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Issue 495 -- 23rd - 29th July 2011
Kenyan Runner Hopes Success In U.S. Will Improve Her Family's Life
By Sam Mcmanis
Far from her husband and family, separated from her tribe and the comforting familiarity of her culture, Caroline Kirui seemed restless as she emerged from the guest bedroom, padded down the hallway and slid onto a kitchen bar stool.
Dinner hour approached, and a guest was in the house located on a quiet Auburn, Calif., cul-de-sac where Kirui herself is a long-term guest from Kenya. She smiled, radiating friendliness, stuck out her hand for a shake and said "hello" in a high, fluty voice. Then she settled into silence, her right leg nervously fidgeting under the counter.
Her host, elite U.S. marathoner Brad Poore, was talking to the visitor, a reporter, and Kirui leaned forward and seemed to be trying gamely to follow along. Though she speaks little English, and Poore knows only rudimentary phrases in Kipsigis the language spoken among Kirui's tribe in the Rift Valley she brightened when stray words appeared to register.
That is the crux and nexus of life this summer for the promising 20-year-old middle distance runner from rural Kenya. She has come to the United States on a tourist visa to run a few road races, from 5K to the half marathon, in hopes of earning enough money to help support her family, including her husband, Weldon, himself a young Kenyan runner who will be coming in August for a brief stay with Poore in Auburn.
Poore had trained on three occasions at a well-known camp for Kenyan runners in the Rift Valley both before and after he completed law school at UC Davis, so he can relate to the disconnected feeling of being thrust into a foreign milieu.
In the past three years, he has brought several young Kenyan runners to Northern California in what might be considered an informal running exchange program. The first was his girlfriend, Jane Kibii, who lived in Davis, Calif., while Poore was still in school in 2007-08. Kibii, sponsored by several U.S. companies, now races throughout Europe and Africa.
"This is Caroline's first trip and she doesn't have a sponsor yet," Poore said. "The objective is to go home with enough money so that she's able to come back and make enough to help her family and support her running. If she can go home with a couple of thousand dollars (this time), it'd be good."
Poore then turned to Kirui, trying to include her in the conversation. In an awkward lull, the only sound being the murmur of a soccer game on the TV in the other room, Poore suggested dinner.
On this night, it would be a basic dish Kenyan comfort food, perhaps chopped beef roast and sauteed cabbage over white rice. They had made it after Kirui's second run of the day and after Poore had returned home from his job as an attorney at Leupp & Woodall in Auburn.
"Caroline, can you help?" Poore said, enunciating slowly and precisely, and pointing to the pot on the gas stove. "Can you make hot?"
Happy to be of use, perhaps, Kirui scurried to help Poore prepare the meal, even though a week earlier she'd never seen an oven. She hardly spoke during dinner and the postprandial tea, but nearly jumped out of her seat when the phone rang.
Poore bent to check the caller ID before answering.
"Caroline," he said. "It is a Kenyan number. It is for you."
She smiled, took the phone from him and began speaking softly in her native dialect as she walked back down the hallway to her room.
It has been nearly two months since Kirui boarded a plane in Nairobi her first time in Kenya's capital and flew to Chicago and then Ottawa, Canada, clutching her bag in one hand and a printout of a letter Poore wrote on her behalf. It read: "My name is Caroline Kirui and I am a professional runner from Kenya. This is the first time I have left Africa, and English is not my first language. If I am asking you for help it is probably because I do not know which gate I need or how to get there."
Coming to North America had been a goal for Caroline and Weldon. They had seen other runners from their tribe make the trip and return with money to help their families. So the couple sold some possessions to help defer cost of their visa processing fees and the plane ticket for Caroline.
Not only did she arrive in Canada's capital without a hitch, she finished seventh in the prestigious Ottawa 10K on May 28, earning $600, her first race outside Kenya. Next stop was Sacramento a few days later to make her home base with Poore, who serves as her manager, benefactor and friend away from home.
The first thing he did was take her to the Auburn Running Company, where a friend there sprung for a pair of racing shoes.
"The ones she had," Poore said, "were pretty worn."
Then, on June 5, Kirui put those new shoes to use by winning the Fleet Feet Nike Women's Fitness Festival 5K in downtown Sacramento by more than a minute the first-place award being a pink cruiser bicycle that Poore is now trying to sell for cash.
On July 4, she traveled to Atlanta for the nation's top road 10K, the Peachtree Race. The youngest elite runner entered, she finished ninth and earned $700.
The race may have been a success, but Kirui's return trip turned into an unsettling adventure. Her connecting flight in Las Vegas was canceled, and Kirui wound up sleeping in the airport terminal, going without food for nearly 24 hours, as Poore spent hours on the phone asking the airline to put her in a hotel. Kirui showed everyone the letter explaining that she did not speak English and asking that Poore be contacted, but he received no call.
"I am very protective of (the Kenyan) athletes," Poore said, who could not accompany Kirui to Atlanta. "She was not treated right. She was in tears."
