Meet Kenyan runners Henry Wanyoike and Joseph Kibunja at the Folklife Festival


Henry Wanyoike, right, is blind, but he’s able to run thanks to a piece of string and his track guide, Joseph Kibunja, left. (Teddy Wolff/For Express)

On the back of Jim Kaufman’s car is a bumper sticker that reads: “In my dreams, I am a Kenyan.” So the 42-year-old marathoner from Silver Spring didn’t head to the National Mall on Friday just to go for a jog. He went to live out his fantasy.

“I’m excited. And a little scared,” Kaufman admitted as he stood by the “Kenya: Mambo Poa” section of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (festival.si.edu). The performances, concerts and demos wouldn’t start until later that morning. But he’d shown up promptly at 10:30 a.m. for a “fun run” led by Henry Wanyoike and Joseph Kibunja, the pair of Kenyan athletes at the festival representing their country’s most celebrated sport.

Wanyoike and Kibunja are sharing their stories throughout the festival — which picks up again on Wednesday and concludes Sunday — at scheduled talks. To really introduce themselves and explain what they do, the two are also inviting people to brave D.C.’s heat and humidity for daily, on-the-go running sessions that are customized for whoever shows up.

“We run at their speed to motivate them,” says Wanyoike, who is happy to answer every question thrown at him, whether it’s about his training strategies, his choice of footwear or what it’s like to run blind.

Kenya has produced an endless list of running champions, but Wanyoike stands out: He lost his vision overnight after suffering a stroke in 1995 at the age of 20. He’d been a runner since childhood, when he had to dash 3 miles barefoot each way to school, and went on to win local competitions. After the stroke, however, Wanyoike abandoned his athletic ambitions.

Three years later, a rehabilitation center introduced him to the idea of running with a sighted partner, and Wanyoike began to get back on track. He persuaded his longtime pal Kibunja to serve as his guide, and the two started to learn how to train while holding a short string between them and to communicate even when out of breath.

Kibunja, who wasn’t a runner, worried he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demands of the job: “If I’m not comfortable, I can’t guide.”

But their teamwork paid off. Soon, they were bringing home gold medals from the Paralympics and championships all over the world with their impressive times — close to 15 minutes in the 5,000 meter, 30 minutes in the 10,000 meter and 2½ hours in the marathon.

That’s even speedier than it sounds, Wanyoike notes, because they have to slow down at turns and water stops so they don’t crash and fall down, and overtaking other runners is a much trickier proposition as a duo.

They motivate each other to meet up at 6 a.m. every day for practice in their hometown in Kenya 20 kilometers from Nairobi and 2,000 meters above sea level. Depending on which event they’re preparing for, they exercise as many as three times a day, not only running, but also lifting weights at the gym and cross-training. (“We use a tandem bicycle,” Wanyoike says.)

The rest of the time, they’re working through the Henry Wanyoike Foundation (henrywanyoikefoundation.org) to speak at schools to inspire a new generation of athletes and change perceptions of disability in Kenya.

“To help that community, we go the extra mile,” Kibunja says.

Hearing about all of these accomplishments was enough to help Kaufman go another mile as well — the fun run group he joined set out that morning on a 4-mile route, but decided to make it 5 instead.

“This is nothing for them. I don’t think Henry even broke a sweat,” Kaufman marveled. Reality turned out to be better than any dream.

Meanwhile…

China, the other country that’s being celebrated during the Folklife Festival, also has some health advice for visitors. The daily tai chi program offered in the “People’s Park” features a demonstration, and then turns into instruction — so you can see firsthand that moving your arms and breathing deeply can reduce stress levels.

 

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Vicky Hallett is a MisFit columnists and the Fit editor for Express.
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