Had it not been for the prospects of becoming a distance runner, Julius Arile Lamerinyang might well have met the fate that has befallen many of his friends: death by gunfire.
From his early teens, Arile carried a gun and, together with his fellow ‘warriors’, raided neighbouring communities in the highlands of northern Kenya, stealing their cattle. It was the only life he knew. During that time, he reckons as many as 20 of his friends were shot dead.
A decade ago the Kenyan government programme offered cattle rustlers amnesty together with a pair of shoes and a track suit, in exchange for their guns. They were encouraged to take up running. Arile was one of the lucky ones who successfully made the transition.
On 16 October Arile will be among the elite runners to toe the line at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Race, and he intends to compete for a podium place.
“I need to go with the leaders until they leave me – or I leave them,” he says laughing. “I am comfortable with a 63 or 64 minutes first half. When you run with people who can run, you can run your best time.”
This isn’t idle boasting. With the help of his late manager, Zane Branson, he visited Prague in early 2013 where he ran 27:42 to finish third over 10km. But the highlight of the 2013 season, undoubtedly, was his performance at the New York City Marathon, where he finished fourth in a PB of 2:10:03.
Arile says the turning point was meeting former marathon world record-holder Tegla Loroupe, who organises an annual 10km Peace Race in West Pokot County, Kenya, and encouraged hundreds of warriors to put down their arms. More recently she served as Chef de Mission for the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio.
“The most helpful one – and I respect her in my life – is Tegla Loroupe because she changed my life,” said Arile. “Not only me; she has changed many people’s lives in Kenya.
“Tegla inspired me so much. She changed my life. Tegla came there in the bush and talked with us and made it her business. Then we ran. When I ran, I knew I could change. I started carrying a gun at 13 years and changed only at 23 when I left.”
Arile’s current training partners include three-time Amsterdam Marathon champion Wilson Chebet and former world marathon record-holder Wilson Kipsang.
“The shape I am in now is better than that time (the 2013 New York Marathon) because I was dealing with a long-term injury,” says Arile. “I had a knee injury, then after the knee it went to the hip and then I had problems with that for a long time, for three years now. But now it is fine.
“I did a lot of long runs of 30km, 35km, 38km with Chebet and Kipsang. The last long run I did last week before I came to Canada was 35km. Then I came here and ran 35km alone. I am ready.”
Victory in Toronto is worth CDN$25,000, but Arile is not thinking about the money, only winning the race. At home he has three wives and seven children, a typical scenario among the Pokot tribe, but his complicated home life also played a part in restricting his progress somewhat.
There was another event that rendered emotional havoc two years ago: the death of Branson.
“Zane did a lot of things to change my life in running,” says Arile. “He took me to Prague, I ran there and then he did everything to help me like I was his son. His death affected me so much. I was even thinking about stopping running. But I remembered my children needed to eat and my family needs to see me. Everybody in my family looked to me. Then I decided to run.”
Arile’s incredible story has been brought to film and will be screened at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre on 7 October. ‘Gun Runners’ was also a fan favourite at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival and at the recent Aspen Film Festival. It is the decade-long work of Montreal journalist Anjali Nayar who has made Kenya home all that time.
Nayar was working for Reuters when she met Arile at the finish of one of the Peace races. On weekends she had been traveling up to the region where the Pokot rustlers were active and captured the action with a camcorder. As she gained the trust of Arile and other rustlers, she could appreciate the difficulty these warriors have in turning away from a criminal life.
“There are about half a million of these illegal guns in Kenya,” Nayar explains. “It’s quite a problem and that amnesty offer was open for several years. It’s one thing to go and run a race and it’s another to survive.
“They brought everything they had into the bush with them and that complicated the success of everything that they were trying to achieve later. They give up their weapons but they don’t actually know how to do anything else. You don’t know how to run a business, you don’t know how to read or write. They didn’t always put in place the training programmes to get people up to speed and totally integrate them into society.”
Nayar says Arile ever so gradually revealed his story. On a visit to her Nairobi apartment, he once asked to borrow her computer. The following day she discovered he had written how he had got a young girl pregnant and was chased off by her family and local villagers. Somehow writing it down on a computer screen was easier than telling her.
Arile is also cautious about how much he can say about his former life. When asked who introduced him to cattle rustling as a young boy, he is careful.
“That is a dangerous question, my friend,” he says. “Where I live in Kenya, people are fighting. When a child is born there and brought up there, he finds cattle rustling. You grow up seeing people with guns. I got following that. It is major in that area of the country.”
Fellow Kenyans Isshimael Chemtan and Gilbert Kirwa are returning to Toronto after finishing first and second respectively a year ago. They and Eritrea’s new find, Abraham Habte, will join Canada’s three-time Olympian Eric Gillis on the starting line.
With confidence and with commitment, Julius Arile will give them all a run for their money.
Paul Gains (organisers) for the IAAF