Kenyans Run Over Competition

World's Top Foot Racers Hail From One Region

Godfrey Kiprotich is one of the world's finest runners. The 33-year-old is one of a group of Kenyans who dominate not only road racing in the United States but distance running around the world.

CBS News Correspondent Bryant Gumbel traveled to Kenya last year to find out why these racers are such daunting competitors.

"These guys are just the best in the world, without question," says John Manners, who has followed Kenyan running since living in that country as a child.

Kiprotich hails from a Kenyan region more than 6,000 feet above sea level. The region, only the size of Connecticut, has spawned not just the greatest runners in Kenya but the best in the world.

Wake up early here, and it's easy to see where that kind of talent gets it start. All the kids run to school. You don't see overweight kids in Kenya. All the boys and girls are lean and fit. Their lifestyle demands it. When Kiprotich didn't run, his teacher hit him with a cane.

Competitive running in Kenya starts at the grassroots, literally. Kiprotich ran barefoot, happily, until he was 12.

If Kenya's running dominance has an epicenter, it might well be St. Patrick's Secondary School in the town of Veten. Despite an enrollment of fewer than 500 boys, the school has produced dozens of world-
class athletes who've won numerous medals in international competition. The driving force behind St. Patrick's success isn't a Kenyan, or even a track coach. It is Brother Colm O'Connell.

Proud of his runners, he gives them the credit. "They're the ones who go out and do the sweating," he says. "For me, it's identifying them, seeing them coming up through the junior ranks and then letting them loose on the world."

St. Patrick's Wall of Fame is cluttered with photos of famous alums who've rewritten the record books. For example, the Kenyan team for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul had 10 past pupils of St. Patrick's.

Some people would attribute Kenya's running success to diet, particularly to something called ugali, a dried-up corn mixture that's been compared to grits. "It's tasteless," Kiprotich explains.

With little more than ugali in their stomachs, Kenyan runners manage to train three times a day, often running more than 100 miles a week. St. Patrick's runners regularly run a 14-mile course, all uphill. Reaching a height of 8,000 feet, this environment is woefully short of oxygen.

While the thin air may help local runners develop strong hearts and lungs, their willingness to train on hills and valleys like these makes Kenyans quick to argue that their success can be attributed more to attitude than altitude.

That attitude stems in part from constantly competing against the best: each other. One of the toughest athletic competitions Kenyans ever face is right on their own soil, on one of the country's two all-weather tracks.

In several events at the annual Armed Forces Track and Field Championship, rigning world record holders compete against current Olympic champions. There's an overwhelming wealth of talent on the track, but a paucity of fans in the stands.

Even Kiprotich has trouble competing with Kenyans. Called home for the armed forces competition, he only got as far as the stands. Though highly ranked in the United States, he didn't make his army unit's intramural team; he wasn't good enough.

"He's a first-rate road runner in America, but in Kenya he's a B teamer," says Manners. Even though he is a St. Patrick's alum, Kiprotich is not on the school's Wall of Fame.

But Kiprotich, who has run races in the United States for the past eight years, is a hero in his hometown. He makes a good living, especially by Kenyan standards, earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year running road races in the United States. This success fires up imitators.

"There's this knowledge that the guy in the next village is out there earning $20,000 a year," says Manners. "[People think], 'If he can do it, he's no different from me, I can do it.'"

For Kiprotich, running has made his life good. "I have a farm. I have electricity," he says. "And I think I'm all set."

Produced by David Kohn