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
SKYROCKETS WERE splattering the Philadelphia skies when Sammy landed in America last year, and fireworks were still sizzling an hour later as he went for an exploratory walk near his new home in West Chester, some 15 miles from Valley Forge. The symbolism was rich: One of the first recruits in Elite's own little insurgency had touched down in the cradle of the American Revolution on July 4, and on Sammy's 25th birthday, to boot. (Nelson, 32, was brought over three months later.)

"I felt like I'd come to another planet," Sammy recalls. "There was smoke and flashes in the air, and people were so friendly, smiling and saying, 'Happy holiday!'" He liked what he saw, but the Kenyan born on the Fourth of July didn't swallow American culture whole. Across the street from Valley Forge is the King of Prussia Shopping Mall, one of the largest in the world. Sammy ignored it, and he still does. "We're like soldiers on a mission," he says, then spreads a thumb and a finger in a measuring gesture. "To me, every dollar is this much land. Not shoes or toys—land."

Like many Kenyan runners, Sammy's life's goal is to buy a farm: "I want a place near good water, with good grazing land. I think, 'Every dollar puts your farm closer to good water.'" It will cost him $20,000, he figures, to buy the kind of spread he has in mind, some place in Eldama Ravine with a good road and a flowing stream. If he can stay free of injury, he says, "Maybe I race for ten more years." He figures he'll farm when his running days are over.

But earning that fortune wasn't to be as easy as Nelson had promised. Summers at Valley Forge are miserably hot and sticky—not at all like the breezy cool of the Kenyan highlands. When I stopped by at seven o'clock one morning that first summer, as the Elites got together for one of their first training sessions as a group, the mercury was already pushing 90 degrees. Heat shimmered along the footbridge linking Valley Forge to the 23-mile Schuylkill River towpath.

Nonetheless, the team was looking frisky. A few weeks after signing Sammy and Nelson, Elite landed three more new prospects—17-year-old John Karobia Kanyiri, 35-year-old Davis Kamau, and 21-year-old Gabriel Muchiri. These initiates were needling Mwai this morning because Sammy, their new hero, had freed them from dishwashing duty by winning a bravura bet the day before. First, he had run a 65-minute half-marathon; that same afternoon, he'd strapped his Adidas back on and broken Nelson's record over the West Chester University cross-country course, covering three miles of hills and dirt trails in less than 14:30.

Standing before the stretching runners in Valley Forge, Hussein brought their mood back down with talk of heart-rate monitors—standard equipment among American athletes. He'd handed out the gadgets to each runner on their arrival to this country, and today not a single Elite was wearing one. Sammy attempted a smiling rebuttal, and Hussein cut him off: "No, it was not broken when I gave it to you." Sammy and the other Kenyans had already made it clear they didn't like energy bars, lifting weights, or getting near a pool. And none of them was big on protein. ("They don't care what I say about calcium and iron levels," sighs John Connors, a sports doctor who includes the Elites among his patients. "They think meat weighs them down.")

Hussein stopped grousing and handed out workouts. He and I joined Lee, Mwai, and the teenaged John, entering a long trail canopied by trees so dense that that it felt like we'd jogged into a James Fenimore Cooper novel. Twisting around us were more than 20 miles of horse trails. Mwai set the pace. He's the kind of serious guy everyone calls by his last name; his intensity during training has given Lee new respect for Kenyan methods. "I went through a period when I was lagging behind," Lee said. "Mwai tied a rope around my waist and jerked me over the last couple of miles."

While we ran, Mwai told me his theory of why the Kenyans are dominating the sport. "It's just like the bloody footprints," he began.

Come again?

We were passing a line of small log huts on a hillside, reproductions of the miserable quarters that Washington's army had bunked in, and Mwai pointed at them. "The bloody feet," he repeated, and told the story as he had heard it from the beginning.

During their early workouts, Lee used to entertain Mwai with snippets of Valley Forge history. In the winter of 1778, Washington's ragged army had retreated here to regroup. They were starving, freezing, and demoralized, hunkered down in drafty cabins, waiting to die from disease or Redcoats. The soldiers left bloody footprints in the snow around here when they went looking for firewood, Lee told Mwai. But they stuck it out, and come spring, the survivors marched out of Valley Forge eager to fight the British. Bloody footprints—Mwai became fixated on the image, which for him was the ultimate key to the Kenyan running secret, and he made a point of sharing the story with Nelson Ndereva, who told it to Sammy.

Sacrifice and persistence. Clearly, the Kenyans were beginning to absorb American culture and mythology. But while Jim and Hussein hoped the Kenyans would use their experience in Valley Forge to learn a kinder, gentler approach to training, the lesson they latched onto was one of grim perseverance.