Here’s one difference between an American road race and one held in Kenya: In America, no elite runner would be miles from the starting line seven minutes before the scheduled start time. It’s a little bit before 9 a.m., and I’m in the back seat of a Land Rover that’s en route to a 10K race in the small town of Kaptagat. The young Kenyan woman sitting next to me is worried that she’s going to miss the race, but her manager (and our driver) Pieter Langerhorst assures her that everything will start on Kenyan time—meaning some time before noon.
Langerhorst, who started off as an agent in his native Netherlands, supports five up-and-coming runners with his wife, Lornah Kiplagat, the world-record holder at 10 miles. Today’s race is an important stepping stone for the woman in the back seat, but she’ll have to wait for another day. As we pull up to the start line, the 100 or so runners in today’s race take off. She starts peeling off her sweats and pleads with Langerhorst to let her out. “Too bad,” he says. “Next time.”
Unlike in American races, the road isn’t closed to other traffic. Cars tear down the asphalt at ridiculous speed. Our Land Rover is one of five vehicles full of spectators driving around the runners. A few people along the course take a break from harvesting maize to have a look, but otherwise we’re the runners’ only audience.
Today’s race is free. In part, that’s because most of the runners can’t afford even a token entry fee. Mostly, it’s because Global Sports Management, a runners’ agency, is putting on the race in the hope of discovering some unknown talent. At a similar event in 2001, Global unearthed Robert Cheboror, who came within 90 seconds of the world record when he won last fall’s Amsterdam Marathon.
As we reach the front of the race, we’re pleasantly surprised to see Jason Mbute leading. The day before, I sat next to Mbute for three hours while Langerhorst tried to convince him that he had the talent to be a world-class marathoner. With a best half-marathon time of 1:01, Mbute is faster than all but a few Americans. The depth of talent in Kenya is such that until Mbute places well in an international marathon, he’ll mostly be running races like this one. Today’s prize is a trip to a half marathon in the Netherlands. The winner gets no money.
Twenty minutes into the race, Mbute’s once-sizable lead is shrinking with every stride. “Don’t look. Just run!” Langerhorst urges. One member of the chase pack surges and catches Mbute. The point-to-point course is uphill and into the wind the entire way; once caught, Mbute should fade. But the other runner lacks Mbute’s experience and allows him to tuck in behind and recover. Like a cyclist in the Tour de France, Mbute drafts off his opponent until the last moment, then steps aside and easily outsprints him. There’s no giant digital clock at the finish line, just a chalk line across the road. As we drive home later that afternoon, Langerhorst decides the course is closer to 7 miles than 10K.
Mbute, who is wearing a matching Adidas outfit, stands out from the rest of the field. Many sport ragtag gear that’s in serious danger of fraying; the last finisher is a woman wearing what looks like a cross between an old tennis outfit and a sackcloth dress. As the runners cross the line, they’re handed a small piece of paper with a number on it. They head over to a grass field, walk through a simple chute, and hand in their numbers. At the end of the chute, they’re each given a plastic cup. A man dips a pitcher into a trash can and fills the cups with water. Rather than drink the water, the runners use it to rinse off their faces and arms before placing the cups back on the table to be used by other athletes. Then they put on sweats and sit down in the field.
At U.S. races, the awards ceremony often doesn’t start until hours after the race. Here, a whistle sounds less than 15 minutes after the last runner has finished. 1992 Olympic silver medalist Patrick Sang says, “Please, please, come around.” After the top 11 men and women receive their prizes of Adidas gear, the speeches start. This is the second Kenyan race I’ve attended in the last six days, and this is the second hour-long sequence of monologues that I’ll sit through. The rah-rah tone is similar to something you’d hear in a Little League pep talk. The runners are encouraged to train very hard, to stay focused on running. It’s a strange address to give to adults who needn’t be reminded that running is their best means of securing a more comfortable life.
During the speeches, the 2:09 marathoner to my right resumes his monologue about how Kenyan runners are different from American runners. “We are not like you people in America,” he says. “These people, when they get famous, they stay simple.” I think he has a point. When the speeches end, I look over and see Wilson Kipketer, the world-record holder at 800 meters, picking up bottle caps off the ground.