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She's in it for the long run
Tegla Loroupe aims to lower her marathon best and elevate Kenyan women
Posted: Saturday October 31, 1998 01:18 PM
By Merrell Noden
Weighing only 84 pounds and standing a shade under five feet tall, Tegla Loroupe seems impossibly small, even by the diminutive standards of women's marathoning. Upon meeting her, your first impulse is to give her a hug or at least to shield her from the big, clumsy world. While she might accept the hug, she needs no one's protection. Loroupe, who holds the world record for the women's marathon, is as tough and determined a person as you'll find.
How tough? Here is a story: As a girl of 14 in Kenya, she journeyed 120 miles from Kapsait, her village in the mountains near the Ugandan border, to the city of Nakuru, where she was to run a cross-country race. The race was six kilometers through a forest, and in the second kilometer Tegla, running barefoot, stepped on a wooden spike that became embedded in her foot, poking bloodily out the top. "I didn't have time to stop," she says in her high-pitched, singsong voice. She finished second, then sat down and pulled out the spike. "It was painful," she admits, "but I couldn't wait to go to a doctor."
Now 25, Loroupe has let nothing stop her progress toward becoming the best female distance runner in the worldnot multiple injuries, tribal warfare, snubs by the famously incompetent Kenyan track and field federation, not even the sudden death of her beloved older sister, Albina, who died of an undiagnosed ailment just 13 days before the 1995 New York City Marathon. Loroupe won that race, then collapsed in tears.
"I have a wooden head," she says, trying to describe the obstinacy that has driven her to run in defiance of her father and the repressive patriarchal society in which she grew up. All her life people have bombarded her with reasons why she should not run, and always she has soldiered on, a small, smiling pillar of courage and will.
On Nov. 1 Loroupe is favored to win her third New York City Marathon. That would provide the exclamation point to a superb year. In the past seven months she has won the 10,000 meters at the Goodwill Games, claimed her second straight world half-marathon title, smashed the world record for the one-hour run (covering 11 miles, 696 yards) and twice broken 15 minutes in the 5,000. But her most eye-catching achievement came on April 19, when she broke Ingrid Kristiansen's 13-year-old women's world marathon record by 19 seconds, clocking 2:20:47 in Rotterdam. With that performance Loroupe established herself as the woman most likely to break the 2:20 barrier, which has beckoned the top women runners like a siren, raising their hopes and then dashing them on the shoals of a suicidal pace.
Surprisingly, Loroupe is the first Kenyan, male or female, to hold the world marathon record. While Kenyan men, who dominate distance running internationally, emerged as a force in the mid-1960s, only in the last decade have Kenyan women begun to assert themselves. Since they benefit from the same geographical advantages as the men and log the same long miles to school, we must look elsewhere for the reason that the women have lagged behind. It is not hard to find. For generations Kenya's women have been little more than servants in their own homes.
"The traditional system is, you listen to your father until your husband buys you [in exchange] for cattle, then you listen to him," says John Manners, an American journalist who lived in Kenya for four years and is working on a book about the country's extraordinary runners. "The idea cemented by Tegla's win in New York City was that women runners can do this on their own and should not be pushed into marriage right away."
Loroupe, one of the few top Kenyan women runners who is not married, is eager to serve as a role model to other Kenyan women. "I don't think she thinks about feminism as such," says Anne Roberts, who as the elite-athlete coordinator for the New York City Marathon has become a second mother to Loroupe. "It's not male versus female. It's whatever's fair. It's equality, just to be treated with respect. Women are so downtrodden in Kenya."
Though Loroupe now lives in Germany, whenever she returns to Kenya she visits schools, hoping to teach girls, many of whom tower over her, about self-respect and independence. "I want to show them that they don't need to feel like useless people," she says. "They can use their brains. Women are capable of helping their communities."
Asked where her wooden head and its strange ideas come from, Loroupe proudly cites her mother, Mary Lotuma. The first of her husband's three wives (Kenya is a polygamous culture), Lotuma has always resented the unfairness of Kenyan society and has drilled into her four daughters the idea that they should aspire to be more than wives and mothers. "On my mother's side of the family, they are strong women," Loroupe says. Literally so, it seems. The last time Tegla was home, she and her fiftysomething mother ran 30 kilometers to visit relatives.
"She was faster than me," says the world-record holder. "It was hard, because I was not used to the altitude."
The cradle-to-grave rigors of Pokot tribal life at least partly explain Loroupe's remarkable talent for distance running. "In the village no one is ever idle," says Loroupe, who, minutes after winning $37,500 and a Mercedes in her first New York City Marathon, in 1994, amused reporters by telling them she had to get home fastto help herd the cattle. There is no electricity and no running water in Kapsait, and the nearest phone is 15 miles away. People go everywhere on foot, often carrying 40-pound sacks of maize or buckets of water.
Like the boys whom she often beat, Loroupe was six when she began running six miles each way to and from school. "You cry at first," she says. "There are lots of hills. After a time, you get used to it."
Remember that this is at an elevation above 9,000 feet. Loroupe ran her first races at age nine, at a school sports day, winning the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters against boys and girls, all in one day.
The other girls were puzzled by Loroupe's strange passion. "What kind of woman do you want to be?" they asked. But Loroupe was determined, as well as a little devious. When her father pressured her to give up running, at age seven, she proposed a deal.
"I said, 'Can I run if I do better than [her older brother] Julius in mathematics?'" she says with a chuckle. She knew that she was a far better math student than Julius.
The math comes in handy these days. With an income in the mid six figures, Loroupe is surely among the highest paid Kenyan women. She owns homes in Kapsait and Nakuru, and not too long ago she made her way through the textbook Principles of Accounting. "It's good to be wise as a woman," she says. "You never know who will marry you and want you to stay at home. If you have property, they will respect you."
Still, not everyone in Kenya is pleased with her challenge to tradition. Recently she was criticized for bypassing the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. "She never runs for Kenya," says Peter Njenga of Nairobi's Daily Nation, the country's biggest newspaper. "I think she is just money-oriented."
That certainly is not true. Loroupe may value the independence that money buys, but she is extremely generous. She sends many children from her region to boarding school, paying for their tuition, board, books and clothing. "Always there is somebody you can support," she says. A young man from her village is in a Bombay hospital awaiting an operation for brain cancer on Nov. 3. Loroupe is paying for his travel and treatment and even for a relative to accompany him.
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