|ONE EMBARRASSMENT that Kenya has yet to erase: None of its marathoners has ever won Olympic gold. This year, aiming to sweep all six medals in the men's and women's events, the Kenyan Amateur Athletic Union summoned its greatest endurance runners home to Ngong, creating the most formidable marathon selection camp in history. Elijah Lagat, this year's Boston winner, did his time in Ngong, as did Moses Tanui and Joseph Chebet and Tegla Loroupe, the women's leader. And so did one of Elite's runners: After his sensational debut season, Charles Kamathi headed back to his native hills to prepare for the 10,000 meters in Sydney.
Another Elite runner, it turns out, also returned to Kenya. I heard about it one summer afternoon when Jim called with an odd tone in his voice. "John Njeru is going home," he said.
"What's wrong?" I remembered the look on Jim's face as he slopped through the slush in Rye, mulling young John's fate.
"Just John. He can't seem to cut it. Ever since that Rye victory, he's been getting beaten." In June, Jim and Hussein set a time that John had to meet in a race; he muffed it. Later that month he had to hit 14:20 in a 5k. He finished a minute slower.
It seems to be a problem locked in his head, Jim says: "Maybe it's the pressure of realizing, every race, that this is it, this is your lifelong chance to buy a farm and feed your family." Unlike Nelson, they're not completely giving up hope, Jim adds; John's going back to Elite's Kenya training camp in Njabini, a rickety wooden hotel with a single telephone, to run hills and get his times down. If he hits the 14:20 mark, he's got a shot at coming back. But Jim knows it's a long shot, and so does John—he's in the second year of his three-year contract, and every day, another wave of hungry young Kenyans is ready to spend a day and a night beneath an acacia tree, waiting for an offer.
Jim pauses. "He's feeling better now. He's stopped crying."
With a marathon best of 3:48, Christopher McDougall is no threat to Kenya's finest.