As a Kenyan schoolboy, Benjamin Kipkoech would jog the 15 kilometres to his school barefoot. Now, with sponsorship from his employers, he is pounding Dubai's beaches hoping to use his talent to win the cash prizes handed out to the fastest and the best.
DUBAI // Whenever he sells trainers to young runners at the Saucony shop in Ibn Battuta Mall, Benjamin Kipkoech cannot help but enjoy the irony.
Even though the 30-year-old shoe salesman has run his entire life, much of it competitively, and at moments successfully, when he was young back in his native Kenya he could scarcely afford such things. During primary and secondary school, like most of his classmates, he competed barefoot in track and field events. His morning journey to class was a 15-kilometre run (one way), again, without footwear, along the dirt roads from his village of Nyahururu, in the rugged terrain of the Great Rift Valley.
"Sometimes you hit a stone and your foot just oozed red," recalls Mr Kipkoech, who now wears high-end Saucony trainers, as he warms up for his daily training session along Dubai's Jumeirah Beach. "You would put a piece of cloth over it, wait a week, and then keep running." It was a childhood typical of Kenya's Kalenjin tribespeople, who, despite their tough circumstances, dominate the sport of professional long-distance running.
His Kalenjin kinsmen's prowess in international racing, says John Manners, an American journalist who has written extensively about Kenyan runners, "is a dominance that's unquestionably unparalleled" in sporting history. Mr Manners says that in the six distance-racing competitions - 800m, 1,500m, the steeplechase, 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon - five of the top 10 performers in history are Kalenjin.
"That is to say," Mr Manners says, "in the sport with probably the broadest participation base in the world, half of the top performers in history come from one little group of three million people." Mr Kipkoech is acutely aware of his tribe's, and more generally Kenya's, running achievements; at the Beijing Olympics last year, he points out, his country of 39 million won 14 medals, all in track and field, including five golds. Mexico, a nation of 111 million, won a total of six.
Since he moved to Dubai last year to train for marathons, he hopes this uncanny ability to cross the finish line first will carry over into his own career. Last year he finally secured stable sponsorship; in addition to his being employed by Saucony, and earning a monthly wage, the sport apparel company also pays for his accommodation, transportation and training costs. The job, he says, is "a good place because I have the knowledge; if you come up and ask me for a good running shoe - 'I've never run before, what should I do?' - I can explain what shoe is right for your style of running."
But he prefers his twilight workouts, six days a week, jogging in Satwa or sprinting on the hardened patches of sand beside running the paths that parallel Dubai's beaches. "I prefer the beach; it's silent, and there's fresh air," which he says reminds him of his village's serenity. Saucony's backing allows him to devote more time to training, and Mr Kipkoech expects this to yield the desired result - money, and lots of it.
"In athletics in Kenya, we take it as a business," he says. "I want to run for prize money." In the UAE, there is much to be won: Dh1 million (US$300,000) for first place in last year's Zayed International half-marathon in Abu Dhabi, or Dh900,000 for next month's Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon. He is confident he can not only win, but possibly set a record or two. "You know what they say about the Kalenjin? We don't get tired."
Indeed, says Mr Manners, relative to athletes from other parts of the world, Kelenjin runners tend not to tire as quickly. Although there is debate, he says their fleet-footedness can generally be attributed to several factors: living at high elevations, which yields endurance; poverty that, while not abject, encourages travel by foot; and a gene pool blessed by a pastoral culture rooted in raiding the cattle herds of rival tribes, which, naturally, rewards the fleetest of foot.
The genetic component, Mr Manners says, "is a huge factor because of the simple fact that poverty and altitude alone don't explain the phenomenon; there are a lot of places that are poor and at high altitude and haven't produced any runners. You can think of Peru, for instance." Regardless of the causes, the effects have been a near-complete overshadowing of their competitors, he says. "The western athletes who have enough backing and talent to pursue are still being blown away by the Africans. It's a self-perpetuating cycle."
That is a sentiment shared by Mr Kipkoech, who hails from a family of seven brothers and three sisters and who has competed since his youth against Kenya's, and therefore some of the world's, best athletes. "When you need to gauge your performance," he says, "you only need to run in Kenya." During his teenage years, he says he was faring well. "At 16 I used to beat the 18-year-olds." He once won eight events in one school competition, recalling that: "They were announcing the winners, and I never left the winner's podium. I just stayed up there. One fan came up and asked me if he could have one of my prizes. He said, 'What do you need all these for'? So I thought, 'Why don't I just give it to him?' And I did".
He says he was a raw talent who was noticed at an event in 1998 by Moses Kiptanui, a famous Kenyan runner who was, at the time, training professional athletes at a camp near Mr Kipkoech's hometown. Mr Kiptanui invited him to take part one of the all-expenses-paid camps that have proliferated in the past decade, often funded by western universities and sport apparel companies. After finishing secondary school, he recalls, he began training with the camp's other 20-odd runners.
But it was a spartan existence, mainly of all-day training sessions, scant entertainment and Ugali, a local staple of maize meal, water and vegetables. "There wasn't much else; you just focused on training. When you woke up in the morning, it was about training. Your mind, it was always focused." The incentives for rigorous training were always flaunted by the more successful runners of the group. "All the other runners had cars," Mr Kiptanui said, which included Hummers and Mercedes. "Me and my partner were the ones who did not have cars."
That, he had hoped, would change after more training. His tall yet muscular figure naturally lent him to the 800 metres, where power and long strides encouraged success. He started as a pacemaker in the event, a runner who, although not officially competing, runs alongside a competing teammate to keep him at an optimal pace. He believes he was on pace to reach the world-record holder and fellow Kalenjin Wilson Kipketer's 1997 time of 1:41.11 - reaching unofficial times of 1:46, and then 1:45 - when, in 2001, the camp went bankrupt. "So we went back to the village," he says. "We said to ourselves, 'What do we do now?'."
Without money, Mr Kipkoech and his older brother, a marathon runner, began training each other and scraping by with earnings from local competitions. By 2004, feeling his age catching up to him, he decided to try marathons. That year, in his first, in Kenya, he finished fifth with a time of 2hr and 17min. But he realised he needed strong sponsorship and a more rigorous training regime. Now Dubai might give him his best shot yet. "People in Kenya are wondering, 'Where did Benjamin go?'," he says. "People still come up to me and say, 'Wow, you were good. What happened?' Maybe soon," he said, "they will know." firstname.lastname@example.org