from First Marathons, by Gail Kislevitz
Kenya’s world-class runners seem to be crossing the
finish line in first place at every major marathon in the United States and abroad.
Everyone wants to know what makes them so fast. Teams of sport researchers and
coaches have traveled to Kenya to get a better understanding of their practices
and techniques. They are a running phenomenon. Paul Mbugua is one of Kenya’s elite
runners, growing up and running on a farm just outside Nairobi. He was picked
up by an agent and put on the European circuit for almost ten years before coming
to America in 1994 to start the rigorous pursuit of the fame and fortune provided
by the United States marathons. In 1997 he placed third in the Las Vegas Marathon
and has his hopes set for winning one or two before going back to Kenya a very
Back in Kenya, we start running at a very early age as a
form of transportation. I had to run three miles to school, then back home for
lunch, then back to school. During recess we run some more, maybe four miles,
combined with some calisthenics. Our schools don’t have gymnasium facilities;
in fact we don’t even change into gym shorts. Some of the kids don’t even have
what you here in America would call running shoes; they run in whatever shoe they
can afford to buy and wear it every day for every other purpose. After school
I had to run home. That’s a total of sixteen miles a day just to get back and
forth to school, plus gym. And I’m lucky, I wasn’t too far from school. Some kids
in the northeastern part of our country, what we call up-country, can be at least
six miles from school. And after school we don’t go home and watch TV or hang
out in the village sipping Cokes. We have to do chores. I live on a farm, so I
have to feed the cattle and the chickens, maybe gather wood or other things. When
I was still a young boy, my father died and left me in charge. That was a big
responsibility at an early age.
In Kenya, every company, every agency, the post office, Kenya
Power and Light, even the military, has a running team that competes against each
other. Sometimes an employee is hired not based on his working skills but on his
running skills. We take it very seriously. Our sports heroes are our runners.
All the kids want to be like them when they grow up. We pick nicknames based on
our famous runners. I wanted to be Henry Rono when I was a kid. My friend wanted
to be called Kip Keino, our ’68 and ’72 Olympian gold medalist. Some kids wanted
to be Ibrahim Hussein, who won Boston consecutively in 1991 and ’92, and Cosmos
Ndeti, who followed Hussein’s career, winning Boston in 1993, ’94, and ’95. They
all came back to Kenya with fame, fortune, and a Mercedes Benz. They were our
heroes like American kids want to be Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Our elite
runners return home with a nice car, able to buy a nice house, and the neighborhood
kids say, “Hey, there’s Kip, he did well in America. I want to be like him.”
All the store owners and restaurant owners know who I am.
I like that. Kenya has so many good runners we could put together teams, send
them all over the world to compete, and win every time. The Olympic team we sent
to Atlanta in 1996 was probably not even our best runners; they were on the circuit
making money. The coaches know so much about training and how to make us the best
runners. Their knowledge is incredible. Everyone respects them because they make
us the best. Runners in Kenya do not have jobs. We run all day, we train all the
time. I don’t know how Americans can work and train at the same time and expect
to be world-class runners. Training is a full- time job.
I always wanted to be one of Kenya’s elite runners and get
discovered by an agent. When we studied geography in school and I learned about
the countries and cities around the world, I would say to myself, “Paul, someday
you will visit there if you are fast enough.” I wanted to be rich and be treated
nice by others. Some of the elite runners can make as much in one or two races
as some Kenyans make in a year. But when I started running after high school,
the money wasn’t that good. I won a lot of trophies and certificates but the money
didn’t happen until the eighties, when the Kenyans started winning the Boston
Marathon and other important world-class track events. Then we were taken seriously.
I was a national champion at the high school level, which
is very good. I needed that recognition to get an invitation to the National Championships
in Nairobi, where the agents hang out looking for the best runners. I spent time
talking to other runners who were on the circuit and learned as much as I could
about agents, prize money, appearance money, whatever I could that would help
my career. Some runners come back totally burned out without any money and I didn’t
want to become one of them. I wanted to do it smart.
In 1985 when I was twenty-three and running the Nationals,
I was approached by an agent. Most runners are members of the Kenyan Athletic
Association (K.A.A.), which is the equivalent of the U.S. Track and Field Association.
