Running with Destiny: Writer making real change to lives across Africa through sport

Toby Tanser, Founder of Shoe4Africa Children’s Hospital, accompanied by marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge, presents gifts to young Alfred Nyangoya at the Shoe4Africa Children’s Public Hospital in Eldoret town as her mother Linet Moraa looks on during Christmas Day of 2015. Tanser is now mobilising funds for the construction of sub-Saharan Africa’s first children’s cancer hospital.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • ‘Nine out of 10 children are dying when diagnosed in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa...’
  • This Friday, Toby Tanser, an athlete, humanitarian and founder of the Shoe4Africa charity, will organise a relay race from the Equator to Eldoret with elite and legendary runners to break ground for a new children’s cancer hospital. The stars include Great Britain’s former world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe, accompanied by her daughter Isla (who suffers from cancer) and will break ground with a Kenyan cancer patient to start construction of sub-Saharan Africa’s first children’s cancer hospital, a 152-bed, four-storey building. For the next few days, we follow this charity mission through excerpts from Tanser’s latest book Running with Destiny – An odyssey of mistakes, machetes and miracles.

What on earth am I doing?’ I should not have been asking this question when boarding a plane to Nairobi on the 11th of November 1995. Ten days earlier, I knew all the answers.

Leaving Sweden’s frosty winter for Africa’s embracing sunshine suggested common sense, but the emerging detail that no person or place expected my arrival remained a slight concern.

Nevertheless, in my mid-20s, I was at the ideal age for an alluring adventure. I did not know much about East Africa, but who the heck did?

What I understood came from digesting the mainstream news. The region hit the headlines for diseases, droughts, despair, and other depressing issues. Well, as a sportsperson, I would not have to face such realities. Instead, I daydreamed about the thrilling escapades ahead — training with the world’s best athletes in Kenya.

Traveling to Africa had been a brash decision and certainly not my idea. One person was to blame for both proposing and then presenting a compelling case to cancel — a wiry eccentric russet-haired Irishman, Noel Berkeley.

 The Berk, as he proudly dubbed himself, and I met last year on the 4th of July 1994, in the Swedish city of Gävle, competing in a 5,000-metre race on the Grand Prix circuit.

Nerves jangled, the pungent smell of liniment tinged the warm air, and a gaggle of twenty athletes from close to as many countries anticipated a fiery competition. Toeing the line, and seconds before the gun, the starter scuttled down the list of entrants. Each athlete flailed an arm to acknowledge his presence for a swift roll call.

The elderly Swedish gent donning a feathered fedora and an olive corduroy jacket faltered over the pronunciation of The Berk’s surname, “Burrr-Koh-Lay,” he mumbled.

The Berk had, to my astonishment, violated protocol by stepping forward—taking the Swede aside—and began delivering a brief lesson on the strokes of Irish intonation. “Ah, you’ll not be butchering my name like dat my fyn fella.”

Who pulls a stunt like that? What a goofball! I decided to introduce myself to the fellow after the race.  That was precisely how our firm friendship, which stands to this day, began.

A year later, phoning from Dublin, he casually declared he would like to marry a Swedish woman — could I procure the bride?

He planned to lodge with my girlfriend and me at our apartment in Bromma, Stockholm, for two weeks and fancied the idea of landing a Scandinavian beauty.

 “I’ll come to train and kill two birds with one stone.” His humor was unrivaled.
 The Berk turned out to be a marvelous houseguest. Few of my friends like commencing the day by baking fresh scones. Then, following breakfast, without fail, we ran together. I worked hard at athletics, not Noel.

At the session, say 20 x 400 metres (437 yards) of sprints, after a measly two or three efforts, he would pipe up, “Aye, tat’ll be enough for the day.”

But not possessing a bantamweight frame born for distance running as this Olympic leprechaun, I would force Noel to complete the workout. Albeit as he whined and grumbled as if he were a red pig about to be shunted into the slaughterhouse. Hence, before The Berk flew home without a wife, he had deduced although I flopped as a fixer, I might retain another usable talent.

Noel declared, at the season’s close, we must travel to Kenya for a stint of warm-weather training to avoid the ice and the chills of Northern Europe.

Like the Americans in the game of hoops or the Brazilians belting the leather ball, the Kenyans reigned supreme in long-distance running. Noel suggested traveling to Africa to discover the reasons why.

Too late, I had already booked a month by the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico.

Electricity was a commodity I enjoyed, and clean water? Count me in. Who wished to holiday in a country where the average citizen earned a dollar a day, and people died of dysentery?

But Noel was not a man who took no for an answer, “I’m well-known in the running community. Everyone knows T’ Berk. Leave your wallet at home because you will be well looked after. Those famous runners? I know them all.”

According to Noel, I would have a blast as his training partner. Then, incidentally, he announced our destination — Eldoret.

What a bizarre coincidence that innocent word jolted a childhood memory. Mike and Liz, the agemates of my parents, when returning from a mission trip to Kenya, had once presented me with a green satchel. Narrating their adventures, they referred to a town called Eldoret.

You may wonder how I might recollect such an obscured memory.

About the writer

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.

He was a columnist and wrote for a variety of magazines and journals. Also writing and helping produce the Soundwalk audio running guides to NYC, Paris, London, and Berlin, and the NYC marathon’s first audio guide.

Toby sat on the (NYRR) NYC Marathon’s Board of Directors for 15 consecutive years (named a lifetime honorary NYRR member in 2000.

Thursday: Coming to Africa... Along with the anticipation of adventure followed a fair dose of trepidation.