What you need to know:
- ‘I instantly recognised the man pouring the cup of tea from a feature in the Runner’s World magazines’
- Toby Tanser, an athlete, humanitarian and founder of the Shoe4Africa charity, yesterday 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:
Surprisingly, the athletes neither acknowledged my presence nor gestured me away, and I seized this as an invitation to tag along.
Weird indeed, but who cared.
Look at me, living a dream on my maiden African morning.
After a couple of miles of running, cresting a hill, the men ground to a stop before a spacious field. Several enormous weather-beaten tents stood pitched as a camp, the size one might find at a traveling circus.
What I now observed looked too good to be true.
Streams of skinny athletes sauntered around the tents, garbed in a variety of tracksuits or T-shirts.
The runner closest, Tanui, grinned and extended a hand, "Kar-i-bu (welcome) to our camp. And who exactly are you?"
I had mistaken the silence for unfriendliness. Unlike my Swedish teammates and I, who cackled like fishwives, these men preferred to concentrate on the task at hand, leaving the socializing to the post-training.
Upon catching my concern, Tanui chuckled, "No, we are friendly. But in training to race and when competing, there is no chitchat." Ok, lesson learned. The athletes urged me to join them and dig into a prepared brunch.
Fortuitously, I had stumbled upon arguably the greatest distance running group on the globe. Here the Navy, Air Force, and Army runners dwelt. They numbered three to four hundred of Kenya’s swiftest men, and as any fan knows, that indicated the finest athletes in the world. In the mid-nineties, independent management or the shoe company teams had not penetrated Kenya as they do today.
The customary route to becoming an international champion was via this camp. And yes, I instantly recognised the man pouring the cup of tea from a feature in the Runner’s World magazines.
Talk about a runner’s high — world and Olympic stars wandered to the left and right, as common as books in a library.
Moreover, I was welcome to join these titans’ training sessions, and an army truck shuttled to the airport to collect my luggage, making the day complete.
Not only had I the offer to train alongside the talented men, but the opportunity was to run with the greatest of the Kenyan runners. Any thoughts of returning to Sweden vanished immediately.
At this location, I would receive tips and training advice to improve my skills. My humble task remained to look, listen, learn, and leave.
* * * * *
How would I fare, racing with the champions?
A couple of days later, back in Ngong, the team traveled for a competition. The event took place in Machakos Town, a brief drive of 64 kilometres east.
Here was a chance for me to evaluate my form. I needed to refocus and concentrate on myself.
Daily I listened to the never-ending personal problems of the runners. Could I offer a solution, support their family, or did I want to secure land?
How about marrying a relative or investing in joint property?
No, now presented the moment to push issues to the side and concentrate on running. I planned to run faster, not become involved in domestic trifles.
Else, this training camp would constitute a waste of time.
We climbed aboard an ancient Bedford open-backed army truck, a relic imported in the colonial days, to drive to Machakos.
Squatting on the unforgiving wood benches in the rear with around thirty athletes, I gazed at the countryside, hoping to formulate a race strategy.
But mental preparation was impossible upon such a scorching sweltering day. Unable to settle, I chatted to Christopher Kelong and Joshua Che’langa. Both men had the same question, ‘Why do you run?’ The identical query I had asked myself in Kibera. I knew my answers would be confusing and pathetically weak.
To feel good, or because I can travel and meet interesting people—so I can be here. Embarrassed to word a reply, I bounced the question to Chris. He replied with conviction.
“Money, all of us in Kenya are running for money. And because we have no other (options). Look around the camp; no one owns skills apart from running. None of us can establish a business; our parents are subsistence farmers, not even owning bank accounts.
“Villages will support you to run because if you make it, you become the bank manager. We run as it is the road out of poverty.
“There is no luxury to run for health or medals. Look at the last Olympic Games trials. One man holds the world record in the steeplechase; another is the World Champion, and the reigning Olympic Champion is there.
“Even the defending silver medalist is there—yet not one of those men wins a ticket to the new squad. That new team sweeps the Olympic podium, one, two, and three!
