Saturday, May 2, 2009

African runners compete for livelihood in Pittsburgh Marathon

In some regards, Jared Abuya left behind a much simpler life when he came to the United States to be a professional runner six years ago.

Like everyone where he grew up in western Kenya, Abuya lived on a farm. His family raised chickens and cows and grew vegetables, so there was no need to shop for food. There were no property taxes. Once you own land, it's your land. If people had running water, it was usually free.

"But it's hard to make money," said Abuya, 32. "There's no jobs."

There certainly is no future for a professional runner. So Abuya, who is competing in the Pittsburgh Marathon on Sunday, came to the United States.

Even people who don't run and don't follow running know that at virtually any big race on any given day, the winner will have an unfamiliar name that's difficult to pronounce. Africans - Kenyans and Ethiopians in particular - dominate the racing scene and have for years.

Escaping poverty

But beyond the image of the lanky, dark-skinned runner tearing through the finish-line tape is the reality of what they left behind, why they left and what life is like for them here.

Mike Barnow knows that reality perhaps better than anyone.

The New Yorker and coach of the Westchester Track Club for elite runners coached the Somalia national team at the 1984 Olympics and has been helping African runners who come to the U.S. ever since.

"There's nothing for these guys back home," Barnow said. "They can maybe be farmers, but there's no work. One percent of the country owns everything. So it's very understandable that these guys want to come here and stay here."

Two of Barnow's athletes, Kassahun Kabiso and Genna Tufa, will be running the marathon on Sunday, and a betting man could wager that one of them will win.

Already this year, Tufa, 24, was eighth overall in the Chevron Houston Marathon, fifth at the Carlsbad Half-Marathon in January and second at the National Marathon for Breast Cancer in February. His fastest time in the marathon was 2:17:38 in 2007.

Kabiso, 26, placed second in the ING Georgia Marathon in March and 14th (out of roughly 40,000) in the ING New York City Marathon in November. He was fifth with a time of 2:18.56 the last time the Pittsburgh Marathon was run in 2003. In 2007, he ran a marathon in under 2:15.

Kabiso said he came to the United States from Ethiopia in the summer of 2003, when he was "around 19." He left behind 16 brothers and sisters and barely spoke English.

"I wanted to come for running," Kabiso said.

Barnow said that Kabiso was invited to the Vancouver Marathon, where race officials most likely paid a good portion of his airline ticket. Someone then brought him to Barnow.

"His English was terrible, but we got by," Barnow said. "He said he wanted to stay here, so I took a chance."

Making ends meet

Kabiso drives a cab in New York and lives with several other runners in the Bronx. Barnow said it's typical to find six to seven African runners living together in one apartment to keep expenses down.

Often times, African runners are in the country on three-month travel visas, and winning races is their only means of income. Even those who have longer visas or green cards and live in the United States year-round often do nothing but train and race, even at the risk of injury.

Tufa arrived in the United States from Ethiopia three years ago at the age of 21.

"It is my favorite country," Tufa said. "It is better than Africa. I love being here."

When asked what he likes most, he said "everything."

With the help of Barnow, Tufa got his green card earlier this week.

"I appreciate America for giving me this opportunity," he said. "There are so many people helping me to get this, and I'd like to appreciate them, too."

Tufa hopes to one day earn citizenship and race for the United States.

"I want to wear the American flag one day," Tufa said. "That is my dream in this country."

Tufa shares an apartment with three other African natives in the Bronx, and his only income comes from racing. He runs 20-50 miles a day, six days a week. He said he doesn't know how much money he makes in one year because it varies.

The top male and female runners in the open category on Sunday will get $4,000 for first place, $2,500 for second, $1,500 for third, $1,000 for fourth and $500 for fifth.

But just because these athletes are here to make money as runners doesn't mean they're getting rich.

Not by American standards, anyway.

"Not at all," said Barnow, who is coaching 23 Africans in weekly workouts in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. "If they win a lot of money during the year, they maybe will make $25,000. That's nothing. For a marathon, the big payday is $5,000, but how many times a year can they do that? Twice?"

Helping their families

Most of the money they earn goes toward living and travel expenses. But many will try to send some back home.

"If they can send $1,000 home, it goes a long way when an annual salary is $2,000 a year, maybe $3,000 a year," Barnow said. "I have one runner who supports his mother back home. If he sends $200 or $300, it lasts several months."

Barnow often takes money out of his own pocket to help pay for his runners' entry fees, travel expenses and shoes. He worries that if they don't learn English and find other ways to make money, they'll be in trouble when they can no longer win races. He worries that if they're not winning, they're not eating. He takes exception when others suggest that they shouldn't be racing in this country.

"A lot of races are happy to have these guys, but in some races, there is a backlash," Barnow said. "I wouldn't say it's racism, but a lot of races don't want the top 15 guys being Kenyans and Ethiopians. They want to see a white guy in there. ... A lot of big races would like to see someone other than an African winning the race. But the thing is, you can't fix this stuff. The essence of competition is simple -- the best runner should win. These guys are here. They live here. This is their home now."

Abuya, who lives in Washington, D.C., is already planning for his future beyond racing. He is a running specialist for Dick's Sporting Goods and is building up a business as an agent. One runner he has helped is Rahab Ndungu, 30, a middle-distance runner who is favored to win the women's half-marathon.

"I hope God will help me to do good," Ndungu said. "I have trained hard so that I can improve my time."

And, one could argue, improve her life.


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