Thursday, April 05, 2007

Running at the Equator

Fierce competition between the runners on the track

I have recently taken another volunteer position in addition to my work at the St. Julie Center. I am now the assistant coach of the cross-country running team at St. Antony High School in the neighboring village of Kakoyi.
The St. Anthony boys cross-country team and I

I enjoy the children at the Center, but I thought it would also be good to have an opportunity to work and play with children that are healthy and active. At the Center, most of the children are a lot younger and can’t compete in games or sports as well due to their disabilities. This is certainly not the case with the cross-country team at St. Antony. They are all fierce competitors and I am the one who is finding it hard to compete.

I met with the principal of the St. Antony several weeks ago to see about a position in athletics when he mentioned that the school had a cross-country team. I told him that I used to be on the cross-country team back home in the U.S. This is when he offered me a position to help coach the team. He thought I, having known the sport of running, might be able to give the team some good advice. He introduced me to Akumba, the athletic director of the school, and Edwin, the head coach, and we agreed that I would come to St. Antony twice a week to help coach the team.

My first day was the following Monday and once again I met with Akumba and Edwin at the school and they called for all the runners to gather around. Only, on this particular day I was in for a surprise. I sat in their small office on a simple wooden chair when they called out to a student outside the door saying, “assemble the marathoners.” At first, I thought there must be some mistake because I was there to help coach the “cross-country team.” I looked to Akumba and Edwin with a confused expression, “marathoners?” “Yeah,” said Edwin. “Are cross-country team is made up of marathoners.” That was when I started to feel drastically under-qualified for this position.

The runners all gathered into the office and I introduced myself and gave the “I’m from America” speech. Most of the small children that I’ve met in Kenya love to hear about America, but this group was different. They seemed unimpressed. I said, “If you have any questions about America I’d be happy to answer any of them.” I got nothing but stares.

Then Akumba stood up and told the group of teenage boys and girls that I was a cross-country runner and that I was there to coach them. This is when their eyes lit up. “If you have any questions…,” I repeated. Many hands were suddenly raised all at once. I took a question from a boy standing in the back of the room. He asked, “How can I compete as an international athlete?” Caught off guard and not having any real advice for him I said, “keep running” and quickly moved on to the next question.

All of the questions after were very similar. They seemed to be serious athletes looking for serious advice. So I told them everything I know about running. I told them to drink lots of water, to not eat junk food, to stretch before running, to pay close attention to injuries, etc. They listened intently, but I could see that much of my advice was having little effect on them. That’s when I had to remind myself that I am in the third world. Almost none of my advice I gave was relevant to them. In the third world there are droughts and the children can only drink the water that is available. Poverty and famine are high and children can only eat what their families can afford. There is no such thing as junk food. Also, most children don’t have access to health care so injuries can be overlooked and go untreated. I didn’t feel like I help them out much that first day, but they were happy to have me nonetheless. So I began coming to St. Antony every Monday and Wednesday afternoon to run with the team.

Practices are usually long distance runs along the dirt roads through the “interior” of the country. I usually wear my New Balance running shoes, Adidas t-shirt, and Nike shorts when I come for practice, while the team usually comes barefoot wearing whatever second-hand clothes they can afford. Sometimes a runner will run in the stiff black dress shoes that the students wear as part of their school uniform.

The views along the practice runs are incredible with beautiful blue skies, green fields, mud huts, and rolling hills. But it is also some of the most difficult terrain to run on. The hills are nice when running down them, but upwards can feel like running in slow motion. The air is also thin at this higher elevation and it makes it difficult to breathe and can cause headaches. The sun at the equator can be very intense and is directly overhead when we begin and it usually doesn’t take long before I feel like I am baking in an oven.

When we start the run I get an amazing feeling. I can hear the Rocky theme song playing in my head. The runners seem to run as a single unit. They run as a wave sweeping across the hills and I am in the front. Nearby primary schools have ended by this time and the children along the roadside walking home cheer us on as we run by. They cheer even more when they see that I am white. Some shout, “Never give up!,” in Swahili. Some try to run along with us. Many of the villagers will come out to the roadside to see the show. The distance can be anywhere from 7 kilometers to as much 30 Kilometers. By the end of the run I am thoroughly exhausted and can hardly keep up even a jogging pace. Although the team can run much faster without me they consider me a part of the team and refuse to leave me behind. It is such a privilege to be able to run in their company.

Periodically, they compete with the other schools in the area and they allow me to run the race with them each time. I am not a serious competitor by any means, but when I run it helps to motivate the team and so I am glad to do it. Due to the fact that I am the only white runner on any team I tend to attract a lot of attention. When this happens, the runners at St. Antony like to tell the other teams that I am an international athlete from America, but rather than fearing me this usually helps to motivate the other teams to try to beat me.


St. Antony Track & Field
(I'm the white guy in the middle of the back row.)


Tim on the track


Girls sprinting


Girls running in skirts
(It is not proper for girls to wear shorts in rural Kenya)


High jump


Javelin throw

Although they are the cross-country team there are some competitions that are run on an oval track that is marked with grease lines on a grass field. There are also typically field events such as high jump, long jump, shot put, discus, and javelin throw.

In March, I ran in a race that was somewhere from 15-20 km. In rural Kenya, the distances that are run on the winding roads in the “interior” are always estimated. If I ask three people about the distance of a race, I will get three different answers and the difference between them can be as much as 10km. I am also told that the coaches will tell the runners a shorter distance in order not to discourage them.

The race was easily the longest distance I’ve ever run and I didn‘t think I would ever finish. When it started the runners took off at the pace of sprinters and left me far behind. I knew I had long way to go so I maintained a pace only slightly faster than jogging. As the race went on and the runners near the back of the pack began to get tired and some fell back to where I was positioned and then it got really interesting. It was clear that not all of the runners in Kenya had the motivation to win. I observed some runners that would literally walk the race until I caught up with them and then they would continue to run. I also saw one runner actually resting under a tree until a group of runners behind him caught up and then he continued. It was very surprising to see. But the best part was when I actually had to stop to let a heard of cattle pass on the road before I could finish.

4 comments:

Jennifer C. said...

Congrats on the new position and the chance to interact with some of the older kids. Glad to see you are doing well.

All is well here. Dominic has turned into a little chatter box he repeats most everything we say, the good and the bad. He is growing so fast and learning so much we are shocked at times as to how much he knows. Less than three months to go and we will welcome the new baby!!! Chris and I know the gender but we are not telling anyone......our little secret.

Take care,
Jen

tim said...

Jennifer,

It's so good to hear from you! Thanks so much for the update. I got Dominic's 2nd birthday pictures and he seems to be growing fast. He will be a big brother soon enough.

Can't wait to see you all when I get home...including the newest one!

Tim C.

Anonymous said...

Tim->

I saw that three Kenyans finished in the top three spots of the Boston Marathon today. Did you coach any of them? Just kidding...hope all is well. God bless!

<-Mike

tim said...

Mike,

I wish I could say that I coached any of them, but the fact of the matter is that they don't need me. Having adapted to harsh living conditions, they are naturally some of the best athletes in the world. However, given their incredible abilities, they don't have an ice hockey team. Hmmm.

God Bless,

Tim C.