Folsom resident Shadrack Biwott is making a habit of this, of running through the streets of Boston and its surrounding neighborhoods, sticking with the lead pack at the world’s most prestigious marathon, and finishing within several tortured strides of the eventual winner.
A year ago, Biwott took fourth place. On Monday, in the harshest conditions, he crossed the finish line behind Yuki Kawauchi and Geoffrey Kirui, his vision so impaired by the driving rain and wind, he didn’t realize that a late burst would have overtaken Kirui.
“I didn’t know how close Kirui was until later,” Biwott said with a soft smile. “I couldn’t see anything.”
Maybe next year, then. Biwott’s career ascension has been sure and steady since he moved to Northern California six years ago. Tired of the damp and rainy weather in Eugene – where at the University of Oregon he was an All-American in track and cross country, met his wife, Katharine, and earned a degree – the couple decided to head south after visiting relatives in Roseville.
His adopted hometown has become his professional and personal slice of heaven – cozy and warm. Besides impressive finishes in the Boston Marathon these past two years, he was fifth in the New York City Marathon in 2016. His increasing success enabled him to secure a sponsorship deal with Brooks, the sneaker company that also sponsors Desiree Linden, who on Monday became the first American to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years.
Back home on Tuesday, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Neighbors hung balloons and a replica bronze medal on the front gate of his residential community. Banners and more balloons were attached to the front door and around his house. A party is being planned for later in the week, though the neighbors want the time and place to surprise their endearing, immensely popular local celebrity.
“To have Shadrack perform like that on an international stage is amazing,” said Scott Abbott, executive director of the Sacramento Running Association. “There are a lot of people sharing in this celebration because they feel like they know him. He has time for everybody. There have been very few elite runners in our community who are so giving.”
In his spare time, Biwott speaks at schools, helps out at local races, often is seen handing out water and giving hugs. The generosity is reciprocated. Bikers on the American River Parkway and other trails often ride alongside as he runs, voicing encouragement and asking if he needs water.
“If I can inspire one child to believe in himself, then I’m happy,” he says. “That’s my goal.”
As he sits at his kitchen table Wednesday afternoon, an hour after a much-needed massage relieves some of his aches and pains on his slender, 5-foot-10 frame, Biwott sounds almost surprised by his increasing good fortune. His journey features as many twists and turns – and obstacles – as Monday’s marathon. Born in Eldoret, a city of almost 300,000 in western Kenya, he began running at an early age, following in a rich national tradition that consistently produces elite international distance runners.
He grew up on a 10-acre farm in a rural village about 13 miles from the city, and he and his two brothers ran everywhere in their bare feet. “Three miles to school in the morning,” he related, “three miles home for lunch, then three miles back to school, and then back home. It comes to about 10 or so miles per day.”
When he wasn’t running or studying, he was leading the cows out to graze, feeding the chickens, goats and other animals. His chores often included taking buckets to a nearby river to fetch water, first carrying them in each hand, and as he grew older and stronger, positioning them on his head.
The family grew their own vegetables, but had no electricity, no running water, no flushable toilets.
After an uncle in Albuquerque helped enroll him in a student exchange program at La Cueva High, 16-year-old Shadrack experienced waves of culture shock, beginning with the flight. “I was so scared, so scared,” Biwott said. “I had never been on a plane. Then when I landed, my uncle had a nice house, with running water. Things I never knew.”
He spoke no English at the time, either, but credits an ESL teacher with giving him the tools and guidance to succeed. Within two years he was fluent and thriving on the school’s track team. He won the state championship in cross country in 2003 and earned a scholarship to the University of New Mexico.
After a strong freshman season, Oregon coaches reached out and offered a full scholarship. Biwott couldn’t resist. He transferred. Oregon was re-emerging as the premier program at the time. And besides. The charismatic Steve Prefontaine ran for the Ducks before his tragic death in an auto accident in 2003. Who didn’t want to be the next “Pre”?
By then, Biwott was comfortably immersed in American culture. He met Katharine through the running community. After both graduated and she went on to attend law school, he embarked on a pro career, though with mostly discouraging results. He struggled with Achilles tendonitis in the damp, cool weather. Potential sponsors lost interest. Doubts began to creep in.
That all changed when the couple visited Katharine’s twin sister in 2012, coincidentally, the year he completed an exhaustive process and became an American citizen. The couple relocated to Folsom, lured by the rolling hills, running trails and schools.
Xavier, 11, and Eve, 5, are active, athletic reflections of their parents. Xavier runs track but prefers basketball – he loves Allen Iverson – and takes hip hop dance classes because, his mother jokingly tells him, “Girls like boys who can dance.” Eve is a running, tumbling package of energy, a gymnast who is learning to play the piano.
While their father was enduring what he termed “the worst conditions I have ever run in” back in Boston, the kids were at school. Katharine was seated on the floor in the family room, caressing her pet rabbit as he nervously stared at the big screen. Her cellphone was within reach; she and her sister, a veterinarian in Loomis, texted constantly.
Later, Shadrack called from his cellphone and offered details of his misery, of slapping his face because his cheeks were numb, of trying to shield his eyes in a futile attempt to overcome the rain, of shivering for hours after crossing the finish line. Too, he was pondering what might have been. Kirui finished in 2 hours, 18 minutes, 23 seconds. Biwott, who had some juice remaining but slowed his pace because he thought his place was already decided, crossed the line 12 seconds later.
Katharine, in fact, saw what Shadrack could not: Kirui appearing to labor, with her husband on his heels, but oblivious. "I was screaming at the TV,” she said, laughing. “ ‘Catch him! You can catch him! Push harder!’ ”
In the future, Biwott plans to prepare for the worst of circumstances. He noted that Japan’s Kawauchi, who finished in 2:15:58 wore goggles, for instance. He will look at that. He will talk to his coaches and consider just about anything, because when you win bronze, you prefer silver, and you really prefer gold.
“That’s what I am hoping,” he said, smiling. “I am close.”