Alone at the Front

Thomas Omwenga is one of those seem­ingly su­per­hu­man Kenyan run­ners you see at the start line be­fore they dis­ap­pear off in the dis­tance, des­tined to win race. But this new Cana­dian res­i­dent’s path to the podium isn’t as ef­fort­less as you’d think.

Canadian Running - - EXOTIC DESTINATION - By Rhi­an­non Rus­sell

Grow­ing up in Kisii, in western Kenya, Thomas Omwenga was an ath­letic kid. But it wasn’t un­til he started high school that he re­al­ized he had real ta­lent, win­ning races from the 1,500m to 10,000m. Only then did his fa­ther re­veal that speed was in their blood: Omwenga’s dad had raced at the na­tional level.

“He told me, ‘You will run,’” says the 37-year-old Omwenga, sit­ting at a Tim Hor­tons in Hamilton, where he now lives. “But there were many chal­lenges.” His fa­ther had been sick for years and the ex­pen­sive med­i­cal bills added up, so there was no money for Omwenga to go to col­lege. He tried grow­ing to­ma­toes and sell­ing chick­ens and eggs but didn’t make much money.

Omwenga de­cided to move to Nairobi and be­gan run­ning at an army camp. Even then, be­fore two es­tab­lished Kenyan run­ners stepped in to pro­vide food and hous­ing for the trainees, Omwenga re­mem­bers drink­ing hot water with lemon af­ter 10k runs, then go­ing to bed with an empty stom­ach. He didn’t have any food. “That did not make me give up,” he says. He wasn’t mar­ried at the time, and didn’t have any­one to sup­port by him­self. “It was only me and my stom­ach. So I kept push­ing.”

In 2000, he won a 5,000m race in 14:05. A Ger­man agent scouted him, and Omwenga f lew to Ger­many, where he won sev­eral more races. But when his agent be­gan tak­ing more than his share of the win­nings, Omwenga cut ties and moved back to Kenya.

There, he got mar­ried, had a son and pur­chased a plot of land for his fam­ily to farm. Then he f lew across the globe to com­pete in races in Canada and the United States. He’d take the prize money – any­where from $3,000 to $10,000 per race – home, and then get back on a plane. He and his wife had two more chil­dren, both daugh­ters.

In 2007, 2008 and 2010, Omwenga won the bmo Van­cou­ver Marathon. In 2012 alone, he ran five marathons, win­ning four: Que­bec City, Man­i­toba, Victoria and a tiny race in Prince Ed­ward County, Ont., be­cause the prize purse was worth the pun­ish­ment of an­other 42.2k ef­fort. That year, he and his wife de­cided he should stay in Canada and work, rather than f ly­ing home to Kenya, which cost thou­sands of dol­lars. With his earn­ings here, he’d be able to send his chil­dren to pri­vate school – some­thing that was im­por­tant to him, since the qual­ity of pub­lic education in Kenya is low. “I don’t want my kids to grow up with the life I grew up in, strug­gling fi­nan­cially with school fees be­cause my par­ents were not able,” he says.

Omwenga set­tled in Hamilton, jug­gling three jobs, in­clud­ing shift work at fac­to­ries and a gig at the ymca. He’d work day and night, leav­ing one job and head­ing to the next. The fol­low­ing few months were tough for other rea­sons, too. Omwenga had never lived in Canada dur­ing the win­ter be­fore and to avoid the snow and ice, he’d run on the in­door track at McMaster Univer­sity. Be­tween work­ing and train­ing, he was ex­hausted.

De­spite the chal­lenges, in 2013, Omwenga won the Van­cou­ver Marathon for a fourth time. But he missed his fam­ily dearly. “I learned one thing,” he says. “When you are by your­self, your fam­ily lives far away, and they de­pend on you for ev­ery­thing, life is not easy. There is no hap­pi­ness.”

Back home, the fam­ily had also been deal­ing with daugh­ter Mercy’s spina bi­fida – she wasn’t able to get proper treat­ment at hos­pi­tals in Kenya. By chance, when Omwenga was at the Sco­tia­bank Toronto Water­front Marathon, he met a man named Michael Fred­erik­sen at a pre-race din­ner for elites and vips at the Fair­mont Royal York. Fred­erik­sen is the pres­i­dent of Com­mu­nity Education Ser­vices Canada ( cesc), a non­profit that helps pro­vide ac­cess to education for Kenyan youth who’ve been or­phaned by hiv/aids. Over the years, cesc had hosted many Kenyan ath­letes when they came to Toronto for the race.

Omwenga told Fred­erik­sen about his fam­ily back home and men­tioned Mercy’s con­di­tion. “Thomas was very hum­ble; he’s a very gra­cious man,” says Fred­erik­sen. “He did not ask for any sup­port at that time.”

Fred­erik­sen told the run­ner he’d be in Kenya the fol­low­ing year and would visit his fam­ily and pass along greet­ings from Omwenga. So he did. He saw the fam­ily’s five-acre farm, where they kept cows and chick­ens, grew mango and ba­nana trees,

and tended a veg­etable gar­den. What­ever they didn’t eat them­selves, they’d sell at the mar­ket. The chil­dren were well-dressed, Fred­erik­sen says, and weren’t in acute poverty like so many kids he’d seen in ru­ral Kenya.

“Thomas had pro­vided for them through his run­ning,” he says. “That’s what many of the (Kenyan) run­ners do – they run over here, they earn some money, and they send it back to their fam­ily.”

