Chicago, IL. — There is a deep vein of giving associated with the distance running community. It can be seen not just in the billion dollars plus generated for charities by thousands of running events world-wide, but in the individual works of many of the sport’s top athletes, most of whom understand they have hit the genetic lottery jackpot. American stars Sara and Ryan Hall’s Steps Foundation and Meb Keflezighi’s MEB Foundation come quickly to mind.
While these athletes use their fame and names to lift the veil of tears that shrouds millions of less fortunate fellow time travelers, 2012 Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir of Kenya has taken the concept of service to an entirely new level. In America to run this Sunday’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon, Wesley is featured in a new documentary film, titled Transcend, which presents in moving and emotional detail the most important run of Wesley’s life, that for a seat in the Kenyan parliament even as he trained to defend his Boston title in the winter of 2012/2013. The film will screen tonight in Chicago, and feature a Q & A with Wesley afterwards.
“We hope it’s an inspirational film for all runners, embodying the spirit of what running can be for all who participate,” said Transcend’s producer Tad Munnings.
Motivated by the want he witnessed growing up in his rural home district of Cherangany deep in Kenya’s Central Highlands, a want personalized by the death of his younger brother, Eliud, who expired after being bitten by a poisonous snake too far from a medical facility to save his life, and further stoked by the tribal violence that followed the disputed 2007 national elections during which Wesley saw three of his friends killed by a machete-wielding mob, Korir decided to make a run for the district’s seat in parliament in 2013.
Even though he was still in the prime of his athletic career, and was unaffiliated with any political party, Wesley ran a disciplined, people-first campaign and emerged victorious over the well-connected five-year incumbent. Imagine if Ryan Hall or Meb Keflezighi set aside their career to run for the U.S. Congress.
“I don’t run for myself anymore,” Wesley said. “I run for the whole country.”
Bucking tradition, the University of Louisville graduate ran on a unity platform that set aside the tribalism that has defined Kenyan politics since its independence from England in 1963.
“I think when I left this country (to attend college in the USA), I left by body, but my heart was left here,” he told his Cherangany constituents. “So I had to come back for my heart so my life could be complete.”
“He’s not a tribalist,” remarked one voter. “In fact, he’s trying to bring our place at a level so that he doesn’t favor any tribe within this place.”
Wesley had already shown his bona fides to his constituency before ever deciding to run for office. In 2010 Korir and his wife Tara created the Kenyan Kids Foundation, a non-profit that helped 100 students attend school last year. They also constructed a local hospital and brought in a medical team that administered to thousands of local residents. They even bought an ambulance in memory of his deceased younger brother. Yet during the campaign his opponent tried to turn those improvements against him by saying, ‘Wesley has brought an ambulance so that people will be sick.’ But Korir quickly and sternly countered that specious argument.
“Will the ambulance bring sickness? It’s like saying that if you build a hospital it will bring diseases. I’m telling you I am an independent candidate, and I am telling you the truth that I’ve not been sent by anybody. I am a youth who sacrificed himself to come help the people of Cherangany.”
Transcend shows the deep corruption that is endemic in the Kenyan political system. As Wesley’s motorcade drives through the district during the campaign constituents hold out their hands asking for cash in exchange for votes.
In the weeks before the election Wesley sent his wife Tara and their daughter Kayla back to North America (she is a Canadian citizen) in case the violence that erupted after the 2007 elections returned. Then one month after defeating the incumbent by over 2000 votes, Wesley, too, returned to the States to defend his Boston title. But having trained only 30 to 50 miles per week instead of the 100 that he managed the year before, as one might expect, he fell off the pace after 20 miles, and came home in fifth place. No matter.
“I am happier than the person who won right now,” he said afterwards.
Since Boston 2013, Wesley has last competed in this May’s Ottowa Marathon where he finished in fourth place in 2:09.
“I learned from that,” he told me today. “My goal is to be the first politician to win a marathon. But I am a realistic person, too. To say I will win in Chicago is not realistic, but low 2:06 or under is.”
With his schedule as a Kenyan Member of Parliament, Wesley lives nowhere and everywhere these days.
“The first year was a struggle,” he admits. “I was learning the office. But I have a schedule now so I can train, rest, and spend time with my family. It has made me more disciplined and determined.”
One challenge Wesley has is taking a simple training run. He keeps a pair of running shoes and gear in his car at all times. Sometimes he trains in Ngong outside Nairobi. Other times he might pound on a treadmill in the house of Parliament. Or he might find himself in Mobassa on committee assignment. Other times he finds himself in Eldoret where Tara and their two children live. And still again he will be in Cherangany, his home district speaking with his constituents.”
Through it all, he runs. But due to his hectic schedule, Wesley has had to reduce his training from 100 to 80 miles per week. But has a plan in place for Chicago.
“I will stay with the pack for as long as I can, no matter what. I am prepared to run by myself, and know that at some time I will find myself in no-man’s land. But I want them to do is pull me to a fast time.”
Wesley began in his marathon career in Chicago in 2008 when he ran the fourth fastest time, though he didn’t start with the elite field. He’s been back again on four occasions, placing as high as second in 2011 behind Moses Mosop, then running his PR 2:06:13 in 2012 taking position number five. His goals might not be as lofty in Chicago 2014, but back home they have never been higher.
“There are three platforms I am working on: empowerment and self-sustainability, health care, and education. Those are my key principles. We may think they are simple, but in Kenya they have been the privilege of the few. I want to make them available to everyone.”
Long distance running is what makes us unique as a species. For many thousands of years it is what kept us alive through the technique of persistence hunting. Today, for many people around the globe long distance running is the discipline which most viscerally acquaints them with the quality of life.
Wesley Korir’s story is one of persistence, dedication, and giving. There are many who hope his run is long from over. Now the documentary Transcend has given his story legs. Who knows how far it can take him as he steps to the line for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon this Sunday morning.