We call it the Federation for short. Agents have to register with the K.A.A.,
pay some kind of yearly fee and then can recruit runners. They show up at the
Nationals with bags of money and airline tickets. The usual agent fee is 10 percent
of winnings, but if you get appearance money it can go up to 20 percent. It’s
a risk to go with an agent unless you know his reputation. Unless there is an
opportunity to talk with other runners about their agents and begin to develop
a feeling for who is good and who isn’t, you can lose a lot of money; you can
really get burned. Agents show up offering thousands of dollars in cash, right
there on the spot. You must realize, we never see that kind of money, not in our
entire lives. They wave it under our noses and it is so close, we can touch it,
grab it, it’s ours if we just go with the agent. It is so tempting.
Personally, I was better off waiting until I was in my twenties.
I had learned a lot talking to the other runners. Some kids, especially if they
are from a very remote area of the country, really get burned. They travel hundreds
of miles to get to Nairobi and it is the first time they have seen a city. It
is very overwhelming. Then an agent offers free shoes and thousands of dollars.
Of course they will go with him. But what they don’t know is in some cases the
agent has requested appearance money from certain races and doesn’t tell them
and pockets it. That happens a lot. That’s why I am glad I waited and learned
all these things. I know of some of the younger kids who are approached by agents
who give them cash, and that very night they are on a plane to Europe and don’t
come home for months. I didn’t want to start out that way.
After watching the Nationals, an agent I knew I could trust
selected me and another runner to go to Japan to complete a team he was putting
together. The other four members of the team had already been out on the circuit
and joined us to train for a relay marathon in Japan. We worked together for three
weeks at a training camp and then flew to Japan. We received shoes, warm-ups,
free food and lodging. I will never forget that day as long as I live. It was
very exciting for me. I had been to the Nairobi airport to pick up people but
never to fly. I was so excited to be on a plane that I had to go over and touch
the plane before I entered the cabin. I was so happy. If I died that night I would
have considered myself a happy guy. I wasn’t even thinking of the money, I just
wanted to experience flying in a plane. I thought I was going to another world.
It was a night flight and we flew eight hours to Paris and spent the night there.
I couldn’t believe I was in Paris! I had a king-size bed. I never saw a king size
If I knew traveling was going to be this exciting, I would
have run faster to get onto the circuit sooner. The next day we flew thirteen
and a half hours to Japan. At the relay, we came in third place. We each received
appearance money and place running. So in the ten days that I left Kenya, I came
back with more money than I had ever had in my life.
One month later the agent sent me to Europe, where I raced
in every country, sometimes running a race a week. I stayed in Europe for two
months accumulating appearance money and prize money. Sometimes I won, sometimes
I didn’t. We were traveling with a group of ten Kenyans. Everything was paid for.
My life was race, train, sleep, eat, travel, and race again. The only sight-seeing
I got to do was if I was running through the city.
I am a runner. That is what I do. That is what gets me money
and gets me to travel all over the world. I don’t think I could be anything else.
I don’t think I could wake up in the morning and go to a job, working for someone.
Sometimes I think about that when I am running and it makes me run faster and
train harder. I don’t want to give up this life. I have already made more money
than most Kenyans.
I stayed on the European circuit from 1985 till 1993. During
those eight years I was never home more than two months at a time. I loved what
I was doing. I was sponsored by a shoe company and everything was going along
fine. In 1993 I met a Kenyan during one of the few times I was home, who lived
in America. He was looking to recruit Kenyans to go on the United States marathon
circuit. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it because the prize money in America is
less than I was making in Europe and it is also harder to obtain appearance money.
I thought about it for a long time and decided my European running was mostly
track work, and although I was fast and still winning, I was thirty-two years
old and much younger Kenyans were coming on the circuit, reducing my chances of
winning. I listened to my body and decided to go to America and try my luck at
the marathon where the field was more my age.
Eighteen of us flew to Albany, where a friend of the agent
offered us housing. I felt like I was starting a new life. The following day,
we flew to Tampa, Florida, and entered our first race. It was a 5K and we did
miserably. I finished twentieth. We were tired from the travel, which was prolonged
by some visa problems, and just didn’t perform well. Our new agent understood
this and said not to worry. From that point on, we flew all over America racing
every weekend. I covered thirty-three states in three months, with Albany as our
home base. At first I was making less money than I ever did in Europe. Some of
the guys complained that we had made a mistake by coming to America. We weren’t
getting appearance money and the competition was greater among our own people.
