Julius Arile is nowhere near the fastest or most celebrated runner in the 2012 Honolulu Marathon field. His PR is only 2:12:13, run this year in Prague. No, the man in the spotlight is 2012 Olympic Marathon bronze medallist Wilson Kipsang who also won this spring’s London Marathon, and holds the second fastest official marathon time in history at 2:03:42, run in Frankfurt, Germany in 2011.
But while Kipsang is the big gun in Honolulu, aiming to take down Jimmy Muindi’s 2004 event record of 2:11:12, what his Kenyan countryman Julius Arile represents is, in many ways, much more important than what Kipsang does or may do.
You see, Julius Arile is a former AK-47 wielding cattle rustler who laid down his weapon and life of violence in 2004 in exchange for the chance of a life as a professional runner. He is also the “Millionth Face” for the United Nation’s Small Arms Treaty, a multilateral treaty that would regulate the international trade in conventional weapons. The treaty was negotiated at a global conference under the auspices of the United Nations from July 2–27, 2012 in New York.
Through his designation as the Millionth Face, Arile has twice come to New York City to meet with U.N. Secretary-Generals Kofi Annan in 2006 and Ban-Ki Moon this past June. But this Sunday he will don the trappings of his new trade as he takes on Wilson Kipsang and a host of other top Kenyans and Ethiopians at the 40th Honolulu Marathon. And in this new trade the concept of dying is far less literal than in his previous life.
Julius Arile is a member of the Pokot sub-tribe of the Kalenjin, the most celebrated of Kenya’s 42 tribes in terms of running. He grew up in West Pokot near the Ugandan border, also home to former women’s marathon world record holder Tegla Loroupe. In the North-West Rift Valley the practice of cattle rustling is a long-held tradition, especially between the Pokot and Marakwet sub-tribes. But until the spread of illegal firearms, the practice was conducted using crude weapons like spears, bows and arrows and clubs. In the 1990s the proliferation of inexpensive illegal weapons escalated the severity and consequences of the cattle rustling trade. Listen to Julius describe it from his blog.
“I was 17 when I bought my first gun. It was an AK-47, and I had to use it many times to protect my cows, which are so important for the lives of people in Pokot. I had gone to school until Standard Eight (about 13-14 years old). Then the Karamojong (a tribe from neighboring Uganda) raided and took our animals, and that became the end of my education. They stole 60 of our 70 cows, and I had to start looking after the remaining ten. My older brother Solomon, about 35 years old, was shot and killed in one of these raids.”
According to Julius it was easy to find guns as many were coming in from nearby Uganda. He bought his first gun from a trader for five cows. Many raids followed. He lost count of the number of times they raided the Karamojong and were raided by them in return. Between 50 to 100 men would fight at a time, and anybody could die at any moment.
“In 2002 the Karamojong raided again. We fought a battle with them that lasted the whole day. We killed some of the Karamojong and they didn’t take any cattle this time. But my friend was shot and killed right beside me. After that day I moved to a new place, further away from the border. I knew I could be next to die, like my friends and my brother, if I carried on fighting.”
In 2003 Julius first heard about the Peace Races organized by former marathon world record holder Tegla Loroupe. It became the turning point in his life.
“I had never run in a race before, but I won and I got the prize money. In 2004 I gave up my gun. Most of my friends understood, but some thought it cowardly. My wife Julia was happy. I used to spend 4-6 months at a time in the bush, looking after the cattle and not seeing my family. This was our normal way of life.”
He became a peacemaker instead of a warrior, and encouraged other young boys to start running in the peace races.
“I told them, ‘forget about the cows, remember you are alive’.”
It was the British who introduced long-distance athletics competiiton to Kenya during their colonial rule. In part this was an attempt to replace the fame and fortune brought by cattle rustling – which was conducted on foot, not horseback – with athletic fame via non-violent competitions. The practice inaugurated what we now witness as the on-going dominance of Kenyan running, but it didn’t eliminate the tradition of cattle raiding altogether.
In 2006 Arile started training properly. At first he ran with “shoes” cut from old tires. It was then that he went to New York to speak to the U.N. about why Arms Trade Treaty would be so important. In New York he met Kofi Annan (the UN Secretary General at the time) and the late Kenyan MP John Michuki.
“At the time the Kenyan government had sent troops to Pokot to disarm communities. It was very violent. I told him that the only way to disarm people is to get them to give up the guns voluntarily, not through force. The Arms Trade Treaty will help cut off the supply of weapons.”
New York was Arile’s first time outside Kenya, and he was amazed by all the tall buildings.
“It was so different to Pokot! It was there I got my first pair of proper running shoes. I still have them at home.”
The oft-quoted factors behind Kenyan running excellence have been: the benefits of an altitude-adapted cardio-vascular system, an active agrarian lifestyle, hero worship, and the opportunity to significantly improve their standard of living by the financial rewards racing could earn them. Yet for men like Julius Arile, the talents he first honed in armed long distance cattle rustling, talents that were once celebrated in song in his home area – or mocked if unsuccessful – have now been channeled into the uncertain but far less deadly practice of road racing.
Julius ran his last marathon two months ago in Eindhoven, Holland. After sticking with the lead pack through 35k he developed cramps in his right quadriceps muscle, and was forced to drop out at 40k. Honolulu is an opportunity for Arile to redeem that race, while learning to run a non-paced marathon against a solid field of veterans.
“He still doesn’t have the base of miles to carry him through a world-class marathon,” says his agent Zane Branson of PossoSports Europe. ”But he has the talent to run 2:05 or better one day.”
There are no guarantees in running, no silver bullets. But at least Julius Arile lives with the knowledge that the next gun he hears fired will be the starter’s gun for the 40th Honolulu Marathon, the start of something good, not the potential end of all there is.