Alice Kamunya finally has a firm toehold on her running career.
In large part, that means a pair of shoes without a hole in the toe.
The 23-year-old from Kenya has a bright smile and giggles frequently, like when she says she can win the Freihofer’s Run for Women next Saturday in Albany.
Not hang with the lead pack. Win.
I’ll believe that when I see it, since her countrywoman, Emily Chebet, and Ethiopian Mamitu Daska are entered. Among others. Those two have each won Freihofer’s twice in the last four years, with Chebet setting the course record of 15:12 in 2010.
Kamunya has every reason to take a sunny outlook to her burgeoning elite-caliber career, though. It has gotten much sunnier since she was picked to be part of a team of Kenyans who have been training at Mohonasen High School and on the hills of west Glenville since last fall.
If this sounds familiar, it is.
Tim Maggs, a long-time chiropractor in Scotia and Schenectady, is sponsoring another group of Kenyans as a means of promoting his sports biomechanics program through Concerned Parents of Young Athletes (CPOYA). In particular, he’s been making a push to get his structural management ideas incorporated into the routine preseason medical exams that high school athletes must pass.
His runners are carrying the banner for CPOYA while enjoying resources, training and competition that many of their fellow Kenyans might not ever see.
Among them is Kamunya, who, along with her CPOYA teammates, is building toward what they hope are spots on the 2016 Kenyan Olympic team.
“Since I came here — first off, let me appreciate my manager — I have been learning good, since last year,” she said, laughing while casting a glance toward Maggs on Thursday afternoon.
The team of eight was selected by John “Warm-up” Mwithiga, one of the coaches who has led Kenya to eight straight victories in the IAAF Cross Country World Championships.
Maggs has had connections with the Kenyans since 1993, when he formed Team Stick to promote a chiropractic device.
I covered Team Stick runner John Kagwe when he was 16th in the Boston Marathon, dismayed to finish one spot out of the prize money that would have bought a cow for his family back home. Things worked out for him; he went on to win the New York City Marathon twice.
But his story underlined a misperception about the
Kenyan distance running community that, because they send wave after wave of elite athletes into races around the world, that must mean that everyone in Kenya has an equal opportunity to fulfill their potential.
Alice Kamunya was an example.
“The week after they got here, they went over to the Scotia track . . . Paul [Mbugua], the coach, brought them to my house and I look down and Alice has shoes on with her toe sticking out of her shoe,” Maggs said. “I was in shock, because you don’t see that here. Come to find out, she’d never had a new pair of shoes.”
“I had them about two years,” Kamunya said.
Maggs asked another CPOYA runner, Benard Mwangi, what his shoe situation was, and Mwangi invoked an obscure supplier named “Nike,” which he pronounced in one syllable, like “Mike”.
“He said, ‘A friend of mine ran for the Olympics, and a shoe company called Nike gave him some, and he gave me a pair,’ ” Maggs said.
Mbugua was a runner on Team Stick before leaving Maggs to serve as his own agent in the U.S. He’s back with Maggs as a liaison for the CPOYA team and draws up their training and race schedules. Maggs, Mbugua and Mwithiga opened an Olympic training center in Nairobi in 2012, and the runners came to Schenectady last fall for some racing before wintering in Kenya.
In November, Kamunya won the HCA Richmond 8k in a course-record 24:53, and followed it with a win in the 77th annual Manchester (Conn.) Road Race in 25:07 for 4.75 miles.
In March, she was second in the Shamrock 8k in Virginia and second in the Holyoke (Mass.) 10k before her first foray past 10k with a ninth-place finish (41:06) in the 12k Lilac Bloomsday Run in Seattle three weeks ago.
Mwangi is scheduled to race the Run Westfield 5k in Massachusetts today.
“Since I have gotten a good chance to train, I am healthy, there is somebody who is looking out for me,” he said. “Now, we’re going to big races and winning. They can know who is Benard, who is Alice . . .”
“There are many great runners that never leave Kenya,” Maggs said. “Obviously, the advantage for them is they’ve got a cruise liner bringing them to the U.S., they’re not standing there in this crowd begging, so it’s a great opportunity for them.”
The CPOYA team lives in the Bellevue neighborhood when they’re not in other parts of the country.
If you happen to see these spindly runners training around Schenectady County, that could be a future Olympian.
But at least they’re getting a better chance to find that out.
The team took a run through the Freihofer’s course in Albany last week, and Alice Kamunya rated the rolling hills through Washington Park “not too bad.”
“I try my best. I know I can win,” she said.
Punctuated, of course, with a laugh.