The Accidental Runner: Sam Chelanga’s Amazing Journey From Poverty In Rural Kenya To American Citizen And US Olympic Favorite
By Jonathan Gault
August 19, 2015
Sam Chelanga was supposed to be in the slow heat.
At least that was he tried to convince his coach, Brant Tolsma, in the days leading up to the 2010 Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Stanford. A month before the race, Tolsma was sitting at his desk when he received a call from Alberto Salazar. Salazar’s star pupil, Galen Rupp, was trying to break Meb Keflezighi‘s American 10,000-meter record of 27:13.98. A year earlier, Chelanga had helped push Rupp to an American record at 5,000 meters indoors, and Salazar thought the junior at Liberty University could do the same outdoors.
A plan was hatched: Salazar would fly Tolsma and Chelanga out to Eugene, where they would attempt the record on April 30 at Hayward Field. If the conditions were bad, they’d fly to Stanford instead and run at Payton Jordan the next day (this is what wound up happening). Salazar had already enlisted two pacers, one to take the first two miles and one to take Rupp through 5k in 13:35. Never one to leave anything to chance, Salazar asked Chelanga to drive the pace once the second pacer dropped out to give Rupp the best possible shot at the record. Chelanga agreed.
There was only one problem. A couple of weeks later, Chelanga developed a calf injury which severely limited his training. A week before the race, Tolsma called Salazar back and explained that Chelanga wouldn’t be able to help in the record attempt. Chelanga had failed to top 60 miles in any of the three previous weeks and hadn’t run a workout in almost a month.
But after that phone call, Chelanga’s calf began to feel better. He ran 5 x mile and averaged 4:35. A few days before the race, Tolsma put Chelanga through a session of 12 x 400, starting at 65 seconds and finishing at 59. They decided that Chelanga should still travel out west. He needed a qualifier for the NCAA regional meet and this was his last chance to hit one.
All week, Chelanga pleaded with his coach to enter him in the slower heat. But after Chelanga saw the entry list the day before the meet, he figured there would be a couple of guys in the fast section that would run conservatively toward the back. His plan was to stick with them and grab an NCAA qualifier.
Then Chelanga warmed up. He felt the best he had in weeks. When the race started, he went out with the leaders, trailing Rupp and Kenya’s Daniel Salel. By the time he made it to 5k in 13:34, it was clear Chelanga was in the midst of a special race.
“I didn’t hear the first mile [split], but I heard the guy who was pacing was being told to pick it up,” Chelanga said. “I’m pretty sure I heard a 64 somewhere, mile three or something. And I said, ‘That does not feel like 64; that feels like 68.'”
Tolsma had watched Chelanga run the first mile at Pre-Nats in 4:16; he saw him set the course record at NCAA XC in Terre Haute. Yet even he couldn’t believe what he was witnessing at Payton Jordan. When it was over, Chelanga had beaten Rupp and smashed his old collegiate record by over 20 seconds, running 27:08.39. Though Chris Solinsky‘s 26:59 stole the headlines, Chelanga’s performance resonated with his coach.
“If you would have told me he was going to run something :08, I would have guessed 29:08, maybe 28:08. It was the most amazing race I ever saw,” said Tolsma, who is now entering his 30th season as head coach at Liberty.
Yet to hear the man himself tell it, you’d think he’s talking about a six-mile tempo, not one of the greatest performances in collegiate history.
“It was 27:08 and it was good,” Chelanga said. “And quite honestly when I look back at some of my races, I really think I snooze too much. I didn’t I consciously enjoy them that much…I worked really hard. But a few days later, life goes on. It’s like yesterday, I’m on cloud nine, becoming an American. Today, life continues.”
Last Friday in Tucson, Ariz., Chelanga officially became a United States citizen, the culmination of a five-year process that at times seemed never-ending. On Sunday, as he prepared to race for the first time as an American at the Falmouth Road Race, Chelanga stood near the elite athlete tent listening to The Star-Spangled Banner next to fellow Americans Meb Keflezighi and Chris Derrick. Forty-five minutes later, he had beaten Keflezighi, Derrick and every other domestic runner to finish as the top American at Falmouth, covering the seven-mile course in 32:31.
