God, Boston, Country
With the devil on his shoulder and Jesus on his shoes, Cosmas Ndeti battles for his fourth straight victory
By Joshua Hammer
I am staring at Cosmas Ndeti's legs. I can't take my eyes off them. We're walking through the parking lot of the T-Tot Hotel, his favorite eatery in Machakos, Ndeti's hometown in the verdant Kenya highlands 50 miles southeast of Nairobi. It's a warm and cloudless Sunday morning, and Ndeti has parked his white 1995 Toyota Cressida--by far the flashiest car in town--in the dusty lot before heading inside for a quick bite. He walks purposefully ahead of me, baggy, neon-blue polyester shorts flapping. His legs are lean, almost sticklike, with hard-as-mahogany calves tapering down to delicate ankles. Images spring to mind of a thoroughbred racehorse loping through a paddock.
As we enter the outdoor caf‹ of the modest hotel, the place buzzes with excitement. Half the patrons are staring at Ndeti--and checking out those limbs--which isn't really surprising. Next to President Daniel arap Moi, the 25-year-old is probably Kenya's biggest celebrity, and like the country's authoritarian ruler of 18 years, he's made a career of ruthlessly running his opponents into the ground. Last year, Ndeti became but the third man in 99 years to rack up three consecutive Boston Marathon victories. (Only Bill Rodgers and Clarence DeMar did it before him.) Now, approaching the 100th running of the internationally celebrated race, he is the odds-on favorite to win a fourth straight, an unprecedented achievement. While Kenya has had many great middle-distance runners--from steeplechaser Kipchoge Keino, winner of two gold and two silver medals in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, to 1988 5,000-meters gold medalist John Ngugi--Ndeti is arguably the best marathoner the country has ever produced. Only Ibrahim Hussein, a three-time winner in Boston, and Douglas Wakiihuri, winner in London in 1989 and New York in 1990, have come close to matching Ndeti's stature.
Ndeti sits down, sniffling and sneezing. He's lithe and fine-featured, with close-cropped hair, flared nostrils, and almond-shaped eyes. Last night, during his usual 23-kilometer run in the hills above his house, he caught a wretched cold, the first one he says he's had in a while. "I have only a small appetite," he apologizes, and then proceeds to order a three-egg omelette with four pieces of buttered toast, a light snack for a 125-pound man who probably burns up 4,000 calories in a day.
A bearded fellow sitting beside us browses through the Sunday Nation, Kenya's most popular newspaper, which as it happens is carrying a worshipful, two-page profile titled "Cosmas Ndeti's Golden Strides." The man stares at the paper, then at Ndeti, then at the paper, then back at Ndeti. Finally he gets up and approaches our table.
Ndeti nods, biting into a piece of toast.
The man slaps the paper. "You're Ndeti!"
Ndeti nods again, smiles. The fellow is beside himself with joy. Out comes a staccato burst of Swahili. He whacks the newspaper again. Claps him on the shoulder. "Best of luck to you, Ndeti. All Kenya will be watching you." Beside us, three other diners nod emphatically. "Amen!" one exclaims.
Cosmas Ndeti was widely dismissed as a one-hit wonder when he won the Boston Marathon as an anonymous rookie back in April 1993. He had breezed into Beantown with a single marathon to his credit: a second-place finish in Honolulu four months earlier. He had no coach, no traditional training, and a philosophy that seemed, to say the least, relaxed. (He ran when he felt like it, he said.) Who was this guy? Doubters were quieted a year later when he broke the tape in 2:07:15, the fifth-fastest time in marathon history. Then a couple of dismal performances--dropping out of the 1994 Chicago Marathon after 20 miles, finishing 44th in the Lisbon Half Marathon--raised new skepticism that Ndeti's back-to-back Boston victories had been a fluke. But in April 1995, Ndeti obliterated any lingering questions with a burst of speed over Boston's Heartbreak Hill that propelled him one minute ahead of Kenyan runner-up Moses Tanui. For the third year in a row, Ndeti had run the torturous second half of the race faster than the first. It was a performance of such seemingly effortless power and stamina that even veteran marathon watchers were awed. "The man is special," gushed commentator Larry Rawson in a live broadcast. "Ndeti is cresting over the hill. It looks like he has not broken a sweat, yet his heart is pumping at 173 beats a minute with body temperature at 103 degrees Fahrenheit. He is like a hot automobile engine idling."
