God, Boston, Country
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Outside magazine, April 1996
God, Boston, Country
With the devil on his shoulder and Jesus on his shoes, Cosmas Ndeti battles for his fourth straight victory
I am staring at Cosmas Ndeti’s legs. I can’t take my eyes off them. We’re walking through the parking lot of the T-Tot Hotel, his favorite eatery in Machakos, Ndeti’s hometown in the verdant Kenya highlands 50 miles southeast of Nairobi. It’s a warm and cloudless Sunday
As we enter the outdoor caf‹ of the modest hotel, the place buzzes with excitement. Half the patrons are staring at Ndeti–and checking out those limbs–which isn’t really surprising. Next to President Daniel arap Moi, the 25-year-old is probably Kenya’s biggest celebrity, and like the country’s authoritarian ruler of 18 years, he’s made a career of ruthlessly running
Ndeti sits down, sniffling and sneezing. He’s lithe and fine-featured, with close-cropped hair, flared nostrils, and almond-shaped eyes. Last night, during his usual 23-kilometer run in the hills above his house, he caught a wretched cold, the first one he says he’s had in a while. “I have only a small appetite,” he apologizes, and then proceeds to order a three-egg omelette
A bearded fellow sitting beside us browses through the Sunday Nation, Kenya’s most popular newspaper, which as it happens is carrying a worshipful, two-page profile titled “Cosmas Ndeti’s Golden Strides.” The man stares at the paper, then at Ndeti, then at the paper, then back at Ndeti. Finally he gets up and approaches our table.
Ndeti nods, biting into a piece of toast.
The man slaps the paper. “You’re Ndeti!”
Ndeti nods again, smiles. The fellow is beside himself with joy. Out comes a staccato burst of Swahili. He whacks the newspaper again. Claps him on the shoulder. “Best of luck to you, Ndeti. All Kenya will be watching you.” Beside us, three other diners nod emphatically. “Amen!” one exclaims.
Cosmas Ndeti was widely dismissed as a one-hit wonder when he won the Boston Marathon as an anonymous rookie back in April 1993. He had breezed into Beantown with a single marathon to his credit: a second-place finish in Honolulu four months earlier. He had no coach, no traditional training, and a philosophy that seemed, to say the least, relaxed. (He ran when he felt like it,
Ndeti, like most professional Kenyan athletes, represents a strange collision of Africa and the West, and he seems to draw his motivation from both worlds. One of 36 children of a prosperous Kamba farmer and his three wives, Ndeti trains 11 months of the year in the same Kamba highlands where he ran as a schoolboy. “I love the feeling of running around Machakos,” he says. “I
At the same time, his foreign travels and celebrity hobnobbing–including a two-mile jog through Washington, D.C., last April with President Bill Clinton–have imparted a worldly sophistication and an appreciation for the good things in life that come with victory. The history, prestige, physical challenge, and U.S. setting of the Boston Marathon have drawn him irresistibly
“I know the course very well,” he says. “It’s the hardest course of all marathons. But I think I succeed because of all the uphills and downhills. As a boy I was running up and down the hills here. Now I have to run the Boston marathon every year. I want to see how many times I can win.” He says he plans to return even when his years of wearing the victor’s laurel wreath are
Still, the Boston Marathon isn’t Ndeti’s only obsession. What defines and prods him most is his fierce evangelical Christian faith, an American import that has sunk deep roots in Kenya. For Ndeti, who was “born again” in 1993, just months before his first Boston event, every race he runs is a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, a battle for his soul. “I have to pray when
After breakfast, I follow Ndeti in my vehicle to his house a few miles outside Machakos. He drives like a demon down the two-lane highway, nearly losing me as he speeds past diesel-spewing trucks and minibuses. At the Nzilani General Store & Super Hotel, we turn sharply off the paved road and head down a dirt track past maize fields, grazing cattle, and scattered tin-roofed
The house, which Ndeti bought last year, is a palace by Kenyan standards: a tidy cement-block structure with a corrugated iron roof and blue-trimmed, lace-curtained windows. In the small dirt courtyard are one scrawny acacia tree, freshly planted herb and vegetable gardens, and scattered piles of bricks and rocks: “I’m going to build some little guest huts on the property for
His cluttered living room is a shrine to the two passions of his life: Christianity and the Boston Marathon. Plaques hanging on the white walls serve up religious messages, including THERE IS JOY IN KNOWING JESUS CHRIST and GIVE THANKS UNTO THE LORD. Framed posters of wild African animals bear inspirational sayings, such as NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE TO A WILLING HEART. A
