By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In the final seconds of the five-mile New York Road Runners Team Championships in Central Park this August, a 33-year-old Kenyan named Evance Rotich made one last kick and nipped an Ethiopian named Girma Tola at the wire.
Winning with a time of 23:29, Rotich had run a scorching 4:42 per mile—a pace that would not only kill most people, but also turned out to be the second-fastest time in the history of the event. Tola finished just two seconds back, but his coach said later that Tola was actually "taking it easy."
Other runners from Africa, many of them Tola's teammates who run for the Westchester Track Club, took most of the other top places. In fact, the only non-African in the first 11 places was John Henwood, a man who has raced for his native New Zealand in the Olympic Games. He finished ninth.
It may have been only a club meet in Central Park, but your garden-variety Manhattan health nut who runs on the weekends wasn't getting anywhere near any of the medals. And as Rotich quietly pulled on a dark sweatsuit to leave the park, a controversy was brewing.
Word began spreading that Rotich was not technically a member of the club for which he had raced—the West Side Runners (WSX). In fact, he had never raced in New York City before.
Once that information was confirmed, race organizers with the New York Road Runners Club ruled that WSX had to surrender its team points, though Rotich was allowed to keep his title.
Rotich, it turned out, was a classic "ringer." And in the days afterward, in the online forums populated by the hypercompetitive types who tend to fill up running-club rosters, Rotich, WSX, and the Westchester Track Club were roasted.
"Westchester Track Club destroys any other track club in and around NYC. Is it really coaching, or is it just recruiting? Ninety-five percent of the top runners on that club are non-Americans from Africa who were already better than most local runners when they joined," griped one participant, and others joined in with their own complaints about local track clubs being so determined to win that they felt it necessary to bring in Africans to beat local New Yorkers.
"Nice to see WSX bringing in their own contingent of Ethiopians. . . . Is there some kind of agent for these guys who brokers these deals?" asked another.
In fact, there are brokers of a sort who send Ethiopians and Kenyans to small-time events in New York and other American cities, at the request of clubs looking to score a few extra points and get the modest purses handed out to winners.
Rotich's American coach, Jhonny Camacho, admits that, in fact, he, Rotich, and WSX were well aware that Rotich was not technically eligible for the points, but they decided to race him anyway. (WSX, in an online statement, took a sarcastic swipe at the New York Road Runners Team for being uptight about the rules.)
There's little point in grousing, he says. Kenyans and Eritreans and Ethiopians are no longer coming over only for the big, prestigious races in New York and Boston. They come to stay for years at a time—some permanently—and they don't just want to break the tape at the races covered by media. They want to come and take your club medal away, too, weekend warrior.
"People complain a lot," Camacho says. "They say it's unfair and, also, there's a lot of jealousy, I think. But this is America. It's a melting pot. We have to just accept it. It's not just Africans. You have Russians, South Americans, Mexicans, and people from other countries."
Global barnstormers, this band of skilled African athletes, some based in New York, travel from one small meet to another, following prize money in the hope of sending some cash home and making enough to preserve a frugal, almost monastic lifestyle that is about running and running alone.
It is their own version of the global economy—the use of their feet and legs and lungs to move relatively small amounts of money from the pockets of race sponsors in cities and towns around the U.S. home to Africa.
Despite their success—and they win races all the time—they get little respect and almost no ink, and are hardly known at all outside the running fraternity. Even in the races they win, it is likely that the people they defeat have no idea where they came from or how they got here.
The 2008 New York City Marathon was approaching a decisive point along First Avenue as a pack of four runners hung together at the front. Slightly behind them, another, quieter drama was taking place.
Abiyot Endale stood expectantly on First Avenue near 90th Street at the 18-mile mark. Holding a water bottle in his hand, he scanned the wide boulevard, looking for a fellow Ethiopian runner named Mohammed Awol.
Like Endale, Awol is an elite distance runner. In October, just three weeks earlier, he had run a 2:18 marathon in Baltimore and finished sixth. But the organizers of the New York City race had refused to allow him to put his water bottles at the special tables set aside for the top runners, because all the slots had been handed out.