Ndeti, like most professional Kenyan athletes, represents a strange collision of Africa and the West, and he seems to draw his motivation from both worlds. One of 36 children of a prosperous Kamba farmer and his three wives, Ndeti trains 11 months of the year in the same Kamba highlands where he ran as a schoolboy. "I love the feeling of running around Machakos," he says. "I love the clean air, the children following me as I go up the trails, the feeling of pushing myself on and on."
At the same time, his foreign travels and celebrity hobnobbing--including a two-mile jog through Washington, D.C., last April with President Bill Clinton--have imparted a worldly sophistication and an appreciation for the good things in life that come with victory. The history, prestige, physical challenge, and U.S. setting of the Boston Marathon have drawn him irresistibly ever since he first heard about it as a secondary school student in 1988, the year of fellow Kenyan Ibrahim Hussein's first victory. He named his son, three years old this month, Gideon Boston, after the race that has hosted his own historic wins--and it's the one annual competition he feels compelled never to miss.
"I know the course very well," he says. "It's the hardest course of all marathons. But I think I succeed because of all the uphills and downhills. As a boy I was running up and down the hills here. Now I have to run the Boston marathon every year. I want to see how many times I can win." He says he plans to return even when his years of wearing the victor's laurel wreath are over. "I would like to be like John Kelley, who has run the marathon 58 times," he says. "He's now 88 years old. I'll keep on running, keep on running."
Still, the Boston Marathon isn't Ndeti's only obsession. What defines and prods him most is his fierce evangelical Christian faith, an American import that has sunk deep roots in Kenya. For Ndeti, who was "born again" in 1993, just months before his first Boston event, every race he runs is a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, a battle for his soul. "I have to pray when I run, because the devil is there trying to give me pain," he says. "When I feel that I'm getting tired, I just say, 'Lord Jesus, give me strength.' At that time I feel more energy, I feel renewed." As he says this, his eyes burn with a true believer's fire. Beneath the unassuming facade, one realizes, Ndeti is a man possessed.
After breakfast, I follow Ndeti in my vehicle to his house a few miles outside Machakos. He drives like a demon down the two-lane highway, nearly losing me as he speeds past diesel-spewing trucks and minibuses. At the Nzilani General Store & Super Hotel, we turn sharply off the paved road and head down a dirt track past maize fields, grazing cattle, and scattered tin-roofed houses. His car is kicking up so much dust that I can barely see him. After a mile we arrive at a walled-off compound in the middle of the treeless bush. A handful of ragged kids kicking a deflated soccer ball giggle excitedly when the car pulls up to the gate. Anywhere you find Ndeti, I'm told, you'll also discover a retinue of youthful admirers. Ask them what they want in life, and they'll say, "Nienda kusemba ta Ndeti." I want to run like Ndeti.
The house, which Ndeti bought last year, is a palace by Kenyan standards: a tidy cement-block structure with a corrugated iron roof and blue-trimmed, lace-curtained windows. In the small dirt courtyard are one scrawny acacia tree, freshly planted herb and vegetable gardens, and scattered piles of bricks and rocks: "I'm going to build some little guest huts on the property for other athletes, so that we can all train together," he explains. Clothes are hanging out to dry, and next to the house are a corrugated-iron water tank and a three-car garage containing his wife Jane's white Toyota and a pickup truck. (He has a full-time chauffeur who often follows him in the truck during his workouts, carrying drinking water.) A thick layer of razor wire tops the stone wall, a concession, he admits, to the perils of his sudden fame and fortune. Ndeti earned $75,000 for his 1995 Boston Marathon victory, a $10,000 leap over 1993 and 1994, and receives a five-figure annual sponsorship from Nike. That's not a big deal in U.S. terms, but in Kenya, where the per-capita income is about $450 a year, it's positively Bill Gatesian.
