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Built for Speed

Like many of his fellow Kenyan runners, tiny Joseph Kahugu makes his training base in the land of the "beeg people."



Gulliver is most often remembered as a skyscraping giant among the Lilliputians, but he also spent time as the puny guest of the Brobdingnagians, a race of titans "as tall as an ordinary spire steeple" with voices "many degrees louder than a speaking-trumpet."

Joseph Kahugu, a Kenyan marathoner who trains in Homewood every summer, is Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Every morning at 5:30, he cracks open the front door of his coach's house, slides his 116-pound body through a gap so narrow you'd swear only smoke could seep through it, and emerges into a world where everyone looks "beeg."

"Some people are very beeg," Kahugu observes, astonished, in his precise Swahili accent. "No good. Most of these people, when I am running, they are on line at McDonald's. The beegest people, they are from the U.S. What I came to realize, these beeg people, normally they have something in their mouth. You go to McDonald's, they are in a hurry to get Biggie Mac. Somebody in Utah, they say, 'Joseph, you are too skinny. You need to eat.' No. I like this."

Four years ago, Kahugu ran the Chicago Marathon in two hours, seven minutes, and 59 seconds, swifter than anyone born in this land where food is fast and distance runners slow. If Kahugu were from any other country he'd be an Olympian, a national hero. But he's from Kenya, which produces marathoners the way France produces wine--as a leading export and a source of national identity. So Kahugu is a journeyman, flying around the world, racing for prize money.

This year he has run in Berlin, Rotterdam, and Salt Lake City, but his base is a spare bedroom in the home of his agent, Bruce Meyer. Kahugu sleeps on a sofa bed and lives out of a gym bag containing his Adidas, his running shorts, some warm-up clothes, a Bible, a few Kenyan gospel tapes, and the good breakfast tea he can find only in Africa.

He's just returned from a half-marathon in Cali, Colombia, where he finished third, winning $1,000 in addition to the $750 appearance fee Meyer negotiated. That's almost twice as much as the average Kenyan makes in a year, and Kahugu earned it for an hour and four minutes' work. His legs are still sore, so he decides to skip one of his twice-a-week speed workouts on the Homewood-Flossmoor High School track. Instead, he rides over with Meyer to watch the other runners.

At the high school, warming up for a series of quarter-mile sprints, are five of Chicago's fastest runners. These guys can win any local 5 or 10K road race that doesn't have a Kenyan in the field. One of the bare-chested men points at Kahugu's warm-up pants. The cuffs are sagging around his ankles.

"Hey Joseph!" he shouts at the five-foot, three-inch Kahugu. "Couldn't you find any pants big enough?"

Kahugu ducks his head and swats the air playfully. The American runners are in awe of him, not only because of his endurance, but because he's a world-class athlete who is actually modest and generous. Kahugu often lets them join him on 20-mile outings along country roads and forest preserve trails.

"The way he told me is, 'We're two marathoners trying to get better and we're helping each other out,'" says Tom Bellos, a 35-year-old who's trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials after spending years recovering from a back injury suffered in the gulf war. "It gives me a great boost of confidence to run with him."

After the workout, the sweaty runners gather around Kahugu. They want to hear about the race in Cali. Kahugu was part of a cadre of elite athletes who were flown in by race organizers, put up in a hotel, and treated like the College of Cardinals.

Cali is one of the world's most violent cities. "They pick us up at the airport, in the truck was two policemen," Kahugu narrates. Five lanky runners stare down at him, looking like a track team about to gang up on the ninth-grade water boy. "In the front was two motorcycles. Behind was two motorcycles. They said it was for security. When they take us to the hotel they said not to leave the hotel, and when they take us to the park to train there was people sleeping on the bench, like this"--he turtles his arms inside his sleeves, so his baggy shirt looks like a poncho around his spindly, huddled torso.

Now that he's back from South America, the 31-year-old Kahugu has raced on six continents. A few years ago, he was a tailor in Nairobi.

