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Kenya connection

Ron Wilmot

In the rural highlands where most of Kenya's great runners hail from, people get by on less than $2 a day. For them, running is a chance at a better life.

For the seven Kenyans who run for the UAA cross country team, that opportunity is priceless. A degree from an American university could mean the difference between a life of privilege instead of poverty.

"It's a great opportunity," said Marko Cheseto, a 25-year-old sophomore from Kapenguria, the home of former women's marathon world-record holder Tegla Loroupe. "Most of the top people in Kenya -- the politicians, the lecturers -- most of the top people in Kenya attained their degrees in America."

But getting to America isn't easy or cheap. Fees just for obtaining and mailing paperwork -- immigration papers, visas, SAT tests, transcripts, NCAA documents -- might add up to a few months' salary for an entire family. And that doesn't include the cost of a plane ticket, which could top $1,500.

To raise money, a family might sell livestock or a parcel of land, plus scrape together funds from extended family. That's what senior David Kiplagat did to leave his hometown of Kapsabet four years ago.

"It's really a family affair to send someone over here," said UAA assistant coach T.J. Garlatz.

For Kiplagat, that sense of family continued once he arrived in Anchorage in 2004. He worked odd jobs around campus to help bring a brother, Paul Rottich, a sister, Elizabeth Chepkosgei, and a cousin, Ruth Jeptoo, to Anchorage to run for the Seawolves.

Kiplagat said he has worked as a ticket taker at UAA volleyball and basketball games and helped with cleanup afterward. Paul and Elizabeth work around campus as well.

As athletes, they are limited to 20 hours a week by NCAA rules. But together, they manage to send home several hundred dollars a month to help their parents in Kapsabet, a village in the Rift Valley Province, home to many of Kenya's top runners.

Kiplagat, Rottich and Chepkosgei are three of 11 siblings (each uses a different last name for cultural reasons). Kiplagat said much of the money they send home pays for schooling for his other brothers and sisters, because in Kenya, school is not free.

"David's family was in pretty poor economic shape," Garlatz said. "But now that David, Elizabeth and Paul have been able to send enough money over there, they're one of the more wealthy families around.

"Three part-time, minimum-wage jobs in the United States, and now they're high society."

HACKINGS ON THE HIGHWAYS

The violence that spawned from Kenya's disputed presidential election in December delayed by months the enrollment of three of the runners: Cheseto, Jeptoo and Alfred Kangogo, a 21-year-old freshman from Eldoret, site of some of the most horrific violence.

More than 1,200 people were killed and some 300,000 people displaced from violence that erupted after followers of opposition leader Raila Odinga protested the reelection of president Mwai Kibaki.

Kangogo comes from a rural area. He said most of the conflict happened in cities and larger towns. People were frightened to travel, he said, because gangs targeted travelers on the highways. A person from the wrong tribe might be killed.

Cheseto said he skipped a meeting pertaining to his immigration in Nairobi because he was afraid to travel.

"So many people were getting hacked on the highways, getting killed," he said. "Where we lived, in our particular community, we didn't have any problems. The big cities, it was the problem."

Jeptoo couldn't reach the American Embassy in Nairobi, so her arrival was delayed for a semester, Garlatz said.

"It got pretty clear that they were not able to travel safely, so why risk it?" he said.

When Kiplagat returned to Africa this summer, Garlatz worried the runner wouldn't be able to get back.

Cheseto, meanwhile, worried about the fate of his country.

"It was our first experience seeing people killing each other," he said. "It was very, very dangerous. We were not thinking of coming to America. We were thinking, 'Will peace prevail in Kenya?' ''

BORN TO RUN?

There is a stereotype that all Kenyans are elite runners.

While Kenya has certainly produced a number of the world's best distance runners -- including three-time Boston Marathon winner and former world record-holder Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot -- not everyone, of course, is born to run.

But running is the national sport, and running is part of Kenyan culture. The Kalenjin tribe, of which UAA's runners are a part, has produced most of Kenya's great runners.

For many in the poorer villages, there is no motorized transportation, so if you want to get somewhere, you run.

"It's part of life. We started running at an early age," Cheseto said. "We had to walk long distances to go to school. At times, you are late, so you run."

