The Billings Outpost

Rocky runner carries on proud Kenyan tradition

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

About this time four years back a rail-thin 20-year-old, with nary a kilo of insulation fat on his frame, met frigid Old Man pending winter for the first time.

Between teeth-chatters and involuntary shivers, his near-frozen mind thought there was but one way to thaw out of his arctic ache.

Get out. Go back.

“That first winter (2009-10) I couldn’t see myself staying here in Billings; I was ready to get out of here. I was saying to myself, I can’t stay here,” said Rocky Mountain College scholar and athlete Noah Kiprono. “I had a good jacket, but still I had never been in zero degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest I had ever been in was maybe 50 degrees.”

Kiprono stayed, survived somehow despite his wintry woes, 9,000 miles-away homesickness and weird looks from local folks who didn’t think he could speak or understand a lick of English, bringing frustration. Something was there in his bloodlines, family and tribal, albeit thin ones, that kept him here.

And the former farm kid from Kenya is now reaping a pretty darn good harvest.

On Saturday, he’ll lead the Bears team into their first-ever NAIA Cross Country National Championships down in Lawrence, Kan. The harriers’ coach expects continued goodness from his No. 1 man, Captain Kiprono, and the squad.

“He is ready to have a top-30 finish, which would qualify for All-American status, said RMC coach Alan King. “And as a team we are ranked 21st nationally, and I think we can do better than that (on Saturday).”

Earlier this fall, Kiprono set the school cross country 8K record of 24:39, a goal he’d set. In May, he’ll graduate with dual degrees, a four-year in business administration, coupled with a master’s in accounting. He’s equally proud of all. The fifth-year senior tells us the story of how, despite wanting to go home, he even came to Rocky. It’s not what you might expect.

First, some background on his background.

Those in distance running know there’s a Kenyan tribe residing along the western reaches of the country, near Uganda, that produces arguably, many say for certain, the best distance runners in the world. The Kalenjin tribe numbers about a tenth of the nation’s 41 million population.

Kiprono is from the tribe.

Legendary Kenyan runners come from the Great Rift Valley where the Kalenjin people grow tea and maize (corn to us) in the temperate high lands, ideal for distance training.

Kip Keino is credited with starting the Kenyan track and field boom, upsetting American wonderboy miler Jim Ryun in the 1968 Summer Olympics.  Later, Henry Rono further elevated national pride in the sport with unheard of 5K and 10K times back in the late 1970s. Now there are so many Kenyan stars, seemingly a different one each year winning the prestigious Boston Marathon, it’s hard to keep track. Young Kalenjin boys and girls dream of being Kenya’s next superstar and start training early, once identified.

Not so with Kiprono.

He grew up outside the small town of Litein, on the southern edge of the Rift Valley. His father farmed tea leaves and maize, and pastored. His mother taught grade school. He says his work ethic came from toiling in the fields alongside his father. And both parents valued education.

But surprisingly, Kiprono didn’t run distances as a kid. He liked soccer when he wasn’t gathering tea leaves to haul over to the Litein Tea Factory, or tending to the family’s cows and sheep. 

He stands almost six feet, with still little fat on his 142-pound body. He speaks softly, slowly, gives careful thought before answering. One can hear an English accent, as he makes businessman-like eye contact. He dresses like an Ivy Leaguer, and his humility surfaces right away, that, and a nice, young man’s smile.

“I didn’t really run in high school, Kiprono recalled. “Once we were forced to run in class, seven miles. That was about the only time I really ran in school.  And I didn’t come in first.”

He knew about the great Kenyan runners from his tribe. Keino, Rono and more recent star Bernard Lagat were from nearby Nandi Hills. But he concentrated on his studies, doing well. He graduated as class president from his high school in 2007.

Later he spent a year at an agricultural and technical college outside Nairobi, the country’s capital, three hours from his hometown. There he bumped into some guys from around Litein who were distance running, so he joined in. Nothing real serious, a few races here and there. The college didn’t even have a team, says Kiprono.

It was also at the Nairobi college that someone told Kiprono about a Kenyan who went to school and ran track in a far, faraway land - Rocky Mountain College in Billings City, Montana. United States of America. So Kiprono “googled” the school. He found names and email addresses. He found out about an international study program for foreign students, with scholarship aid for the qualified. Did it all on his own.

When he briefly exchanged emails with Coach King, Kiprono recalls King telling him to apply to RMC, get accepted, and then they would talk about possibly competing.  Certainly no serious recruiting took place, whether a Kalenjin or not.

Kiprono said things happened quickly. He applied to Rocky in May 2009, was accepted with a partial scholarship. He secured a visa. A whirlwind summer with excitement – and trepidation. He then took his first jet airliner trip, a round-the-world doozy at that.

“I remember taking off and looking back down at Nairobi and saying to myself, I’m going to a place that I don’t know where I’m going to, I don’t know who is there, I don’t know anyone there, and I don’t know when I’ll be back,”  Kiprono said. “But I’m going anyway.” 

He landed in Billings on Aug. 22 and wasn’t impressed. He thought the town was tiny, at least compared to Nairobi. Nor was Coach King impressed by his new runner after the first workouts.

“He wasn’t in very good shape. He had to stop and walk back on his first run, so I’m sure I was thinking it was going to be a lot of work to get him to improve,” King said.

But the coach saw something right away. 

“To be honest, I didn’t expect anything or see anything special until he got here and I met him,” King said. “It was my philosophy that brought him here. I’m a firm believer that everyone deserves a chance to run and prove themselves. If runners are willing to dedicate themselves to the program and the training, they will get better, so I gave him a chance to prove himself.  There was going to be culture shock, an adjustment period, but he adapted quickly.”

In the end, the coach was glad to get the runner from that renowned “running tribe,” whose mastery is forever debated. Sport scientists hypothesize it’s got to be the high-altitude training, or the want-to-be-like-Kip culture, no, a junkless diet of beans, corn, rice and water. Even skinny ankles and calves, with little drag weight away from the body’s center of gravity, is a genetics-based wild guess. Or poor rural boys having to run three miles to school each day, each way, is one you hear.

But one trait stands out above all. Coaches see it. That rare commitment.  Quiet, painful toil, without complaint.

“(Kalenjin tribe) has a long history of success so the standard is there automatically, so there is some pressure to be good,” King said. “However, the main factor is that they are not afraid to work hard ... extremely hard.

“(Kiprono’s) work ethic is what has made his achievements possible and has made him a successful person. He is someone I can always depend on, not just in a coach/athlete relationship, but as a friend.”

He ran his final indoor track season last spring, so the Lawrence race Saturday is it. He hopes his parents come to graduation in May; he hasn’t seen them since, well, August 2009. He sees his accounting career beginning in his home country, probably in Nairobi.  

Any possible professional running after RMC, he’s asked. Probably not, comes the thoughtful response. He calls himself “middle of the pack” – certainly by Kenyan standards.

He’s already an NAIA All-American in the marathon with a 2:29 time. But the world’s best, Kenyan Wilson Kipsan, ran 2:03.23. 

“Most of the Kenyan runners start young. Maybe I would have been faster if I would have started young like most Kenyan runners do. But I may race some after college,” Kiprono said, noting he did not seriously train until he was 19.

He’s from Kalenjin tribe, yes, but too far behind the starting line, with so many ahead. Can’t beat them, he says.

But, he beat Old Man winter in Billings City, Montana. United States of America.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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