UNTIL THE NIGHT the two Americans actually appeared in the flesh, Sammy Ng'eno had little faith in the story of their fantastic running scheme—this fairy tale of a professor, a blond surfer, and a valley of bloody feet.
The two Americans were running-mad, Nelson Ndereva told Sammy each evening when they met for speed work on the track in Embu, a village in the Kenyan highlands. The professor and the surfer had discovered a place just like Africa on the East Coast of the United States—Vuleefore, it sounded like—where they wanted to bring African runners and plug them into a new program called The System. Instead of competing Kenyan-style—a ruthless process of elimination that leaves many promising runners injured or demoralized—The System promised solidarity, long-term coaching, and a place to train far from Africa's diseases and poverty. Nelson had a friend, a Kenyan runner in America named John Mwai, who told him the Americans were coming any day now to bring both of them to Vuleefore. If the experiment worked, Sammy and Nelson might join the next generation of world champions.
"It's the best deal you ever heard of," Nelson said. He'd actually been to Vuleefore during his time racing overseas for an American manager. But that manager had cut him loose and cancelled his visa—they can do that—and ever since, Nelson had been pounding the Embu track, waiting for another shot at the U.S. road-racing circuit. If Sammy came with him, Nelson promised, he could win more in one race than he'd earn in a lifetime at his current job as a $150-a-month military constable.
Sammy shared Nelson's desperation, and that's what made him leery. He knew runners like Nelson who'd grabbed overseas deals, only to return months later, broke, burned out, or injured, with bitter stories of abusive managers. Some were cheated out of their prize money, others were overraced or forced to live ten to a room. Sammy had even heard of one agent who made his runners pick cotton on his farm as part of their "training."
But there was no prettying up the fact that some degree of desperation has become the foundation of elite distance running. The world's best runners need foreign agents to get them overseas to compete, and the agents, in turn, need Kenyans. Over the last three decades, the impoverished Third World country has emerged as the most dominant distance-running nation on the planet. Kenyan men have won major marathons from New York to Beijing, including ten straight at Boston. At the Sydney Olympics, Kenyan men and women are a serious threat to win every medal in the long events—the steeplechase, 10,000 meters, and marathon—and to place in anything longer than a sprint.
Just how the Kenyans became so awesome is an enduring sports mystery. Apart from controversial theories about genetic advantages, one key is that Kenyan runners live at high altitude, which helps their bodies process oxygen more efficiently. They also have poor transportation and few televisions, leaving running as a substitute for wheels and entertainment. But if speed is a product of elevation and poverty, how come runners from similar environments don't begin to match the Kenyans? One clue may lie in their survival-of-the-fittest training, which, for most male runners, begins in the army, the country's largest employer.
Sammy, born on a small farm in a hilly village northwest of Nairobi called Eldama Ravine, followed the typical career path of a Kenyan runner. One of nine siblings, he showed such raw speed that his uncle, in need of a goat herder, brought him up as his own son. By the time he was ten, Sammy was spending his after-school hours in high-speed pursuit of goats up mountainsides.
After high school, Sammy enlisted in the army. The best detail in the military was the track team, but it meant beating out hundreds of other racers, and until then Sammy's primary competition had been livestock. Although he is a member of the Kalenjin tribe—the Kalenjins are the best runners in Kenya—he had never really raced, so he was thrilled to find that he could keep up. Next stop, he hoped, would be Ngong, a rough bivouac 18 miles southwest of Nairobi where the army's best runners train before heading overseas to earn, with the army's blessing, foreign cash.
Sammy, unfortunately, was still too green for Ngong. He ended up walking a beat as a military constable in Embu and, in his off hours, running. For three consecutive springs he paid his own way to the national championships, where he would put on his ratty running shoes and his homemade racing jersey, enter the 1,500-meter race as a dark-horse amateur, and make it through the semifinals before getting beaten by the top runners. He had little hope of a break until February 1999, when Nelson began telling stories of Vuleefore. Then, one evening in early March, Nelson left Sammy a note to meet him by the track the next morning. Word had come from his friend John Mwai: The Americans were on their way. Still skeptical, Sammy was nevertheless in position by daybreak. And there he remained all day, watching from the splintered shade of an acacia tree.
As the sun went down, reality crept in. The good scouts, he knew, didn't scour backwoods outposts for unknown constables. "This is stupid," Sammy muttered, and he walked off. A few minutes later he was back at the tree. He paced like this into the night, pulled homeward by logic, treeward by ambition and curiosity.
Finally, two headlights came stabbing through the dark. Out of a rented Range Rover stepped Nelson Ndereva, John Mwai, and the two promised Americans. Brutally rutted roads and a breakdown had put them 12 hours behind schedule, and by nightfall they'd given up any hope that Sammy would still be waiting. But as they stretched their legs, they were startled to hear the traditional Swahili greeting ring out: "Karibu!" A slim figure with a handsome smile stepped out of the dark and into the headlights.