The tales of greatness are legion, some from this year of 2011 sure to become legend. Yet for all the running success that comes pouring out of East Africa, so, too, are there thousands more humbling stories of dreams stunted, and lives that fall victim to the vagaries of some unknown benevolence withheld.
Athlete agent Gerard van de Veen of Volare Sports in The Netherlands has seen both sides up close. His most famous athlete, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya, stands at the very pinnacle of racing success as both Boston and New York City Marathon champion and course record setter in 2011. Mutai’s 2:03:02 in wind-blown Boston was the fastest marathon ever run.
Yet within the same Volare Sports stable for the last eight years was another Kenyan runner, Peter Kiprotich Cherus, whose times might not have challenged the great Mutai, (his PR was 2:08:49, Frankfurt 2007) but whose steadiness afforded him a place at the front of many a marathon as both a competitor and an invaluable and respected pacesetter. That reliability, in turn, afforded him a steady income as well.
In his time, Peter helped pace the great Ethiopian champion Haile Gebrselassie to his first marathon world record (2:04:26) at the 2007 Berlin Marathon. In his own name, Peter won important races in The Netherlands, Scotland, and Taiwan, winning the 2011 Kinmen Marathon this past January.
As with just about every top Kenyan athlete, the spoils of racing success were never purely for personal use, but rather were spread to family and friends whose cups were less full, talents less marketable, opportunities less available. Through his earnings, Peter Kiprotich took care of his wife, Shilla Jepchirchir, and their three children, eight year-old Brian Kimutai, and three year-old twins Eric Kipchumba and Marieke Jepchirchir. He also shared food, clothing, medical expenses, and school fees with the rest of his family, and knowing that young running talent required time to develop, Peter provided funds for training and rent money for stints at high altitude for several upcoming athletes.
This, then, was the relatively comfortable (and generous) life of a dedicated professional Kenyan runner. Not a top guy, for sure, but a journeyman who took his talent where it would show well and pay best. Peter Kiprotich Cherus had no illusions, no ill-considered dreams. For his children he saw a future that could well outstrip his own achievements. But dreams can come with a price in Kenya. The future is not a brightly lit road, but a darkly held secret, especially if one dreams at night out on the road.
There is an on-going political argument in the USA about the proper role of government. How much should the citizenry be taxed? For what should that taxation be used? By our own accounting, the infrastructure of our country is crumbling beneath us, roads, bridges, schools, public buildings. But if you ever been to Kenya, and I have, then I can tell you it is a chastising visit to one’s home-bound concerns. Just like a resident of Minnesota will find a 10 degree Fahrenheit day a warming trend when compared to the depths of 30-below, so, too, will the infrastructure of the USA seem futuristic to the rough-hewn standards of the African Horn.
Thus, on Sunday April 24th of this year Peter Kiprotich found himself driving at night on his way home to Iten from Tambach, a small town in the vicinity. Kenyan roads at night can be frightening. Visitors are warned against driving after dark. The roads are unlit and rutted. Nor do they have any reflective strips to alert drivers to turns. Animals pass darkly by, and matatus, the small vans which serve as people transports, will often come to dead stops in the middle of the road without benefit of tail or brake lights.
The circumstances remain clouded, but what is known is that Peter Kiprotich never made it to Iten that Sunday night. His car went off the road and rolled 75 meters into the valley below. Some people nearby heard the accident, and came running to help. Peter was extracted from his vehicle, and taken to a nearby hospital in Tambach. But the level of medical care and the quality of available services were inadequate to treat Peter’s injuries, and while being transported to a hospital in Iten, the capital of the Keiyo District, Peter passed away from internal bleeding.
This is not a unique story in Kenya. Wesley Korir, two-time Los Angeles Marathon champion and a graduate of the University of Louisville, lost his brother Nicholas to a poisonous snakebite at age ten.
“In Kenya there are no ambulances, and my family didn’t have a car, so my mother had to wait with him for a bus,” Korir recalled before this year’s Chicago Marathon.
Nicholas died on the twenty mile bus trip to hospital. Today, Wesley has teamed up with American stars Ryan and Sara Hall and their Steps Foundation to help construct a hospital in Korir’s rural Kenyan village.
“I don’t want any other mothers to go through what I saw her go through,” said Korir.
Now it is the friends of Peter Kiprotich Cherus who are making the same commitment, the same call for assistance. In the name of Peter, who gave so much of what he had to make the lives of others better, the Peter Kiprotich Cherus Foundation has been established. Headquartered in The Netherlands, it will be active in Iten, Kenya. The foundation’s funds will be administered by the close friends and family of Peter to insure the money donated is well spent.
Maybe it’s the balancing way of the world, but perhaps it is fitting that on the day after I wrote an article questioning whether the state of running is suffering due to the utter dominance of athletes from East Africa – DISTANCE RACING HAS HIT THE WALL – that today I can make an appeal on behalf of one such runner who represented only a tiny measure of that domination.
The questions of sports and their place in the world are always up for review, and will always draw competing arguments and philosophies. Those questions are honest and worthy, but come and go with the times. The questions of our common humanity, and the need to lean upon one another in difficult times, or to share the benefits of a fortunate birth with those less blessed by the Great Rib-taker on this plane, remain constant.
In that light, and in this week of communal Thanksgiving, please join me, and make a donation to the PETER KIPROTICH CHERUS FOUNDATION.