Such a mixup won't happen today, when both Kirui and Poore will run the Napa-to-Sonoma Half Marathon. Her final race before returning home will be the San Francisco Half Marathon on July 31. It is a lot of racing in a short time, but that's the goal.
"If she does well enough," Poore said, "she can try for a P-1 visa, for professional athletes and that's a five-year visa to travel for races."
If Poore sounds a lot like a manager, that's because he unofficially is. Not that he makes much, if any, money in it. He's happy, at least for now, to break even and cover the plane tickets and other travel expenses for the Kenyans he helps bring over.
There is an altruistic side to Poore's efforts.
Several extended stays in Kenya, arranged by a friend of a friend of three-time Boston Marathon champion Ibrahim Hussein, enabled Poore to improve enough to qualify for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. (He's now trying to meet the 2012 qualifying standard of 2 hours, 19 minutes; he ran 2:21 recently in San Diego.)
Poore, who majored in international relations at UC Davis, taught English in Somaliland and eventually migrated to Kenya and arranged to stay for several months at a running camp in Kapsabet.
"I still remember the first time I ran with them, they left me at least a mile behind," he recalled. "I joked with them later, said Brad had died out on the trails. After that, they came up with a new name for me, 'Kiptoo.' It means 'born in the presence of strangers.' "
These days, more American distance runners travel to the Rift Valley to train, but in 2003, Poore was a rarity.
"I think that the biggest difference between most Kenyan runners and Western runners is they have this inherent belief they can and will win," Poore said. "They, for the most part, don't understand about pacing. They run by feel."
When not running up and down the verdant hills of the Rift Valley at a 6,000-foot elevation, Poore became friends with veteran runners and saw first-hand how some athletes are exploited and sometimes flat-out robbed by unscrupulous agents both home-grown and from the United States and Europe.
"Originally I absolutely swore I'd never manage (Kenyan) athletes," he said. "It often ends up with a lot of accusations back and forth about stealing from each other. I had so many good friends there, the last thing I wanted was to jeopardize it."
Poore's first "client" was Kibii, his girlfriend. The two met in 2007 in Canada, when both ran in a road race. Poore found Kibii a manager in the United States to arrange a racing schedule and try for endorsement deals but, says Poore, "it fell through." So he decided to manage Kibii himself.
Kibii stayed with Poore for nine months in Davis, as he finished law school. He contacted every major shoe company and running-apparel manufacturer in the country for sponsorship, but was rebuffed. Eventually, Kibii found sponsorship from Luna Bar as part of their Luna Chix pro racing team, as well as support from Zazzle, a Bay Area company that sponsors the Bay to Breakers race.
"Luna has changed Jane's life," Poore said.
Dave McLaughlin, the Luna Chix general manager, said they added Kibii because she's a talented distance runner, not as a "token Kenyan."
"She's doing great for us," he said. "The Kenya thing is just an aside. But it is amazing when you see photos of her village and what an impact a relatively small sponsorship can have in someone's life."
Kibii has invested in real estate in Kenya and helped family and friends financially. Poore has advised her to save her money, since real estate is tricky given the tribal skirmishes that occasionally erupt in rural Kenya. Plus, you never know when funding will dry up. Many talented Kenyan runners are coming to the United States to race, making prize money and endorsements harder to earn.
Still, it's worth the gamble. Manager Scott Robinson, who formed AmeriKenyan Running Club in Santa Fe, N.M., says even a modicum of success makes a difference.
"Making $500 a month here running a race or two is more than quadrupling what they'd have the potential to make at home," Robinson said. "But as Brad and I find, the cost of travel, housing and food eat up the money. It can be a frustrating deal."
Equally frustrating is convincing the sports industry that signing Kenyans will help build their brand image.
"The market has a backlash against them," Poore said. "Part of it is because (the runners) are shy. And the problem is, people don't see them as individuals. They're always 'the Kenyans.' "
Tom Long, CEO of the athletic supplement AirAide, has signed several Kenyans and helped others, including Poore's runners. Long has set up a nonprofit to help bring Kenyans to the U.S. to live and train. He says U.S. marketers are missing out if they ignore Kenyan runners.
"Have you seen the way (fans) react to them at races?" Long asked. "They are treated like rock stars. They walk around before races and people stop them and ask to have their pictures taken with them. And because they're wearing the AirAide logo on their singlets, that helps promote (his company)."
Back in Auburn, Kirui's life this summer hardly resembles that of a rock star. She may one day become a world-class middle-distance standout, or simply remain a speedy runner who can scrape out a living doing a sport she loves.
"It's hard to predict," Poore says. "Kenya has so many talented runners. I just want to see Caroline maximize her talent and her income."
Then he turned to Kirui, who had returned to kitchen, and asked, "Right, Caroline?"
She flashed a high-beam smile. Ambition need not be articulated to be understood.
Source: Kansas City/ McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers