Toby Tanser

Toby Tanser, founder of Shoe4Africa Foundation, speaks during a visit to The Shoe4Africa All4Running Kapchorwa Secondary School in Kabirirsang village, Nandi County on December 25, 2021.

| Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

My neighbours were world champions, record holders, and also fledgling stars

What you need to know:

  • Bliss continued when Tanui welcomed me into his group as he prepared for the 100th Boston Marathon
  • On Christmas eve, Toby Tanser, an athlete, humanitarian and founder of the Shoe4Africa charity, organised a relay race from the Equator to Eldoret with elite and legendary runners to break ground for a new children’s cancer hospital. We follow Tanser’s charity mission through excerpts from his latest book: Running with Destiny – An odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles:

The journey along the Great Rift Valley was spectacular, and, after a four-hour drive—glancing to the right—I noticed a circular weather-beaten red signpost announcing Welcome to Eldoret Town.

The strangest emotion swept over me, perchance the mind played tricks, or did Eldoret promise to be more than a checklist destination? Gosh, I sounded like my parents.

Named after Eldare, a Maasai word for a place of hard rocks, Eldoret today stood as a municipality of a couple of hundred thousand people and the capital of Uasin Gishu County.

The name, proposed in 1911 by Sir Percy Girourd—the Governor of British East Africa—marked a Boers’ settlement, originally compromising of a bank, a drinking bar, and little else. Nowadays, the center consisted of rows of dilapidated low-rise buildings—shops selling agricultural wares filled both sides of the streets.

After waving goodbye to William, I grabbed lunch at Sizzler’s café on Kenyatta Street. A random customer stepped forward to introduce himself; it was Kip Keino, the 1960s athletics star.

As he ordered food, he pointed to a store close by that he owned. If I wished, I could visit his farm—Kaza Mingi—during the New Year, “Just find me at the shop,” he generously offered.

Kip’s likeness adorned the country’s 20-shilling banknote (20 cents), so I yanked one from my pocket for him to sign as an ‘arrival in Eldoret’ souvenir.

Although runners in Ngong had provided direction to local homes where I could reside and join training camps, I had different plans.

Attracts global stars

I fancied the idea, since today was New Year’s Eve, to track down Brother Colm. I hoped Noel’s friend, the priest, might be hosting a western tea-less celebration. Purchasing a bottle or two of Merlot, I decided to pay a visit to Iten town.

Twenty miles (32 km) from Eldoret, snuggled in the clouds at 2,225 meters (7,300 feet) above sea level, Iten is today a popular destination in the athletics fraternity. The excellent facilities offered by The High Altitude Training Centre (HATC), established in 2000, attracts global stars like Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe.

Visitors, predominantly runners, flock from around the world to train The Kenyan Way. In the last twenty years, the village mushroomed to a town, but in the mid-nineties, beyond Colm’s training group, little took place in this lost location.

At the crowded Eldoret bus station, I hailed a jam-packed Iten-bound matatu and paid the forty-cents fare. Once clear of the sprawling city limits, the journey traveled along a single-lane meandering road.

Distance and time do not relate when driving on Kenyan soil, and the direct route took longer than expected. Sizable chunks of tarmac had crumbled away, and the road quality was terrible.

The rural scenery reminded me of motoring around Devon, in Southern England, with pastures of grazing Friesians, Merino sheep, and fertile cornfields. Fortunately, I scored a seat alongside the driver, and he provided a colorful local history of each site.

A solitary hill burst like a barnacle from the landscape, and he explained the Kruger’s—relatives of the original Boers settlers—maintained a 5,000-acre farm here.

He stated, in the olden days, the area stood as the stronghold of the Maasai. Was this plateau the one I spied when first searching for the African Eldorado? Arriving in Iten, which is all of a mile and a half long, we parked by a central grass field. The matatu driver pointed out St. Patrick’s school and Colm’s residence, just behind this green.

Few people, cars, or buildings gave me a reason to guess a population of only a couple of thousand must dwell in this small village.

The school, however, looked to be sizable and impressive, well-maintained, and spacious. On the left, as directed, I spotted Colm’s white-walled bungalow.

Built by the Irish missionaries, the structures inside the compound captured a European styling.

The Irishman’s house sported a well-kept rose garden and tidy flower beds. I noted iron bars secured each of his windows—a measure typical in Kenya, but one that always presented a sense of both alarm and safety. Rapping at his door, I found Colm away for the day, but his staff welcomed me to sleep that night at his house. As the sun set, the wine flowed freely, and the story of how a priest became a world-leading coach unraveled.

Nineteen years ago, Colm, a geography tutor and a brother of the Catholic Church, stepped off the plane for a three-year stint of overseas teaching. Upon arrival, he learned he would also be the school’s games instructor. With zero experience, nobody expected miracles from the priest.

Yet on his first overseas trip, journeying to the inaugural world juniors, Colm collected an outstanding eight medals—stunning the organizers who had not even considered bringing a recording of the Kenyan national anthem to play at the medal ceremony.

