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Cheruiyot, Robert

Robert Cheruiyot

1978—

Athlete

In 2008 Robert Cheruiyot became the first man ever to win the prestigious Boston Marathon for the fourth time. The Kenyan runner's finish of 2:07:46 came after he made a break from the pack of other Olympic-caliber runners at miles 16 and 17 in the 26.2-mile contest. "I like to push the race, and it wasn't fast," he explained to Frank Litsky in the New York Times.

Cheruiyot's early years were marked by poverty and extreme hardship. He was born in 1978, in Kapsabet, Kenya, into a Kalenjin family. The Kalenjin are one of Kenya's ethnic groups and make up about 12 percent of the population. Generally taller than those from Kenya's largest ethnic classification, Kikuyu, Kalenjin athletes have emerged as some of the world's top runners.

Cheruiyot began running while still a youngster in school, but his education was cut short by financial circumstances. Kenya has no public school system, so parents must pay tuition, known as the school fee, for their children to attend the local school. Cheruiyot's first school was in Nandi Hills, and then he went to a school in the town of Mosoriot after 1990. He became head boy—a position of prestige that harks back to Kenya's past as a part of the British empire—but eventually he was forced to drop out of school due to a family crisis. "My parents separated and my mother decided to get married again while my dad decided to sell the only piece of land and disappeared," he recounted in an interview with Chris Mbaisi in the East African Standard.

Was Homeless for a Time

A local relative then agreed to house him and pay the school fees at Kosirai High School, but Cheruiyot soon found himself merely a household servant. "Having been initiated into manhood two years back, my traditions did not allow me to do some things like going to the kitchen and washing children but I had very little choice considering my fate," he told Mbaisi. The relative finally agreed to send him to a less costly school in nearby Chemuswa, but Cheruiyot was forced to leave when his school fees went unpaid. He walked thirty-five miles to visit his brother in a nearby town to ask for help, but found his sibling barely able to provide for himself. On the walk back to Mosoriot, Cheruiyot recalled feeling a deep despair and the sense that perhaps he would be better off dead, because he had no home and no money for food. But then he remembered an acquaintance who ran a barbershop and who might be able to give him a job. He started out as a floor sweeper and earned so little that for months he ate only kale and ugali, a corn porridge. At night he was allowed to sleep on the store verandas, which were guarded by night watchmen. Eventually, he earned more money when he learned how to give shaves and was discovered in these circumstances by another relative, who agreed to take him in and pay his school fees.

It was then that Cheruiyot began running in earnest. He met someone who worked at a runners' training camp that was sponsored by Fila, the athletic-gear maker, in a distant town. He finagled an introduction to camp officials and convinced them to let him train there. They conceded, but Cheruiyot soon found that "the coach did not like me much and wanted me out," he told Mbaisi, "claiming I was consuming too much food and training less." However, the owner of the camp was Moses Tanui, who was one of several older world-champion runners to have emerged from this part of Kenya. Tanui, a two-time Boston Marathon champion, took Cheruiyot's side and gave the order that he be allowed to stay.

The training camp was located in the Rift Valley Province, which is more than six thousand feet above sea level. Most of the top runners in Kenya who are of Kalenjin ethnicity are members of a smaller designation, the Nandi, who have traditionally survived in this part of the world as pastoralists, meaning that their livelihood is dependent on livestock. As a result, their diet is heavy on milk, maize, millet, and curdled cow's blood, while the physical demands of chasing cattle, goats, and other animals in such high-altitude conditions have given them a genetic predisposition to become world-class long-distance runners.

Bought Cows

In 2001 Cheruiyot won his first race, a ten-kilometer run, and with it a prize purse of 10,000 Kenyan shillings—about $161, which was an enormous sum to him. Sensing his potential, Fila officials signed him to a deal and brought him to Italy, where he competed in several races, including the 2002 Milan Marathon, which he won with a time of 2:08:59. He also won the famed New Year's Eve race held annually in the Brazilian city of São Paulo called the São Silvestre. At the end of the year Cheruiyot had collected more than $7,000, and "this was now the beginning of my good life," he told Mbaisi, "as I returned home and bought a five-acre piece of land and six cows."

Cheruiyot won his first Boston Marathon in April of 2003 with a time of 2:10:11. This was a stunning twenty-three seconds ahead of the second-place finisher, another Kenyan, Benjamin Kosgei Kimutai, and for it he collected $100,000. He was confident and polite when he spoke to the press afterward, telling John Connolly in the Boston Herald: "My manager told me I was going to win because I was well-prepared." He added, "It is very nice to win Boston because you make your name in the world."

Cheruiyot had a difficult year in 2005, finishing only fifth in Boston and fourth in the New York Marathon that autumn after coming down with stomach problems in the final two miles. Less than five months later he set a new record in the 2006 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:07:14. In early October he won the 2006 Chicago Marathon, becoming the first man ever to win both Boston and Chicago races in the same year. He had a controversial finish in the Chicago race, however, as he "stepped on the strip of pavement decorated with the marathon's logo," wrote Litsky in the New York Times, and "he seemed to lean back, as race winners often do. The logo was damp from overnight rain and Cheruiyot slipped. He fell backward, bumping his head on the pavement, but he skidded across the line." According to Litsky, the first thing that Cheruiyot said when he regained his composure was, "Did I win?"

The incident renewed an ongoing debate over the safety of such finish-line decals, which usually carry the sponsor's logo. In this case television cameras caught Cheruiyot falling against the words "LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon." Race officials note that the decal is specially designed to be a nonskid surface, but some athletes theorize that in colder temperatures the shoe rubber hardens almost imperceptibly but can nevertheless make for a more slippery contact on such a surface.

At a Glance …

Born Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot on September 26, 1978, in Kapsabet, Kenya.

Career: Professional long-distance runner, 2001—.

Addresses: Office—c/o Fila USA, 1 Fila Way, Sparks, MD 21152-3000.

Forced to Flee Kenya Temporarily

Cheruiyot won the 2007 Boston Marathon with a slightly slower time of 2:14:13, reflecting a difficult race day with wind gusts clocked at thirty-six miles per hour. A year later he won his fourth Boston Marathon, becoming the first male runner ever to take the title four times. (A Kenyan woman, Catherine Ndereba, won her fourth Boston Marathon in 2005.)

Cheruiyot's training schedule was disrupted by the outbreak of violence in Kenya following the presidential elections in December of 2007. The riots and retaliatory killings, which were driven by ethnic tensions, began as Cheruiyot was training for the New Year's Eve 2007 São Silvestre race. Kalenjin were blamed for attacks on Kikuyu, but there was violence on both sides that even claimed a well-known athlete: A Kalenjin named Lucas Sang, who won a bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was Tanui's business partner, was killed by a stone-wielding gang in what was apparently a case of mistaken identity. For a time, Cheruiyot went to Namibia to train under safer conditions. "Psychologically, when you see people's houses burning, you don't feel like you're OK," he told Philip Hersh in the Chicago Tribune. "It affects the mind. Myself, I like peace. I always try to forget what I see on the TV."

Sources

Periodicals

Boston Herald, April 22, 2003, p. M4; April 22, 2008, p. 2.

Chicago Tribune, April 22, 2008.

East African Standard (Nairobi, Kenya), June 18, 2006.

New York Times, October 23, 2006, p. D3; April 22, 2008, p. D1.

—Carol Brennan

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