He added with a laugh: "We were not realizing we were doing training."

Running is also a ticket to a better life. And for the Kenyans at UAA, their approach to training reflects that.

"They run to run, but they also run to get ahead in life," said UAA head coach Michael Friess. "That sense of adversity brings out excellence. This could be the way out."

The thin air in the highlands contributes to an ideal training environment. Eldoret, for example, sits above 7,000 feet.

A LUCKY BREAK

Even so, Cheseto and Kangogo said they never considered running competitively until high school. Cheseto said Texas Tech cross-country coach Jon Murray arrived at his school one day to watch some students run. On that day, he said, he began to think seriously about running for an American university.

Cheseto graduated high school and then studied in Kenya for two years to be a teacher. He briefly taught elementary aged children, but the lure of running and making it to the United States proved too strong.

He gave up teaching, moved to Eldoret, and began training with other local runners. He spent the next two years trying to get to America. Deals with Division I schools fell through. He was running out of Division I eligibility, a five-year block that begins the moment a person enters college.

At the Division II level, however, eligibility ticks off only when a person is actually enrolled in school. So Cheseto landed at Division II UAA, where he has three years of eligibility remaining, including this season.

It was a lucky break for the Seawolves, who on Saturday won the Great Northwest Conference men's team title, with Cheseto winning the men's race, Kangogo placing third and Kiplagat sixth.

A month earlier, at the Sundodger Invitational in Seattle, Cheseto placed second in a field studded with Division I runners. He led for almost the entire portion of the 8-kilometer race before fading and finishing in 23 minutes, 45 seconds. The winner broke the course record.

Cheseto was somewhat bemused by his early success. He said friends and family in Kenya didn't believe he could be a runner.

"Even my mother, she has never seen me run," he said.

OUT OF AFRICA

How did seven people from an African country, located at a tropical latitude, end up 10,000 miles from home in the cold and dark of sub-Arctic Alaska?

It started with Kiplagat and fellow countryman Cornelious Sigei, a senior runner from Nairobi.

Kiplagat's brother, Solomon, ran at Tulane University in Louisiana. Solomon was researching schools for his brother on the Internet when he came across UAA. He contacted Friess, who then contacted Kiplagat and offered him a scholarship.

Sigei also found UAA on the Internet. "University of Alaska Anchorage" was one of the first schools he clicked on because it was listed alphabetically.

Kiplagat then recruited his brother, sister and cousin. Cheseto and Kangogo came partly because they knew other Kenyans were here who could help them adjust to life in America.

Key to that adjustment has been finding familiar food.

"In general, we don't like American food," Kangogo said.

They prefer Kenyan staples of ugali -- a tough porridge made of cornmeal -- and rice. Garlatz said the team brings rice cookers on road trips to prepare the ugali.

Once, Kangogo said, American teammates joined the Kenyans in the dorm for a meal of ugali, which is usually served with a protein dish like chicken.

"It was very strange to them," Kangogo said. "They asked, 'Is this what makes you run so fast?' "

Language hasn't been much of an issue. Many of them grew up speaking English, which has contributed to solid performances in the classroom -- that, and simple hard work.

Garlatz said schooling in Kenya seems more demanding than in the United States.

"Most of the Kenyan athletes that come here, if they have a C grade in Kenya, they'll get mostly As and Bs here," he said. "A C average in Kenya, that's average. They don't have the grade inflation like in America."

GIVING BACK

Like many who come to the United States from other countries, UAA's Kenyan runners deeply appreciate the opportunities here -- the finest universities in the world, political stability, the chance to improve your life through hard work.

That attitude stands in contrast to the sense of entitlement many Americans have, Garlatz and Friess said.

"We have kids (in the U.S.) that take everything for granted, as if they are owed something," Friess said. "It's refreshing when you have someone who sees it from another perspective."

And the Kenyans are eager to do something for UAA in return for what the school is doing for them. At Saturday's Great Northwest Conference championships, they played key roles in the men's team championship and the women's second-place showing.

"They have great school pride already," Garlatz said. "They feel like we've given them this opportunity and it's their turn to give something back to us."


By RON WILMOT
sports@adn.com