Yet, to focus on Sam Chelanga the runner is to miss the point. Yes, Chelanga, 30, runs. That’s what Nike pays him to do and that’s what allows him to support his wife Marybeth and their two-year-old son Micah. But he doesn’t spend hours obsessing over training questions — one of the reasons he moved to Tucson to train with coach James Li is that Li keeps things simple rather than drilling a specific training philosophy into his runners.
“I would ask Sam, ‘How much time do you spend thinking about running?'” Tolsma said. “And he said, ‘Well, when I’m running I think about it.'”
Chelanga is grateful to the sport for the opportunities it has presented him, but you won’t hear stories of him watching the Olympics as a child and aspiring to greatness. Perhaps that’s because, for a long time, the last thing Chelanga wanted to be was a runner.
Chelanga grew up as the 10th of 11 children in the small Kenyan village of Kabarsel in Baringo County at the northern end of the Rift Valley. He doesn’t know his exact birthday. He and his brother settled on February 25, 1985, when he was considering joining the Kenyan Air Force, but he could easily be a few years younger — Chelanga simply told government officials a date that would allow him to meet the Air Force’s age requirement (one must be 18 to join).
His family had very little growing up. Most of his siblings were much older and had moved out by the time Sam was born, but he still shared his home with five other people, including some nephews. His house consisted of two small rooms surrounded by wooden walls, with an iron sheet on top for a roof. The floor was dirt. Basic utilities, like running water and electricity, didn’t exist in Chelanga’s village. The Chelangas grew much of their own food; Sam’s diet consisted mainly of ugali, the cornmeal dish that is common in Kenya. Every Friday, his mom would travel to the market to sell vegetables and milk; whatever money she earned went towards buying meat for the family.
The biggest problem was not food, however, but water. Most of the drinking water in Chelanga’s village came from underground springs. Properly filtered, the water is safe to drink — but there were no filters when Chelanga grew up. Instead, the village’s drinking water became a transport system for bacteria.
Because Chelanga’s village was so isolated, getting anyone to the nearest hospital was an issue. Without medical attention, standard infections and treatable diseases quickly spread through the water and often snowballed into life-threatening conditions. Any time a car passed through Kabarsel, the villagers would overwhelm the driver with requests to be driven to the hospital. Even then, it was often too late for the villagers to receive proper treatment.
“Some people were so sick they couldn’t even walk to the hospital,” Chelanga explained. Those people, Chelanga’s neighbors and friends, were left to die in the village.
Chelanga knows firsthand what it is to experience profound loss. When he was young, his mother, Ann, became very ill and passed away. Could proper medical attention have saved her life? Chelanga was too young to say for sure. But he’ll never forget the feeling of helplessness.
“I remember thinking, “Wow, I wish I could do something to change that,'” Chelanga said. “What’s tough is I’ve seen the same thing happen to other people…In other countries [like Kenya], when you’re poor, people really don’t look at you at all.
“The breaking point for me was when ultimately somebody dies and you feel like something could have been done.”
From that point on, Chelanga vowed that he would become an agent of change.
“That motivated me to push myself and never give up until one day I can look back and take my brother and sister or neighbors to hospital and not worry how much it will cost.
“People will totally ignore people [in Kenya] because they’re poor. [I wanted] to give these people a voice.”
To save his village, Chelanga first had to leave it behind. He dreamed of becoming a lawyer, someone who could deliver social justice for the poor. But to do that he needed a college education, and he couldn’t find that in Kabarsel.
Sam’s brother, Joshua, was a professional runner, placing third in the 2001 Boston Marathon and running a PB of 2:07:05 in Berlin in 2004. Joshua trained with the legendary Paul Tergat in the Ngong Hills on the outskirts of Nairobi.
When Sam was in high school, Tergat would sometimes stop by as Sam tended to the animals on his family’s farm. Tergat would give him 1,000 shillings (roughly $10) in pocket money and ask what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was always impressed when Sam responded, “lawyer.”
