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

Barnow has been coaching for 30 years and began working with Africans in the 1980s, when he served for a time as the coach of the Somalian national team. He has also coached Eamon Coughlin, the seven-time Millrose Games champion. He quit coaching college teams 10 years ago, and now makes his money by personal training and working with various groups and teams—he says he just barely scrapes by.

Barnow's is an unusual specialty. He helps the runners get into the country on a special visa that allows them to compete. He helps them find housing. He even helps them pay their bills, though he is not a wealthy man. He finds them racing shoes and doctors who will treat them at a discount. He enters them in races and deals with a multitude of smaller issues, often by shelling out money from his own pocket.

As he leaves the park, Ekuom walks up and tentatively asks him for $100—the race fee and bus fare for the trip that weekend to New Hampshire. Barnow chuckles a bit ruefully. Even so, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out five twenties and hands them to Ekuom. Later, he says, "Sometimes, I feel they ask for too much. I'm doing this pretty much on my own, and it's expensive."

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

(The following day, Kitur would make a similar request. He would get $60 from Barnow.)

From the outside, one thing is apparent in observing the interaction between Barnow and the Africans: The runners view him as a kind of benevolent curiosity—someone who gives them everything and asks for very little.

"He is a friend and a father," says Ekuom. "We say to ourselves, 'He is here to help.' I always ask him, 'Why are you doing this?' I think it's like a charity to him."

Every so often, Barnow gently tries to throw out signals that he needs them to kick in some of their winnings. But it doesn't seem to have much effect. So far, Barnow says, he does not insist that they give him a piece of their winnings. "We had a meeting the other day, and I told them I needed them to contribute because this whole thing is a real financial strain," Barnow says. "I'm not so sure if they heard me. I think they believe that all Americans are rich—which, in my case, isn't true."

A cold rain begins to fall, but two runners are still out on the track, pounding out more mileage.

"We're doing this with smoke and mirrors," Barnow says. "They come here for the land of opportunity, but they don't think more than a few weeks ahead."

Despite the team's success, the corporate sponsors aren't exactly breaking down the door to sponsor his group of itinerant runners. He estimated that he has spent $35,000 a year over the past three years on the runners. "I need help to get them to stop running so many races," he says. "My dream is to have enough money so they don't have to run all the time, so they can just train for three weeks and have the chance to reach their full potential."

Lately, Barnow has drawn some interest from a couple of companies, but these kinds of opportunities have surfaced in the past and faded. He remains hopeful.

On the weekend of December 6, two WTC men, Stephen Chemlany and Genna Tufa, were headed to the marathon in Memphis. Three other racers went to California: Aziza Aliyu, to Santa Monica, California, and Solome Kosgei and Kassahun Kabiso to Sacramento.

"It never stops," Barnow says.

For the record, Chemlany and Tufa finished second and third in Memphis, winning a couple of thousand dollars each. Aliyu placed second in Santa Monica; Kosgei won the Sacramento race, broke the course record, and brought home $1,000. The second-place finisher was an American Olympian. Kabiso, running in his seventh marathon of the year, fell ill at mile 18 and had to pull out of the race.

As for Evance Rotich, he returned to his village in Kenya after the Central Park race to train at high altitude. He tried to return for the marathon and, indeed, was scrambling to buy a ticket days beforehand. But it was not to be.

"In the end, we didn't have enough money to bring him for the event, and he decided to come back at the end of January," Camacho says.

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