Chicago's Kenyans, Ethiopians celebrate ties to elite marathoners

East Africans living in Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park and Hyde Park have some ideas about why their countrymen and women win marathons.

Many of them grew up in Kenya and Ethiopia and will be cheering, waving flags and hosting dinners for their compatriots in Sunday's Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

Long distance running is in “our heritage and our daily lifestyle as well as our educational curriculum,” says Symon Ogeto, of Hyde Park, a local Kenyan community leader and senior marketing coordinator at the University of Chicago's International House.

He says Kenyan children play soccer, run cross country and often trek barefoot several miles to and from school over rough dirt roads. 

Kenyans have won the Chicago marathon 11 times since 1998. No other country brings as many runners to this year’s elite field, with 10 performances faster than 2:10. Only Japan’s Arata Fujiwara can travel in the same pack.

In the women's race, Berhane Adere of Ethiopia triumphed for the past two years and could do it again.

Ogeto traces the roots of Kenya's international running success to 1968.

Kip Keino was our first modern runner who did very well in the Olympics of 1968 in Mexico City, “ Ogeto says.

 “He made us feel that winning was the right thing to do. And the fact that we come from a high altitude environment really made it possible for us to get to be very good. In recent times, the incentive for money has also made it even a little more competitive.”

An estimated 5,000 Kenyans live in the Chicago area, dispersed across various neighborhoods, according to an article Ogeto co-authored in the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

In 1998 Ogeto began organizing his Chicago area compatriots to show appreciation for the elite Kenyan runners.

A group of about 50 to 100 Kenyans gradually formed to applaud their countrymen and women during the marathon.  They also host dinners for the runners, with home-cooked Kenyan foods, in private homes.

Jacob Sitati, 30, of Rogers Park, is a native Kenyan and a contractor for Allstate Insurance.  He plans to entertain Kenyan runners in a post-race party.

Sitati thinks a combination of factors explain why they win so many marathons.  “Number one is the training,” he says, the high daily mileage.

“Number two, we have to factor in the environment where these guys train in the highland areas of Kenya. I don’t like to get into the whole genetic component but I believe it also does play some role.”

Faith Chepkwony, 32, a healthcare worker from Oswego, is cooking and organizing a pre-race dinner for Kenya’s elite runners.  Ugali, a corn meal dish, is one of the foods she’ll serve, along with greens and a stew with either beef or chicken.

“Mostly they look for the ugali because it preserves their energy and keeps them going all through the run, “ Chepkwony said. “It’s an African cake, I would say.  They prefer to eat it when it’s hot.”

Kampen Egesa, 34, of Edgewater, co-owns the Kahawa House Coffee Lounge at 838 W. Montrose, and says ugali plays a role in helping marathoners.

“That’s the meal most marathon runners from Kenya would have the night before. That food holds you for a long time. It’s very rich in carbohydrate.”

Though Kahawa House Coffee Lounge serves AA Kenyan coffee and fusion panini sandwiches, ugali isn’t on the menu. Egesa says it might be in the future.

Egesa grew up in Kenya and trained for four years as a marathoner in a high school program there. He would routinely wake up at 5 a.m. and run about 15 miles, often barefoot on dirt roads, six days a week.

In 1992 in Kenya, he ran a marathon in 2:23:17, not quite fast enough to join a government-sponsored training program for runners. 

Today he runs for recreation in Lincoln Park and gives training tips to runners who stop by the café. He plans to watch the marathon either on television or along Broadway in Lakeview.

Ajay Ekesa, 32, of Edgewater, Kampen’s brother and co-owner of Kahawa, ran his finger down a printed list of runners in Chicago’s elite field.

“Most of these runners are from the Kalenjin Tribe from the Rift Valley,” he says, and that’s why they win.

Kalenjins, reputed to be Kenya’s fastest runners, train at altitudes between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, where the air has a reduced concentration of oxygen, which helps to develop a more efficient cardiovascular system.

Fast as the Kenyan marathoners are, Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie
owns the world record in the marathon, a stunning 2:03:59 set September 28 in Berlin. Gebrselassie is not competing in Sunday's marathon.

Dr. Erku Yimer, executive director of the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago in Uptown says he doesn't expect any of the Kenyans in Chicago’s marathon to break Gebrselassie’s mark: “I doubt it,” he says.

There are about 10,000 Ethiopians in the Chicago area, says Yimer. He and a group of compatriots will watch the race somewhere on the course and wave Ethiopian flags.

Csay Abebe, an Ethiopian and co-owner of the African Harambee Restaurant, at 7537 N. Clark St., says “When it comes to long distance we have a healthy rivalry between our neighbor Kenya and Ethiopia.” 

He also believes Gebrselassie’s record will hold for now. “You can’t rule (the Kenyans) out, but this is just an amazing record.”

Kulayifi Haji is a 15-year-old runner and student at Lane Tech High School.  He was born in Ethiopia but lived most of his life in Kenya until coming to Chicago in 2003.

Haji, a 4:32 miler and cross country runner with a 15:26 best for three miles, will be rooting for the Ethiopians Sunday. He and Lane Tech teammates will work at an aid station, passing out water and Gatorade.

Haji says Gebrselassie will likely hold his record for a while.

“He’s a legend. I don’t think anybody will be able to break his time easily. I don’t think they’re going to break it this year, anyway.”

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