Eventually, Sam decided to move in with Joshua. He and Tergat, the world record holder at the time in the marathon, asked Sam to help out with their training. He jumped at the chance.
“Paul Tergat would give me the keys to his big Land Cruiser,” Chelanga said. “He would never let anyone [else] drive but he said, ‘Hey Sam, come drive my truck.’”
Sam would chauffeur the runners in Tergat’s group, supply them with water on runs and perform other tasks. He loved it.
“Wouldn’t you want to help someone like Meb do his training?” Chelanga said.
But rubbing shoulders with running royalty wasn’t bringing Chelanga any closer to his goal of an education. He continued to study, but to attend college — either in Kenya or abroad — he needed money. And Chelanga wasn’t making enough as an errand-boy/part-time farmer to make that happen.
Chelanga was running out of options. He decided to approach Tergat for a loan. Tergat was named Ambassador Against Hunger for the UN World Food Programme in 2004 and the next year established the Paul Tergat Foundation, geared toward helping disadvantaged Kenyan athletes. Chelanga thought if anyone could help him, it was Tergat.
“He said he supported so many people [already] he couldn’t do [the loan], it just didn’t make sense,” Chelanga recalled.
But Tergat still wanted to help Chelanga, and he had a question for him.
“Do you run?”
“No,” Chelanga replied. “I’ve tried. I don’t like running.”
“Then we have to train.”
Tergat explained that he had a brother who had earned a running scholarship to attend college in the United States. If Chelanga was willing to train, perhaps he could do the same.
“I was shocked when he said run,” Chelanga said. “I went home and I had made up my mind. This dream of helping people, trying to get a higher education, it’s too much. It’s hurting me. I’m going back to the village with my dad. Take care of him, live on a small one-acre land and just farm. I was pretty good at farming. Maybe I wasn’t meant to go that far.”
The next day, Sam planned to go to Joshua and tell him he was returning home to Kabarsel. Then he recalled a phone conversation he had had with his sister, Winnie, earlier that week. Sam had been telling Winnie that he was worried things might not work out for him, that he might have to return to the village soon. Her words had stuck with him.
“You are the only person that’s ambitious and smart enough in our family that you change things,” she told him. “I don’t know anyone else who’s capable of doing it. Look at the neighbors. Look at your dad. Look at me.”
Could she be right?, Chelanga thought to himself.
He never spoke to his brother that day. Instead, he called Tergat and said he was in — he would try to become a runner.
The next day, they met at Tergat’s house. Chelanga explained that he would give running a try but that he wasn’t confident it would work out. What would happen if he failed?
Tergat reminded Chelanga of the times he visited him on his farm growing up.
“I’m here, I’m not going anywhere,” Tergat told him. “We’ll figure out something if things don’t work.”
That evening, Chelanga joined Tergat’s group for a five-mile run. He completed it easily.
The next few months were anything but easy. There are stories of Kenyans coming to the sport and immediately finding success. That was not the case for Sam Chelanga. Twenty years old at the time, he had no running experience and it showed. Chelanga would become so exhausted that he had to stop on runs to walk. In those moments, he’d question himself. What am I doing? Did I make a huge mistake?
But Tergat was always there for him.
“Don’t give up, this thing takes a while,” he’d tell Chelanga, handing him a couple thousand shillings to buy bread.
Every day, Chelanga would set out to run with Tergat’s group. And every day, they’d drop him in the first mile. Still, Tergat kept on him, telling him to finish every run, no matter how long it took.
Weeks passed this way, but Chelanga adhered to Tergat’s advice. He finished every run. Until one day, he caught a glimpse of a figure on the road ahead.
Is that guy in our group?
Chelanga caught the runner, but they didn’t run together at first. The other runner began to accelerate — what ignominy awaited him if he couldn’t even beat the new guy? Chelanga didn’t give in and finished the run with him.
