On the run with Kenya’s newest, fastest member of Parliament as he works both on his split times and the economic disparity in his country.
By Richard Warnica
On March 4, 2013, election day in Cherangany Kenya, Welsey Korir, the reigning Boston Marathon champion, went for a run. He pulled on a pair of grey Nike sneakers. He loped down a red dirt road. He turned into a polling station, went inside and voted for himself. When he was done, he jogged back out and kept on running.
At pace, Korir, who is now 32 years old, looks almost mechanical. His limbs move with a repetitive chug. It’s compact and fluid, like a metronome, the only variation in every stride the ripple of his quads when his feet hit the ground. Ron Mann, his collegiate and professional coach, believes Korir was “born to be a marathoner.” He has the perfect body, the unflagging pace. But for Korir himself, running has never been the end goal, it’s just his way to get at bigger things.
In a four-year stretch beginning in 2008, Korir went from a successful ,but unheralded NCAA runner to one of the most famous marathoners in the world. He won the second marathon he ever ran, in L.A. in 2009. He won that race again in 2010. He finished second in Chicago in 2011 and then, in a remarkable come-from-behind performance in 2012, he won Boston, the biggest run of them all.
Months later, at the peak of his fame and in the prime of his athletic life, Korir quit training full time, moved back to Kenya and embarked on a madcap bid for a seat in federal Parliament. “Practically, it didn’t make a lot of sense,” says his wife, Tarah Korir, who was born and grew up in Ontario. But “practical” has never really been in Korir’s vocabulary.
On a recent evening at a sports bar in Toronto, Korir unfurled his remarkable life story. He was at The Contender for a showing of Transcend, a 2014 documentary about his triumph in Boston and subsequent political bid. With his wife and father-in-law by his side, he unspooled his narrative of unlikely success fueled at every stage by his feet.
Korir was raised poor in rural Kenya. He ran all the time as a young boy, but at that age he never dreamed of running professionally; it was mostly just a way of getting around. “My mother used to send me to market and she would time me,” he said. In high school, running became more of a fixation, but only because it offered him a way out, literally. Korir attended boarding school, his tuition paid by a local priest. Racing was one of the few ways he could get off campus on the weekends. Back then, he never trained, but he always won. “I used to beat everybody,” he said.
After graduation, Korir moved away from his village and, for the first time, started putting in serious miles on a track. He had no illusions of becoming an Olympian or a professional. But he thought he might be good enough to get a scholarship to the U.S. “If there was no opportunity of me coming to America, I don’t think I would have continued to run,” he said. “But when I looked at it, I had to get out of poverty, and for me to get out of poverty, I knew I had to get out of Kenya.”
With the help of Paul Ereng, a Kenyan gold medalist in the 1988 Olympics, Korir earned a scholarship to Murray State, a small school in Kentucky. A year in, Murray State eliminated its track program, so he transferred to Louisville, a Division I NCAA powerhouse.
In college, Korir was a good, but never great, 5,000 and 10,000 metre runner. He worked two jobs all through school, as a maintenance man, and a bat engraver at the Louisville Slugger plant. He only kept running, he said, to keep his scholarship.
At the bar in Toronto, I asked him if he actually enjoyed running. “I like it, but it’s not really that fun,” he replied. “I honestly have to force myself most of the time to get out.” If someone had offered to pay his tuition in college, he would have walked away from the track in an instant. When he graduated, with a degree in biology and a minor in accounting, Korir thought about medical school, but he eventually applied to do his MBA. He was set to start that degree in January 2009, when his college coach, Ron Mann, convinced him to give running one more shot.“We all knew his best days of running were going to be ahead of him, in marathon,” Mann says in Transcend. But Korir wasn’t convinced.
He registered for the 2008 Chicago marathon as an amateur. With no qualifying times, he started five minutes behind the professionals, with all the weekend warriors. Remarkably, he still caught all but five of the elites. He crossed the finish line in sixth place, but with the fourth fastest time, good enough to earn him a $15,000 payday.
At that point, Korir began to believe. Still working full time as a maintenance man, he started training in earnest as a marathoner in his spare time. He shocked the field in L.A. that spring to win a massive $185,000 payday. The next year, while on his honeymoon, he won L.A. again. That second win set him up for Boston in 2012.
It’s hard today to separate the Boston Marathon from the Boston Marathon bombing. The event will be forever clouded by that attack in 2013. And yet, there remains nothing like Boston in the running world. There’s no race bigger, no better profile or tougher annual field. None of that was on Korir’s mind in 2012, though. He tells the story today with a kind of practised cadence. He’s clearly done it many times before. He arrived in Boston out of shape and still recovering from a bout of typhoid fever. In his warm up, he felt a pain in one leg and seriously considered dropping out. “Coach was like ‘just run a half,’” he said. “It will look bad if we don’t start.”
Making matters worse, the course was unseasonably warm that day, a scorching 32 degrees at one point in the race. Despite the heat, Korir kept with the lead pack for about half the race. When a small group broke off, though, he let them go. “I was thinking about finishing safe,” he said. “That’s what I was thinking, just finish safe.” And then a remarkable thing began to happen. He started passing other runners. He didn’t speed up. He didn’t skip his water breaks. But when the rest of the field began to flag, he just kept going. “I realized, you know what, these people are dropping like chickens,” he said. “And I was passing them one by one.” He only moved into first place in the last 800 metres of the race. You can see the moment in Transcend. “It was the finish line of the Boston Marathon,” he says in the movie. “But it was the beginning of my next life.”
For the vast majority of the world, that next life would have followed a predictable pattern. A man who grew up poor suddenly becomes rich and famous. He has a young wife and a baby and the opportunity to earn rich appearance and prize fees for years to come on the marathon circuit. So of course, after one more race, in which he set a personal best time, Korir did the logical thing: He stopped training and instead dropped six figures of his own cash to take on an influential government incumbent in the home country where he hadn’t lived full time for a decade.
And remarkably, he won. He shouldn’t have. That’s not how this normally works. He ran as an independent against a man personally endorsed by the top echelons of the Kenyan leadership. He met his campaign staff on Facebook. But days after he cast his vote that morning in March 2013, he was officially named the new MP for Cherangany.
Six weeks later, having barely trained for the past several months, Korir returned to Boston to defend his title. He was up against the best marathoners in the world, men running 100 miles a week in training while he barely scratched out 30, even after the election. Midway through the race, he fell off the lead pack. He looked set for a certain finish deep in the weeds. And then, just as he had a year earlier, as he has throughout his entire life, Korir came back. He chased down runner after runner. He crossed the finish line in fifth place, a result perhaps even more remarkable than his win, considering the circumstances.
Today, Korir juggles running with fatherhood, politics and his charitable foundation, which provides educational opportunities to Kenyan children. That last, is the reason he’s still out there, he said, still putting in his miles instead of getting fat like the rest of his colleagues in government. “In college, I used to run to keep my scholarship. In Kenya I used to run to get to America,” he said, “Now, I run to keep those kids in school.”
In April, he went back to Boston. Despite working fulltime as an MP, he finished in fifth place, one more time.
Richard Warnica is a feature writer at the National Post.