Mary Keitany, real life heroine who's giving back to society
What you need to know:
- In January, 2006, the Shoe4Africa foundation held a women’s only race that was free to enter.
- It was designed to help people like Mary, who were not earning an income, a chance to expose their talent.
- Other local races would often charge the equivalent of two day’s pay. This was a golden opportunity.
What was inevitable was the emergence of an African super hero movie onto the screens of Hollywood, yet few forecasted the massive gross of the Black Panther movie.
Set in an imaginary land called Wakanda a long oft over-looked community had a set of heroes besting the box office and exposing the greatness of the African continent.
A man who was born in Harlem, New York, in his twenties who has never travelled outside the city limits punched the sky with a clenched fist, "I am African!"
He screamed punctuating the words, as if he had found a long lost birth certificate as he left the theatre house.
Identities, by association, had never felt closer.
In a society that survives swimming through broken broadcasts and depressing headlines, we desperately need heroes to uplift our spirits.
The definitions of a hero are unset. For some it is a superman who can fly though the sky, whereas others marvel at Spiderman and for The Black Panther, it was we may be positioned to live in realism but we dream in Disney.
Our real life super heroes are out there, often where you don’t expect to find them.
Our superwoman, for this story, wears no mysterious mask or magic cape; it would only hinder her stride.
She doesn’t need wings, she already flies, and her true magic, unlike the misted reality of a silver screen star, is that she has risen from earth that we all stand upon, with no silver-spoon parents to throw open the doors, no scholarship help, she was not aided by the almighty nuns or cradled by an aid organisation; she is simply a product of her own sweat, blood and fire.
Get ready to be inspired, by fact, not by fiction.
This barely five feet tall super hero, weighing in at a bantam 41 kilogrammes, is a true self-made product.
She is a muse and role model for each and every Kenyan child who grows up in the rural countryside, far from the assets and opportunities, even a basic city life can offer.
Electricity, running water, and even a pair of shoes were absent from her childhood. She would be the last person slated for stardom.
On January 18, 1982, Juda and Jane Chepkeitany celebrated the birth of their fourth child in a small remote area of Kiplombe location, Baringo.
The exact location is barren bush land, on a hill the locals call, Makilany (where no one can climb).
Climbing to the top of the hill is precarious, steep, with rutted roots and boulders hindering even the footing of a goat. Three families lived together.
Standing on this hill 36 years later, Mary showed the areas where she would sit to the tend goats and showed the treacherous ankle twisting path where she would walk two kilometres to fill a pail of water.
"We were too poor for a donkey, so we had to carry," she laughs as she recalls the days of hardship.
The delivery at home was without a hitch and Jane lay back and prayed hard that this child, like their three other daughters Ann, Priscah, and Sarah, would have a honest and good life.
She asked for nothing more.
She probably hoped her new born would find a good man, with a big heart, to stand by her side and raise a family of her own, as she had found, to live a simple life together under God’s eyes.
The child grew up as many around her, barefooted, happy and eager to attend the local school.
Living far she walked or ran a good 10km to a primary school each morning, hopping, jumping and skipping along the way over waist high boulders and barren bush for there was no clear road for her to follow.
Her pace would be varying but the aim was to arrive at school early thus to avoid the hard mahogany stick of the teacher’s cane who licked any late comer.
A kindly neighbour, Mama Mercy, the mother of a classmate called Mercy Yator Chemutai, a few kilometres closer to the school would help with a simple lunch of maize and mboga so young Mary didn’t have to dash 10 kilometres in the lunch hour, but given that each afternoon she would have to return home the young child started to develop a body that was literally built on the run.
Mary was a dreamer; she now had another sister called Subi, and a young brother called Benjamin.
The family survived on subsistence farming and her visions of life often drifted to the parables of the Bible.
By chance her favourite teacher at school, Bernard Rono, was both the religious studies and games teacher.
Her mind was uplifted about possibilities earned through hard work and hearing the stories of the Bible gave her hope for a life of doing well and playing her part to uplift those around her.
She never had seen a television, or read a comic book; her heroes were the characters she heard about in the Bible.
Rono recalled Mary’s school days, "She was a fighter, she would never give up. I knew she had something more. A little extra," he tried to explain as if lost for words to say, as a sports coach may.
"She just had it!"
One day, at Kanjulul School, there was an athletics competition.
Mary loved sports and she entered every single event she could that entailed running laps round the rough grass field. Samwel, a local business man who was attending the Games day remembers the day the best.
"This little girl, she was smaller than the others, just ran like the wind. She won every event from the short distances to the long."
Not only was Mary defeating the entire school, regardless of sex or age, but Samwel noticed another outstanding peculiarity.
"And the odd thing was she was not even sweating. Not even a single bead!" he says.
"The other kids were doing so profusely as the day was hot.
