The Honesty of Marathon Running: Paula Radcliffe Takes on Susan Chepkemei
April 17, 2005 6 Comments
I am just watching the London Marathon which unsurprisingly is entirely focused on Paula Radcliffe who has won after pulling away from the pack on mile 5 and relentlessly piling on the pressure since. Susan Chepkemei is trying to keep up and not being quite able to stay with it. Of course I am pulling for her as a Kenyan and also because I had the privilege of meeting her in August 2004.
She told me how she had broken the world half marathon record in Lisbon three years previously. She won that race by 30 seconds and told of how she had doubted she would even finish due to the fast start and her not feeling well! That she went on to destroy the field is a testament to her courage and to the combative spirit Kenyan runners possess. I had always thought that world beaters, winners and record holders start out their endeavors as winners. So it was a surprise when Susan related how much of the race had been run with nary a thought for the record – she just wanted to salvage her pride by not backing away from the challenge.
Running is war. A war that ruptures muscles, destroys pride, dissolves knees. It is a sweaty, smelly war: Radcliffe for instance squatted to empty her bladder mid-way through the race! Then, in a moment that is a priceless lampooning opportunity, this is what she said about the incident on a BBC interview: “I think I need to apologise to the nation for having to stop like that but I was losing 10 seconds every time my stomach cramped up.” “It was a similar problem to Athens but there was no danger of me being glycogen-defeated again. I knew if I stopped I would be able to get rid of the cramp and concentrate properly again.” Apart from the humor though, imagine the desire for victory it takes to squat for a pee with millions watching and a nation’s hope on your shoulders.
Running at a championship level comes down to honesty. When the pain is increasing with every step and your opponents rhythm hints at yet to be tapped reservoirs of strength, you must be honest about who you are. The pain and pressure strips away pretence and those that manage to hold onto them rarely become champions. If Kenyans like Susan have such honesty, where did it come from? It is certainly not drawn from the country’s elite of robber barons and their hangers on. It does not come from any aid or development policy. Nor from foreign knowledge. Sitting with Susan at the posh Java Coffee House in Adams Arcade, surrounded by mwa-mwa-mwa kissing Kenyans and expats, no one seemed to recognize her. She is probably better known in Europe than she is in Kenya, especially middle class Kenya. And I think this is because Kenyan runners are drawing on sources of inspiration and belief that are anathema to what the country has become. The runners are honest, disciplined, tough, organized and talented. The country’s leaders and the class they are drawn from (see my March essay: Babylon System is the Vampire!) are dishonest, brutal, disorganised and need no talent to maintain their mediocrity and robbery.
The results of the race: Radcliffe in 2.17:42 followed 5 minutes later by Romania’s Constantina Dita. Then came Kenyans Susan Chepkemei, third, and Margaret Okayo.
I will make another entry shortly on the men’s race and Martin Lel who won by running a personal best, meaning that he run the best he has ever done when the pressure was at its highest. Why is he not a hero in Kenya?