Chelanga kept logging mileage, making sure to finish every run, and eventually began running with lots of different people. Instead of lasting two minutes with the lead group, Chelanga could hang on for 10 minutes before getting dropped, then 15, then 20. He started picking more runners off at the end of runs, joking that anyone he beat might as well go become a farmer like him.
By the summer of 2006, Chelanga had progressed enough to seek a scholarship to the U.S. Though he had barely raced — a 30:33 10k at a low-key race in Kenya merely hinted at the potential that lay within him — he was getting antsy. After all, he wasn’t running to improve his fitness — he was running to get an education.
Getting to the United States was a battle in and of itself. Tergat tirelessly worked the phones. He spoke to the coaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, where his brother, Francis Kipkuna, had run, convincing them to take a chance on Chelanga. And he spent long hours pulling strings at the U.S. embassy to procure a visa.
“I’ve never seen one person work to help someone so much,” Chelanga said. “That guy, Paul Tergat, went all-out for me. I don’t even know how to thank him.”
Finally, Chelanga heard the good news: he’d been accepted at FDU. On September 5, 2006, he boarded a flight to America to begin a new life.
Four days after he arrived in the United States, Chelanga won his first race, the Fordham Dual, by 42 seconds, running 25:13 for 8K at Van Cortlandt Park. Three weeks later, Chelanga returned to VCP and ran 24:01 to win the Iona Meet of Champions. He dominated the rest of the fall until the NCAA Championships. Running on an extremely muddy Terre Haute course, Chelanga led the field through the halfway mark in 15:18 but faded over the second half of the race, finishing in 16th place. For someone who grew up disliking the sport, Chelanga sure was good at it.
Yet as Chelanga was winning races, he was losing himself. Fellow students came to know him as that fast Kenyan on the cross country team. Friends and teammates would constantly remind him how fast he was. Chelanga, never one to seek the spotlight, rarely gave much thought to his races once they were over; why did everybody else?
Though Chelanga wasn’t a big drinker, he liked to party after races; he began living in the moment instead of working toward his long-term goals. Chelanga was having fun, but he hadn’t come to America to have fun; he’d come to improve the world.
“I had to look back and say, ‘Who am I? What am I doing here?'” Chelanga recalled. “I need[ed] to get back to my roots.”
His family was 7,000 miles away. Flying them over was not an option. Neither was flying back. So Chelanga thought back to his upbringing and the Christian values his father, Haron, had instilled in him. And suddenly became obvious: Chelanga had to reconnect with his faith.
His freshman spring, at 2007 IC4A Championships, Chelanga was talking to Josh McDougal, a junior at Liberty University, a Christian school located in Lynchburg, Va., founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell. Chelanga needed a qualifying time for the NCAA regional meet and asked McDougal what his plan was for the 5,000.
“Just stay behind me and I’ll take you to the time,” McDougal told him.
After Chelanga hit the standard (he ran 14:02 for 2nd, two seconds behind McDougal), the two runners got to talking. Chelanga explained his situation at FDU and how he was looking to transfer to a place where he could stay grounded and establish a deeper relationship with God. McDougal said he could stop looking — Liberty offered all of that.
McDougal’s success on the track and his glowing review of the school’s deep religious connection convinced Chelanga that Liberty was the right place for him. Now Chelanga had to perform a much tougher sales job on Tergat and the FDU coaching staff.
When Chelanga first told him of his desire to transfer, Tergat was incredulous. All the work he had put in to get Chelanga to FDU and he wanted to leave after one year? Chelanga pleaded with him.
“If everything you did was to mean anything, I have to leave,” Chelanga said.
Tergat still disagreed, and said that if Chelanga went through with it, he was on his own from here on out. In his heart, Chelanga knew what he had to do, and he filed a transfer request.
“It was the first time I made a decision as an adult,” Chelanga said.
The saga wasn’t over. In order for Chelanga to compete the next year at Liberty, FDU had to sign his release. Otherwise, he would have to sit out the 2007-08 academic year from competition.
Chelanga emotionally plead his case with FDU athletic director.
