Kenyans go the distance in dominating fashion
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kenya native Ben Kurgat has lived and worked in the United States since 1987 but still feels a devotion to his homeland.
A former middle-distance runner at the University of Virginia, Kurgat now works as a researcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and, in his spare time, maintains a hobby that reflects his Kenyan nationalism.
He coaches talented distance runners from Kenya who have earned the right to emigrate to this country to pursue their competitive dreams - and compete in such things as the Charleston Distance Run.
A week ago in Chapel Hill, Kurgat gathered five of his runners - three men and two women, all of whom now live in Chapel Hill - and suggested that a 15-mile race up north in Charleston might be good preparation for their upcoming fall marathons.
But Kurgat feared the runners had not yet bounced back from recent runs that had been especially harsh. He thought they might be too leg-weary for Charleston's hilly challenges.
"They had had a tough schedule, and we didn't know if they would be recovered,'' said Kurgat, "but they recovered and said, 'Can we do something this weekend?' ''
Obviously eager and ready to run on a muggy, overcast Saturday morning, Kurgat's five Kenyans dominated the 41st edition of the Charleston Distance Run, which began at the Capitol and finished at University of Charleston Stadium.
His three men, Kiprono Kurgat, Emmanuel Bor and Kipyegon Kirui, finished one-two-three, and his two women, Susan Jerotich and DivinaJepkogei, were one-two in the female division.
For Ben Kurgat, it was more than just a day of on-the-course success.
"Charleston is always a great race,'' said Kurgat, who first learned of the race in 2009. "The people here are always nice to the athletes. They do a good job.''
Through the first three miles, a seven-man pack led the way, but Kurgat and Bor separated themselves and ran side-by-side at the front, two buddies accustomed to training together.
Finally, the 24-year-old Kurgat, who is no relation to his coach, asserted himself on the way down Loudon Heights Road in South Hills, hurried off to a 20-yard lead on the South Side Bridge with less than seven miles to go and finished in one hour, 16 minutes, 29 seconds.
"It was really enjoyable,'' said Kurgat, who arrived in the U.S. less than a year ago and is learning a new language.
The 19-year-old Bor was second in 1:16:59, and the 32-year-old Kirui, who won the 2009 Charleston Distance Run, placed third in 1:17:53. Robert Wambua of Hebron, Ky., was fourth in 1:18:55, and Jeff Weiss of Ravenswood, last year's winner, was fifth in 1:25:49.
In the women's division, the 26-year-old Jerotich, who has spent less than a month in this country, won in 1:31:05 and was 10th overall, and Jepkogei, 28, was runner-up in 1:32:08 and 11th overall. Kat Pagano of Richmond, Ky., was third in 1:36:59, and Tammy Slusser of Monroeville, Pa., was fourth in 1:44:05.
The hills caught Jerotich's attention. "At around five miles, there was some hill, a slope,'' she said. "They made me slow because they were a bit tough. This is my first time running 15 miles. I'm proud of that. I did well.''
As a former winner of the CDR, Kirui took his four training partners aside on Friday night and told them to expect some steep hills on Saturday morning. Otherwise, there wasn't much to say.
"I briefed them, but when you've not visited a course, you aren't going to know it by explanation itself,'' said Kirui. "I told them it was a tough course because of the elevations and downhills.''
Bor said he felt right at home.
"It's a good climate, like Kenya,'' he said. "The humidity is OK.''
The elder Kurgat says that Chapel Hill is an ideal place in which to introduce his countrymen to America, especially for those interested in distance running.
"It's next to heaven,'' said the newly minted Tar Heel. "It's a great training place. We have great trails, a great running community. It's a good location to work with all the other states that have great races, both the shorter races and the marathons.''
Kurgat's runners alternate between Chapel Hill and Kenya, training and competing in the U.S. but often returning home for several months a year to work and help subsidize their athletic careers.
A Kenya track federation, similar to its U.S. counterpart, and private running clubs help facilitate their transition to America and cover part of their expenses. Marathonguide.com., an American company, helps provide apartments in Chapel Hill.
"They have to meet minimum standards before I can bring them over here,'' said the coach. "The runners train while they're here, and some of them work when they go back to Kenya.''
Reach Mike Whiteford at email@example.com.