No problem, as Colm conducted, the youths sang the anthem a cappella through the microphones over the loudspeakers for one each of the four gold medals his athletes earned. Yes, more than your ordinary man, Colm played the architect who made the improbabilities happen.

January 1st, the five-foot six-inch (167 cm) ruddy-cheeked Irishman arrived as his staff promised, with his thick Irish brogue still intact. Wearing a grin, he matched Noel’s description perfectly.

“When José Abascal came visiting, he ran from Eldoret. Did you?” He quizzed with a sly smile, referring to a Spanish Olympian’s endurance feat. Admitting I did not but sensing a challenge, I suggested he drop me tomorrow, back in Eldoret. Then, I could create a grander entrance on foot, like Abascal. Colm, with a twinkling eye, chuckled. I think I had broken the ice. His athletes lodged on the grounds in a variety of rundown outhouses.
If I wanted, I should roam around and identify a spot myself. Was it this easy?

I discovered a condemned, crumbling red brick house where Colm and the Irish Brothers inhabited until 1993. Once more, I gained the ultimate insider’s view. My neighbors were world champions, record holders, and runners on the fringe of a breakthrough.

How could I be so fortunate, and if anyone held the answers to why the Kenyan distance runners remained almost unbeatable, it would be the resident Irishman.

The next day, slogging those twenty-one miles (33 km) back to Colm’s house practically wiped me out. We departed from Iten at six a.m., yet as the priest knew every person we passed, our journey became riddled with impromptu stops.

Incessant cups of tea and a full breakfast later, it was eleven a.m. when I prized myself out of Colm’s white sedan at the Eldoret post office. Imagining I would be tramping before the sun rose, when the air is invigorating, I brought no drinks or cash—this replicated the method we completed early morning long runs in Ngong.

Additionally, I discovered the route was an arduous uphill grind. My Iten re-entry—two and a half hours later—portrayed a ragged performance under a belting sun that had slapped my fair skin without any mercy. However, the family-sized flask of heavily sugared tea offered as my prize revived me nicely.

The routine in Iten differed from Ngong since we only ran twice a day. Following the morning’s training, the athletes relaxed, chatted, and performed chores like handwashing clothes or strolling to town to purchase food. Unlike in Sweden, with weekly shopping, this turned into a daily chore.

Few citizens of Iten owned fridges but digesting vegetables plucked directly from the earth or drinking fresh unpasteurized milk meant we gained the maximum nutrition.
Frequently, I would eat out, but seldom at a café. Kenya is a country where a stranger can knock upon a random door, join the mealtime, and receive a hearty welcome.

The daily diary maintained little fixed direction, and only on Friday did the drill vary with one firm appointment.

At seven o’clock, Brother Colm would host a movie night and play a classic from his extensive video collection. The real athletes expressed no interest in Colm’s entertainment unless he presented track or cross-country events, again illustrating this iron focus on running.

But videos aside, at any opportunity, I just wanted to soak up Colm’s wisdom—he proved to be a fountain of information and a landing hub for Rift Valley runners.

Hanging around the compound, I encountered numerous running legends who would pass by on a visit, like the Ugandan, John Akii-Bua. John’s harrowing story of chasing Olympic gold intertwined with the horrors of escaping from Idi Amin was so striking it was later dramatized into a BBC film.

Before long, I received notification the shoes had arrived from Sweden. Dividing the donations, I dispatched boxes to the camp in Ngong via the matatu shuttle and dispersed others to the training group in Iten. Lasse had supplemented with a club whip-round, and I could supply shoes to an Eldoret team.

When handing out to the athletes, a man strolled by twirling a large silver Mercedes-Benz keyring. He offered a wink, “Do you have a pair for me?” How nice to see Moses Tanui, whom I met in Ngong.

The bliss continued when Tanui welcomed me into his group as he prepared for the upcoming 100th Boston Marathon, a race he would ultimately win. Lessons came from the absolute best, and I could not have scripted a better training camp.

Tuesday: Cracking the cranium and the message of the millennium.   Running with Destiny — An Odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles is available at:

About the author

After living in five countries on three continents, surviving two brain surgeries on either side of the skull, Toby intends on settling down—soon. He is a philanthropist, coach, author/writer, former professional athlete, race director, and founder of Shoe4Africa.

Profiled twice on CNN, featured as a Humanitarian of the Year for Runner’s World, with commendations by the Presidents of the USA and Kenya, he worked—unpaid—for two decades on charity projects. Most memorably to build East and Central Africa’s first public children’s hospital.

During this period, he constructed schools, hosted AIDS awareness, hookworm and peace events, and re-gifted thousands upon thousands of pairs of used running shoes.
Toby has authored the books Train Hard, Win Easy.

The Kenyan Way, The Essential Guide to Running The New York City Marathon, More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way and now Running with Destiny, An Odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles.