Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Elderly runners take on world beaters

By DAVID MACHARIA [email protected]

Mzee John Chepkwony Chepsuge, 75, runs as if he is many years younger.

At the recent Discovery Cross Country Race in Eldoret, Mr Chepsuge ran the 12-kilometre senior men’s race in 45 minutes.

The winner, Mr Geoffrey Kipsang, who is an elite athlete, took 36 minutes. Also in the race was 60-year-old Julius Lagat who finished four minutes ahead of Chepsuge.

While Mr Lagat has been in action since the 1970s, Chepsuge started running 10 years ago when he took part in a competition organised at the Kipchoge Keino Stadium in Eldoret.

Although he did not make it big in the sport like the stadium’s namesake, Mr Lagat keeps running.

He keeps fit by riding a bicycle for long hours as he looks for chicken to buy and resell in neighbouring villages. He also has a farm in Kaptanyu Village, Nandi County.

Mr Chepsuge says that when he started running against some young athletes and globe trotting runners, the society used to be generous and give him “something as a token of appreciation, but not any more”.

When not attending competitions, Chepsuge farms and tends to his cows in Lower Moiben, Uasin Gishu County.

At the 20th edition of the Discovery Cross Country Race, Mr Chepsuge and Lagat took part in a race that had Olympic 1,500-metre champion Asbel Kiprop and three-time London marathon winner Martin Lel.

As Mr Kiprop was leading the more than 100 runners, Chepsuge and Lagat were among the old people who were struggling from behind to keep up with the blistering pace set by the young athletes.

Many young runners fell by the wayside, but these masters remained resilient to the end in the race watched by top past and current world beaters like world 5,000 metres silver medallist Eliud Kipchoge and World Champions Vivian Cheruiyot and Janeth Jepkosgei.

Athletics Kenya officials Isaiah Kiplagat (chairman), David Okeyo (secretary) and Joseph Kinyua (treasurer) were also at the meet.

In fact, the three officials presented winners with cash prizes ranging from Sh50,000 to Sh1,000 for the top 10 finishers in each of the regular categories.

Modern gym facilities

But the unsung heroes of the sport went home empty-handed. The two are among elderly people who have become an embodiment of keeping healthy through sports for rural people who cannot access modern gym facilities like their urban counterparts.

“I have been running for about 10 years now and I am not ready to quit because it is one way of exercising”, Mr Chepsuge said. Despite his age, he walks upright without straining. He attributes this to athletics.

And Mr Lagat, who looks more than 10 years younger than his actual age, has been running as long as he can remember. “I was running with Kipchoge in those years,” he says.

Mr Kipchoge Keino is one of the most celebrated Kenyan athletes, having represented the country as far back as the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. At that event, he won the gold medal in the 1,500 metres race.

Mr Chepsuge and Mr Lagat say that running has helped them avoid illness. The two are among many old people in the country who take part in sporting events mostly athletics but are never feted.

Who is supposed to reward them? Many people interviewed felt that it should be the organisers of the events they run in.

But others felt the that government should come up with a reward package to encourage many old people to take up sports as one way of remaining healthy through exercise.

Some called on Athletics Kenya to come up with a programme for rewarding the old people who take part in athletics events and others called for the formation of associations that would cater for older sports people in such disciplines as athletics, soccer, badminton and volleyball.

At the running competitions in North Rift, the elderly athletes stand out among the rest because they fall behind as soon as the race starts because they cannot keep with the pace of the young generation in the sport.

But despite being overlapped in all the races they take part in, these runners have remained undaunted and keep on going to the starting lines of any athletics event organised in this region.

These are the unsung heroes of athletics in the North Rift. The organisers of competitions in areas around Eldoret have ever recognised their efforts despite being permanent features in local competitions.

Many people agree that these grandfathers, and some grandmothers, who have taken the courage to race against young talented runners and experienced elite world beaters in athletic events need to be recognised.

They have set an example for other people who want to keep fit through sports. In the annually Discovery Kenya Cross Country, there are 500-metre races for children under 10 years, but these grand fathers opt to go for the 12 kilometres; an event meant for elite and senior athletes.

Well, the old men are in fact seniors going by Kenyans standard. In other countries like America, the old people would be grouped in the masters’ category and special awards set aside for them.

In the absence of an organisation that would take care of elderly runners, these old people have to run together with youthful elite athletes and worse still go home unrecognised.

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