By Paul Gains
Sixteen months ago, Elkana Yego turned up at a three kilometre race in his town of Cherangany, Kenya, stripped down to his shorts then stunned onlookers with an emphatic victory running barefoot.
On May 29th, the 22 year old expects to challenge the favourites in the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label. His remarkable change in fortune is a compelling story.
Yego was once a promising teenage middle distance runner with a personal best 1,500m time of 3:39.62. An agent took him on and he raced some ‘B’ level races in Europe and acted as a paid pacemaker at others. But then injuries felled him. He was swiftly dropped by his agent, and it appeared his running career was over.
One of the organizers of that Cherangany 3k race was the local Member of Parliament, and 2012 Boston Marathon winner, Wesley Korir, who was looking for potential students for the Transcend Running Academy. He and his colleagues decided to hold a fun race for older runners. That’s when he first spotted Yego.
"I asked him so you don’t have any shoes?" Korir remembers. "When I met him and talked to him the first time he looked like a guy who had given up, lost hope. He was dropped by his agent, he had been injured. He was staying at home just doing farming corn. When you say farming corn in Kenya it means he is poor."
Korir arranged for the young man to join a training camp in Kapsabet but when that didn’t work out he invited him into his home. Since then, Yego has been training in a group, which includes Korir and former world marathon record holder Wilson Kipsang.
"He has a lot of speed but he is able to run a long 40k run and still kick at the end," says Korir, who was 4th at the Ottawa Marathon two years ago, and finished 4th at the Boston Marathon this past week. "He is always there. I have never run any long run where he is dropped. He is always there with us.
"He and Wilson Kipsang, they focus on their speed, they will leave me at the end sometimes and start kicking together. I am encouraged by how much he has been able to work."
Korir says his young charge is very respectful to him and to his family. He calls Yego a comedian who fills the house with laughter, and because Korir has taken in five other young runners, Yego is like a big brother to them.
Each weekend, after their long run, Korir gives Yego money to take home to his wife and kids. The young man always gives the money to his wife for food, Korir proudly reveals, and doesn’t use it for personal things.
It has clearly been a good relationship for everyone involved, but having such talented training partners has proven especially beneficial to Yego.
"Running with Wesley and Wilson gives me confidence in my ability and it helped me to have a program to follow of experienced marathoners," Yego says quietly.
"By training with Wesley I am able to go where I need to go to train at the track or for a long run because of having access to a vehicle. Some days I run alone with Wesley and other days we drive somewhere to meet up with a group."
Like many East Africans living in rural areas, as a child, Yego had a good distance to get to primary school. Those days he remembers vividly and they would lay the foundation for a running career.
"I saw runners training on the roads when we were on our way to primary school and we used to run behind them," he recalls.
"There was a neighbor of mine, who was a marathon runner, who gave us clothes and shoes to start running when I was in primary school. And Samuel Kemboi Rutto won last year’s Turin marathon in Italy. We were in the same class and we used to live together."
As a test of fitness, Korir encouraged Yego to run in a marathon recently in Eldoret, Kenya more or less to ‘feel the distance’ and prepare mentally for Ottawa. He was advised to let the leaders run their race, to hold back until the final two kilometres and then try to pass them.
The young runner evidently listened well, picking off runners near the end to finish inside the top 10 in 2:19. At an altitude of 7,000 feet, that’s a very good time.
Korir hopes that Yego follows the same advice and remains patient when he lines up in Ottawa. If he does then he might well be the revelation of the year.
"I think the key thing I will tell him is relax when he gets in to Ottawa." Korir says. "He has the speed. I don’t think anybody coming to that race can match his speed. The key is for him to be able to know that he is in good shape. I tell him the marathon is not a short race, it’s a very long race. He needs to be patient and wait until the last 2k.
"I think, if given a chance, he can run a 2:06. I look at him with a race like Ottawa, which is not that hilly, it’s flat, right. The only problem is experience. But if he is able to really be patient I can give him 2:06. But also without the experience I would give him 2:08."
Yego has a very simple goal - to win the race. If he does, it will open up further opportunities to continue his promising running career and perhaps raise the hopes of others.