NAIROBI, October 18 – It is often said that obstacles are opportunities in disguise. This saying can suitably sum up Kenya’s evergreen female distance runner Edith Chewangel Masai.
At 41, when the spikes of most athletes are wearing out in retirement, Masai who etched her name in history as the three-time World Cross short course champion is still one of the most formidable distance athletes.
“I am not even thinking of retirement. I will consider that when I reach 45 because I still believe I can still compete against the best,” Masai said as she eased into a comfortable sofa in her Kibomett residence, 5km from Kitale town.
She had just finished her morning run as she prepares to represent her country at the Singapore leg of the Greatest Race on Earth (Groe) series that is part of the four Stanchart sponsored relay marathons on December 7.
“God has given me a fruitful career and as long as I have the strength, I will never stop running because it’s in my blood,” the senior sergeant at Kenya Prisons added.
Decorated on the track and road, Masai can be regarded as one of the finest female runners Kenya has ever produced.
However, her greatest achievement will arguably be the inspiration she has given an entire generation of female athletes from the strife torn Mt Elgon District.
The region gained international notoriety when the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) militia, formed to agitate for land rights of the Sabaot community in 2002, went on rampage in a reign of terror that claimed over 600 lives and displaced 200,000 between 2006 and this year.
But as the bloody conflict that saw the Army deployed to crush the insurgency in March went on, Mount Elgon was also gaining prominence as a catchment area of quality distance runners.
And Masai, the pioneer female athlete of repute from the mountainous region, ignited interest in the sport among young girls in the area.
“I talk to them encouraging them to take up athletics and motivate those who have started. I do the same for boys too,” the affable runner explains.
She added: “This is because when I began my career, I was the only female runner from Mt Elgon. Now I am happy that I have company.”
The World junior 10,000m record holder and Olympic fourth finisher, Linet Masai, the 2002 Commonwealth 5,000m bronze medallist, Ines Chenonges and Doris Changeiwyo (fourth at the World Cross senior race) are some of the potent female distance runners from Mt Elgon who have followed in the veteran’s footprints.
“In Manchester, I kept talking to Chenonges and urging her not to allow anyone to come between her and myself. At times, I could slow down to allow her catch up.”
That was Masai describing the race where she won Commonwealth silver with Chenonges coming in for bronze. It was the first time for female athletes from Mt Elgon to share an international podium.
“One day, I was training at Nyayo and heard an athlete named Moses Masai. I immediately put on a cap and joined the group,” the diminutive runner explains.
“The coaches did not realise I was not a boy and when I caught up with him, I urged him to go and bring the gold. Surprised to find a woman running step to step with him, he assured me he would do it.”
Moses went on to win the double (5,000 and 10,000) at the Africa Junior Championships in Tunis. He finished fourth in the 10,000 race at the Beijing Olympics.
Although she sowed the seeds of learning while still at primary school Masai’s career took off late after she divorced her husband in 1999 aged 34.
“My school, Chepkoya Primary (in Kapsakwony) was 8km away from home. Over the weekend, I used to tend our cattle with a male friend where we would run after them in the forest.”
Masai also found herself running errands for her mothers (she hails from a polygamous family of four wives) at the Kaptalelio Market, 12km away.
“My grandmother would threaten to spit on a leaf so that I don’t grow if I failed to run to the shopping centre for things like salt. That put fear in me and I would rush like wind.”
At Chepkoya, she found the running track reserved for boys and in anger, she and her herds boy friend went to the forest and fashioned their own track by clearing undergrowth and marking the lanes with a Panga (machete).
“I was attracted to the boys running on the school track marked and I decided to join them when I got to standard four but teachers refused to allow me.”
“At the forest, my friend would start at one end and I on the other to see who would get to the middle point first. Many times the cows strayed to other people’s farms meaning that I would be in trouble,” she adds.
As the younger Masai improved, she started competing and beating older girls at the school triangular championships where she would bring home an assortment of prizes including blankets, cups and Sufurias (sauce pans).
She discontinued her education in her second year at Kibuk Secondary School owing to lack of school fees as penury bit her family.
In 1988, Masai was recruited into Kenya Prisons and began admiring the achievements of former World marathon record holder, Tegla Loroupe and Kenya’s first Olympic medallist, Pauline Konga (silver, 5,000m 1996).
“They made me want to take running seriously and when things did not work with Mzee (husband), I started training seriously.”
According to the IAAF’s website, Prisons colleague Jacob Losian persuaded fledgling manager Dorothee Paulmann to give Masai a chance.
She arrived in Germany at end of August, 2000 and ran 11 road races in three months, consistently placing well and made her international breakthrough the next year when she won World Cross bronze in Ostend, Belgium.
Before the Beijing Olympics, Masai had been asked by national coach, Julius Kirwa, to train for marathon team but officials overlooked her in favour of Prison’s colleague, Catherine Ndereba, Martha Komu and Salina Kosgei.
“I devoted so much energy but they tried to ask me to run in the 10,000m instead but I declined. Perhaps, if I had made my marathon debut much earlier, I would have made myself good money but I delayed that to run for Kenya.”
Her last assignment in the national strip yielded silver (10,000m) at the All Africa Games in Algiers last year.
“Yes, it is true I had requested her to train for the marathon in Beijing because I felt she would have helped our push for gold,” Kirwa admitted.
“But some other officials felt otherwise, insisting we get younger athletes for the marathon and I had to comply.”
Masai swallowed her disappointment to accept a place in the Groe team and run at the event she finished second last year to aid the Kenyan team win the overall title.
Her Kibomett residence sits on ten acres where she is establishing a zero grazing farm. Masai owns four other farms spread over Mt Elgon, Laikipia and Kitale.
“I bought this place to give my mother comfort and she takes care of it when I go for my duties.”
AT A GLANCE
D.O.B: April 4, 1967
P.O.B: Chepkoya, near Kapsakwony, Mt Elgon
FAMILY: Single mother of one, Griffin Sakit (born 1990)
2002 to 2004: World Cross women’s short course champion
2003: Saint Denis World Championships 5,000m bronze winner
2003: Gold 3,000m World Athletics Final
2005: Commonwealth 5,000m silver medallist
2006: African 10,000m champion
2007: All Africa Games 10,000m silver medallist