Defending champion's victories have allowed him to escape the despair of poverty in his homeland and reunite a splintered family
The world's top Marathon Man is asked whether he senses a divine hand at work in all this. "The Almighty Father?" Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot asks, with his shy smile. "Always."
How else to explain how a man can come from destitution and desperation to wealth and fulfillment in less than a decade? Or how he can take a family that was scattered for years and bring it back together?
One inspired day in Boston four years ago made it possible. Cheruiyot was running with a pack of his Kenyan countrymen on a warm and windy afternoon, 15 miles into the Marathon, when he decided that the day was his. "OK, I will win this," he told himself, and loped away in the Newton hills.
The $80,000 paycheck might as well have been a billion-dollar lottery ticket. "When I got home, I bought a big farm with a plantation and a small house with electricity," says the 28-year-old Cheruiyot, who's back to defend his title in tomorrow's 111th running of the BAA Marathon. "And I brought my parents together. That was what I wanted."
That's what he'd never had, ever since his parents separated when he and his older brother Stephen Biwott were youngsters and literally left them on a doorstep.
"My father was working with a white settler who left him a big farm," Cheruiyot says. "He sold everything and went away. My mother became crazy and she went away. They left us on somebody's verandah."
Relatives would take them in; that was how it would be. "We had no questions," says Biwott, "because we were children." Biwott ended up with an uncle, Cheruiyot with his grandmother.
"Life was not good," Cheruiyot remembers. "We used to eat food once a day. In the morning we had tea and milk. There was no sugar, because there was no money. We had no lunch. For dinner, there was ugali [a maize mush] and milk. We had no meat, no vegetables."
Eventually, Cheruiyot went to live with his mother's cousin who'd promised to pay his school tuition, a steep $100 per term. In exchange, Cheruiyot became the family housemaid.
"I would wake up at 5 o'clock and go to the dairy to milk the cows," he says. "Then I would prepare breakfast for the children to go to school, take a shower and go to school myself at 7:30. Then I would come back and prepare lunch for the children. This was women's work, but it was what I must do to survive."
After eight years of what became indentured servitude, Cheruiyot was booted out to fend for himself. He ended up walking nearly 30 miles from his village of Mosoriot to Iten to see his brother, who had become a policeman and might be able to pay for tuition. "When you are employed in Kenya, there is no money," says the 33-year-old Biwott, who himself was scraping by on 2,400 shillings (less than $35) a month.
No place to live, nothing to eat, no money for school. For a while, Cheruiyot would say, the world was dark for him, dark enough for him to ponder leaving it.
"I was supposed to kill myself because life was very hard," he says. "I had never seen my mother, never seen my father. We were all living differently. I don't know what made me want to kill myself. I just wanted to do it."
Half of his pay went for food -- ugali and sukuma wiki, the "week-stretching" collard greens dish. Five shillings went for cigarettes, the one indulgence he thought helped keep him sane. The rest he saved -- just in case.
Since there was no money for rent, Cheruiyot made friends with the night watchmen at nearby shops who let him sleep on the verandah. "We would make stories," he says. "As long as I have cigarettes, I have no problem."
Finally, other relatives took him in as a surrogate son and he began training again -- he'd been a promising soccer player and distance runner in school. A driver for one of the local
The camp was run by Moses Tanui, the two-time Boston victor (1996, '98), who was a formidable presence on the premises. "Moses was very tough, like a president in those days," Cheruiyot says. "You didn't go say hello."
But when his coach, who thought Cheruiyot was eating more than he was running, wanted him out, Tanui decreed that he stay. There was promise in that lanky frame (6 feet 2 inches, 140 pounds), which Paul Tergat, the future world record-holder, noticed after their first run together, handing Cheruiyot his training shoes and urging him to apply himself.
When Cheruiyot won a local 10K, the modest purse was a jackpot for somebody who once had worn the same clothes for a year. "I used 50 shillings to feed myself," he recalls. "And then 1,000 to buy clothes."
The real payoff was a contract from FILA, which brought Cheruiyot to Italy in 2001 for an advanced apprenticeship. "Robert was very simple, very nice, very poor," says his agent, Federico Rosa. "But he showed always a big heart."
Cheruiyot also began showing results, and when he earned 3 million lire for one victory, he felt like a road racing Rockefeller. "A million, a million," he exulted.
The big money, he soon found, was in the marathon, and when he won Milan in 2002, the payoff was hefty enough for him to buy both a
"I was known because I won in Milan," he said that day after becoming the youngest Boston victor in nine years. "This makes my name bigger."
But not big enough to make the Olympic team for Athens, even though Cheruiyot had won on a similar course in Greek-style (70 degree) weather. Instead, the Kenyan federation named Tergat, Sammy Korir, and Eric Wainaina. It hadn't helped that Cheruiyot had run only 2:10:11 in Boston or that he'd missed three months of training with a leg injury.
He was not yet a professional marathoner, Cheruiyot conceded. He dropped out in the hills here in 2004, then finished 12th in Chicago that fall, fifth here in 2005, and fourth in New York.
But last year he came into full flower in Boston, sitting back because the early pace was unwisely fast, then busting countryman Benjamin Maiyo on Heartbreak Hill and going on to break Cosmas Ndeti's 12-year-old course record in 2:07:14.
Then, in Chicago last fall, Cheruiyot grabbed another major despite a terrifying pratfall at the finish when he slipped on the sponsor's logo mat at the tape after outsprinting Daniel Njenga. "It was almost finishing my career," says Cheruiyot, who fell backward and slammed his skull into the pavement.
Cheruiyot, who didn't know whether he'd won (his torso did cross the line), was taken off in a wheelchair and kept two nights in a hospital after tests showed bleeding inside his head. "I was not sleeping for one and a half months," he says. More worrisome, he says, was a back injury that he feared might require surgery and kept him off the roads until January.
For Cheruiyot, who gets itchy if he misses even a day of workouts, the inactivity was hugely frustrating. All of his training is focused on a handful of races a year, mostly marathons and half-marathons. "He can make much more money from long races," says Rosa, "than from getting $10,000 in small races every weekend."
Cheruiyot's Boston victory last year earned him $100,000, plus a $25,000 bonus for the course record. Winning in Chicago meant another $125,000 plus 25 more points in the World Marathon Majors race. If Cheruiyot wins his third crown here tomorrow, he'll all but wrap up the WMM title, which is worth an extra $500,000.
For a man who lived on 30 cents a day, those are unimaginable numbers, but it never has been about the benjamins for Cheruiyot.
"When I was young, I was not thinking about having money," he says, "but having somewhere to live."
Now, Cheruiyot has enough to build a castle in the clouds in his homeland.
"Ten years ago, we were next to beggars," marvels Biwott, himself a talented marathoner (2:11:16) who'll run against his brother here.
Against all odds, the old family has become new again, with land and a house that will never vanish. One thing, though, has changed.
"My mother is in charge of the farm," Robert Cheruiyot says. He loves his father, but Dad isn't getting his hands on the deed.