At 15, inspired by such Kenyan greats as Ibrahim Hussein, Ndeti began running competitively. In 1988 he won a silver medal in the World Junior Cross-Country Championships in his first international competition in New Zealand. A string of amateur victories followed, and in 1992 a friend, Benson Masya, invited him to run with him in Honolulu. “We had raced together in school,”
Sporting and religious memorabilia aside, Ndeti’s living room could be straight out of American suburbia. A new maroon-and-white couch with matching chairs and ottomans sits atop a yellow carpet. Nearby there’s a Panasonic stereo, a fax machine, a Sony television, and an Aiwa VCR with a stack of videos, including Clay vs. Liston: The Championship
In some ways the Ndetis have a traditional marriage: Jane cooks the meals, does the housework, takes care of the babies. But the Ndetis’ relationship also reflects Kenya’s changing mores and family structure. Ndeti spends plenty of time with his children, even changing their diapers, and in a country where the average woman, according to Kenya’s 1994 Demographic Health Survey,
The house is a comfortable place, yet Ndeti could live far better if he wanted to. A good portion of his earnings has gone toward building a new home for his parents and a small church in Machakos and to pay school fees for three children from poor families. Living less opulently is a prudent move as well. “Many people, if I’m living in an open place, they could be coming in
The road through the ramshackle town to the Ndetis’ Sunday service is choked with churchgoing Kenyans: a Salvation Army band of blaring tubas, French horns, and trumpets; crowds of drum-thumping white-robed Pentecostals; families who’ve hiked miles from their shambas, or agricultural fields. I’ve always been amazed by the depth of religious fervor
The Kataloni African Inland Church is located just beyond Machakos, snuggled up below the shamba-covered Mua Hills. A simple cement-block building dominated by a bright blue, 30-foot steeple, it reflects the homey, unadorned faith of the African evangelicals. As the joyful harmonies of a Swahili choir filter through the open door, Ndeti parks the car in a dirt plaza out front.
Heads turn as we sit, but the congregation is soon immersed again in the all-Swahili service, which goes on for four hours. One of the hallmarks of the African church is that all worshipers are encouraged to lead the Sunday service. Today it seems as if almost everyone does. A minister preaches. A choir sings. A female choir member in white head scarf and blue smock harangues
Ndeti’s life has changed dramatically since he began going to church, Jane tells me later. “After he found Jesus Christ, he became a different person,” she says. “He’s taking care of his body; he’s avoiding bad company, which can harm him.”
Ndeti agrees. “Before, I used to drink a lot,” he says. “If I met friends we’d sometimes stay out the whole night drinking beers. The following morning I couldn’t even wake up and go for a run. I felt listless, tired. Now I don’t take even a single beer. It made a distance with my friends. They remain my friends, but they cannot abide with what I do.”
A windswept rise near the church offers a panoramic view of Ndeti’s mile-high world: a wide basin of acacia-speckled bush country crisscrossed by dirt roads and encircled by serrated green-and-brown hills. About eight miles to the west, out of sight behind a low ridge, lies the village of Lokenya, where Ndeti was raised on a 40-hectare maize, bean, and cabbage farm with many of
Each morning and afternoon as a boy, Ndeti ran six kilometers through the hills to and from Chasita Primary School. “My mother’s father was a runner, so we had the genes,” he says, shivering in the bone-chilling wind. Today, although Ndeti makes up his own rules, his training regimen reflects the same self-discipline. Every morning except Sunday he wakes up at six o’clock and
He follows two standard courses, each a round-trip of about 23 kilometers. One climbs gentle switchback trails to the top of the hill he calls Junior, directly behind the Kataloni church. The more arduous route ascends the far steeper Kusyomuomo Hill, or Senior, and includes a punishing eight-kilometer ascent straight to the summit. He runs each course about three days a week.
Ndeti has grown preoccupied as the day has gone by, and I feel like I’m wearing out my welcome. He is, after, all, a busy fellow. Tomorrow morning he leaves for England, where he’ll train on the beach in Southport for a month to prepare himself for Boston’s cool April climate and low altitude. In February and March he’ll train in Embu on the slopes of Mount Kenya, run a half
Ndeti stands alone looking out onto the dusty savanna, far from the noisy, crowded streets of Boston. The setting sun casts his face half in light, half in shadow. This year, he tells me, he plans to write on his Nikes “Faith and prayer moves mountains.” He gets back in his car and noses the car down the steep dirt road toward town. Heading home, Cosmas Ndeti drives like
Joshua Hammer is Newsweek’s Nairobi bureau chief. He wrote about the mountain-gorilla conservationist José Kalpers in the April issue.