Kenyan runners en route to Sacramento thanks to fundraiser and last-minute drama

The news came at the end of a dramatic and often stressful week for Conyers Davis, who months ago embarked on an effort to raise money to bring two unheralded and impoverished Kenyan runners to compete in the California International Marathon on Dec. 8.

Davis, a running enthusiast training to do a four-hour marathon, had learned about the two runners, Japhet Koech and Shadrack Chepyego, in the best-selling book he had read for inspiration, “Running With the Kenyans” by British writer Adharanand Finn.

The online “Kenyafornia” fundraiser Davis created easily surpassed its $6,000 goal by Oct. 14. But behind the scenes in the days since, Davis encountered roadblocks and hurdles as he attempted to secure the necessary paperwork to get runners from Nairobi to Sacramento. Their flight was booked for today, but by Thursday, a sleep-deprived Davis had all but hit the wall.

“It really comes down to the embassy giving them the documents in time to catch their flight,” he wrote in an email to the many who chipped in money to help pay the runners’ travel and lodging expenses. “It’s an incredibly frustrating situation, and we are hoping for a swift resolution.”

At one point, Davis had been told by an intermediary in Nairobi that the passports would not be released in time and that the runners should not board the bus for the five-hour overnight trip from their remote village to the airport. Via Facebook, Davis suggested the runners get on the bus anyway, hoping for good news.

At close to midnight Thursday, after a whirlwind of phone calls, a personal intervention from a professor in Kenya and a last-minute assist from U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office, Davis got the good news – Koech and Chepyego got their visas and were ready to board the flight from Nairobi to San Francisco. They are expected to land in San Francisco at 2 p.m. today.

“I was at my wits’ end. I just felt powerless,” Davis said of the many bureaucratic entanglements. “It was a very long day. They had all the paperwork sitting and waiting. They had interviewed Japhet and Shadrick 16 days earlier. It wasn’t like this was a last-minute request.”

The news has been a mix of relief and excitement for Davis; the local Kenyan community has been overjoyed upon learning that the two runners are coming. Several families have volunteered to host them in their homes and many have stepped forward to prepare traditional home-cooked meals to lessen the culture shock of the trip here.

“I am getting four or five families calling and saying, ‘Let me cook. Let me cook.’ The whole community is excited because we have never seen anything like this before,” said Alex Kiruja, a certified public accountant who moved to the area in 1996. “I was so excited when Conyers sent me the email that they finally got their visas. The Kenyan community is so excited, too. I have never even met a marathon runner.”

Come again?

“When people hear I am from Kenya, they think I must be a good runner,” Kiruja said with a laugh. “But I couldn’t run to save my life. Most of the marathon runners are from the central part of Kenya,” where it is sparsely populated and runners benefit from training at high elevations.

The journey to the start line in Folsom for the marathon here promises to be equal parts whirlwind and culture shock for the two runners, who live in such poverty that they don’t have running water or electricity. Still, they are immensely talented runners who are expected to compete at or near the front of the pack next Sunday.

Davis has lined up a thorough itinerary for Koech and Chepyego: They will lead a 2-mile “fun run” open to the public next Saturday at 8 a.m. at the Guy West Bridge; they will sign books and mingle with the public Thursday from 6-9 p.m. at Exhibit S, an art gallery in Downtown Plaza; they will attend the Sacramento Kings-Los Angeles Lakers game Friday as guests of the Kings, where the duo will be introduced to fans during the game; and they will be guests of honor at a special dinner hosted by the Sacramento area’s Kenyan community to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kenyan independence from British rule.

Prior to arriving in Sacramento, the pair will participate in a fun run at Fisherman’s Wharf. They will lead another one on Dec. 11 at Facebook headquarters before flying back to Kenya on Dec. 12.

Along the way, they will run their first marathon on U.S. soil, with thousands of folks lining the streets to welcome them and cheer them on.

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