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
SUCH A VISION DEMANDS a fat wallet, and that's where Jim Shea came in. As a dictionary writer at G&C Merriam in Springfield, Massachusetts, he spent nine years buried in books until a brainstorm put him on the money trail. In the mid-1980s, Jim was working in Philadelphia on a science citation index—a guide to research jargon—when he and a coworker dreamed up a computer dial-up service for science information. "Sound familiar?" Jim asks. "On the evolutionary scale, our idea was the Australopithecus of the Internet, a primitive life form."

Their for-pay Telebase became obsolete once the for-free Internet took off, but the partners were left with one critical innovation: a system of electronic links and payment that, they decided, could be used to sell CDs to the growing number of computer users with modems. In 1991 Music Boulevard was born. It merged in 1994 with N2K, and merged again in 1998 with CDNow—and suddenly Jim Shea was a freelance dictionary writer sitting on a few cool million and wondering what to do next. So, at age 50, he decided to transform himself into a national masters track star.

As he struggled one night on the leg press at the YMCA in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a human pit bull came over, laid on hands, and corrected his form. "Hussein loves smooth movement, and mine he hated," Jim recalls. From that point on, he had a coach. Hussein Makke had been coaching high school track in West Chester and giving free advice to up-and-comers like Lee Cox and Kim Saddic as they made the leap to big-time running. During their night sessions at the Y, Hussein began telling Jim about a group of Kenyans he'd been watching over at Valley Forge. They ran in the forests, each to his own; they rarely seemed to train on the measured distance of a track, and never in a pool; and, like most Kenyan runners, they were willing to tough out small injuries until they became crippling. Man, Hussein said, what I could do with a team like that.

Jim knew he was being talked into a big risk by some guy he met at the gym, but he loved the idea of his own fantasy camp. Besides, the more Jim listened to Hussein, the more he thought he could actually make money in the running business. "Launching your own team is much more economical than you'd think," Jim explains. He and Hussein figured they'd need apartments near Valley Forge and a base camp in Kenya. After rent, airfare, food, and phone, his entire up-front investment would come to a modest quarter-million. "It's not nearly as blue-chip as a mutual fund," Jim concedes, "but it seemed a hell of a lot more fun."

With the founding of Elite in February 1999, all the pieces of Hussein's master plan were in place. With Kim he acquired both a manager and living space, the latter in her parents' quaint apartment building, a converted Civil War mansion in West Chester. Lee, then doing promo work for Adidas, was a runner-coach and a source of free shoes. Mwai would be their scout for both raw Kenyan talent and for a place in Kenya where runners could start training under The System at high elevation before coming stateside.