But he could see that the fam­ily was strug­gling. And Mercy, de­spite her happy, out­go­ing per­son­al­ity, wouldn’t have much of a fu­ture there, he says. She’s not able to walk.

“The im­pact of see­ing Mercy in her own home, in her own en­vi­ron­ment, is what moved me to come back here and say, we re­ally have to do some­thing,” Fred­erik­sen says.

He called doc­tors in Kenya who’d seen Mercy, and they told him they’d done all they could do for her there. To­gether with cesc, he ar­ranged an ap­point­ment at Mon­treal’s Shriners Hos­pi­tal for Chil­dren, which agreed to pay the costs as­so­ci­ated with her visit. A church in Mon­treal turned its base­ment into a two-bed­room apart­ment for the fam­ily, so they’d have a place to stay while they were in the city.

CESC also launched a fundrais­ing cam­paign that brought in $17,000 – enough to cover the $5,000 plane tick­ets, as well as liv­ing ex­penses for the fam­ily over the months to come. They ar­rived in Canada with visas just days be­fore Mercy’s ap­point­ment. In Septem­ber this year, she’ll meet with the doc­tors again to de­ter­mine a treat­ment plan.

“It was quite a process,” says Fred­erik­sen. “It wasn’t overnight. It was well over a year… Our dream for her, Thomas’s dream for her, is that she’ll be mo­bile and that she’ll be able to walk to a cer­tain ex­tent.” Omwenga is now a per­ma­nent res­i­dent, so he’ll be able to spon­sor the fam­ily, Fred­erik­sen says.

What was it like be­ing re­united af­ter five long years? A wide grin breaks out on Omwenga’s face. “Our pa­tience paid off,” he says. “We are to­gether now.” Dur­ing their first few weeks in Hamilton, they stayed at a friend’s house, then moved into their own apart­ment near McMaster Univer­sity in June. Omwenga works full-time as a cus­to­dian at Mac and part-time as a di­etary aide at a nurs­ing home. He hopes one day to study phys­io­ther­apy or mas­sage ther­apy.

The chil­dren are set­tling in well. Isaac, 15, and Sylvia, 11, en­joy run­ning, like their dad. They’ve both joined a run­ning club for kids called the Time

“I learned one thing,” he says. “When you are by your­self, your fam­ily lives far away, and they de­pend on you for ev­ery­thing, life is not easy. There is no hap­pi­ness.”

Ban­dits, founded by one of Omwenga’s friends. They’ve signed up for swim­ming lessons, too.

The pride Omwenga has for his kids is ev­i­dent: “They speak ( bet­ter) English than I do,” he says. “And they don’t have an ac­cent like me… Isaac is very strong.” The teen ran a mile at a track meet in 5:50, with lit­tle train­ing.

Sylvia, who was only six when her dad left for Canada, is ea­ger to spend as much time as she can with him now. “When I’m leav­ing (for work), she doesn’t want me to leave the house,” he says. He shows off pho­tos of them in their grey Time Ban­dits T-shirts.

As for 12-year-old Mercy, she’s “ex­tra­or­di­nary,” he says – very sharp, a quick learner. They’ll all go to school in Septem­ber.

Omwenga ac­knowl­edges his wife, Mar­garet, pulled a lot of weight, rais­ing their kids and run­ning the farm. “She is a won­der­ful mother,” he says. This sum­mer, she’ll start part-time cus­to­dial work at McMaster – she’s on days, while her hus­band is on nights – and English classes.

With his fam­ily back to­gether, Omwenga also in­tends to get back to rac­ing. Over the past two years, he trained on and off, run­ning the Ed­mon­ton and Man­i­toba marathons in 2015 and the Around the Bay 5k in 2016, but he had other pri­or­i­ties, among them re­cov­er­ing from an in­jury and pro­vid­ing for his fam­ily.

Canada’s free pub­lic education re­lieves some of the fi­nan­cial pres­sure. “Now that they’re here, my goal is to go back to ac­tive run­ning,” he says. “I want to re­new my rep­u­ta­tion.” He has be­gun train­ing for what he in­tends to be his come­back race, the Hamilton Marathon Road­2Hope in Novem­ber, run­ning 10 to 15 kilo­me­tres ev­ery day. “I’m be­ing very care­ful not to rush so I don’t get in­jured.”

He’s got his sched­ule down to an art: on nights when the jan­i­to­rial work is stren­u­ous, like scrub­bing f loors, he’ ll get home at about 6:30 a.m., sleep for three or four hours, go for his run, then head to the nurs­ing home for his next shift. On lighter nights, he’ ll drink half a litre of water when he gets home, then head right out the door. It sounds ex­haust­ing, but Omwenga just laughs. “That tired­ness goes away,” he says. “When I start to run, the first five min­utes is like warm-up. Af­ter that, I feel good.”

Now that his fam­ily is to­gether again, the feel­ing can last. He knows his chil­dren have a bright fu­ture here. “Canada is a coun­try of op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he says. “I want my kids to achieve the best.”

Omwenga re­mem­bers drink­ing hot water with lemon af­ter 10K runs, then go­ing to bed with an empty stom­ach.

OP­PO­SITE Thomas, Omwenga wins the 2013 BMO Van­cou­ver Marathon BE­LOW Mar­garet, Mercy, Thomas, Sylvia and Isaac Omwenga

OP­PO­SITE Thomas Omwenga at the GoodLife Fit­ness Victoria Marathon 2013 ABOVE Lucy Njeri, Thomas Omwenga and Be­nard On­sare at the 2013 BMO Van­cou­ver Marathon

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