"I hope you've seen that it's a good neighborhood," says Kisang. Kibor and his grandmother walk into the fields and grasp each other's forearms in parting. Hiking up the dewy, slippery slope to the village, little George carries your bag. You stumble and sway. He darts and hops. You gasp. He is inaudible. Strength, efficiency and athletic coordination, there they all are, vanishing over the hill.
The ride back seems shorter. At the roadside Chebaimo Hotel and Bakery you get sponge cake, biscuits and corn bread that all taste exactly the same. On the wall is a sign:
"Struggling is the meaning of life. Victory and defeat are in the hands of God, so one must enjoy in struggling."
Kibor, his mouth full of cake, agrees with a nod and laugh. "I do enjoy it," he says, spraying crumbs. "Struggle."
Safely back in Iten, you call at St. Patrick's High School, a most remarkable institution run by the Patrician brothers, an Irish Catholic teaching order. Brother Colm O'Connell, originally from County Cork, is headmaster and coach. In the 14 years he has been here, the school has sent more than three quarters of its graduates to college and has turned out more than 40 international-level runners.
In the cafeteria, Kibor gazes up at an imposing set of school records. There is a 1,500 of 3:34.9 and a mile of 3:52.39 by Kip Cheruiyot, and a 5,000 of 13:18.6 by his twin brother, Charles. Other boards name the 12 athletes St. Patrick's has sent to the Olympics.
O'Connell's enthusiasm grows as he finds words for it. "My great advantage," he says, "was that when I came, I knew no athletics. I learned about the athletes first, then the sport. Normally, there's not a lot of attention paid talented runners in the schools. We're more successful here because we take a personal interest."
As seems fitting for a man of the cloth, O'Connell encourages runners toward the essential vow. "It helps them if they make up their mind, if they say, I am a runner,' " he says. "Joseph here is typical of how quickly they can come to prominence, but many Kenyans are quite late developers. Ibrahim Hussein graduated from here and then New Mexico before he really took it seriously."
When he did, Hussein, one of a small group of Islamic Nandi, won the New York, Honolulu and Boston marathons between November of '87 and April of '88. The key is not age—Hussein was 29 years old when he won those marathons—but resolve.
"It's not just altitude, diet and climate," says O'Connell. "It's a very subtle combination of those with their tradition. They come from great, extended families. You hear them speaking of my father and my other father and my other father,' because they're brought up to think uncles are fathers. Cousins are brothers or sisters. The mentality is community. They run for their people, and when they come back they aren't put up on a pedestal. They're absorbed back into the family. That's a great release of pressure for them. They don't have a great fear of losing because the loss is distributed over the group."