When he first competed in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, Kenyan middle distance runner Laban Rotich could not imagine just how strong an impact he would have on his local village of Kokwet. Paul Gains tells the fascinating story of the bonds a race can create.
A forty foot shipping crate bearing refurbished computers, thousands of books, a 1,500 gallon water container, solar panels, a grand piano and forty used bicycles landed in the Kenyan village of Kokwet in March a few days before a contingent of eighteen Canadian high school geography students arrived to unpack it.
What sets this particular humanitarian mission apart is that it was initiated by an extraordinary relationship between a small town athletics meeting and Kenya’s veteran miler Laban Rotich.
Two years ago Rotich arrived in Cambridge, Ontario to compete in the annual Cambridge Classic Mile an event commemorating Sir Roger Bannister’s historic first sub four-minute mile. A series of four lap races held throughout the day pits children, youth and adults some as old as 73 years, against their peers in a test of athleticism. The highlight of the day is the invitational mile, which in 2005, for the first time, offered a car for anyone who could beat four minutes for the distance.
Moments after a local fire truck slowly made its way around the oval spraying water on the crushed brick track removing the dust Rotich lined-up with five other milers and chased his dream. Word of mouth had attracted hundreds of people to whom a four-minute mile still means excellence. Outside the fence traffic came to a halt on the main road as the curious parked their cars and watched the race unfold.
“When I came to Cambridge I was so happy because the track is so nice,” Rotich says of the track that frightened off most of the top international milers who’d been invited. The Mercedes Benz Classic Mile, as the event is now called, is more an example of good old fashioned competition and not chasing pacemakers around the track for three laps.
“The track was like the one I train on in Kenya,” Rotich continues, “and also the weather was very good. I tried to run very fast because there were no other Kenyans and I wanted to win the car and I won it.”
Rotich a perennial IAAF World Championships finalist - he was the 1999 IAAF World Indoor Championships 1500m silver medalist - ran the last two laps alone but stopped the clock at 3:58.9. It was a magnificent achievement considering the condition of the surface. Hundreds of fans spilled onto the track in a joyous celebration and accompanied him on a lap of honour. He posed for pictures with some. He stopped to autograph t-shirts, baseball caps, programmes, even bare arms. The tiny runner from Africa had come for the car but would leave with the foundation of numerous lasting friendships.
At the airport, just before his departure, Rotich turned to John Carson, the event director thanked him for the hospitality he had enjoyed and then offered to fly the 42-year-old massage therapist to Kenya as a token of gratitude. An emotional Carson duly accepted.
On that initial trip in November 2005 Carson delivered approximately $5,000 worth of non prescriptive medical supplies, much of it donated by Canada’s first sub four minute miler David Bailey now a pharmacist in London, Ontario. The Canadian stayed at Rotich’s house for a week and also spent time at the Pace Sports Management training camp in nearby Kaptagat where he rose at sunrise to drink milky tea with the athletes before setting out on a morning run along dirt roads.
A parade was also organised in his honour. But when the turnout was less than Rotich felt was warranted the village elders quickly demanded another one be arranged. Carson was taken through the village on the back of a bicycle passing villagers who held up Canadian flags and home made signs thanking him for bringing supplies that would justify re-opening the abandoned regional health clinic.
Carson learned quickly that the villagers had little worldly possessions and that Rotich was a virtual icon who took his responsibility to his village very seriously. At a visit to the local church he was asked if he could somehow supply them with a piano. Again, he came through. The 1900 circa Heintzman upright grand piano shipped in the container was donated by a local elementary school.
Continuing the objectives established by Carson and Rotich the students from Cambridge’s Preston High School’s ‘Global Outreach’ programme journeyed to Kokwet this year, with no illusions of taking a holiday, but to pitch in and help villagers install a pump and piping system with which to bring river water up to the village, a distance of half a kilometre.
A fundraising initiative called “Cows for Kenya” in which students were ask to contribute pocket change netted $3,800. With this money the students and their teachers attended a regional cow auction with Rotich’s village elders. They then marched the herd back to the village using switches. This experience alone will be retold for years to come and so perpetuate the relationship.
“When I visited their school I told some of the students many people here live a very hard life,” Rotich declares. “The students are trying to improve the living standards of my people. They are bringing books to my village and they want to build a water well. So you can see they are helping me a lot. I am very happy and thankful to all these students for bringing medicine and supplies.”
Last year the weather conspired against the milers with a cold wind slowing the elite racers down. Regardless the event was well attended. And, for the first time since its inception John Carson was able to attract two of Cambridge’s best known athletes Nate Brannen, the 2006 Commonwealth 1500m silver medalist and Carmen Douma-Hussar, the 2004 IAAF World Indoor Championships 1500m silver medalist. Neither had raced in their hometown since accepting US college scholarships.
Douma-Hussar won the women’s invitational much to the delight of the crowd while Brannen pushed Rotich right to the finish line falling short by inches. Their times fell well outside four minutes so the Mercedes Benz on offer was not claimed.
Sales of hamburgers, pop and strawberries and ice cream netted $600 and that was handed over to Rotich towards a non-profit initiative called the Kokwet Community Development and Welfare Organisation. Since then Preston high school students have raised another $10,000 for this fund which will be used for small business loans in the community.
Rotich will return to Cambridge on 16 June for his third consecutive Classic Mile appearance. This time he will bring his younger brother Shadrack Korir who is fast becoming a world class middle distance runner of acclaim. Brannen is also confirmed having enjoyed his visit home last time. A brand new Mercedes Benz sedan is again the main prize this year but to claim it the winner must beat four minutes. If the women’s winner beats 4:30 then the car will be awarded to whichever of the two champions goes further beneath their respective standards.
“I would like to come to Cambridge to say thank you to everyone who donated things to my village and I would also like to go for a third Cambridge title,” says the now 38-year-old Kenyan star, “Shadrack is going to come this year. I told him the people were nice and now he wants to win a Mercedes. Over the years I would like to come to help organise the race.”
Carson is confident there will always be a connection between the Cambridge Mercedes-Benz Classic Mile and the village of Kokwet. The father of three athletic children - daughter Lindsay competed for the Canadian Junior team at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Japan - he and his wife Leslie are attempting to bring one of Kokwet’s most promising young students to their home so she may complete her high school studies and then attend university.
The plan is for the seventeen year old - who is an AIDS orphan - to study medicine at a local southwestern Ontario university and ultimately return to her homeland to work at the health clinic in Kokwet.
Clearly the die has been cast. A small athletics competition has built bridges with a village half a world away - a shining example of all the good that can result from participation in the world’s most natural sport.
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 1 - 2007