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.

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UNTIL THE NIGHT the two Americans actually appeared in the flesh, Sammy Ng’eno had little faith in the story of their fantastic running scheme—this fairy tale of a professor, a blond surfer, and a valley of bloody feet.

The two Americans were running-mad, Nelson Ndereva told Sammy each evening when they met for speed work on the track in Embu, a village in the Kenyan highlands. The professor and the surfer had discovered a place just like Africa on the East Coast of the United States—Vuleefore, it sounded like—where they wanted to bring African runners and plug them into a new program called The System. Instead of competing Kenyan-style—a ruthless process of elimination that leaves many promising runners injured or demoralized—The System promised solidarity, long-term coaching, and a place to train far from Africa’s diseases and poverty. Nelson had a friend, a Kenyan runner in America named John Mwai, who told him the Americans were coming any day now to bring both of them to Vuleefore. If the experiment worked, Sammy and Nelson might join the next generation of world champions.

“It’s the best deal you ever heard of,” Nelson said. He’d actually been to Vuleefore during his time racing overseas for an American manager. But that manager had cut him loose and cancelled his visa—they can do that—and ever since, Nelson had been pounding the Embu track, waiting for another shot at the U.S. road-racing circuit. If Sammy came with him, Nelson promised, he could win more in one race than he’d earn in a lifetime at his current job as a $150-a-month military constable.

Sammy shared Nelson’s desperation, and that’s what made him leery. He knew runners like Nelson who’d grabbed overseas deals, only to return months later, broke, burned out, or injured, with bitter stories of abusive managers. Some were cheated out of their prize money, others were overraced or forced to live ten to a room. Sammy had even heard of one agent who made his runners pick cotton on his farm as part of their “training.”

But there was no prettying up the fact that some degree of desperation has become the foundation of elite distance running. The world’s best runners need foreign agents to get them overseas to compete, and the agents, in turn, need Kenyans. Over the last three decades, the impoverished Third World country has emerged as the most dominant distance-running nation on the planet. Kenyan men have won major marathons from New York to Beijing, including ten straight at Boston. At the Sydney Olympics, Kenyan men and women are a serious threat to win every medal in the long events—the steeplechase, 10,000 meters, and marathon—and to place in anything longer than a sprint.

Just how the Kenyans became so awesome is an enduring sports mystery. Apart from controversial theories about genetic advantages, one key is that Kenyan runners live at high altitude, which helps their bodies process oxygen more efficiently. They also have poor transportation and few televisions, leaving running as a substitute for wheels and entertainment. But if speed is a product of elevation and poverty, how come runners from similar environments don’t begin to match the Kenyans? One clue may lie in their survival-of-the-fittest training, which, for most male runners, begins in the army, the country’s largest employer.

Sammy, born on a small farm in a hilly village northwest of Nairobi called Eldama Ravine, followed the typical career path of a Kenyan runner. One of nine siblings, he showed such raw speed that his uncle, in need of a goat herder, brought him up as his own son. By the time he was ten, Sammy was spending his after-school hours in high-speed pursuit of goats up mountainsides.

After high school, Sammy enlisted in the army. The best detail in the military was the track team, but it meant beating out hundreds of other racers, and until then Sammy’s primary competition had been livestock. Although he is a member of the Kalenjin tribe—the Kalenjins are the best runners in Kenya—he had never really raced, so he was thrilled to find that he could keep up. Next stop, he hoped, would be Ngong, a rough bivouac 18 miles southwest of Nairobi where the army’s best runners train before heading overseas to earn, with the army’s blessing, foreign cash.

Sammy, unfortunately, was still too green for Ngong. He ended up walking a beat as a military constable in Embu and, in his off hours, running. For three consecutive springs he paid his own way to the national championships, where he would put on his ratty running shoes and his homemade racing jersey, enter the 1,500-meter race as a dark-horse amateur, and make it through the semifinals before getting beaten by the top runners. He had little hope of a break until February 1999, when Nelson began telling stories of Vuleefore. Then, one evening in early March, Nelson left Sammy a note to meet him by the track the next morning. Word had come from his friend John Mwai: The Americans were on their way. Still skeptical, Sammy was nevertheless in position by daybreak. And there he remained all day, watching from the splintered shade of an acacia tree.

As the sun went down, reality crept in. The good scouts, he knew, didn’t scour backwoods outposts for unknown constables. “This is stupid,” Sammy muttered, and he walked off. A few minutes later he was back at the tree. He paced like this into the night, pulled homeward by logic, treeward by ambition and curiosity.

