Will Run for Food

Based in the Bronx, some of the most successful athletes you've never heard of live to run away with your club money

From one room, Kenyan music emanates from a portable cassette player. A game show is playing on a television with mediocre reception in the living room. The place smells of Kenyan tea. Someone has made Kenyan bread, which is kind of like a pancake. The atmosphere is almost contemplative.

There is a quiet, monastic rhythm to the runners' lives. For people who can run so fast, they seem to live very slowly. They sleep, eat, run in the morning, eat, nap, run in the afternoon, eat, and then sleep.

While they could apply for work permits, few do because they are concerned it would damage their race fitness. And so they run and eat and run and sleep—and that is their life.

‘We watch television and run and rest and eat and nothing else.’
Jesse Reed
‘We watch television and run and rest and eat and nothing else.’

Barnow explains the different sense of time: "They are used to waiting for the bus back home, and the bus might come early or late, or not at all. It gives them a deep patience."

"We watch television and run and rest and eat and nothing else," says Stanley Kipchumba, one of the tenants.

It is not long before the subject of East African dominance in distance running comes up. Kipchumba ascribes their success to the fact that distance running is the national sport in Kenya, and so the talent pool is enormous. The best runners are identified from when they're in elementary school.

"It's the love of the sport," he says. "We believe in ourselves, that we can excel because of all the guys who came before us—just like the Americans are good in basketball and the Brazilians are good in soccer."

There is also the mileage: Running is a part of the lifestyle, and these runners tend to have many more miles on their legs by the time they begin serious competition than Americans of similar age do. Much of that running is at high-altitude, another advantage. And there's no denying that body type—they tend to be very slender and light, with long legs—and an almost inhuman aerobic capacity are critical pieces of the equation.

All of it adds up to an intensely competitive, hothouse atmosphere. "The level of competition is absolutely crazy," Barnow says. "At the 10,000-meter Olympic trials in Kenya, you might have 20 guys who are in the top 30 in the world, and they are running for just three spots."

Kipchumba arrived on Barnow's doorstep in 2004 after cutting ties with his sports manager. "He wasn't communicating with me," he says. "At times, he wanted me to race too much."

"Some managers in Europe are good, and some are not so good," Kitur says. "Some of them push you to race all the time."

The tension between runners and their managers or agents is a routine kind of thing in a business where the true rewards are severely limited to only the very top of a very large heap. As successful as they are here, most of Barnow's runners would be mid-pack athletes back home. With that kind of competition at home, many are looking to sign with European or American agents. Some of those agents are also directors for prestigious races, which means they can place their own runners in high-profile events. Typically, a manager might bring an athlete in from Kenya for the summer, run him in three or four races, and take 15 percent of the winnings.

Some runners complain about unscrupulous agents who keep their prize money or insist that they race all the time, without proper rest.

"Not all managers are bad," Kipchumba says. "Some are truly trying to develop the athlete, rather than just trying to win now. But there are unscrupulous managers who are only interested in the prize money that you make. It's a big business."

While super-elite runners can get rich on prizes, appearance fees, and sponsorships, the purses drop precipitously for the men and women only slightly behind them.

Merely showing up to a marathon for a world-famous runner like Britain's Paula Radcliffe or Haile Gebreselassie can mean more than $100,000—no matter where that person finishes. Lesser, but still prominent, runners might get anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000.

But for the second-tier runners, the paydays are relatively small. The purse in a regional race might fetch the winner a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Most of the athletes chasing this tier of winnings make about $20,000 a year in race winnings—hardly a living salary, especially in New York City, but still something to help support the family back home.

Consider the Central Park Team Championship winner, Rotich: He met his coach, Jhonny Camacho, at the World Cross Country Championships and decided to train with him and race in the United States.

Through 2008, Rotich kept popping up in races around the country and elsewhere. This year alone, he has competed in New York, San Diego, Connecticut, New Mexico, Mexico, Kenya, and Europe, Camacho says. He has listed Torrington, Connecticut, Albuquerque, and Kenya as home.

In May, he won $300 for a third-place finish in a San Diego 8K. Kenyans occupied the four top spots. In July, he finished sixth in an 8K in Tennessee. In August, he won the Torrington Connecticut Road Race and set a course record, and then finished eighth in a Binghamton, New York, race.

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