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Kenya’s champion runners haven’t been spared trauma of country’s postelection violence

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Posted: January 11, 2008 3:21 p.m.
Updated: January 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    KUINET, Kenya — When world marathon champion Luke Kibet goes running, he likes to focus on finishing first. But on one run during Kenya’s postelection upheaval, the 25-year-old star had something else on his mind: staying alive.
    Kibet was knocked to the ground by a large rock that struck his head on New Year’s Eve as violence swept the country after the disputed Dec. 27 presidential vote. Regaining his senses with blood oozing from his skull, he looked up to see a mob of machete-wielding men approaching.
    He got up and started running — this time for his life.
    ‘‘I was thinking about my family. I was thinking I might die there,’’ said the married father of two, recalling the attack near his home in the western Rift Valley village of Kimumu.
    Though unrest has calmed in recent days, the mayhem has left indelible scars on this East African nation, which previously had been best known as a stable tourist haven that also has consistently produced some of the best distance runners on the planet.
    Hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes. Among the dead: former Olympic runner Lucas Sang, who was hacked to death the same day Kibet was attacked. He was buried Thursday in Kuinet, a funeral that drew Kibet and hundreds of other athletes and mourners.
    Kenya’s running world has suffered in other ways. Sports officials have canceled two Kenya Federation cross-country races scheduled for January. Some runners have been unable to go to competitions abroad, including 13 Kenyans who failed to show up for the Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Marathon and Half Marathon scheduled Sunday in Phoenix.
    ‘‘Every runner has a story about seeing homes burning and people running about with bows and arrows, it’s pretty unnerving stuff,’’ said Toby Tanser, the New York-based founder of the charity Shoe-4-Africa, who is on a monthlong visit here. ‘‘Running really did grind to a halt in Kenya.’’
    Slowly, it is picking up.
    Running camps sponsored by retired Kenyan stars and the likes of shoe giants Nike and Adidas that were closed for several days because it was too dangerous for people to venture outside began reopening over the last week as athletes trickled back.
    On Friday in Iten, a town perched on the edge of a formidable escarpment 8,000 feet above sea level, small groups of lanky runners in tight spandex pants and brightly colored jackets emerged at dawn for the first of three daily runs.
    The rising sun mantled Kenya’s western highlands in soft golden light while they glided along powdery paths of brick-red dirt lined with cypress and eucalyptus trees swaying in the chilly morning wind.
    As a dozen young athletes stretched on the grassy grounds of St. Patrick’s High School, their coach, retired headmaster Colm O’Connell, said the violence’s impact on runners ‘‘has been more mental than physical.’’
    ‘‘They’ve been worried about their families, and some of them have seen horrible things. That affects performance,’’ said O’Connell, whose school has nurtured more than 100 world-class athletes since he began teaching there in 1976.
    Iten appears to have been spared the worst of the bloodshed that wracked other parts of the Rift Valley, but dozens of burned houses and shops flattened to ashen rectangles line the road to the provincial capital, Eldoret. On Friday, electricity poles and rocks still partially blocked the road.
    Tanser said more than 80 percent of Kenya’s top runners are Kalenjins, an ethnic group that largely gave its election backing to opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, against President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu.
    The election commission declared Kibaki a narrow winner, drawing charges of ballot stealing from Odinga and others and setting of ethnic clashes. Kikuyus fled the Rift Valley en masse, chased from their farms by rioting Kalenjins and allied tribes.
    Kibet, a Kalenjin, said four Kikuyus who had been part of his 20-member running group at another camp in Iten had left the region. He hopes they will come back.
    ‘‘We’ve always trained together with many tribes, including Kikuyus,’’ Kibet said. ‘‘And we’ve gotten along fine.’’
    Though he won the Vienna Marathon last April, Kibet was virtually unknown until he scored a gold medal at the world marathon championships in Osaka, Japan, in August.
    On Dec. 31, Kibet said he emerged from his home in Kimumu with several other athletes to gather food for their families after a night of violence. Some homes were in flames. In the distance, they could see Kalenjin and Kikuyu mobs brawling in the streets with machetes, arrows and rocks.
    Without warning, a large stone struck Kibet in the back of his head, knocking him down and leaving him stunned. He regained his wits to find himself alone — his friends had fled.
    Seeing a mob moving in his direction, Kibet began running. About 80 yards down the road, he flagged down a police car and was driven to safety.
    ‘‘It was a different kind of run,’’ Kibet said, a nervous smile broadening his face. ‘‘I was driven by fear.’’
    Hours later, Sang was killed in the same town. His body was found two days later with gashes in the back of the head and severe burns, said close friend Moses Tanui, who won the Boston Marathon twice in the 1990s. Sang was a 400-meter runner on Kenya’s team at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea.
    Kibet, who works as a prison guard when he is not training, said Kenya’s leaders must negotiate an end to the political conflict. ‘‘While they argue, people are dying,’’ he said.
    Kibet said doctors ordered him to stay home for two weeks after his injury.
    He hopes to begin running again Monday.

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