“I said, ‘One day I’ll come back to the school and you’ll know that I became a better person,'” Chelanga said. “And he said, ‘No.’ I’ll never forget that. How can a man look at a young kid look at a kid like that and refuse him his dream just because of the fact that he says ‘I brought you to the U.S. and nobody can have you?'”
The AD refused to sign the release, but Chelanga transferred anyway. Now his faith would truly be tested.
Though Chelanga sat out his first year at Liberty, it immediately felt like home to him. He had great training partners in McDougal (who would win NCAA XC that fall) and David Cheromei (who had run 8:00 for 3,000) and because he wasn’t racing, his victories never overshadowed his personality.
Quiet at first, Chelanga gradually opened up and fully embraced the American lifestyle.
“With my brother going to Iona, I hung out with a couple of guys on their team from Kenya or Uganda,” said Dan Hibbs, Chelanga’s teammate (and roommate) at Liberty. “They kind of struck me as the prototypical foreigner. They ate Kenyan or Ugandan food, they spoke with a heavy accent, their English wasn’t very good.
“Sam was the complete opposite. He was the most Americanized Kenyan I ever met…He never struck me as a foreigner, he was just Sam.”
Chelanga wore Hollister clothing and listened to pop music. He embraced social media and never turned down a friend request on Facebook. On weekends, he and his teammates would travel up to Lake Hydaway or go off-roading on the trails around campus. He also made frequent trips to Moe’s Southwest Grill.
“I felt like there was always a bag of leftover Moe’s tortilla chips sitting on our counter or on the fridge,” Hibbs said.
Chelanga’s time at Liberty couldn’t have gone better. He met his wife, Marybeth, whom he would marry a few months after graduation, renewed his faith and graduated with a degree in government in 2011. Toward the end of his career, Chelanga became more willing to speak his mind and became role model for the team’s younger runners. He could generate a laugh every so often as well, displaying a keen sense of timing when it came time to make a joke.
And through it all, he maintained a cool, laid-back demeanor that made him one of the most well-liked members of the team. Hibbs can only recall one instance where Chelanga became heated.
“We always did this one workout on this road called Tobacco Row just outside of Lynchburg,” Hibbs said. “It was pretty much a five-mile uphill run. We all met at the track building on campus before going out to the road. Sam shows up right when we’re getting ready to leave. He says ‘Dude, wait for me man, I’m going to Sonic to get a slushie.'”
It was a hot day and most of the guys on the team just wanted to get the workout over with. They decided to leave Chelanga behind.
Chelanga was not happy about this, and his retribution was swift.
He drove to Tobacco Row and saw his teammates just finishing their warmup. Furious, Chelanga eschewed any warmup of his own, and after spotting his teammates a mile, tore off after them, storming by with two miles to go.
“Righteous anger is the best way I can describe it,” Hibbs said.
Of course, Chelanga also put together a terrific running career at Liberty. He destroyed course records left and right and won four NCAA titles, including a memorable front-running 5,000-meter victory at his final race at NCAAs in 2011. But outside of practice, running rarely crossed Chelanga’s mind.
“The thing that always struck me about Sam was that he obviously wanted to win, but he didn’t put much thought into the recognition that came with winning national titles,” Hibbs said. “His trophies were stacked in the corner of his room; I don’t think he gave them a second thought.”
Chelanga’s original plan was to return to Kenya after he graduated in 2011. He after all had come for an education and received that at Liberty. But Chelanga had grown to love the United States. He had a comfortable life, a loving wife and a list of suitors lining up offering to pay him to run. This is not something Chelanga had anticipated when he was routinely getting dropped by Paul Tergat in the Ngong Hills. The opportunity to stay in the United States was too great to pass up.
“It just felt like when I was in America, everything clicked,” Chelanga said.
If he was to stay in the U.S., however, Chelanga knew that he had to become a citizen. Beyond Tergat and his brother, both of whom had retired by the time he graduated, Chelanga felt little connection to Kenyan runners. And when he compared himself to them, he realized he had a lot more in common with American rivals like Galen Rupp or Chris Derrick. Those were the guys he raced against all the time at NCAAs. Those were the guys he should be competing with for an Olympic spot.