“In your country, if you are at the top, you go directly to the Olympics. In Kenya, even if you win the trials or are the best in the world, you can be omitted from the team.
“So, we train to win money, to place food on the table. If a medal comes our way, fine, but you cannot stuff a medal in the stomach.
“In Europe, you enjoy social security, food stamps, and assistance. Here there is nothing, nothing. We run to improve our life.
“To run for fun, as people do in your country, is not our luxury.
“Did you see a single fun runner on the streets in Nairobi?”
Of course, I had not.
Chris cobbled his winnings from the British road running circuit to capitalise on farming opportunities near Nakuru, and his success motivated the young bucks like Joshua.
When the truck lurched, double-clutching as the driver fought with engaging a gear, others complained at the jolt, but Joshua laughed. He usually had to run miles to reach a starting line.
The race entry fee—of a dollar or two—always caused a problem. But today, the armed forces footed the bill. The leading results this morning would be reported overseas.
Like Chris, he would then pray that a European manager invites him to events where cash, not medals, was the reward.
An action in turn that magically procures a gold dust passport and fixes an impossible-to-get visa. Phew, thank goodness I kept silent with my ambitions. My race presented nothing more than a personal challenge.
Competitions reap solid feedback—was the endurance enough, or did the hills need pounding? Yet, instead of a race result, a third experience was moments away, providing the bridge to my destiny.
Despite arriving early, delay followed delay. I jogged a thirty-minute warm-up, stood on the line at ten a.m. to hear, ‘Soon, starting soon.’ Being unsuspecting, I completed two further warm-ups — I bore the legs of a flogged carthorse before even starting the race. Worse yet, the flaming sun, which now flowered directly overhead like a mean-eyed vulture, blistered both my scalp and shoulders.
Embarrassingly, only I was bothered by the heat and the continuous delays.
As a passing tourist, I should have been the least perturbed. Why did the fluff affect me? I knew this behavior would irritate every Swedish teammate with such inadequate planning, but why weren’t the real runners ruffled?
I mean, ten minutes late, okay, but two hours and no outcry?
A TV crew had caused the delay—now, their cameras swept the line of runners as we awaited our final instructions.
The reporter paused, focusing on my legs, and I guessed my skin color to be the reason.
Wrong, he filmed our attire. The lens panned from my feet to those of the fellow runners.
When I glanced at the footwear of others, I recalled the Michael J. Fox Back to the Future Nike moment. The classy shoes stacked in rows underneath my kitchen table, along with the stockpiles of tracksuits in my wardrobe, could furnish a substantial number of the front row of runners.
Olympic champ chauffeur
Suddenly, a fabulous idea popped into my mind. Perhaps these bizarre experiences of late provided backdrops to prompt a bigger action?
Why not raid my Swedish apartment then donate the surplus gear to needy athletes?
When the gun boomed, I grinned, imagining how I could help boost the lives of these hard-working souls. Struggling in the pack, at least I managed to keep pace with Christopher. But Joshua? Well, he won the event and soon became world-famous.
The following day, I telephoned a friend Lasse Jonsson.
Could he please exercise his ingenuity to enter my building, collect the countless pairs of shoes and piles of running gear strewn around my apartment, and airmail the boxes to Kenya?
I provided him with the address of the central post office in Eldoret because — drumrolls — that morning, I would travel to visit the fabled town.
And topping it all, William Tanui, the reigning 800 meters Olympic champion, would act as the chauffeur.
Sunday: Driving to Eldoret in 1995, I never guessed how the city would transform my life. Running with Destiny — An Odyssey of Mistakes, Machetes and Miracles is available at: amazon.com
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.
Toby Tanser (right), founder of the Shoe4Africa Foundation charity accompanied by Engineer Odhiambo Atogo, the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital’s resident engineer, at the site where the Shoe4Africa Juli Anne Perry Children’s Cancer Hospital will be built on August 13, 2019. The hospital, which will be exclusively for children with cancer will be built behind the Shoe4Africa Children’s Hospital at a cost of Sh250 million and will be first one in Sub-Sarahan Africa. jared nyataya / NATION