European meets. Even Jim Shea had his moment of triumph, finishing fifth in the triple-jump (the hop-skip-jump version of the long jump) at last summer's national masters in Boston.
This past April, while the rest of the running world was focused on the Boston Marathon, the fledgling Elite squad was represented at the Rye Derby, a small but very competitive 5k just north of New York City. With Jim were Francis Kamau, a 39-year-old they envisioned as something of a runner-manager; John Njeru, a fleet but unpredictable middle-distance runner; and Margaret Kagiri, who was battling back from a yearlong maternity leave.
Jim didn't look happy when they showed up for the race: Two inches of spring snow were on the ground. Snow! John Njeru had never seen snow in his 19 years, so Francis, who'd spent a winter in Kosovo as a U.N. peacekeeper, began filling him in: "Very slippery, very hard to feel fast in," Francis cautioned John.
As the other runners dug in at the starting line, John caught flakes in his hands, showing an alarming lack of focus: The rap on him was that he tended to lose heart in races and get beaten by slower men. If he couldn't compete more fiercely, Jim would have to send him home.
The gun cracked, and John disappeared from sight, lagging behind the galloping herd. Jim, looking resigned, walked toward the finish line as the snow turned to fat globs of freezing rain. He'd barely arrived at the tape when suddenly here came John breezing around the corner, a big smile on his face, relishing his first cheers in America.
The second-place finisher, Tom Nohilly, walked up to shake his hand. "Kenyans just have different natural abilities than we do," said Nohilly, an All-American steeplechaser from the University of Florida. Like other American runners, he had been watching the Kenyans closely, trying to pick up their tricks of the trade. Kenyans have always gulped lots of tea before long runs; if you read the product info on a PowerGel packet, you'll see that caffeine aids carbohydrate metabolism. Kenyans run hills fanatically; now, American coaches are prescribing regular hill work as a way to increase speed and decrease impact injuries.
But it seems the more the Americans study the Kenyans, the slower they go: American marathoners are running worse than they did 25 years ago. Back in the seventies, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were running 2:10s—this year, only one American man made the Olympic marathon cutoff of 2:14. How maddening it must be to train 150 miles a week and still watch these frail-looking Kenyans fly by. "I think Americans are training hard enough," insisted Nohilly. "I just think we're not training properly." So: Would he be willing to train with the Kenyans? No way, he replied. "If you train with them, they'll run you into the ground. Try to stay up with them, and you're heading for burnout."
As John stood in snowy Rye basking in his triumph, Paul Mwangi, a Kenyan living in New York who finished third in the race, pulled him aside. They conversed quietly in Swahili while Jim watched, fascinated. This was what Hussein had promised him more than a year before in the West Chester YMCA, to have elbow-to-elbow access to some of the world's great runners.
After Mwangi walked off, Jim asked John about their conversation. "You guys talking about home?"
John shook his head. "He wanted to know if I am sick."
The 19-year-old nodded. "He tells me I run like a little woman."