His cluttered living room is a shrine to the two passions of his life: Christianity and the Boston Marathon. Plaques hanging on the white walls serve up religious messages, including THERE IS JOY IN KNOWING JESUS CHRIST and GIVE THANKS UNTO THE LORD. Framed posters of wild African animals bear inspirational sayings, such as NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE TO A WILLING HEART. A black-and-white photo from 1972 shows four-year-old Cosmas with his father, now in his eighties, his mother, 45, and six siblings from that union. A seven-foot-high wraparound shelf displays his three crystal Boston Marathon trophies, a garish brass trophy commemorating his second-place finish in the 1993 Honolulu Marathon, and framed photos of Ndeti with President Clinton in the White House following each Boston triumph.
At 15, inspired by such Kenyan greats as Ibrahim Hussein, Ndeti began running competitively. In 1988 he won a silver medal in the World Junior Cross-Country Championships in his first international competition in New Zealand. A string of amateur victories followed, and in 1992 a friend, Benson Masya, invited him to run with him in Honolulu. "We had raced together in school," Ndeti says. "I said, 'If he can finish, I can finish.' Until then 25 kilometers was the longest I had ever run. But I found that everything was surprisingly easy." Ndeti came in second behind Masya in Honolulu and decided to enter the Boston Marathon three months later. Just before the race, he penned an inspirational message on his racing flats--"I am the way and the life"-- a ritual he's followed in every race since then.
Sporting and religious memorabilia aside, Ndeti's living room could be straight out of American suburbia. A new maroon-and-white couch with matching chairs and ottomans sits atop a yellow carpet. Nearby there's a Panasonic stereo, a fax machine, a Sony television, and an Aiwa VCR with a stack of videos, including Clay vs. Liston: The Championship Fight, Tyson: the Inside Story, and, for his kids, Bambi. Two parakeets chirp away in a cage in the small dining area. Off the dining room there's a large kitchen stocked with Kenyan staples: packages of maize meal, huge cans of Kimbo vegetable shortening, cartons of Kenyan green tea, and assorted raw vegetables. A dim hallway littered with Nike training shoes--I count at least 12 pairs--leads to two bedrooms. One is for him and Jane, his wife of four years, a former short-distance runner he's known since secondary school. The other is for their two children, both currently napping: Gideon Boston, born two days before the 1993 race, and 14-month-old Florence.
In some ways the Ndetis have a traditional marriage: Jane cooks the meals, does the housework, takes care of the babies. But the Ndetis' relationship also reflects Kenya's changing mores and family structure. Ndeti spends plenty of time with his children, even changing their diapers, and in a country where the average woman, according to Kenya's 1994 Demographic Health Survey, produces 5.4 children, down from 6.7 in 1989, Cosmas and Jane plan to stop at three. "That was old times," Cosmas says of his father's reproductive prowess. "They believed in that primitive life."
The house is a comfortable place, yet Ndeti could live far better if he wanted to. A good portion of his earnings has gone toward building a new home for his parents and a small church in Machakos and to pay school fees for three children from poor families. Living less opulently is a prudent move as well. "Many people, if I'm living in an open place, they could be coming in the house all the time, wanting to see what I have," he says. He admitted to the Sunday Nation that he's nervous about walking through Machakos at night: "I don't want thugs to pounce on me. You know, there is this wrong notion that athletes carry a lot of money on them. I believe this country does not know how to treat its heroes."
The road through the ramshackle town to the Ndetis' Sunday service is choked with churchgoing Kenyans: a Salvation Army band of blaring tubas, French horns, and trumpets; crowds of drum-thumping white-robed Pentecostals; families who've hiked miles from their shambas, or agricultural fields. I've always been amazed by the depth of religious fervor in Kenya; partly, I've realized, it comes from the fact that church can offer some of the best entertainment around in this poor country.
The Kataloni African Inland Church is located just beyond Machakos, snuggled up below the shamba-covered Mua Hills. A simple cement-block building dominated by a bright blue, 30-foot steeple, it reflects the homey, unadorned faith of the African evangelicals. As the joyful harmonies of a Swahili choir filter through the open door, Ndeti parks the car in a dirt plaza out front. (It is the only car in the lot; everyone else has walked.) We're an hour late, and we squeeze onto a hard wooden bench toward the rear. Ndeti is wearing his Sunday best: dark corduroy pants, polished leather shoes, starched button-down white shirt with black decorative fringe. The church is packed with 250 men, women, and children, most clutching battered hymnals and Bibles.