Kenyans were winning everywhere. We had to run harder and faster to beat our own
countrymen. I was still running shorter-distance races, mostly as trainers before
tackling the marathon. I concentrated on 5Ks, 10Ks, and 15Ks. One weekend I won
a 5K and the next morning won a 10K in 29:10. I knew it was time to leave the
short distance races behind and let the younger guys have them.
After being in Albany for a while, I made another big decision
in my life and split from my agent. They are getting too tough to deal with. They
take more money than they give to the runners and the race directors are getting
tired of their arrogant attitude. Besides, I had built a decent reputation for
myself and was a familiar name with the race directors. I really didn’t need an
agent to book races anymore. Now when I see a race I want to enter, I send my
résumé and get an invitation with travel and accommodations paid for. I always
ask for appearance money and in most cases I get it. Since I have been handling
my own entries, I have found that most race directors would rather deal with me
on a one-to-one basis than go through an agent. In fact they seem almost relieved
that I don’t have one. I think the Kenyan factor is beginning to work against
agents, as some are getting very greedy and demanding.
I knew it was time to try the marathon, despite that people
told me it would be hard, that I would die at twenty miles. It scared me. Two
hours is too long. I did not want to die. I decided when I got to twenty miles
I’d just close my eyes and hope for the best. This was May of 1995 and I picked
the very next marathon I could get to, which was in Canada. I didn’t get appearance
money but they paid my travel, hotel, and food. There were three other Kenyans
running, members of my European team. I didn’t get any special marathon coaching,
which was a mistake on my part. Not knowing any better, I ran in my racing flats,
which offered no cushioning. It was not a good race for me: finishing in eighth
place with 2:19. And I did die at twenty miles. I was tired and thought, “I will
never do this again. This is crazy. Even Kenyans get tired after running that
I returned to Kenya and signed up to train with a highly
ranked marathon coach. I trained only for the marathon, concentrating on distance.
One day was dedicated to a long run, the next day was hill work, then a day doing
track work, then interval work. Then the coach said, “Go out for an hour, turn
around, and come back.” He knows that as far as I run out, I have to come back
even if I am tired. No one comes around to pick me up. The coach is very smart.
When I returned to the states I ran the Walt Disney World
Marathon in January of 1996 and came in fourth with a time of 2:17. Then came
Cleveland in May, which I finished in 2:14 and won a very big cash prize. My efforts
were starting to pay off. I was pacing myself better and not starting out too
fast. In February of 1997 I ran the Las Vegas Marathon and placed third with a
time of 2:16. I am sure I could have done better but my feet were swollen from
the flight the night before and my shoes didn’t fit properly.
My plan is to run three marathons a year and in five years
when I become a master I will even be better and make more money. Right now I
spend about two months back in Kenya training. The training camps are very focused,
very disciplined. It’s like being in the army. We live there anywhere from three
weeks to two months, training as a team. We have a different training routine
for every type of race. Don’t forget, running is what we are used to doing every
day just to get around, so the camps take running to a much higher level, something
even we are not accustomed to. The team concept is very important to us. I think
it is the number one difference that makes us better than other countries. We
associate only with runners. And once there, you do not leave. There are no distractions
from daily life such as phone calls, kids, spouses, whatever. In other words,
there are no excuses. When you wake up in the morning, and maybe you don’t feel
like running, you have to. Your team is making you. You cannot hide. The team
gives you the support to get through the training. We rely on each other. It doesn’t
matter if you are married or anything. You still go the camps. And most of the
elite runners are married because they want a wife to stay home and protect their
money. Most of them want to build big homes and it can’t get built unless someone
is there to supervise. One win, which could be as much as twenty-thousand dollars,
can get you a very, very big house. Men who are not married usually end up spending
their money foolishly, but a good wife will take care of it while they are running
marathons back in the States. We are very desirable husbands. Women wait at the
airport for us when we come home to train. I could get married anytime I want.
Women have their way of letting us know they want to marry us. They have their
own devices. Our diet is not much different from what you eat here in the States,
but we eat more red meat. And we never worry about getting fat. That’s all I hear
in the States. Everyone is worried about getting fat. They think so much about
their weight. Just run like we do and you can eat whatever you want and never
get fat. I would love to bring my mother over to America for a visit. I told her
in the year 2000 I will take her to the top of the Empire State Building and put
New York City at her feet. I think she will like that.
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