Day 354: Big Ideas and the People Who Can't Control Them

by lara vogel,

I may run slower than pretty much any Kenyan, but I have no doubt now that I am allowed to call myself a "Runner." Capital R.

Why the sudden titular confidence? Not because I suddenly ran very far (I walked the majority of 4 miles today, but it was because some primary school children were being evil and whiny in that particular way 9 year olds can be).

But because through some miracle of networking, Claire and I have become the contact point people for some running heavyweights in Kenya. It is solely because I am a Runner that Claire and I met with two former Boston Marathon competitors (and I mean actual competitors, not just participants), and their friend the former five-time world champion and Olympic gold-medal winner in cross country. Needless to say, this is exactly what all who know me would expect me to do on any given Thursday.

In that peculiar serendipity that occurs when you are willing to ask people about themselves and how they can help you help other people, we found these Kenyan runners and discovered a mutual interest in using running to help the horrific number of AIDS orphans in Kenya. They told us on Wednesday that they would stop by sometime next week.

So when we got back from the market, we ignored the group of elders talking outside our door, as they looked just like a lot of other elders who course through this place—except they were wearing some shiny sneakers below their full-wool suits in the 80 degree heat. We should have known. But of course we didn’t. So we carried on as normal, sweating and panting our way toward our door with our week’s worth of groceries. Finally, someone prompted us to greet "our guests" and in the interest of clearing up the confusion, we discovered that we were not just unkempt, disorganized, and dressed like 12 year olds…but that we were dressed like 12 year olds while ignoring people who were trying to help us.

Quite unbelievably, these people had stopped by Tumaini on their way from Nairobi (many hours away) to a funeral, and had wanted to see the work we were doing. It took the kids a while to catch on to what was happening. Since these were champions of before (he won the 1988 Olympics), the kids had to adjust their sense of Kenyan Olympic runners to include typical-looking middle-aged men. But, once these men started talking, the kids stopped looking wary and started gathering.

These men encouraged these kids so successfully, that it started bleeding into me (clearly—hence my new Runner status). Happily for Claire and I, they also convinced the kids that drinking water after a long run would NOT kill them—a myth begun by the primary school teachers, apparently. The men’s words also helped the kids to believe that some version of stretching could potentially be beneficial—another “American myth” we have kept trying to force onto them against their will. They even told the kids to listen to us, and when the shocking memory that we count as running coaches in such a group registered on our faces, they had the presence of mind to then quickly re-direct their encouragement to us and promise support.

Hearing that other people thought our idea was a good idea, and that other people wanted to help us was exactly the boost the kids, Claire, and I needed. This Olympian had begun his training by chasing rabbits around the countryside (he found out that after about 40 minutes of such training, rabbits do get tired—with training, he could catch them by the 20-minute mark), and he encouraged the kids to take up running because it required nothing but themselves and it could take them places…

Of course, by this time the world champion men were late for their funeral. So they climbed into a tiny and quite beat-up old car and inched out of the gate. As always seems to be the case, even these former kings were still Kenyans after all, and running a teacher’s training college downtown while they organize half-marathons to raise money for youth running programs does not move them to the glamorous suburbs. It was unbelievable to me that in the face of such extraordinary achievement, life just went on as normal, and their daily lives became so typically Kenyan.

But then as I turned away from these men with questions of why they would bother to help people like Claire and I, I was immediately surrounded by the kids and their questions of why my hair is shorter than Claire’s from one group, and explanations of why the Luos, but not the Kikuyu, eat the Junebugs that come out at this time of year from another gaggle of orphans. And just like that, Kenyan daily life resumed, and I realized that in the face of such abject need, these men had clearly felt they had no choice but to use their extraordinary abilities to re-engage and to re-evaluate what was around them.

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