Heads turn as we sit, but the congregation is soon immersed again in the all-Swahili service, which goes on for four hours. One of the hallmarks of the African church is that all worshipers are encouraged to lead the Sunday service. Today it seems as if almost everyone does. A minister preaches. A choir sings. A female choir member in white head scarf and blue smock harangues the flock with a shrill, 40-minute, fire-and-brimstone recitation from the New Testament. A guitarist plays another hymn. Another minister gives a sermon. An old man stands and mumbles from memory five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. The wind rattles the windows, wooden roof beams, and corrugated metal roof. Babies wail and crawl around the cement floor. Beside me on the bench, Ndeti sits with his eyes half closed, his hands clasped loosely in his lap. His face is a mask of serene devotion.
Ndeti's life has changed dramatically since he began going to church, Jane tells me later. "After he found Jesus Christ, he became a different person," she says. "He's taking care of his body; he's avoiding bad company, which can harm him."
Ndeti agrees. "Before, I used to drink a lot," he says. "If I met friends we'd sometimes stay out the whole night drinking beers. The following morning I couldn't even wake up and go for a run. I felt listless, tired. Now I don't take even a single beer. It made a distance with my friends. They remain my friends, but they cannot abide with what I do."
A windswept rise near the church offers a panoramic view of Ndeti's mile-high world: a wide basin of acacia-speckled bush country crisscrossed by dirt roads and encircled by serrated green-and-brown hills. About eight miles to the west, out of sight behind a low ridge, lies the village of Lokenya, where Ndeti was raised on a 40-hectare maize, bean, and cabbage farm with many of his siblings. "Most of them are farmers, and they've scattered across Kenya," he says. "We see each other only on big occasions such as funerals." The only other professional runner in the family is Ndeti's younger brother Josphat, who placed 24th in the 1994 Boston Marathon and fourth in last year's Honolulu competition.
Each morning and afternoon as a boy, Ndeti ran six kilometers through the hills to and from Chasita Primary School. "My mother's father was a runner, so we had the genes," he says, shivering in the bone-chilling wind. Today, although Ndeti makes up his own rules, his training regimen reflects the same self-discipline. Every morning except Sunday he wakes up at six o'clock and takes a leisurely one-hour jog along ochre-red tracks through the bush and up into the hills. He sees friends and does "business" (primarily real estate investments) in the late morning, then eats a light lunch of rice and beans and chicken soup, prepared by Jane. After an afternoon nap, he rises for his serious workout at 5:30 P.M., just before sunset.
He follows two standard courses, each a round-trip of about 23 kilometers. One climbs gentle switchback trails to the top of the hill he calls Junior, directly behind the Kataloni church. The more arduous route ascends the far steeper Kusyomuomo Hill, or Senior, and includes a punishing eight-kilometer ascent straight to the summit. He runs each course about three days a week. Once every two weeks he runs to and from his parents' shamba, back through the same hills in which he ran to primary school as a boy, a 21-kilometer round-trip. He eats supper at 9:30, a heavy meal usually consisting of nyamachoma --boiled beef--cabbage, potatoes, and a spinach-like vegetable known as sukumawiki. He's in bed by 11 o'clock. "I train according to how I feel," he says. "Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I feel tired, especially if I had a hard run the previous day. So I may just go back to sleep. Everybody has his own way. Uta Pippig says that she trains three times a day." Ndeti winces. "Three times! For me, I cannot do it."
Ndeti has grown preoccupied as the day has gone by, and I feel like I'm wearing out my welcome. He is, after, all, a busy fellow. Tomorrow morning he leaves for England, where he'll train on the beach in Southport for a month to prepare himself for Boston's cool April climate and low altitude. In February and March he'll train in Embu on the slopes of Mount Kenya, run a half marathon March 18, then return to Machakos for a final two-week spurt before flying to Boston with Jane and the children. "I want to train for the fourth running of the marathon more harder than ever," he says.
Ndeti stands alone looking out onto the dusty savanna, far from the noisy, crowded streets of Boston. The setting sun casts his face half in light, half in shadow. This year, he tells me, he plans to write on his Nikes "Faith and prayer moves mountains." He gets back in his car and noses the car down the steep dirt road toward town. Heading home, Cosmas Ndeti drives like hell.
Joshua Hammer is Newsweek's Nairobi bureau chief. He wrote about the mountain-gorilla conservationist José Kalpers in the April issue.