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

BUT THE SYSTEM ALREADY HAD AN ENEMY. As Hussein pointed out early on, African runners had discovered Valley Forge more than a decade before, and their agent, Lisa Buster, was none too happy about the prospect of a cross-park rivalry. Since 1987, Buster, a former TV sports announcer, had been representing Kenyans, proven talents who were also known as committed self-motivators. By 1998, eight runners had relocated near Buster's home in suburban Philadelphia and were pulling in nearly half a million in prize money a year. Her star, John Kagwe, a 30-year-old Kenyan soldier, won the New York Marathon in 1997 and '98. Catherine Ndereba, a Kenyan who was undefeated in '99, would go on to win the 2000 Boston Marathon. John Mwai, who'd been brought over from Africa by Buster in 1996, was winning local races in his first two years. Their victories allayed a fear among Kenyan runners that by leaving their homeland, they'd be cut off from the mountain air and soft trails that had made them great. And until Elite showed up last year, Buster's runners had had Valley Forge as their own private running preserve.

But even as the victories mounted, dissent was rising. Some of the runners began to feel that Buster was spending all her time on the stars. When John Mwai began talking to Lee Cox about forming a new group, she fired him. "We kicked him out because of his behavior, because of his disloyalty," Buster says. To this day, she refuses to discuss her rivals at Elite.

More of Buster's runners kept crossing from the east side of the park to join the upstarts, who began their workouts on the west side. Margaret Kagiri, a veteran middle-distance runner, became one of Elite's first women, and Daniel Kihara, two-time winner of New Hampshire's grueling Mount Washington uphill race, signed with Elite this summer. Even Catherine Ndereba's little sister, 25-year-old Anastasia, chose Elite when she was ready to come to America.

And so, after two centuries, Valley Forge once again became a breeding ground for hostilities. Though they're in exile 5,000 miles from home, the Kenyans know better than to risk their visas by angering their warring agents. Both groups—even Anastasia and Catherine Ndereva—restrict their socializing to a yell and a wave as they pass each other, several times a day, running through this American park.