"They would collapse from their effort, staggering over the finish line but this girl Mary would just walk over to the next starting line and proceed to run and win that next race."
So impressed with the girl’s effort Samwel became inspired to help in a way he could.
He went to the local market and bought two pairs of cheap second hand running shoes.
He allowed Mary to select one pair for herself and encouraged Mary to find a group of proper athletes to ‘try her talent’. The school coach Rono took Mary to a local athlete who had, in his words, "travelled far and seen the world".
The athlete was Linah Chesire who, when in Primary school, had represented Kenya on the roads in the Ekiden races in Japan, and on the country, collecting such honours as winning the team gold in 1991 when she was part of four runners from a school team at Sing’ore Girls whom together won the World Junior Championships, a performance that has never been repeated to this day.
Linah’s sage advice was, "Don’t go to athletics yet. Get your schooling or you will make money and not hold on to your winnings. People will take advantage. You need an education if you want to hold on to your winnings."
But following the completion of the school there were no funds to go to a secondary school.
With no money, finishing the primary school she stayed home for two years working as a maid.
In 2001, still as a junior, her father, who was an athlete himself and recalls days when he would compete against the legends at Kamariny track in Iten, took her to the Baringo Chesco 15km run and was here she was offered the chance to join the Hidden Talent school in Karen district, a school for orphans and children who could not afford school fees.
Leaving the school she stayed in Kambimoto at home with the sister Priscah when she heard of the Shoe4Africa race. She decided to try her luck; it was a decision that changed her life.
In January, 2006, the Shoe4Africa foundation held a women’s only race that was free to enter.
It was designed to help people like Mary, who were not earning an income, a chance to expose their talent.
Other local races would often charge the equivalent of two day’s pay. This was a golden opportunity.
Many established runners were at the event including Edna Kiplagat, Sylvia Kibet and Doris Changeywo all of whom had already represented Kenya.
It was her first senior race.
The prize money extended to the top twenty places, Mary would place an agonising 21st, and it would possibly be the last race she entered where she did not earn prize money.
The competition encouraged her to work harder, if that prize money was only one single place away, surely an extra effort in training would bring a monetary reward in the future.
The result gave her the exposure that would in a few months take her abroad.
After the race she went to Leibolos to the home of Linah Chesire, the established athlete who had advised her to finish schooling.
Linah took her to Iten where she was introduced to Christine Chepkonga and stayed in her house along with fellow athletes Gladys Chepkirui and June Jepkoech.
"I said to Chepkonga, ‘This lady is better than all of us. She will be the champion, we need to support her.’ And Chepkonga agreed," remembers Chesire.
Staying in a three by one (kitchen, sitting room and one bedroom) it was cramped and basic, but it suited the budget. Upon arrival Mary at first struggled with the altitude of 2300m above sea level in Iten.
Times were hard and she encountered a multitude of challenges that many of the undiscovered athletes face: Accommodation issues, a lack of food, procuring training facilities, and she was unable to get into races to be discovered.
In her heart she felt assured that she had arrived in the right place for training.
Originally named Hill Ten, this small community town was known for being the place that discovered athletic talent. The word was you had to go there, run, and then magically through the high altitude mist you would appear and be discovered.
People on the street would tell you stories of how an unknown, just like you, had arrived with little more than the shirt of their back and now look at that runner.
If you saw a Mercedes luxury car or a Toyota heavily chromed Hilux in town you knew that was ‘a runner’ behind the wheel.
An Irish priest, who was now a respectable and renowned figure in the global athletics world had moved to Iten in July, 1976, started a training base and the rest is recorded history.
Brother Colm O’Connell had brought fame and fortune to the small Elgeyo-Marakwet township.
To this day Mary still has a primary home in Iten where she can be found most of the year, along with homes in the close by city of Eldoret, where she also owns a large multi-story hotel called the Winstar.
Now in Iten she joined a training group, meeting at ‘Lillies’ a residential area inside the centre and met a nice man called Charles, from Moiben, who was the assistant coach to Phillip Sing’oei, a well-known marathoner who had won some European races.
Charles was an established national-level athlete whose elder brother, Benson, had once held the junior world record for the 800m.
Charles was more suited to the longer distances, he has a 61-minute half marathon personal record, and he took Mary under his wing offering her guidance and support.
He at once realised her potential was in the longer 10km races and above and encouraged her to focus on distance.
Following the move to Iten her career spiralled, Sing’oei, seeing that Mary could perform hooked her up with a race in Portugal through the Italian manager, Gianni DeMadonna.
WON HER FIRST INTERNATIONAL RACE
In her first international race she won in a truly respectable time of 69:06.
That performance gave her the ticket to represent Kenya where she finished second behind Lornah Kiplagat, who was representing the Netherlands, in the Udine World Half Marathon Championships clocking a stunning 66:48; a star was born.