Kenya's first great distance runner was Kipchoge Keino, Kahugu's boyhood hero. In the 1,500-meter run at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Keino showed his heels to Jim Ryun, the clean-cut, all-American world-record holder. We haven't been able to keep up since. In the nine Olympics dating from that year, Kenyan men have won 14 gold medals in races of 800 meters or longer. American men have won two. Since the 1980s, when American road races started offering prize money, Kenyans have dominated those as well. At April's Boston Marathon, six of the top seven finishers were from Kenya.

The professionals who migrate to the U.S. join "training cells," reasoning that only a Kenyan can push another Kenyan through the agonizing workouts that make them champions. The Chicago cell lives at Meyer's house. The golf pro at Urban Hills Country Club in Richton Park, Meyer is a recreational runner who hosted several Kenyans when they came to the area to run the Park Forest Scenic 10 Miler, a prestigious local race. Soon he was an agent, representing five runners he's dubbed the Kukimbia racing team (kukimbia means "to run" in Swahili). They bunk in his spare bedroom when they aren't flying around the world for races. Meyer gets a percentage of their winnings.

"Their needs are pretty simple," Meyer says. "Place to sleep, place to eat, TV to watch. I try to introduce them to other stuff, concerts. I took them to see Barenaked Ladies. Joseph didn't realize it was a band. He said, 'You would not do that. And take your kids?'"

Meyer heard about Kahugu in 1996 through an acquaintance at the Kenyan Amateur Athletic Association, which licenses him as an agent. After working 15 months to secure a visa, Meyer invited Kahugu to Chicago in March 1998.

"I didn't know that I can come to U.S.," Kahugu says. He is shy. The first time I meet him, he looks at Meyer before answering each question, as though unsure of his English. "It's like God's miracle. Then when I met Bruce, it's like brothers, like relatives."

Kahugu started running when he was seven, speeding six miles to school each morning--barefoot, on gravel roads, gulping the thin air of his mountainous region--to avoid a caning for tardiness. Although he was school champion, he never dreamed of running professionally. In his early 20s he tried to join the Kenyan Army's elite running team, but he was too small to be a soldier. Then a well-known Kenyan coach spotted Kahugu during a training run and recommended him to the athletic association, which sent him to a high-altitude training camp in the Himalayas. In 1996, Kahugu won his first big race, a marathon in Pune, India. Later that year he won the Dublin Marathon.

In his first year in Chicago, Kahugu became one of the world's fastest marathoners. John Kariuki, another Kukimbia runner, dragged him through hard, fast track workouts that built his speed. In the spring he broke the course record at the Cleveland Marathon with a time of 2:11:30. That October he stood at the starting line of the Chicago Marathon, convinced he could set a personal record. He nearly won. At the 18-mile mark Kahugu began edging away from the leaders--he wanted to build a big lead, because he knew he lacked the kick to win a sprint at the end. He was 30 yards ahead, but "then [Khalid] Khannouchi come, [Ondoro] Osoro come, and [Gert] Thys," he says. "I think the mistake I made, I opened up too early. If I had waited for 23, 24 miles, it would have been better."

Still, Kahugu won $15,000 for fourth place, plus a $30,000 bonus for finishing in under two hours and eight minutes (he made it by one second). He used the money to found a camp for young runners and build a house in a Nairobi suburb. Then last fall, on the eve of his third Chicago Marathon, bandits broke into his house. They stole his TV and VCR and terrorized his wife, Irene, and their four-month-old son, demanding gold. Irene meant to keep the robbery a secret until after the race. Marathoners train months for two hours of effort, and one distraction can ruin them. But, confused by the time difference, she told Joseph when he called her the night before his run.

The next morning, "although I am ready, I couldn't concentrate," he says. "I was with the leading group until the halfway, and then I feel I'm not ready to go with them, and I fell back and back and back. In any kind of sport you must be free minded, with nothing bothering you, because everything is mental."

Since Kahugu finished 17th, Meyer won't be able to arrange for star treatment at this year's race, which has already signed the two fastest marathoners in history, Khalid Khannouchi and Paul Tergat. Instead, Kahugu will run either Beijing or Berlin, where in April he ran one of the fastest half-marathon times in the world this year.