Finally, two headlights came stabbing through the dark. Out of a rented Range Rover stepped Nelson Ndereva, John Mwai, and the two promised Americans. Brutally rutted roads and a breakdown had put them 12 hours behind schedule, and by nightfall they’d given up any hope that Sammy would still be waiting. But as they stretched their legs, they were startled to hear the traditional Swahili greeting ring out: “Karibu!” A slim figure with a handsome smile stepped out of the dark and into the headlights.



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.




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.




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.


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.


IN THE MONTHS FOLLOWING that inaugural summer, Elite received a big dose of an utterly different aspect of American culture: instant gratification. First Sammy smoked a field of 18 world-class milers in San Francisco, and then he went on a tear, winning 10k’s in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey, trimming almost 30 seconds with each race and setting a course record at the last one. Another new member of the Elite group, Charles Kamathi, became famous overnight when he beat his fellow Kenyan, cross-country legend Paul Tergat, in a 10k in Belgium and went on to beat him in two more

European meets. Even Jim Shea had his moment of triumph, finishing fifth in the triple-jump (the hop-skip-jump version of the long jump) at last summer’s national masters in Boston.

This past April, while the rest of the running world was focused on the Boston Marathon, the fledgling Elite squad was represented at the Rye Derby, a small but very competitive 5k just north of New York City. With Jim were Francis Kamau, a 39-year-old they envisioned as something of a runner-manager; John Njeru, a fleet but unpredictable middle-distance runner; and Margaret Kagiri, who was battling back from a yearlong maternity leave.

Jim didn’t look happy when they showed up for the race: Two inches of spring snow were on the ground. Snow! John Njeru had never seen snow in his 19 years, so Francis, who’d spent a winter in Kosovo as a U.N. peacekeeper, began filling him in: “Very slippery, very hard to feel fast in,” Francis cautioned John.

As the other runners dug in at the starting line, John caught flakes in his hands, showing an alarming lack of focus: The rap on him was that he tended to lose heart in races and get beaten by slower men. If he couldn’t compete more fiercely, Jim would have to send him home.

The gun cracked, and John disappeared from sight, lagging behind the galloping herd. Jim, looking resigned, walked toward the finish line as the snow turned to fat globs of freezing rain. He’d barely arrived at the tape when suddenly here came John breezing around the corner, a big smile on his face, relishing his first cheers in America.

The second-place finisher, Tom Nohilly, walked up to shake his hand. “Kenyans just have different natural abilities than we do,” said Nohilly, an All-American steeplechaser from the University of Florida. Like other American runners, he had been watching the Kenyans closely, trying to pick up their tricks of the trade. Kenyans have always gulped lots of tea before long runs; if you read the product info on a PowerGel packet, you’ll see that caffeine aids carbohydrate metabolism. Kenyans run hills fanatically; now, American coaches are prescribing regular hill work as a way to increase speed and decrease impact injuries.

But it seems the more the Americans study the Kenyans, the slower they go: American marathoners are running worse than they did 25 years ago. Back in the seventies, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were running 2:10s—this year, only one American man made the Olympic marathon cutoff of 2:14. How maddening it must be to train 150 miles a week and still watch these frail-looking Kenyans fly by. “I think Americans are training hard enough,” insisted Nohilly. “I just think we’re not training properly.” So: Would he be willing to train with the Kenyans? No way, he replied. “If you train with them, they’ll run you into the ground. Try to stay up with them, and you’re heading for burnout.”

As John stood in snowy Rye basking in his triumph, Paul Mwangi, a Kenyan living in New York who finished third in the race, pulled him aside. They conversed quietly in Swahili while Jim watched, fascinated. This was what Hussein had promised him more than a year before in the West Chester YMCA, to have elbow-to-elbow access to some of the world’s great runners.

After Mwangi walked off, Jim asked John about their conversation. “You guys talking about home?”

John shook his head. “He wanted to know if I am sick.”


The 19-year-old nodded. “He tells me I run like a little woman.”


ONE EARLY CAUSE of tension in the Elite family has been its very success: The more they win, the more tempted they may be to jump to more powerful agents.

The strains were already showing one summer afternoon when Hussein and I headed up to the Elites’ apartment for lunch. “What do you think?” Hussein asked as we mounted the stairs. “Are they happy? They seem pretty happy to you?”

A stomach-teasing aroma of stewed food was in the air, and the thrumming of African bass guitar wafted through the open window. Everyone was sprawled this afternoon on sofas and easy chairs, eating enormous platefuls of spaghetti and vegetables and watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Action movies are popular in the household; so are ESPN and gospel music. The Christian faith is big throughout the Kenyan running community—Cosmas Ndeti won the Boston Marathon twice while wearing “Jesus Loves Me” socks, and Catherine Ndereba has two non-running diversions: professional ice hockey and her Bible.