Mary took a quick time out for personal reasons, 2008 to give birth to Jared Kipchumba on June 22.
However, although still recovering from her maternity leave the Tugen athlete was back in her running shoes and took a world championship individual gold medal in the half marathon.
Mary Wittenberg, the race director of the New York City Marathon who had spotted Mary as a potential talent recruited her for a debut in the Big Apple, the World’s largest and most prestigious marathon.
"Mary was fearless and ferocious in her first world championship half marathon win in Birmingham. Just over a year after giving birth to her son, she dictated the pace and terms of that race and dominated in a blazing 66:36. I knew I was watching a one of a kind athlete, who would do especially well in NYC. So we recruited Mary to run her debut in the Big Apple, the World’s largest and most prestigious marathon," said Wittenberg.
In New York, she finished in third place, more than commendable for a debut though Mary was dejected as she felt she had lost the race rather than won a podium position such was her own high standard. It was the following year when she was catapulted into the road running pantheon of stardom as the competitor to beat.
The year 2011 saw Mary set a World Record at the half marathon, dipping under 66-minutes for the first time in history on a regulated course recording 65:50, at the Ras Al Khaimah half marathon in February.
Then she debuted at the London Marathon, winning in 2:19:19, then the fourth fastest time ever by a woman. She knew most of the course after working as a pace maker in 2011 and made her move after the halfway mark and was unchallenged by a stellar field.
In 2012, Mary further improved with a 2:18:37 London marathon win, she was now the third fastest woman in history, but a blip in performance saw Mary place only fourth at the same city’s Olympic Games that summer.
Superwoman had picked up an ankle injury which hindered her training, and ultimately her performance at those Games suffered.
Maternity leave saw the birth of beautiful Samantha Jerop on April 4, 2013, but a year later Mary was back on track winning in New York City, an achievement she would repeat the following year.
In the streets of what is arguably the most famous city in the world, Mary had made her name.
The athletics world at large gasped when Mary was omitted from the Kenyan 2016 Olympic team. In the ancient Olympics the absolute best runners in the world would meet in Athens to fight for the rights of being called the World’s best, regardless of affiliation or nation.
Yet TV rights, advertising and sports brands can sometimes sadly dictate team selection over reasonable judgment.
Mary’s case was not without precedent.
In 2000, Catherine Ndereba won the Kenyan team selection race, the Boston marathon, for the Sydney Olympics, yet she was inexplicably left off the Kenyan team.
She responded by breaking the world marathon record in Chicago the following year.
In 2004, Felix Limo and Evans Rutto were arguably the best marathon runners in the world notching the four fastest times of the year and between them collecting all the wins of the London, Rotterdam, Berlin and Chicago marathons; neither of them was selected for the Kenyan national team that year.
"It is no coincidence that all the six athletes selected for the Kenyan 2016 team were Nike sponsored athletes," noted a high profile European manager.
"And guess who sponsors the national team? Who in the right mind leaves the world’s best from their national team?"
Mary from her first race at Shoe4Africa in 2006 till today has always represented the Adidas three striped brand.
A well-known international journalist stated: "Having the Olympic marathon without Mary in the field is like not inviting Brazil to the World Cup after they had officially qualified."
"I was sorely disappointed. But what could I do?" questioned Mary after hearing she would not be able to run at the Olympics. She did what super heroes do; took matters into her own hands and did exactly what Catherine ‘the great’ Ndereba did; the following year breaking the world record.
First she went to New York City and won the Marathon storming to a 3:34 minute win, a monstrous margin over the second place finisher with a huge gap that had not been witnessed since 1980, before Mary was even born!
Then in 2017 she travelled to London and clocked a mind blowing 2:17:01.
Leading the pack she stormed through the five-kilometres marker in a shade outside 15:30, passed the half way in an outrageous 66:54 and crushed the women's only world record.
Eldama Ravine, the closet town to Mary’s home, was going crazy, Paul Rotich who tends a butchery recalls: "We have a TV in the back, our customers were energised, they were screaming. This is ours, this is ours." Many had not seen Mary run; Paul agreed local heroes who conquer the world should be recognised to ‘energise’ local communities."
With so many accolades Mary picks breaking the women’s world record in London as her most memorable performance, especially as she admires the British athlete, Paula Radcliffe, who previously held the record.
Interestingly Paula and Mary have the unique privilege of both holding a marathon world record and both achieving three NYC’s and London marathon wins.
PRESSURE IN 2018 RACE
In this year’s London Marathon the event was set up to take a crack at that elusive Women’s mixed-sex 2:15:25 time that more than a few experts say is equal to a 2:01-time for a male athlete.
Like in boxing where many belts confuse a singular champion, Paula Radcliffe set the record of 2:15 with male pacers. The authorities at large who ratify the times decided future records for females must in a completion where only females are competing.