First, however, he had to win over his dad.
“My dad looked at me and said, ‘If you really like that place and you seem happy…’ and asked me if I was going to run in the Olympics,” Chelanga said. “I had this chance in America and if I said if he really wanted me to run in the Olympics, I wanted to represent the country that gave me a chance.
“He said, ‘You know what, I totally support you. You seem like you really like it.’ That’s when I decided that this was definitely the best decision I could make.”
Many Kenyan athletes who come through the NCAA system never become citizens. Others who want to compete for the U.S. will often try to fast-track their applications by joining the armed forces. Chelanga opted to go the naturalization route. Marybeth was never big on the army, anyway. He never realized just how long the process would take, however, when he first applied in 2010.
“I realized there were rules meant to discourage you from doing anything,” Chelanga said. “Your [fate] is in the govermnent’s hands and you don’t have any contact with them unless they contact you. Not knowing killed sometimes.”
The last few years have been filled with uncertainty. Chelanga signed with Nike out of college and spent the next two years in Eugene running for the Oregon Track Club before moving to Hanover, N.H., in 2013 to train with Ben True under coach Mark Coogan. However Coogan’s departure to New Balance in 2014 meant that he could no longer coach Chelanga, and he relocated to Tucson this year to join Li’s group.
During that time, Chelanga had delivered some great performances (he ran a 61:04 half marathon in 2013 and 13:04 for 5,000 last year) but has also battled a recurring stress reaction brought on by bunions. He also existed in a sort of running purgatory. Without his citizenship, Chelanga couldn’t compete at the US Championships. But if Chelanga competed for Kenya internationally, he would have to sit out a year before becoming eligible to represent the United States. He could do nothing but watch as the 2012 Olympics, and then the 2013 Worlds, came and went.
Finally, last Friday, Chelanga was officially sworn in as a citizen in Tucson in front of Marybeth, her father, Ron Carlson, and his son, Micah. And now that he’s healthy — he’s maxed out at 80 miles per week under Li and supplements that with cross-training, rather than pushing for more mileage — Chelanga feels confident he can contend for a spot on Team USA either at 10,000 meters or in the marathon (he and Li will make that decision some time this fall).
“It’s like I have a purpose now,” Chelanga said.
Just because Chelanga has new goals now doesn’t mean he’s forgotten about his old ones. He may not be a lawyer as he envisioned, but he’s been committed to providing help back home for those that need it most. There were many issues that needed to be addressed in his home village, but more than anything, Kabarsel needed clean drinking water. With that in place, Chelanga believed that preventable deaths would plummet. Initially, his plan was to dig a well, but the cost (over $100,000) wasn’t feasible. So he spoke to friends in the U.S. — how could he make the water in his village safe to drink?
Carlson came up with the idea to use water filters. They found a company, Sawyer, that sold filters for around $80 each. Chelanga spent the last few years raising money and covered the shipping and installation costs out of his own pocket. Now every family in the village has a filter — over 70 in all.
“Every time I call, they’re just saying, ‘We don’t know how we were getting along drinking this dirty water without a filter. The water is amazing,'” Chelanga said.
But Chelanga’s work is not done. Kabarsel remains extremely poor. And whenever he checks in with his friends and family back home, he hears pleas from neighboring villagers: we need filters too. Chelanga wants to help as many people as possible, but he and Marybeth don’t know quite how to proceed. The nearest school to the village needs proper latrines. Do they invest money in fixing the latrines? Keep buying filters on their own? Start a charitable foundation?
Whatever Chelanga decides, he won’t abandon Kenya’s rural poor. Even though he’s made a new life for himself in America, he cannot forget how he felt when his mother died — that someone could have done more. It’s what launched his journey all those years ago and what keeps him going to this day. Nobody in Kabarsel should have to feel that way. And if Chelanga is successful, no one ever will.
Editor’s note: If you are wondering if Chelanga ran to school every day, he did not. Jonathan asked him and Chelanga said his high school was three miles away and he’d walk there.