Up before dawn and shivering in this record-setting cold spell, two wispy, thin Kenyan runners who only days ago had been whisked across the world and into town via an extraordinary fundraising effort headed out for a 10-mile workout along Sacramento’s American River bike trail.
They peeled off mile after mile with apparent ease, passing mere mortals wearing headlamps and bundled up with caps and gloves for the subfreezing weather. A few did doubletakes, wise to the duo’s seemingly effortless strides and lean physiques, their feet barely making a whisper as they struck the ground. The Kenyans waved and smiled and said hello. In 55 minutes, they were done – barely puffing, hardly sweating, forever smiling.
Throughout the rest of Thursday, various onlookers pulled out their phones to memorialize the visit on Instagram and Twitter. That night, dozens lined up at Exhibit S, an art gallery at the Downtown Plaza, for a book signing with the Kenyans. They are scheduled to do a 2-mile fun run, open to the public, at 8 a.m. today at the Guy West Bridge. Sunday, they will finally have their game faces on when they line up at the start with 8,000 runners in the California International Marathon.
For Japhet Koech, 26, and Shadrack Chepyego, 25, their lives as unheralded but promising distance runners in Kenya have changed dramatically in a matter of days, thanks to the dream of Conyers Davis, a running enthusiast who learned about the two when he read the popular book “Running with the Kenyans” by Adharanand Finn.
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“Everything is an adventure,” said Koech in deliberate, sometimes halting English. “There is something special about Sacramento. They like runners here.”
After reading the book, Davis, who is director of programming at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and until recently lived in Sacramento, had an epiphany: why not start an online fundraiser to bring Koech and Chepyego, two likable and sympathetic figures in the book, to run the marathon?
In a matter of days, Davis met his $6,000 goal, then struggled for weeks to iron out the logistics, securing their visas mere hours before they were due to board a flight for San Francisco. Many of the 205 donors who chipped in $26 ($1 for each mile of the marathon) or more were inspired not only by the runners but by Davis’ vision and tenacity.
Chepyego had never seen the ocean and had never been on a plane, and suddenly he was looking down at the deep blue sea for hours, frightened and puzzled, too, by the enormity of a winged vessel soaring above the clouds.
“It was amazing,” Chepyego said of the long flight. “I was really scared and did not sleep.”
Koech had competed in a marathon in Holland and another in Scotland, but has otherwise lived a relatively impoverished life. The men live in the Rift Valley at about 9,000 feet elevation in the sparsely populated central part of the country. Koech works at his uncle’s gas station, Chepyego on a modest farm operated by his parents on the edge of Iten, Kenya. When he finally arrived with Chepyego in Sacramento on Wednesday, Koech was wearing running shoes that were too big for his size 61/2 feet. Both men carried backpacks with little more than a change of clothes and running shorts.
During a visit to Old Soul, a midtown coffee shop, the two sipped tea with steamed milk and ample sugar. As for that Kenyan coffee prized by aficionados? They don’t drink it, or any coffee, for that matter. Be that as it may, Old Soul’s roaster, Ryan Harden, stopped to say hello, and others shook their hands and wished them luck in Sunday’s race.
How they will perform – and how they will respond to the subfreezing temperatures at the start – is the subject of speculation. But in some ways, the results on race day mean far less than the experience of simply getting here, seeing an entirely new world and enjoying an unexpected moment of cross-jcultural appreciation.
“When we were running this morning,” said Koech, in an upbeat tone, “people were waving.”
For Davis, who has spent long hours and more than a few restless nights pulling this all together, the events have unfolded as if in a dream: Two runners he encountered in a book and befriended on Facebook were suddenly running with him in the morning, pulling away and disappearing in the distance.
Davis, who ran 4 miles with the Kenyans on Thursday, could only laugh at the idea of trying to match their pace. It is inspiring and humbling and thrilling to take it all in, he said.
“Running with these guys is like getting to throw a football with Colin Kaepernick or shoot hoops with Lebron James,” Davis said. “It was absolutely a dream come true.”
After Thursday’s run, Davis took the two to Mel’s Diner on Howe Avenue, where he noted their penchant for simple, bland diets. The runners ordered bread, honey, bananas and hard-boiled eggs. Back outside, they looked with confusion at a sign for Jenny Craig.
“That won’t make any sense to you,” Davis explained. “But this is where Americans come to lose weight.”
They later went to Fleet Feet, the popular Sacramento-based store for runners, to get outfitted with training shoes, arm warmers and beanies, the idea being that they will need little else to stay warm once the race gets going. Fleet Feet covered the costs.
“It is incredible what Conyers is doing and we want to help out in any way we can,” said Fleet Feet manager Dusty Robinson.
At the store, a customer trying on walking shoes, approached the two runners and welcomed them to town.
“I was very touched when I read about them,” said Sandi Lane, an avid walker. “I was absolutely hoping it would work out so they would come.”
Much has been made of Kenyan running prowess over the past two decades. Runners from the African nation, Finn notes in his book, had the top 20 fastest marathon times in 2011. Of the top 20 fastest marathon times ever, 17 were run by Kenyans.
In many ways, Koech and Chepyego are here now because the mystery behind Kenyan running aptitude persists. Finn spent months in Kenya learning the ways of the great distance runners. Koech and Chepyego were members of the running team he assembled to train for a marathon.
Is it genetic? Is it where they train? How they train? Is there something about their stride? Their attitude? Is it what they eat?
According to Finn, they run in a style that is somewhat revolutionary, surging and then slowing, often randomly, rather than maintaining a steady pace. They train at high altitude. They are strikingly slender.
Koech, asked to offer pointers for running fast and far, suggested there is no one big secret, or even several small ones.
“All people need exercise to live. It is a part of life,” he said softly. “Running is not only what we do, it has great meaning. We run for our life. I can’t say everyone can be a champion in running, but everyone is a champion in his own dream.”
The ultimate dream, of course, would be for both runners to perform at an elite level Sunday and perhaps hang in there with the leaders. While no one expects them to win, author Finn said they have the potential to achieve world-class times. Koech says his best time in a marathon is 2 hours and 21 minutes, which is fast but not yet the stuff of champions. He said his workouts were inconsistent when he posted that time and that he expects to be faster now that he is training with greater focus and intensity.
Tonight, they will join many in the local Kenyan community to recognize the 50th anniversary of Kenyan independence and have a group meal that will include a Kenyan staple known as ugali, which is little more than boiling water mixed with cornmeal. It will be a bit of comfort before Sunday’s competition. Both Koech and Chepyego know that if they can one day reach world-class status, running will transform their lives.
Davis, who has shepherded the two runners from one event to the next in the week since they arrived in San Francisco, said he hopes to run the marathon in four hours. But in many ways, his race – his dream to get Koech and Chepyego to the starting line here – is already completed.