A personal victory for Korir
Los Angeles Marathon winner overcame violence in his homeland
SANTA MONICA -- Wesley Korir has been running his whole life. In the beginning it was five miles to school and back, later it was about 85 miles for his life and to freedom and now its 26.2 miles to become the first back-to-back winner of the Los Angeles Marathon in eight years.
The sight of Korir being mobbed by photographers and well-wishers as he crossed the finish line was one of the only aspects of the race unchanged from last year as organizers introduced a new "Stadium to the Sea" course with marathon beginning at Dodger Stadium and ending two blocks north of the Santa Monica Pier.
In between, Korir and other runners weaved through Sunset Boulevard, past Rodeo Drive and along Ocean Avenue as the marathon for the first time in its 25-year history veered out of Los Angeles and into five municipalities, encompassing nearly every tourist destination outside of Universal Studios and Disneyland.
"I really loved the course; it was amazing," said Korir, who was also celebrating his honeymoon in Los Angeles after marrying Tarah McKay, his former teammate on the Louisville track and field team, last Sunday. "I couldn't believe I was running through Beverly Hills and someone was screaming my name. Somebody knew me in Beverly Hills!"
Korir, 27, still has to pause and smile at the thought of hearing his name chanted in one of the most famous cities the world and one he never dreamed he'd be running through when he was growing up in the village of Kitale in Kenya.
He can still remember when he was 10 years old and he had to run five miles to school in the morning, five miles back for lunch and five more when he had to go shopping for his mother. It seemed each time Korir ran he was racing against the clock. The mere thought of being punished by his mother or teachers motivated him more than any finish line or prize check could.
"We didn't have any buses or cars so I ran everywhere," said Korir, who is one of eight children. "The teachers kept time and if you're not there on time you'll get punished so I ran so hard. I'm the kind of guy who woke up late and waited until 30 minutes before school started so I had to run fast to school every day. My mom knew I was a fast kid so she would always pick me to run to the market for soap or food and if I wasn't back on time my mom would punish me. I was always running away from punishment. That helped me a lot in my running, even though I never thought I was training at the time."
Korir's ability to run, and more importantly his aptitude for being on time, earned him a scholarship to Murray State in Kentucky and later allowed him to transfer to Louisville after one semester when Murray State dropped its men's track program. He is still coached by Ron Mann, the coach at Louisville and the U.S. Olympic middle-distance coach at the 2008 Olympics.
"I told him to stay in the moment and enjoy it because he has a God-given gift," said Mann after the race. "Too many people don't enjoy what they do. This is truly just a race. Nobody is getting shot at. I didn't come out with him last year but I felt it was important to come this year to be a stabilizing factor [because it was his honeymoon]. As it worked out he had it under control. I certainly don't think I could have handled a marathon on my honeymoon."
As storybook as Korir's life might feel now, he admits he wasn't even sure he'd be alive less than three years ago. During a trip back to Kenya around Christmas in 2007 to renew his visa, Korir went to the city of Eldoret to finish some paperwork and participate in a running clinic. While he was there the city was in the midst of riots over controversial election results. Korir tried to find salvation inside his brother-in-law's house but was soon forced by machete-wielding members of his tribe to join the riots and was handed nothing more than two stones to protect himself as he took to the streets for a cause he knew nothing about.
For the first time in his life, Korir, who had always loved to run, was now forced to run, walk and march for his life. Korir saw his tribe burn down the home of an elderly woman who lived next to his brother-in-law and saw his friend Lucas Sang, who was on Kenya's eighth-place 1,600-meter relay team in the 1988 Summer Olympics, killed and burned when they were ambushed by another tribe.
Korir finally escaped when he ran and disappeared into the smoke of a burning church and hid in nearby cornfields. Korir doesn't remember how long it took him to navigate his way to Uganda, where he eventually got his visa and returned to Louisville, which he calls home now.
When he returned from Kenya Mann persuaded Korir to enter the Chicago Marathon. Mann believed Korir was a born marathon runner but Korir wasn't so sure until he actually began running the race and broke away from the pack, which was five minutes behind the 20 elite runners who were supposed to be out of the eyesight of your average runners.
Korir, of course, is far from your average runner. He would pass 15 of the 20 elite runners and finished fourth overall by adjusted time. Korir, however, was not allowed to collect the $15,000 he earned because only the elite runners were eligible for the prize money. It would be the last time Korir and "elite runner" would not be in the same sentence.
He shocked himself and the field when he won the Los Angeles Marathon last year in a record time of 2:08:24 and took home a prize worth $188,705. This year his time (2:09:19) and prize ($43,100) weren't quite the same but crossing the finish line and seeing his wife, Tarah, made the victory even sweeter.
"As soon as I crossed the finish line the first person I saw was my wife and it was so amazing," said Korir whose parents watched him race for the first time on the Internet in Louisville after flying there for his wedding. "Crossing the finish line was so emotional for me because I knew my wife was there and I knew my parents were watching. It was more than an ordinary race. Last year I was surprised but this year I was overwhelmed with emotion because I knew what it meant and having my wife there to give me a hug and a kiss was amazing. I can't even begin to imagine what my mom was thinking watching her son for the first time crossing the finish line to win. It's overwhelming."
Korir broke away from a five-runner pack in the 24th mile after taking the lead in the second mile and always remaining within a couple lengths of whoever momentarily took the lead. On San Vincente, between 14th Street and Ocean Avenue, Korir separated himself from fellow Kenyans Richard Limo and Paul Samoei, who would finish in second and third place respectively about 30 seconds behind Korir.
"Nobody wanted to push the pace," Korir said. "It became more tactical than normal. I was trying to push but it hit the point where I was going to pay for it if I continued because these guys weren't breaking. So it became more tactical and planning for the win than straight forward running. I was pushing and slowing down and then I made the decisive move at the end."
Despite winning over $200,000 the past two years and becoming a back-to-back Los Angeles Marathon winner, Korir said his life hasn't changed much and he doesn't expect it too. He still went to Subway before the race and ordered two 6-inch tuna sandwiches, one for his pre-race meal and one for his post-race meal. Korir had to do without his post-race sub last year after giving his other sandwich to a homeless man he saw on the street.
"I work in a homeless shelter after work and on weekends," said Korir, who stayed at the modest Travel Lodge on Pico while other runners stayed at the Wilshire Grand this week. "I have a lot of homeless friends and they never know who I am. One day I went to a homeless shelter and was sitting and talking with them and the man who runs the homeless shelter came up to me asked if I needed a jacket or needed something to eat because he thought I was homeless."
Life will once again go back to normal for Korir next week when he returns to Louisville and continues his day job as a maintenance man at Kurz Hall, a student residence at the University of Louisville. He fixes toilets, repairs air conditioning units and makes broken light fixtures look like new again. Korir, who graduated from Louisville with a degree in biology pre-med in 2008, can also pinch hit as a tutor while he repairs your leaky faucet.
"Sometimes when I go to a room and see a kid having problem with math or biology, I'll give them an answer and they can't believe it," said Korir, who had to request time off for the race from his boss. "They look at me and say, 'You are plunging a toilet and now you're helping me with chemistry?' It's amazing to help these kids do something they don't know how to do. It's the best feeling."
That feeling combined with his humble upbringing is why Korir doesn't mind plunging toilets in college dorm rooms and helping kids with their homework despite being one of the best marathon runners in the world.
"That's the way I am, I'm just going to go back to work and be myself," he said. "I really enjoy going back there and working with the students and sharing stories with them."
When it comes to stories, much like marathons, it's hard to keep up with Korir.Arash Markazi is a columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.