Julius Chepkwony Rotich: Interview with a Kenyan Runner
As the rain battered his apartment wall, making a racket on the tin roof, TaD tried to get his head down and salvage some sleep. The rain and mist had been bad now for five weeks. During that time TaD had become slightly more hardened, more haggard: he rarely left his abode save to train; he had lost a significant amount of weight; his cheeks and jawline were now covered by a thick coating of facial hair. TaD had been keeping a low profile; staying out of trouble. And with every day that passed he withdrew into himself a little more. This was the wild.
Another wet and misty week in Iten. It’s also been rather noneventful (perhaps the reason why this week’s story about TaD is slightly more exaggerated than usual). We have, however, spent a bit more time with our neighbour, Julius Rotich, a 61 min half-marathon runner. Often Julius will call round to our apartment after dinner for a chat, his visits are much appreciated. His English is pretty good and he loves to laugh. Julius was impressed with Dougie’s law degree and has started addressing him as ‘the lawyer’. Yesterday he came round for tea in the afternoon and we spoke at length about ‘his story’: he told me all about growing up in Kenya and trying to make a living as a professional athlete.
Dougie and Julius
From Baringo to Iten
Like most of the full-time athletes in Iten, Julius was born elsewhere. His home is in Baringo district, another Rift Valley area. At a lower altitude than Iten, however, Baringo is hotter; Julius described it as a desert . He came to Iten because he wanted to be a professional athlete. After reaching a good level at primary school (15.40, 5000m) his teachers encouraged him to leave Baringo and go to a high school that supported athletics.
St Patrick’s Iten was the first choice so one day he took himself off to Iten and approached the famous Brother Colm to ask him for a place in the school. A week later he returned, as instructed, for a trial with the school’s athletes. Julius tells me that at this point he didn’t know much about running and so he showed up in trousers and ‘leather shoes’. Thus attired he managed to keep up with the group.
Though there are many boys at St Patrick’s from many different towns, Julius’s tells me that his case, of a 15 year-old boy making his own way from his hometown to the school to plead for a place was very rare. His story is even more impressive because, in the part of Baringo where he is from, very few people ran or aspired to be runners. Throughout the conversation Julius stressed to me that his whole life he has had motivated himself towards his goals, and whilst his friends and family have never stood in his way no-one other than himself has actively encouraged him to pursue his ambitions.
Julius and I
Julius studied at St Patricks from 2003-2006. On top of a heavy academic workload, the students at St Patrick’s are required to contribute to the upkeep of the grounds. When I was shown around the school last week a group of about twenty or so boys were sweeping up the yard. Sports are central to the school’s philosophy but, Julius explained to me, no-one is given special attention and the athlete-students have to fit in their two runs a day around the school schedule. This meant rising at 5am every morning and staying on site during the holidays to attend the training camps.
A tour of St Patrick's
Earlier in the trip Dougie and I were told by a teacher at the St Patrick’s that 25% of the boys want to be professional runners when they leave. Julius confirmed that this outlook was widespread. Indeed, he has always thought to himself, ‘instead of me going to be a teacher, let me be an athlete.’ With the increasing professionalisation, commercialisation, and globalisation of sports in recent decades, professional athletics has come to be seen as a viable career path for many young people in the developing world. As I have said in a previous post, St Patrick’s has capitalized on this trend and has encouraged athletics amongst its students not simply as ‘physical education’ but as a vocation. Julius too sharply distinguished between running for leisure and running for business: ‘Many people come to Iten to run for leisure but they end up packing their bags and going home and not making anything of themselves as runners... in athletics you have to make a commitment and be disciplined. It is a business. You have to be serious.’
However life after school is more cut throat. School athletics offer a support network to aspiring young athletes. But there is little, if any, provision for those who want to make a living out of the sport when they finish with their studies. Many of the 25% who aspire to be athletes look to join the armed forces, the police or the prison services who sponsor their workers if they have athletic potential and are generous with time allowance. Julius said that the public services were a popular route for many of his peers.
Julius, on the other hand, after finishing school went back to Baringo for a year and tried to convince his family to give him some funds to pay for his rent. Then, after squeezing a little bit of cash out of his brothers, he came to Iten in 2007 when he spent a year of uninterrupted training; ‘getting strong’ as he put it. In 2008, after establishing contacts in Iten, he managed to get into some races in Europe. In that year he ran 28.30 for a road 10k and 63 for a half-marathon. His highlight of the year was claiming victory in a 20k race in Tours, France, in 58.30.
But there were complications. After pacing a marathon to, his manager at the time withheld his promised €1000. This would have been his first major payment, but he never got it. I asked Julius about his sources of income comes from. He doesn’t have a kit deal with any of the major brands but believes that he is capable of running the 59min half-marathon or 2.09 marathon he considers necessary to secure one. He relies solely on race prize money and race-organisers offering him appearance money. It is always a gamble because he is required to contribute to funding his own way to Europe- where all the big races, and big prizes, are. This, he says, is the situation for most runners in Iten.
Money, of course, is one factor that explains the growing popularity of road racing over the track amongst Kenyans. There is simply far less of a chance of making money out of track running for the average Kenyan runner. However, even for road runners, it is common for them to go years without securing any income. Unfortunately, it is also common for agents, managers, and race organisers to withhold payment. Moreover, the governing body, ‘Athletics Kenya’ has too many athletes to fund, and offers no support to the thousands and thousands of aspiring runners that have sprung up in towns such as Iten in the last few years. It is perhaps, for all these reasons, that Julius does not take issue with the many Kenyans who defect to run other nations. ‘If another country is giving you food and money, then why not.’
Training and goals
Julius’ goal is to run 2.07 for the marathon. It is a far more modest ambition than the many Kenyan runners in this town who tell you that they are on the verge of breaking 2.05. Since2008 Julius has dedicated himself to this goal and gives himself until he is 35 to achieve it. His career highlight so far was securing his personal best for half-marathon, 61.18, in Porto, Portugal, in 2010 where he finished 4th.
When he reaches retirement age, he said, he will probably go back home and start his own business transporting goods from farms to commercial areas. But he has not ruled out the possibility of making it big. ‘If I can win a big marathon’, he told me, ‘in just one day I can lift myself from nowhere to somewhere.’
His training is basic. But he says that the seriousness of his approach is what separates him from most of the other people he knows who are training for the marathon. ‘When it is time for training, it is time for training. It is a serious business’. He said that in between training he either eats or sleeps and there’s no space in his schedule for ‘loitering around Iten, looking for girls’(!). An average day looks like this:
6am: 40mins jogging (very very slow)
7am: breakfast: Just plain white bread and tea
10am: ‘hard training’ (Tuesday: long intervals on the track (5x2000m 60sec recovery in 2.45), Friday: short intervals ion the track (20x400m 45sec recovery in 65) Mon, Wed, Thur, Sat: 70min run getting progressively quicker)
12noon: lunch: rice and beans:
4pm: either a very slow run or continue relaxing
5pm: evening meal: ugali and spinach
Kit Donation Appeal
Prior to coming out to Kenya, I had heard many stories similar to that of Julius’ so I organised a small kit donation project to try and get runners at home to donate their unwanted but re-usable running kit to help such athletes. There was a great response. A big thanks must go to Stuart Robinson from Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde AC who donated a big box of kit- a lot of which was new. I gave a lot of this stuff to Julius and he has asked me to pass on his thanks. I also gave some of the kit Stuart gave me to two other aspiring athletes Charles and Robert who live down the road from me:
Charles and Robert sporting donated kit.