brazilian favela will become the star of a European soccer club. Not every kid shooting hoops in the projects will go on to wear a NBA championship ring. And not every Kenyan runner will go on to win a World Marathon Majors race.
My friend Amos is fueled by the inspiration of his peers. Leaving behind his wife and three adolescent children in Marakwet (just thirty kilometers away) to pursue his dream as a professional marathoner, Amos is not content. We first met when I was outside one of the little restaurants (called hotels) reading when he sat down and greeted me with great interest. He tells me how he left his family behind to focus on his own training. He can’t be asked to help with household chores or family matters and run 200 kilometers in six days every week. He’ll return home about three times a year for a couple weeks to maintain contact with his beloved family, but his ambition always brings him back to Iten ready for even harder training than before. I raise my eyebrows at him questioning his age when he tells me he is 39 years old. The hair sitting beneath his faded Puma hat is past the stage where grey hairs just start to appear and it seems he could wake up tomorrow and his head would be topped with solid, dark grey. He shrugs his shoulders back at me and responds, “around 39,” followed by laughter. Likely, Amos is a full decade older than “around” 39, which makes it even more remarkable to see him clinging on to young, sub-2:10 marathoners and striding along so swiftly and confidently. Amos says his career best marathon is 2:22 at the 2006 Kass Marathon in Eldoret. While that time may not even qualify Amos for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, it is still greatly respectable, especially on a hilly course at 7,000 feet of elevation. After the race, Amos was sprawled out on the ground near that year’s winner, James Cheboi, when a European manager walked past Amos and simply told him, “good job.”
That moment was the closest Amos has ever been to reaching his dream of leaving Kenya and competing abroad through the support of a manager or an agent. We sat there outside the local restaurant until the stars of the night sky shined vividly above us. Amos has an unquenchable hunger for knowledge about life outside of Kenya and in the United States. He asks me so many questions about American culture, forcing me to be a cultural ambassador for my country as I do my best to answer all his questions. From American history to Obama’s foreign policy to shopping malls and Hip Hop, gun control and whether or not we have ugali in the United States, the questions don’t stop. When I answered one of his questions, Amos would take a moment to register the information before coming out with a new question on a completely unrelated subject.
After explaining gun control and the Newtown, Conn., shooting Amos asks me, “You have many shopping malls with nice things, yes?”
“Yes we do indeed Amos,” I replied, although I prefer the Saturday market of Iten or the markets of Eldoret where different tribes bring in unique crafts and foods from their part of the country. From leather goods made by the Masai to avocados the size of a baby’s head being sold for less than a quarter, wandering the market is a great way to waste some of the day without wasting much of my wallet.
The thousands of runners here who are just like Amos are my inspiration. It’s easy to look at the likes of Mo Farah, Wilson Kipsang and Vivian Cheruiyot and be inspired, and I definitely am greatly inspired by all their success. However, Amos and others like him motivate me to get out the door of my hut every morning and put in the hard training. Amos’ shoes look to have more than a couple thousand miles on them. Since the start of 2013 I’ve been without the support of a sponsor, but seeing Amos continue to plug the miles away in old, beat up shoes gives me no excuse not to do the same. If I can manage to stay injury-free — which has been a grave challenge for me in the past — then I’m optimistic I will get the support I may not need to continue my career, but it certainly does help.
I hope Amos eventually reaches his dream of competing in Europe or the U.S., and I thank him for inspiring me to keep pushing and see what my limit is in distance running. Four weeks remain in my nine-week journey here, where I’ll keep gaining tremendous fitness by training with some of the world’s best in their homeland. I’m very much looking forward to proving my fitness in my first race of 2013 at the Carlsbad 5000. When I toe that starting line, I’ll think of Amos and how lucky I am to participate in such a great event — and also how very happy I am to be back down at sea level.