The Secret of Vuleefore

Vowing to change the world of endurance running, where Kenyan athletes have been treated like indentured servants, a revolutionary band has established a base in a perfect green valley. And where is this magical place, this Vuleefore? In suburban America. Where George Washington slept. Where an enemy already guards its turf.

Sep 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
A LOT, IT TURNED OUT, had been lost in the message chain from Jim Shea, to Mwai, to Nelson, to Sammy's ear in Embu. For starters, Jim, the professor, isn't a professor. Jim is a dictionary writer by trade, one of those sedentary wordsmiths who spend their lives in the library and retire with watery eyes and schoolteacher salaries—except he found a way to abandon lexicography and make a windfall fortune in the Internet economy.

Another thing: The surfer, Lee Cox, isn't really a surfer, although with the aid of Clorox and the Gap he's done everything he can to make himself look like one. Beneath his peroxide spikes and dudeish baggies, Lee is a 30-year-old former high-school track star who'd pushed through the crowd after a 10-mile race in Philadelphia in 1998 to bluntly ask the winner, John Mwai, "Can you teach me how to run like that?" They became training partners.

And one more thing: Vuleefore is actually Pennsylvania's Valley Forge National Historic Park, site of the winter encampment where George Washington's starving farmers withstood frostbite and disease to become a lethal revolutionary army.

But otherwise, Sammy had pretty much heard it straight. Valley Forge really does evoke the Kenyan highlands, if you turn your back to the surrounding interstates and focus on the dirt trails tapering into tunnels of trees, on the rough log huts and the deer that appear at dawn to nibble along the paths. Angle yourself just right, with your face toward one of the lone hillside trees on the far side of a sloping meadow, and you could be staring at Kenyan savanna.

"Before I saw them, I was worried they'd get into trouble in Kenya," Sammy says of meeting Jim and Lee. "After I saw them"—he drops his voice—"I was surprised they didn't."

Sammy eyed these rumpled Americans carefully. If he signed with them, he'd be entirely in their control for the next three years, the life of a standard contract. He'd have to accept their choices about races, workout schedules, and housing. For months at a time he'd be separated from his wife, Nelly, and their two-year-old son, Vincent, who were living with Sammy's father back in Eldama Ravine; and as Nelson had already learned, he could be deported at any time, on the Americans' whim.

Going by Nelson's description, he'd envisioned Jim wandering through downtown Nairobi like Mr. Magoo on safari, which wasn't far from the truth. Jim is probably the unlikeliest-looking talent scout the African continent has ever seen. At 52, he's tall and stoop-shouldered, with a low, dry chuckle and glasses so thick they look bulletproof, a man prone to stroking his wintering beard and speaking so softly you find yourself on a constant Shea-ward tilt.

Standing there in Embu, the Americans told Sammy that Jim, Lee, and Mwai were partners in an innovative group called Elite Sports Management International. Two additional partners were back in the States: 30-year-old Hussein Makke, a Lebanese-born coach who'd been an Olympic half-miler, and team manager Kimberly Saddic, a cheery college All-American endurance runner from suburban Philadelphia.

And they told Sammy about The System: On the training side, it bucks Kenyan tradition, which mandates a combination of huge mileage, relentless race-caliber intensity, and an every-man-for-himself attitude. Instead, The System preaches controlled pace and distance, pool and bike work to recover from injuries, and collaborative rather than competitive workouts. Then there's the financial element: Rather than aiming for big paydays, like the New York and Boston marathons, their runners would fan out across the country to dozens of smaller races so that everyone would compete and everyone would earn. In addition, they'd offer two unheard-of perks: free long-term coaching until the runners reached their prime, and management jobs for those who stayed with the squad till the end of their earning years.

It wasn't a charity deal: Like other pro runners, the Elites would still have to pay 15 percent of their prize money, endorsements, and appearance fees, and once they started earning they'd also be dunned for rent. But in the meantime, untested hopefuls like Sammy could develop under a coach's eye.