Half the world agreed, half did not.
To further complicate matters the organisers at London who adhere to the IAAF’s women only ruling decided to re-introduce male pacers again to take a crack at Paula’s record, only for the 2018 event.
Understandably thus the talk in Britain’s capital was on breaking world records; would Kenya’s men’s star, Eliud Kipchoge, who had ran an out of this galaxy, 2:00:25 during a time trial one year ago, be able to best countryman Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57, and would Mary or Tirunesh Dibaba, the Ethiopian reigning Chicago Marathon champion, beat Paula’s sterling 2:15:25 set with those male pacers.
On the day the race directors at the London event ignored the obvious hurdle; ideal conditions were imperative and the weather, which is the racer’s biggest friend, was the hottest ever marathon on record for the event. When asked how she had set that 2:15-time Paula said: "Everything came perfectly together on that day." Perfect was the last word any journalist would have used for the 38th edition of the London event. The day was torrid and torturous for spectators, lest we talk about long distance running.
Nevertheless the organisers instructed the pace makers, who are paid to perform specific orders, to go out precisely at that enchanted 2:15 pace.
For the last few months the men’s race was a foregone conclusion for the win, but the women’s event had been dubbed a battle of the two titans.
Mary, the world record holder at the marathon distance and reigning champion, against the Ethiopian legend, Tirunesh Dibaba, who made her name inside the stadiums; she is the only lady to ever win the Olympic distance double of a 5000m/10,000m gold.
Tirunesh is certainly no slouch on the roads either, and since a recent move to the roads she had clocked a superb 2:17 marathon finishing second to Mary in London ‘17.
However Dibaba was rumoured to be out of form and only in London to pick up a lucrative six figure dollar appearance fee. The London event had honed its publicity on the fact that this race was to be a world record attempt; they desperately needed Mary to step up if Tirunesh was not going to perform.
Like a hero Mary did just that, she hung on to the pace makers and passed the half way marker of 21.1 km in an outstanding 67:16-minutes; on pace to beat that magical 2:15 barrier.
Her half marathon split was run in a time good enough to win almost all of the world’s half marathons competitions. She would continue past 30km, almost three quarters of the race complete, holding world record pace bravely defying the 75-degree scorching heat that was bruising her fellow competitors.
She was making the impossible seem possible. Mary had only herself to beat.
If Mary was not an outlier she would have turned the burners down, reduced her pace, and simply notched her fourth victory at the London Marathon.
But super heroes like to fly close to the sun, they are not ordinary people like you or I. Eventually the world record mixed-race pace, set on that perfect overcast cold day fifteen-year earlier, slipped away from Mary.
Ever the performer she did not, like the rival Dibaba had done and step off the course, she soldiered on to finish a credible fifth.
Mary realises she has an obligation as a role model. She was happy when the Shoe4Africa Foundation decided to fund a school at her birthplace.
"I want to inspire the young generation, show them hope, it means a lot to me to be able to be a part of bringing education to this area," she said remembering her days when there was no secondary school for this district.
"I will be a regular visitor to the school because I want the children to have motivation, inspiration, and hope in order to achieve their goals in the future."
Seeing Mary, the girl born on the hill ‘Where no one can climb’, who has climbed above the tallest shoulders or hills, will truly go a long way to making those school children believe in Super Heroes.
Mary has not forgotten her humble beginnings, when she talks to her children, and Hezron, the family’s adopted nephew who lives with Jared and Samantha, her talk is peppered with the stories of the Bible that coach Rono, and Alice Cherono the Sunday school teacher, passed on to her.
"Yes, I have come a long way. But I will never forget home and what they taught me."
"I am supporting Shoe4Africa so much because they are doing something from the bottom of their heart."
The Shoe4Africa foundation has built and fully funded five public schools naming each one to honour a Kenyan hero. Martin Lel, Janeth Jepkosgei, Moses Kiptanui, Sally Kipyego and now Mary.
The concept is simple, honour these heroes in their community so the young children can look up to people, just like them, who came from rural villages of Kenya and conquered the world.
Mary was delighted to hear of the foundation’s intent.
"I am so happy to be honoured by Shoe4Africa so that I am bringing education to this area. I want those small and young children to follow my footsteps and to keep it in mind that even the smallest step in the right direction can end up being the biggest step in their life."
Last Friday, the Mary Keitany Shoe4Africa School was opened and handed to the community, not by a politician, not by an athlete.
The Guest of Honour was June Jerotich, a girl who will only discover the fact on the day.
June knows Mary, only by reputation.
Who knows whether June can walk in Mary’s footsteps, she is not a runner, she is just a resident of Torokwonin district. But if we start believing that heroes come from the villages, not from the silver screen, we will see more Marys appear.