“No man working 40-hours a week will ever beat me in a marathon.” – Four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers.
After winning the 1975 Boston Marathon in an American record 2:09:55, Bill Rodgers returned to his job as a special education teacher. He’d been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and carried a sense of societal responsibility common to his generation. But when his principal kept asking if it was really necessary that he train during his lunch break, Bill knew he had to choose. He followed the path to running history, winning three more Bostons, four New Yorks and a Fukuoka (Japan).
Today, the depth of distance running talent is far greater than in Rodger’s era, and to say the world’s top runners live all but monastic lives to prepare for their major competitions is being generous to monks. And yet, defending Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir of Kenya has recently taken on a responsibility that would leave even the affable Mr. Rodgers shaking his head in disbelief.
This past March 4th Wesley Korir ran, not for fitness or riches and trophies, but for public office back home in his native Kenya. And he won! In a stunning upset the 30 year-old University of Louisville grad won the Cherangany parliamentary seat as an independent candidate, out-polling the incumbent PM 19,712 votes against 17,514. Now, six weeks later, he will defend his Boston Marathon title. Talk about your Capital Challenge!
“My people have given me a perfect gift,” Wesley told the Kenyan press following his election. “That will inspire me as I compete in Boston. Now that I’m done with political campaigns and have won, I am shifting to training.”
Wesley, his wife Tarah and their three year-old daughter McKayla spent several months campaigning throughout his home district following his fifth place finish at last fall’s Chicago Marathon. After the election Wesley moved to Iten to train while Tarah and McKayla returned to Toronto.
Pregnant with the couple’s second child, Tarah is a Canadian citizen who must live part of the year in Toronto, because she doesn’t hold a green card which would allow her to remain in the U.S. full-time. Wesley and Tarah met while e attending the University of Louisville, where they also maintain a household.
“He’s had a lot on his plate,” admitted Ron Mann, Wesley’s coach since 2004 when Wesley became a Louisville Cardinal after a stint at Murray State. “The most important focus this time has been on longer training rather than the short work. First, because there was no availability to a track, and also due to his personal schedule. So, no predictions this year. Every time I make a prediction he exceeds it. So I’m going to keep it to myself this time. But he’s joy to be associated with and to coach. He is doing so many amazing things.”
“Usually I don’t like Tarah coming to Wesley’s marathons till the day before,” said Karen Locke, Korir’s Oakland-based manager. “But they’ve been apart for so long she’s coming to Boston to join him on the 11th (Thursday).”
Sport is pure meritocracy, thus each sport has to be fortunate who ends up as its champions. Growing up in Biribiriet, a small village in Western Kenya in the Central Highlands, Wesley Korir has always displayed a generosity of spirit that goes beyond the scope of his own existence. Some of it is innate, for sure, but some was born of life’s challenges, the rest from a deep religious conviction.
“I have seen their suffering,” Korir said. “I know the obstacles people face. My family struggled with school fees. If you can’t go to school, you have no hope for a better life. When I was 12, my brother died from a black mamba snake bite because my family could not get him to the hospital on time. These people need access to health care and they need empowerment.”
Moved by his brother’s death, Korir worked to build a medical clinic and purchase an ambulance for his home area. Through his contacts in the U.S. and Canada, a regular stream of Western doctors have made the journey to donate their time and services. Wesley has also been paying school tuition for area children in need. In fact, it was such deficiencies in local leadership which prompted him to run for office in the first place.
“I tried to have a meeting with the immediate former MP so that we can work together,” Korir told The People. “But it was to no avail as he declined to meet me.”
Though determined to run for office, Korir, like any political novice, was faced with major challenges. First, without sponsorship from a political party he had to finance the entire campaign out of his own pocket. Kiind of a Kenyan Ross Perot, but with a better accent and a winning platform.
But since his bona fides had been on display for many years, given the good works he had been funding back home out of his race winnings, Wesley had already built up a natural constituency. Two Los Angeles Marathon titles, a runner up position at the 2011 Chicago Marathon, and last year’s Boston win had also made him a wealthy man with the capital to spend.
And do not sell the idea of money, itself, short as being an issue in his run for public office. Kenyan members of parliament have been among the best paid in the world, and the discrepancy between members’ salaries and the needs of their constituencies is among the most widely protested and reported corruptions in Kenya.
In July 2010 members of parliament tried to vote themselves a 40% pay raise to $175,000 per year in a country where the average annual wage is $1600 and where day laborers earn less than $500 per annum. Public protests followed, and the parliamentarians had to back off. Then in December 2012, just months before the national election, the 222 members voted themselves a $100,000+ severance package at the end of the current term. And since district lines had been redrawn before this year’s national election, technically all 222 members would have been eligible for this win-fall payout.
“What I earn from running is more than enough to sustain me compared to what I will earn as an MP,” Wesley said. “To me money is not an issue, but my desire to serve my people is.”
Korir indicated he will funnel his MP salary through his Kenyan Kids Foundation to help pay school fees for disadvantaged kids. His wife Tarah serves as the foundation’s president.
While 2000 Boston Marathon champion Elijah Lagat gained and has held a seat in parliament since 2002 — besting three-time Boston champion Ibrahim Hussein (1988, `91, `92) in the 2007 election — and 2002 Boston runner up Christopher Cheboiboch won a county assembly representative seat in this year’s elections, Wesley Korir is the first world-class Kenyan runner in his absolute prime to take on such daunting responsibilities. And if that isn’t enough, he has already let it be known that he has his sights set on the presidency.
Generally, you will find politicians at marathons holding the finish line tape or awarding the first place prize. This year at Boston a politician will be trying to break the tape and go home with the purse. Come April 15th Wesley Korir will be the incumbent, but he will face eight other candidates with personal bests under 2:07, none of whom are anything less than laser-focused.
Wesley Korir ran his PR, 2:06:13, last October finishing fifth at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Some believe he had over-cooked it in training. This coming Monday the question will be, “can you do it all?” and still come out on top? That is the most pressing issue that Wesley Korir will have to contend with next Monday, and perhaps again in the months to follow. But as Coach Ron Mann said, “never say never with Wesley”.
P.S. On March 3rd Kenya’s Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) published the final pay structure to follow the March 4th elections. In a bow to the public outcry over PM salaries, rather than a $9,910 monthly salary, the members of parliament will now take home just $6230. Protests from members have already begun.