I probably shouldn’t have been that liberal with the truth. Maybe I should have told the young man I was from Antigua, or Trinidad and Tobago; these are real places aren’t they? Well, it needed not be that dramatic just a country that wouldn’t have elicited such a pronounced reaction. But no, I had to tell the truth. I am Kenyan, I said. The young man turned and whispered something to his friend who reacted exactly in the same manner. It occurred to me that whispering was suddenly in vogue this morning. Before I knew what was going on a crowd had gathered around me and I’m starting to freak out. No, they are not Kenyan haters and no they are not armed with stones. They are Kenyan admirers, to be precise, admirers of Kenyan Marathoners.
Date: 21st May 2006. Venue: Staines, Middlesex just on the outskirts of London. I was in a crowd of about seven hundred people who turned up to participate in the annual Staines 10-kilometre race. I had chanced on their website a few weeks earlier and given that I lived in the neighbourhood I decided to enrol. It felt like a good idea at the time. My training began two weeks before the event and entailed trotting from my house near Ashford Hospital to the Crooked Billet roundabout and panting my way back twenty or so minutes later. Occasionally I would wake up in really high spirits and take the opposite direction and jog around Bedfont Lakes. Kenyan athletes command such passionate respect and admiration out there that all you need is to dress up like one, announce you are Kenyan and wham! you are officially the pacesetter. Well, at least before the race begins.
The day turned out quite favourable dispelling fears that the temperatures would have soared as we approached summer. It was cool and the crowd was swelling by the time my wife and I found a parking space and made our way to the start-off bay. No, my wife was not in the race. She was the de-facto manager, trainer and health consultant all wrapped up in one neat package and she had assured me I needed not worry, it was in my genes. My admirers were now starting to ask questions which I really wouldn’t want to begin answering. I mean why on earth would I want to talk about my past marathons and whether or not I was the official pacesetter for this event? I mean would I really want to divulge the secrets of what makes ‘us Kenyans’ so great in track events? Fortunately the crowd was called to order before I could reach for the cyanide pellet.
“I will pace myself with you, I like how you guys do it. My last race in the Midlands wasn’t so good and I’m trying to go professional,” a lady told me before the race. That did it.
“Oh dear, I’m not sure that would be a very good idea. You see, I’m actually recovering from a knee injury and I’m trying not to strain it. I’m just out for practice so you run on ahead darling,” I responded confidentially and she smiled sweetly in acknowledgement and wished me quick recovery. Technically not a lie, I had felt some pain around my knee on one of those early morning trots even though it had subsided. Okay, this was one of those ‘death before dishonour’ situations so cut me some slack will you?
I found myself near the front of the predominantly white crowd of young and others not so young but obviously seasoned runners. The airgun went off and we were off. I had this long-held illusion that in a long race like this marathon (oh, now 10K is not a marathon? Try telling that to my knees) people start off slow so they don’t wear themselves out then build up tempo towards the end. This didn’t go that way. The first cluster zoomed off like they were hitting the finishing line of a 100-metre race. By the time I trotted past the five-kilometre mark, they were passing me in droves. At first when a bunch of youngsters whizzed past me I consoled myself, ‘they are young really,’ and it helped me amble on – until one of them glanced at me and waved me on. The guy was handsomely bald headed with those wrinkles that said it all began a while back even though his legs were miracle props to me. ‘Ex military definitely, probably drafted in the Second World War when young’, my mind told me. Who am I kidding, whatever is in my genes is not helping me one bit and Kenya, my beloved country, must never find out this!
At the finishing line, my wife waited and cheered half-heartedly when the first person arrived barely half an hour after kick-off. She later told me that she believed I would be at least among the first ten to arrive. One or two finished and fainted immediately on arrival while, she told me, she watched in abject horror as one man’s knees simply buckled under him and he collapsed in a heap just before crossing the finish line. Fifteen minutes after the first person arrived I dragged the weights around my ankles past the finish line and clung onto her in a bear hug. Well, she thought it was a hug. I just couldn’t stand and couldn’t suffer the indignity of collapsing. I am Kenyan; I’ve got some pride. I propelled her to the back of the crowd where by sheer willpower and plea to the Divine and Merciful, I sat somewhat gracefully on the green grass.
“Let’s go home dear, everyone is almost gone,” my wife told me for the umpteenth time. I had insisted on resting a little bit but now that the race was long over and the field clearing she was puzzled.
Suffice it to say I couldn’t stand leave alone walk to the car. She, with the help of one of the attendants helped me hobble to the car. She drove back in silence as I refused to talk about it for the ten-minute drive. When she parked, I eased myself out of the car and promptly sank to the ground so she half carried me to the front door, opened and rolled me up the stairs to our first floor flat. I was to spend the next two weeks walking backwards on the staircase and the girls at work had a hearty laugh when they heard what happened. One of them even brought me a pair of clutches and I used them gratefully.
Lesson learnt: The race may not be to the swift, nor the battle always to the strong, but that is the way to bet! These words of Damon Runyon never made more sense. There are very few surprises in these things. Real athletes prepare rigorously and exhibit high levels of discipline. When one hears of a surprise winner in an event it tends to give the off-beam impression that the winner came out of nowhere and without much preparation just went to the head of the queue. I remember when Lewis Hamilton shot to public limelight by pulling a fast one on the Formula One scene; the media frenzy nearly convinced the world a sigma ten phenomena just took place. Hardly! The guy had been scooting around on tiny motorised carts since he could say Dah! Think of Tiger Woods, the Williams and a host of others.
Practice, practice, practice! I often can be heard ranting at my longsuffering students. Truth is, by the fourth week of the semester I can roughly guess what sort of grades to expect from them. The general student approach to studies especially the ones who are juggling work and family along with studies is that all they need is to take a week off work just before exams and prepare. Hardly ever works, that’ll be me in Staines 10K. When marking mathematics, I often can tell a student who had been practicing regularly and one who left it to last minute. Mathematics is all about concepts and formulae and understanding is crucial to application. Most questions in the final exam bear a very close semblance to questions actually tackled in class such that a student who understood the concepts and has been practicing is likely to find it easy. On the other hand one who crammed their head with stuff the last minute will usually reproduce what was done in class totally missing the small twist or trick in the question.
Later I found out I came in at number 130 out of the 426 who finished the race. Unless I am mistaken I was Kenya’s only representative in this race and only the heart rending pleas of my dear wife convinced me to abandon the idea of calling the Minister for Sports to find out whether I was entitled to something small. The trauma of having to roll me up the stairs hasn’t quite worn off completely. I agree she suffered enough. God sees the inside; I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in miracles and life occasionally does throw some of those. But if ever I were to bet on the horses and I had prayed about it, unless He advised me otherwise, I would bet on the swift one with a track record of winning rather than the feeble one with rough hair on its maiden race. With my students, my bet is always on that student who works hard, trying out numerous questions and bringing to class questions they couldn’t solve. The one who skips class and hardly ever does homework? Oi, surprise me if you must but indulge me, it’s my bet after all!