Big city marathons have a way of making even hardened urbanists feel out of place, but spare a thought for those athletes at the front of the pack, who may be travelling overseas for the first time
Words by Adharanand Finn
Images by JINDŘICH JANÍČEK
Japhet Koech had never even been to a big city. The fertile farmland and rolling dirt roads of Kenya’s Rift Valley region had been his entire world. But in the last few days he had caught a bus to Nairobi, slept on an airport floor, battled the moving stairs in Dubai and had now arrived in the cold, sparse landscape of the Netherlands in late winter, where he was to race the Utrecht Marathon. No wonder he looked a little befuddled.
“You are a runner,” Vincent, his more experienced Kenyan colleague, told him as they sat together in the lobby of the race hotel. “It is the same in Europe or in Kenya. You just run.”
Japhet nodded. He knew it made sense, but this all felt very different.
Every Kenyan you see running away at the front of every big road race across the world, from New York to Tokyo, has their story of the first time they “went abroad”. They laugh, looking back later, at how terrifying everything was; gripping the seat as the plane took off, looking around nervously as they were led into a small metal box and the door closed - also known as taking the elevator.
As we drove through the countryside from the airport to the hotel in Utrecht, Japhet asked me why all the trees were dead. He knew nothing of the seasons. As we jogged through the local neighbourhood the next morning, he asked me why so many people were tied to dogs.
And yet, as he stands on the start line on race day, this wide-eyed young man from rural Kenya, standing just 5ft 2in and weighing just 108 pounds, swamped by his new race outfit, receives anxious glances from his taller, more worldly rivals. Thousands more people further back are simply honoured to be running with him.
A cycling coach in Kenya once told me: “There are few things from Africa that generate such genuine awe, fear, and unreserved respect, as a Kenyan runner on the start line of a marathon.”
In the end Japhet didn’t win - he came fifth - but his story is repeated every time a runner from east Africa steps up to the line in their first race abroad. And often they do win. For the Kenyans, just getting there is the hard part, fighting for enough recognition from among the thousands of hard-working, talented runners in Kenya to get that golden ticket to a race abroad.
I once entered a cross-country race in Kenya. As a 34-minute 10K runner, by halfway I’d been lapped by over half the field and was going backwards fast, so I dropped out, utterly humiliated. In the UK I had recently won a similar race. In Kenya, among four hundred runners, I was by far the slowest.
So once they get to the start line abroad, they can begin to relax. Here there are just a few Kenyans in each race. They smile. “Winning here is easy,” they say. “You just have to run like a Kenyan.”