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

"They come and go—three months here and back again," Camacho says. "They make a little money to buy a plot of land and cattle. Running is their life."

"When the weather is cold, they go somewhere warm," Camacho adds. "They are constantly moving and training and racing. They are always looking for races. I don't know how they find them, but they do."

This global competition is so intense, Camacho says, that the runners will go anywhere to compete. In a recent, relatively unheralded half-marathon in Puerto Rico, he says, there were 32 elite athletes from all over the world. "They go anywhere for the prize money," he says. "They went so fast that they killed each other for the money."

Training in Van Cortlandt Park: 
Joseph Ekuom, Stephen Chemlany, and Kassahun Kabiso
Jesse Reed
Training in Van Cortlandt Park: Joseph Ekuom, Stephen Chemlany, and Kassahun Kabiso
Jesse Reed

Sometimes, runners will arrive from Kenya or Ethiopia and just call Barnow from the airport, without much money in their pockets, any idea where they will stay, or where they will race. Sometimes, they have been dumped by their agents. Sometimes, they have been invited in by clubs and then set loose. Often, they have stress fractures, bad knees, or other maladies from over-racing. Whatever the reason, there seems to be a belief that Barnow will take care of them when they arrive.

"They come to me, and they want me to help them with all kinds of things," Barnow says. "Some of them have been cast off by the big agents. Or they have over-raced and they're injured. Or they want to flee a bad situation back home."

Kitur attended college in Kansas in 1999, and has been moving between the U.S. and Kenya since then. On his most recent sojourn to the States, after he broke with his agent, Kitur called Barnow from Kennedy Airport, looking for a place to stay that night.

"I told Elijah, 'Don't come without any money,' and then I get this call from him," Barnow says. "I'm 100 miles away. He ended sleeping in the airport and then on the floor at a friend's house."

For Kitur, the trip was strictly business. "There aren't a lot of races in Kenya, so we come over here to win races," he says. "We are trying to sell ourselves. Ultimately, we hope for endorsements and shoe contracts."

Joseph Ekuom, 38, called Barnow from Harlem about three years ago. Ekuom had fallen in with a man who had promised to represent him in the United States, but, in reality, he just wanted him to train with his son. He realized that he was in a bad situation and sought Barnow's help.

He raced here for a while, returned to Kenya, and then came back again. "I arrived here looking for a good manager, and found Mike," he says.

At times, runners are invited to America by other clubs, but somehow, they often seem to end up calling Barnow, looking for help.

Ekuom says he is constantly recruited by other clubs. "I came here to train with Mike," he says. "They say, 'Oh, come run for us. Maybe we will give you some money.' But I say, 'Will you do what Mike does for us?' "

Sometimes, the runners face resistance from race organizers who seek to limit the number of foreign runners.

Race organizers split prize money between native runners and the outlanders, or they limit the number of foreign athletes, or they limit prize money to Americans, or they ban foreign athletes altogether.

"There's definitely a backlash at times," Barnow admits. "Every so often, you get race directors who don't like it."

"The problem is almost worldwide," Kipchumba adds. "There are races in Europe for Europeans only. You don't even get to enter them. Or if you do, you don't get any prize money."

At the storied cross-country path in Van Cortlandt Park on a recent cold and windy morning, two WTC men emerge from the woods, flying with graceful machine efficiency along the gravelly track, moving so much faster than the workaday joggers that it is astonishing.

Eventually, there are about 10 top distance runners stretching and readying themselves for their training regimen.

Barnow, now standing trackside in an awkward, lumpy winter jacket, holds a stopwatch as two Ethiopian women, Aliyu and Muliye Lemma, run forest loops with Mike Owens, a track coach at Manhattanville College

The Africans train so hard and race so much, Barnow says, that his hardest job is getting them to slow down and take breaks so they can compete at their highest level when it matters. And so most of the time, Barnow stands by quietly and merely says, "Take it easy" when they fly past, and "Good" when the trio arrives at the end of the session.

Kabiso, with his six marathons this year, is an example of a runner with the drive to over-race. As it is, he is trying to train and race while still driving a cab 20 to 30 hours a week. "If he was sponsored, ideally, he should run two marathons a year," Barnow says. "But he has to do this to survive."

When they reach the completion of their laps, Aliyu and Lemma are not sweating, while Owens, the Manhattanville coach, is drenched and looks like he's about to keel over.

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