"I really think he wants to run Chicago," says his training partner Bellos. "He wants to beat Khannouchi. My wife says to him, 'Do you think you can beat him?' He says, 'Oh, I have to beat him before I retire.'"

Kahugu is staying with Meyer until the middle of this month, when he'll return to Kenya to run 150 miles a week in preparation for his fall race. Here, he trains at 5:30 AM--he can't bear the Illinois humidity--so his first shift is over by 7. Often he'll go for an easy, eight-mile run in the afternoon.

"It's a pretty hard pounding on the body," says Meyer. "It's deceptive. You'll see him lying on the couch, and you'll come back three hours later and he'll still be lying on the couch. You think, 'What an easy life,' but his workouts are exhausting."

Compared to John Kariuki, who partied in Chicago nightclubs, the teetotaling Kahugu lives like a seminarian. Bruce's wife, Carol, makes him clean the house, something men don't do in Kenya. He also sometimes cooks Kenyan meals: a favorite is inboga, a mixture of peas, potatoes, tomatoes, beef, and cabbage. The rest of the time he reads or watches TV. He loves Judge Judy and the Discovery Channel, especially when it shows a program on Kenyan wildlife, but he thinks Jerry Springer is a symptom of American decadence: "Jerry Springer's crazy," he tells me. "No good. Yesterday, he was beaten by women."

At 5:15 on a blue gray morning, I meet Kahugu on the front porch of Meyer's house.

"Too hot," Kahugu complains. He's used to the dry east African dawn. The haze puts the trees into soft-focus, while the sun is a fluorescent slice of orange climbing out of a cloud. Kahugu stretches his legs, then bounds down the street toward the high school for the lung-searing track workout almost all runners dread. I run alongside him feeling like a lummox. This is his warm-up, but to me it's as fast as a race. On Kedzie we meet Meyer, who usually rises about the time the Rush Street bars are closing.

"I thought you were still asleep," Kahugu shouts.

"I'm just finishing an 11-mile run," Meyer says. "I'll meet you at the stadium."

At the track I try to drop out, but Kahugu waves for me to follow him. We run lap after lap, my chest tightening with each circuit. After a mile and a half I hear Kahugu breathing hard too, and I wonder: do the Kenyans outrun the rest of the world because they force themselves to take the pain longer?

Seven laps, and Kahugu's ready for real running. He slides his gray warm-ups down knobby legs that taper to calves as narrow as a thoroughbred's. Below those calves, his track shoes look huge, flapping. Meyer places hurdles on the infield grass at the beginning of each turn and sets his stopwatch to zero.


Kahugu nods, and launches himself down the track. His feet whirl like the points of a pinwheel. Orange soles flash with each back kick. Meyer calls out the splits: 32 seconds for a half-lap, 64 seconds for a lap. Kahugu is so finely aware of his pace that he hits the numbers every time. When he's finished, he jogs the 200 meters between hurdles, then sprints another lap.

"Keep your knees up," Meyer shouts during the seventh lap, when it looks as though Kahugu is tiring. The next time around, he's grimacing. His head joggles up and down. He crosses the line in 63 seconds.

"OK, looking good," Meyer tells him. "Stay smooth. You're keeping your shoulders relaxed. Good job."

After ten laps, he can slow to a jog. He waves me along again, but this time he's warmed up. By the time we get back to Meyer's house, I'm taking long, lunging strides just to stay close. I offer to buy him a big breakfast at a pancake house. He declines. He has just run nine miles, but he's not hungry. He only eats two meals a day.

"In the morning I take tea and toast," Kahugu says. "I normally eat dinner, a big tasteless cake made from cornmeal. It's called ugali. Bruce, he don't like. Normally, I eat beef with it. Sometimes I eat spaghetti. You can't eat too much, so that you run."

He goes into the house, peels a banana, and eats it. Breakfast over, he critiques my running.

"Your movement is good," Kahugu says, "but you are too beeg to be fast."

"Don't take it personally," says Meyer. "He says that to everyone."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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