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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

They run for a living

World-class Kenyan runners finish first in Manitoba Marathon, fall in love with Winnipeg, its people

Posted: 06/25/2012 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 06/25/2012 3:28 PM | Updates


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Thomas Omwenga's first so-called running shoes were the wrong size, made of canvas and meant for women.

So the young man asked a shoemaker in his Kenyan village to glue part of an old tire to the soles.

He ran in the modified ladies' shoes for years.

Anne Kibor worked as a maid in a Kenyan training camp for runners. Even though she longed to try running herself, the people in her village discouraged her, claiming that if she ran, she wouldn't be able to bear children.

Kibor eventually took up running anyway. She was the only woman in her training camp and ran just as well as the men.

As the pair -- two of the fastest runners on the planet -- pushed themselves across the pavement to win the Manitoba Marathon June 17, they knew their old obstacles were gone.

But their current responsibilities in Kenya, where they still reside, weighed heavily on their minds; they needed to win so they could feed their families.

"I was thinking of running a good race. I wanted to achieve what I came for," says Kibor, 43, who takes care of her two children, her mother and nine orphans -- four of whom she lives with.

Kibor was the fastest female in the marathon, placing ninth overall, with a time of 2:49.

"When you run good, you get good money to support the family back home."

Both runners speak with thick Kenyan accents but have a good command of English, thanks to learning the language throughout their primary schooling.

Omwenga, 33, who placed first overall in the race at 2:25, echoes Kibor's determination to bring home first prize for his family -- two children, a wife and four of his sister's kids, whose father passed away years ago.

"We are running to earn a living," says Omwenga, who also won first place in recent Hamilton and Victoria marathons.

The Manitoba Marathon prize money was just $1,000 each, but it all counts.

The running mates -- who met a few months ago while training -- live in small villages in Kenya. Neither of their homes has running water or indoor plumbing. Kibor has electricity in her home while Omwenga says he hopes to save up enough money to get electricity soon.

Both race around the world for cash winnings. In Africa, they train every day except Sunday, the day they go to church.

They each took up running about 12 years ago for the same reason: As a way out of poverty.

"I grew up in a very tough life. Sometimes you can go one night without eating. But... after high school, I thought of opening up my mind. (I asked), 'What can I do?'" explains Omwenga.

For Kibor, working as a maid at a training camp for runners made her believe she could run her way out of poverty. She says she attempted to seriously train six months after giving birth to her youngest daughter -- mostly by running more than five kilometres daily to "fetch milk" for her baby.

"It was unbelievable. In the morning, I could go to work really early and wash utensils. By six I would go for training," she says.

"Within three weeks I was an athlete."

How did the unlikely visitors to Winnipeg end up in town four days before the Manitoba Marathon? They can thank local entrepreneur and runner Jeff Golfman, who asked them to take part in the marathon. He even paid for their plane tickets from Hamilton and found them a place to stay -- the home of his running coach, Amanda Younka.

Golfman, best known as founder of Winnipeg's first blue-box recycling program, met Omwenga nearly three years ago at a Toronto race. The pair became fast friends. He only recently met Kibor, but was just as enchanted with her as he was with Omwenga.

Golfman's angle? The creator of health blog The Cool Vegetarian wanted to help the runners gain exposure and lend his hometown's 34-year-old marathon -- which happens to be a qualifier for the prestigious Boston Marathon -- a true international flair.

"Hopefully this will give some sense of pride to the running community of Winnipeg... that a couple of world-class athletes came to our city and thought we put on a great marathon," says Golfman, who since taking up running three years ago, has been on a quest to find out what makes Kenyans excel at the sport.

Aside from Omwenga's and Kibor's African diets of beans, bread and produce, he says they each have an intense drive to come out on top.

"You have to be able to sacrifice. You have to just go beyond your personal limits. And Thomas does that. He does that with grace and with dignity and humility and also with a real passion to succeed," says Golfman, who happened to be in Kenya during the marathon.

On a previous visit to Omwenga's home in the village of Kisi, located near the borders of Uganda and Tanzania, he was impressed with what he saw.

"It is a mud hut with no electricity. But it's a middle-class mud hut. It's not in the slums or ghettos, which are very different."