If you're not among the very elite in races like New York's, you might as well be with the walkers in the back at a six-hour pace. Such is the harsh reality of distance running.
But still, Endale wanted to help his friend by giving him a water bottle from the sidewalk—a chancy move, given the security along the route.
When Awol appeared, he was a hazy, narrow figure at the crest of a hill. He was running in about 14th place, high enough that he still had a chance to crack the top 10—rare company. There are, after all, 40,000 runners in the event.
Endale called to his friend, but Awol was running on the other side of the wide roadway and didn't see him. Endale knew the police weren't about to allow him to run across the road and hand Awol his bottle.
So he turned to cross over to Fifth Avenue at mile 23, where the runners come after a short trip to the Bronx. The Fifth Avenue section features a long, slow, tortuous uphill climb that often shatters the lead pack.
Once the leaders had passed—Marilson Gomez Dos Santos of Brazil and Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco—and a few others, Awol appeared again. He was now running in 13th place. This time, Endale was able to hand him the bottle. Awol held the bottle for a few lengths, took a single, birdlike sip, and let it slide from one hand. The bottle rolled into the gutter, but by then, Awol had vanished over the next rise.
Crisis averted, Endale relaxed.
Awol's 13th-place finish (and first "local" runner across the line) is even more remarkable because he had no place to stay the night before the race. While the elite runners are put up at the marathon's expense in a posh hotel, Awol had to scramble—and ended up sharing a bed with another runner.
Awol's teammate, Kassahun Kabiso, who drives a cab in his spare time, finished 14th. It was Kabiso's sixth marathon this year—he won two of them and never finished lower than 17th.
Deresse Deniboba, the man who gave up half his bed to Awol, finished 20th, while Genna Tufa finished 16th and a training partner, Teklu Tefera Deneke, finished 18th.
And although Awol and Kabiso finished only seconds behind the South African runner and 2004 marathon winner Hendrik Ramaala, who is sponsored by Adidas, each man had run another marathon just a few weeks earlier.
Awol (who made $5,000 for his performance) and Kabiso finished ahead of several top American runners, including Jacob Frey, who is sponsored by the shoe company Saucony. And they defeated Toshiya Katayama, a Japanese Olympian.
"Awol made the mistake of running with the lead pack for 14 miles," says Mike Barnow, a grizzled New Paltz track coach who manages and wrangles the WTC's Bronx African distance contingent. "If he was less aggressive, he might have placed even higher."
On the very same weekend, two of their teammates—Elijah Kitur and Joseph Ekuom—took an overnight bus to New Hampshire, napped on someone's floor, and then finished first and second, respectively, in the Manchester Half Marathon. They ran about two minutes faster than the first American finisher.
Two others, Abraham Ng'etich and Solome Kosgei, took a bus to Virginia, where they won their respective divisions in a five-miler. Kosgei was racing with just seven weeks' training, only six months after giving birth, and she finished six minutes ahead of the first American woman.
On the previous weekend, the WTC men were three of the top-10 finishers in the Boston Mayor's Cup race and won the team division. Kitur tied for fourth.
In the women's race in Boston, Aziza Aliyu and Kosgei took second and third. Aliyu, just 21, won seven consecutive races earlier this year, and, in a New Jersey 10K, she defeated the legendary Kenyan Catherine Ndereba, a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon, a silver medalist at the Beijing Olympics, and the second-fastest female marathoner of all time.
Yet despite all of those high finishes, every one of them is nearly anonymous, even to many people who run obsessively and watch and participate in races. They rack up good results in places all around the country, year after year.
But after the Gebreselassies and Ronos and Lagats have broken the finishing tape, the rest that stream in might as well have pulled their names from a phonebook.
While the organizers of the marathon go out of their way to invite elite racers from around the world, Barnow says they give only modest recognition to the incredible talent base of international runners who already live in the city.
On a recent afternoon, three Kenyan runners relax in their modest apartment near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Five runners—four male, one female—actually live here. The place is so sparsely furnished that it looks as if they could move out in about five minutes, if necessary.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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."
(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.