Getting serious about running has opened up all kinds of possibilities for Sacramentan Conyers Davis: He’s happier, he’s less stressed, he has dropped 20 pounds.
But as he targeted his first marathon in December, training harder and running more swiftly with each passing week, he couldn’t shake the notion that the very runners who served as inspiration for him continued to live in desperate poverty and had few prospects to escape it. Davis had been moved by the best-selling book “Running with the Kenyans” by British writer Adharanand Finn. Finn lived with his family in Kenya for six months to train among the greatest distance runners on the planet, many of whom have homes without electricity and running water.
A few months ago, with the book still fresh in his mind, an idea came to Davis. He was never going to set the world on fire with his running – his goal is to cross the California International Marathon finish line in four hours. But what if he could do something for those who could? What if he could raise money to bring two of the most compelling runners in Finn’s book to compete in the marathon in Sacramento?
It was that simple. Davis, who is 34 and director of programming at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, launched a Fundraise.com campaign he dubbed “Kenyafornia.” He contacted Finn. Through Facebook, he befriended the two runners he hopes to sponsor: Japhet Koech, 26, and Shadrack Chepyego, 25. He created a website – kenyafornia.org – and within days, a movement was born.
The idea is to raise $6,000 to get the two runners from Kenya to the start line at the California International Marathon on Dec. 8. The race attracts thousands of runners of all levels, and has proved a draw for many top-flight competitors who enter because the Folsom-to-Sacramento, slightly downhill course is known as one of the fastest in the nation.
The marathon organizers were quick to show support, waiving the entry fees and giving Koech and Chepyego elite status so they could line up at or near the front of the pack. Davis says the two are good enough to contend, though they are largely unproven and so impoverished that they make due with second-hand sneakers.
The effort to get the runners to Sacramento started small. Davis, who lives in Sacramento with his wife, sent an email to friends and colleagues asking them to consider helping. It wasn’t lost on him just how different it was for him to sign up and run the marathon.
Davis recalls that he and some friends were enjoying a few beers at an East Sacramento pub one day after work in April when the talk turned to running, how they wanted to get in better shape and maybe drop a few pounds. To help affirm their commitment and focus their training, Davis suggested they register for the marathon.
“We were a couple of beers into the night, and the next thing you know, the smartphones are out, and $105 later, we had registered for the marathon,” Davis said with a shrug.
As he started to train, Davis also began reading running books. He found himself moved by Finn’s “Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth.” It is the latest in a subgenre that delves into the mystical side of running, the best known of which is “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, about Mexico’s Taramuhara Indians.
In his book, Finn describes how he moved with his wife and three children to Kenya to understand what makes Kenyans so dominant in the annals of distance running. At the time the book was written in 2011, Kenyans held the 20 fastest marathon times that year and 17 of the 20 fastest in history. Runners everywhere wanted to know their secrets and understand their passion.
Finn describes how he trained with and came to know several top-flight runners, learning about their lives, their love of running and, inescapably, their dire poverty. Koech and Chepyego play central roles in the narrative.
“These guys train with religious dedication day after day, and in any other country in the world, they would both be top professional runners,” Finn said in an email. “In some ways, Kenya is the worst country in the world to be a runner, because the competition for places in races is so fierce.”
He said he was thrilled to learn of Davis’ efforts to help Koech and Chepyego compete in Sacramento – and, if all goes well, to use the race as a springboard to a career in running.
“Japhet and Shadrack are really fast, but they’re poor,” Davis writes on the website devoted to the fundraising effort. “Shadrack’s parents are subsistence farmers, and Japhet lives in a modest home without electricity or running water on the edge of Iten, Kenya. In spite of these challenges, they’ve dedicated their lives to running – with the hope of competing internationally.”
Kenyan-born Shadrack Biwott, 28, who moved to the Sacramento area two months ago to train as a long-distance runner, called the fundraiser “a great idea.”
“Running in Kenya is pretty much all young people do these days,” said Biwott, who is now a U.S. citizen and, with a best time of 2 hours 13 minutes, is vying to make the Olympic team in the marathon.
“I can understand that it takes some time to break through because there are so many people who are running. I’m sure these two are working hard. A lot of people go to Europe or America, and if they have a good day, it opens doors. It’s a great opportunity for them.”
Koech said he was “really excited” by Davis’ plan to bring him to compete in Sacramento. “It has been a dream of mine to run in the United States of America,” he said.
“Running has given meaning to my life,” said Koech, by phone from Iten, his hometown in Kenya. “It helps me focus my energy and efforts and has given me something to strive for ... to work towards.”
Davis said he is working with an immigration lawyer to secure the proper documents for the runners. If his efforts fall short, however, he said he will refund all of the money.
How the two Kenyans would do if they compete here remains a mystery. Finn, who has completed the New York City Marathon in 2 hours 55 minutes, likes their chances, though he acknowledges they are largely untested. Their fastest times are around 2:20, though Finn sees them capable of sub-2:15 times. Last year, amid a heavy, cold downpour, the winning CIM time was 2:16:29. In 2011, the winner crossed the line in 2:11:50.
Davis believes others will also fall in love with the story of these runners and decide to contribute. His fundraiser is simple: He’s looking for 250 people to donate $26 each to bring the runners here. The $6,000 or so will pay for travel, lodging and the documents necessary for the athletes to make the trip. As of Thursday, contributions were at $3,903, or 65 percent of the goal. Davis is using the online platform Fundraise.com, a popular social fundraising website.
Davis envisions Sacramentans rallying behind the two as they take the start and, if all goes well, hold their own at the front of the pack.
“Everybody says that we’re out of touch in this country and don’t realize how good we have it. I don’t think that’s true,” Davis said. “Kenyafornia is all about bridging the gap between potential and opportunity. Japhet and Shadrack are fast but haven’t had the opportunity to prove their talent. I am hoping that we can give them that opportunity and, in doing so, make the CIM that much more exciting.”
CALIFORNIA INTERNATIONAL MARATHON
What: The CIM was founded in 1983 by the Sacramento Running Association. It is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon and the Olympic Marathon Trials.
When: This year, the race will be held Dec. 8.
Where: The course runs 26.2 miles, from Folsom Dam to the State Capitol.
For more information on the fundraising quest, visit www.kenyafornia.org.