New York, New York –In the oven-like heat of the 2012 Boston Marathon eventual champion Wesley Korir found himself way off the pace just hoping to survive as the race passed through the infamous hills of Newton. But using his head as much as his legs he did more than survive; the University of Louisville grad from Kenya ran down every over eager competitor to win the biggest race of his life. Then, kneeling in stunned disbelief at the finish line, he pondered the improbability of it all.
“I asked the volunteer to pinch me,” Wesley recalled. “Did I really win the Boston Marathon?”
Improbable is an apt word for 30 year-old Korir, maybe even unique. In the world of elite Kenyan running there isn’t anyone remotely like him. For that matter, there’s nobody quite like him outside Kenya either.
While fellow New York City Marathon contenders like Geoffrey Mutai, the 2011 champion and course record holder, was training monastically for Sunday’s 43rd ING New York City Marathon in Kapng’etuny, some 55 miles outside Eldoret, Kenya, Wesley Korir was making a weekly five hour commute by car (or 30 minutes by air flight) from Eldoret to the nation’s capital to take his place in the Kenyan parliament to fight for the elimination of poverty and to stamp out rampant government corruption. Not your average Kenyan runner, to say the least.
Just six weeks before this year’s Boston Marathon Wesley Korir unexpectedly won the Cherangany parliamentary seat as an independent candidate, out-polling the incumbent PM 19,712 votes against 17,514. Talk about your Capital Challenge!
“What has been eye-opening for me (in parliament) is that I’ve seen the potential of the country,” Korir told the media today at the New York City Marathon press center in Central Park. “There is so much potential in our country, but I’ve also noticed why we keep coming up short: selfish, greedy and bad leadership.”
That’s not simply a harsh assessment it is a potentially dangerous one; Kenyan leaders are rarely called out, especially by young unaffiliated runners from the rural Cherangany district. At the same time the evidence is hard to refute.
During my first trip to Kenya I asked our driver why the road from Nairobi to Eldoret was so torn up. He told me it was because while there is a five-ton weight limit for trucks, people in government who own 10-ton trucks drive the road without consequence which tears the road apart.
“There are so many sycophants,” explained Wesley, who will be running his first ING New York City Marathon this Sunday morning. “Yet everyone respects me for being the first independent candidate to win a seat. And they are all after me to join their party. But I am only in parliament to work for the people who put me there.
“One thing I fought against, I was the only man to stand against the parliamentary pay raise. Instead of doing the right thing, people go into office to enrich themselves.”
Don’t believe it? In a country whose average citizen earns $1700 per year, a member of Kenya’s parliament is paid $10,000 PER MONTH! And it used to be $15,000! At one time they were the highest paid parliamentarians in the entire world. Not that Wesley needs the money himself. 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.
A two-time Los Angeles Marathon champion and 2012 Boston victor, Wesley could only manage a fifth place at this year’s Boston Marathon in defense of his 2012 title. He says he arrives in New York in better shape than he was for Boston, but not in the best shape of his life. How could he be?
“Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I am in parliament in Nairobi,” he said. “Friday, Saturday and Sunday I am in training in Eldoret. The number of miles I can train is not the same as before, maybe twenty miles per week less. But it is more than before Boston. So I am somewhere in between.”
Wesley first got our attention at the 2008 Chicago Marathon where as an unknown university graduate he couldn’t get an elite starting number. But running in the people’s race he posted the fourth fastest time of the day, 2:13:53, so race director Carey Pinkowski awarded Wesley equal fourth-place money. From there Korir won two straight L.A. Marathons and notched his PR running 2:06:15 to finish second in Chicago in 2011 behind Moses Mosop.
In some ways Wesley is the Ryan Hall of Kenyan running, someone with a big running talent, but who sees his calling beyond the confines of the start and finish lines of the world’s major races. Today, at age 30 he should just now be hitting his racing prime. Thus, like Hall — who with wife Sara heads up the Hall Steps Foundation — Korir has already begun working on what comes after running. Which is all well and good, except the window of an elite marathon runner is a tight one, and any deviation from full an out training regime almost certainly will create separation from the opposition in the wrong direction.
Educated in the USA at the University of Louisville where he matriculated with a BA in biology in 2008, married to a Canadian, Tarah McKay, Korir stunned the running world by throwing his hat into the ring and winning a seat in the Kenyan parliament last winter as an independent candidate.
Due to his win, he wife Tarah along with daughter McKayla, 3 (named for his wife’s maiden name and Los Angeles where he won his first marathon), and son Jaden, born in late July, live full time outside Eldoret after splitting time between Louisville, Canada and Kenya the last several years.
“They are adapting well,” he says. “There is some frustration, but everyone is OK.”
Eradicating poverty, fighting corruption and making clean drinking water available are the issues which motivated him to run for office. Those are large issues in his homeland, and just like the competition on Sunday, will be hard to overcome. But even though he isn’t in his best form for New York, he still only knows one way to race and one way to govern.
“If they break out and go,” he said of the lead pack, “I’ll go, too. If I’m here, let me give it all. I don’t like races that sit, sit, and kick. At least I want them to work for it. I’m not a speed guy, but I hate people who sit and kick.”
Wesley had hoped to race his friend Ryan Hall this Sunday, but Ryan was forced to pull out with an injury. Over the years the two have become fast friends. With Hall’s Steps Foundation Korir’s Kenyan Kids Foundation Wesley has almost finished completing a new hospital in his hometown of Kitale, in memory of an older brother who died from a black mamba snake bite because the family could not get him to the hospital on time. He has seen what poverty and poor government can combine to form.
“The people need access to health care and they need empowerment.”
With goals like that it will be hard not to want the best for the freshman parliamentarian during this Sunday morning’s travel through the five boroughs.
Who knows what heights he may hit one day? Maybe even in running.