And succeeding they are. Omwenga used some of his earnings to purchase a farm, where he grows bananas, vegetables and maize. He also has a cow that provides enough milk for his family.

Omwenga says the most he's won was Ǩ10,000 in 2008, when he placed second at the Dublin Marathon.

Anne no longer works as a maid and says she supports her family exclusively through running.

She says she knows how lucky she is to be in Winnipeg and to be able to earn a living travelling. But when she's back home in her village of Eldoret, located in western Kenya, it's hard to take pleasure in her earnings. "There are many people who are suffering. You are not alone. You cannot enjoy when you see so many people starving," says Kibor who, at 5-foot-6 and 105 pounds, hides her slim runner's physique under a loose shirt during an interview in the Tuxedo home at which she's staying.

"I have these children. They need school fees. They need to eat. They have no one to support. When you come and run and get money, it's not for you alone."

Omwenga -- who is 5-foot-4 and weighs 125 pounds -- sits beside her and quietly nods his head in agreement.

The pair call Winnipeg a blessing -- their favourite of all the cities they've visited.

"I have never gone to a place where I feel special like Winnipeg. In my life I have never met wonderful people like the people in this place," says Kibor.

The pair left Winnipeg last Thursday and plan to run more marathons in Canada before returning to Kenya.

Kibor is clamouring to tell folks back home about all the friends she's made in the self-professed mosquito capital of Canada.

"Surely, it is a blessing. I can't wait to going home and tell people about this place. You meet all the people. Oh, my God. They are good."


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About the Manitoba Marathon Winners


Anne Kibor, 43

Marathons completed: More than 20

Personal best: 2:29.

Her Manitoba Marathon time: 2:49

What she ate for breakfast before the Manitoba Marathon: No food. Just water and juice. (She usually consumes two slices of bread and Kenyan tea before races).

The hardest part of the course: The last kilometre. "There is something like a hill. I had to push to finish the hill part."

Feeling when she finished the race: "When I entered the stadium, oh my God. The cheering gave me strength. I was waving. Oh, I was so happy."

Goals: To get a running sponsor. To open a school for orphans in her hometown.


Thomas Omwenga, 33

Marathons completed: More than 20

Personal best: 2:10

His Manitoba Marathon time: 2:25

What he ate for breakfast before the Manitoba Marathon: A piece of brown bread, water with honey and a half-glass of apple juice.

Benefits of running a flat course: Easier on the knees.

Hardest part of the race: The "many turns," which slowed him down.

Goals: To get a running sponsor. To fund young Kenyan athletes so they can go to school while training.

Results for the Free Press four


The Free Press followed four Manitoba Marathoners in the months leading up to race day. Here's how they did:


Corey Gallagher, Canada Post mail carrier, elite runner and winner of this year's half-marathon.

Time: 1:10

His thoughts about the race: "Winning the half was one of the greatest running moments ever for me," says Gallagher, who battled injuries during his marathon training. "Now I must set the bar a little higher for next year's goals."


Mike Booth, an elite runner who owns Massage Athletica. Has won the Manitoba Marathon four times. Placed fourth in last year's marathon. Placed seventh in this year's marathon.

Time: 2:42

His thoughts about the race: "Wasn't the end result I was looking for. After having so much success in past Manitoba Marathons, I certainly had to swallow my pride when the race wasn't going as planned," says Booth, in an email, noting he is proud of making it to the finish line. "I think every marathon is a learning experience. I am more motivated than ever to get that fifth win next year!"


Kris Wood, a hobby runner who took up running three years ago to battle her grief over her mother's death. Ran her first full marathon June 17.

Time: 5:24

Her thoughts about the race: "Not happy with my time! So happy to have finished! No amount of training could have prepared my body to be out there for 5.25 hours," says Wood in a text message.


Ramona Turner, hobby runner who works as an administrative assistant. Ran her first full marathon June 17.

Time: 4:49

Her thoughts about the race: "I am truly amazed at the experience," says Turner in an email. "I have never had such an awful and great experience at the same time. It was much harder than I anticipated and I learned a whole lot!! That is key, isn't it? I am actually motivated to do it again."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2012 D1


Updated on Monday, June 25, 2012 at 3:28 PM CDT: Corrects name misspelling.

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