As cozy as the scene appeared, Hussein had reason to be concerned about their happiness. He’s only too aware that Elite was formed by crossovers from Lisa Buster’s group—defection can be a two-way street. And if there’s one factor that has the potential to trigger full-scale revolt, it’s the number of years the Elites will have to wait before making serious cash in bigger events. Recently, the group had a great showing at the 7.6-mile Mount Washington Road Race, the longest uphill race in the country; teammates Alice Muriithi and Daniel Kihara won and came home with just $750 apiece, minus Elite’s 15 percent commission. And when John Njeru won in Rye, he brought back all of $500.

Hussein told me about a nerve-racking confrontation in Portugal this past spring when Charles Kamathi, after his victories over Tergat, started hinting he might like a new agent. On the spot, Hussein offered to help him pack his bags. “If he was going to leave, I wanted him out before he started talking dissent,” Hussein said. Charles stayed.

Nelson Ndereva was a different story. Like Charles, he started hinting at finding another agent. But he committed an unforgiveable act early this past summer, when he took two young runners out partying on the night before a race in Florida. The Elites—management and runners, including Sammy—held a vote, and it was unanimous: Nelson was expelled from the group. His visa was cancelled once again, and he was sent home. Sammy, when asked about his friend, shrugged and looked resigned to Nelson’s harsh fate.

“Sure, it hurts to lose a 2:10 marathoner,” said Hussein. “But there can’t be any stars in The System.”

Sammy was missing that afternoon when Hussein and I arrived for lunch. “He’s at the pool,” Jim said, setting off a ripple of chuckles in the living room. “Kenya will finally win a gold medal in swimming,” Francis cracked, causing more laughter. Sammy, it turned out, had a stress fracture in his shin. Jim and Hussein drove him to New Jersey to see a top orthopedist, who ordered him off his feet and into the pool. Sammy argued with Hussein on the ride home, and finally admitted he couldn’t swim. “You should see him now!” Jim laughed. “He’s in there, thrashing away. He’s starting to like it more than running.”

Once Sammy is healthy, Hussein plans to start moving him up in distance, the goal being to bolster his natural speed with enough endurance to take a stab at one of the major marathons. More races are being established every year in America, a trend that began in the midnineties. “On any given day, you can never tell who will be the top contender in what race,” Jim says, and begins ticking off events: “Twin Cities, the Country Music Marathon in Nashville…all of these are good money and good tests for Boston and New York.”

There’s a parable to keep in mind, Jim reminded me. Khalid Khannouchi came to the United States from Morocco in 1993 as a mediocre 3,000-meter man. He got a job as a dishwasher, began training at night, and this past fall pulled ahead of Moses Tanui in the last mile of the Chicago Marathon to set a new world record of 2:05:42. So why not Sammy?



ONE EMBARRASSMENT that Kenya has yet to erase: None of its marathoners has ever won Olympic gold. This year, aiming to sweep all six medals in the men’s and women’s events, the Kenyan Amateur Athletic Union summoned its greatest endurance runners home to Ngong, creating the most formidable marathon selection camp in history. Elijah Lagat, this year’s Boston winner, did his time in Ngong, as did Moses Tanui and Joseph Chebet and Tegla Loroupe, the women’s leader. And so did one of Elite’s runners: After his sensational debut season, Charles Kamathi headed back to his native hills to prepare for the 10,000 meters in Sydney.

Another Elite runner, it turns out, also returned to Kenya. I heard about it one summer afternoon when Jim called with an odd tone in his voice. “John Njeru is going home,” he said.

“What’s wrong?” I remembered the look on Jim’s face as he slopped through the slush in Rye, mulling young John’s fate.

“Just John. He can’t seem to cut it. Ever since that Rye victory, he’s been getting beaten.” In June, Jim and Hussein set a time that John had to meet in a race; he muffed it. Later that month he had to hit 14:20 in a 5k. He finished a minute slower.

It seems to be a problem locked in his head, Jim says: “Maybe it’s the pressure of realizing, every race, that this is it, this is your lifelong chance to buy a farm and feed your family.” Unlike Nelson, they’re not completely giving up hope, Jim adds; John’s going back to Elite’s Kenya training camp in Njabini, a rickety wooden hotel with a single telephone, to run hills and get his times down. If he hits the 14:20 mark, he’s got a shot at coming back. But Jim knows it’s a long shot, and so does John—he’s in the second year of his three-year contract, and every day, another wave of hungry young Kenyans is ready to spend a day and a night beneath an acacia tree, waiting for an offer.

Jim pauses. “He’s feeling better now. He’s stopped crying.”

With a marathon best of 3:48, Christopher McDougall is no threat to Kenya’s finest.