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Marathoner’s story is a front-runner

Wesley Korir won last year’s Los Angeles Marathon and dozens cared. Marathons are noticed in Olympic years, or if they are held in your neighborhood and your driveway is blocked.

In our self-indulgent, Web-hit-driven, celebrity-is-king approach to what is important in sports these days, you are Kobe, Manny, LeBron, Tiger or nobody.

Korir is none of the above and far from nobody.

He is a 27-year-old Kenyan with an amazing story. He comes from poverty, which is not unusual in sports. He has excelled beyond expectations, which is not unusual in sports. And he is handling it all with grace and humility, which is unusual.

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His basic bio reads that he got out of Kenya because, like so many others there, he was a talented runner. He took a scholarship to Murray State in Kentucky, then transferred to Louisville after one semester when Murray State dropped its men’s track program.

In 2008, he graduated from Louisville with a degree in biology pre-med, and his running resume was topped by an 11th-place finish in the NCAA cross-country meet and a third in the NCAA 5,000 meters.

That’s only a snapshot. Korir’s story is best told in three segments.

The killing

Korir says that his early life in the village of Kitale was happy. One of eight children, Korir says his family never had much, but never wanted for anything.

“There were some nights we didn’t eat,” he says. “But we always got by. We had shoes. When I wore a hole in my shorts -- we didn’t sit in chairs at school, just on the ground -- my mother would sew it up.”

Korir ran five miles to school in the morning, five back home to lunch, five back for the afternoon and five home again.

“If my mother was cooking or washing dishes, and she needed soap,” Korir says, “she’d send me to the shop.”

The shop was three miles away and Korir ran. This is extraordinary in places other than Kenya.

He came to the United States for an education. His running skills sponsored that. He settled in under the guidance of Ron Mann, who not only coached Louisville track, but had been the coach of Beijing Olympian Lopez Lomong at Northern Arizona and was the U.S. Olympic middle distance coach at the 2008 Games.

Korir took a part-time job during school in maintenance and was, by his own account, a distance runner with big hopes and limited success.

At Christmastime 2007, Korir needed to renew his visa, so he flew back to Kenya. Elections were held shortly after Christmas, and the results were immediately controversial, with accusations of fixed results. Korir felt little of that in his village of Kitale, nor did he ever really understand the convergence of politics and tribal life.

“All my best friends were from tribes that my tribe was always trying to kill,” he says.

Several days after Christmas, Korir went to the big city, Eldoret, where he would take care of his visa and participate in a running clinic for youngsters. He stayed at his brother-in-law’s house, in a part of town where they were rioting over election results.

“One morning, the people from my tribe came and got us and made us join the group,” Korir says. “Some of them had machetes, but I had no weapons, so they gave me two stones to throw.”

Korir says there was no escaping, that he and his brother-in-law were surrounded and pushed forward as the group moved on.

“I watched them burn the lady’s house next to my brother-in-law’s,” he says. “She wasn’t a member of our tribe, so they burned it. She had worked her whole life to build it and they burned it down in five minutes.”

Korir’s brother-in-law faked an ankle injury and managed to drift out of the group, telling Korir to seize any opportunity to escape and run.

“This was just like living the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ ” Korir says.

The group moved along the outskirts of the city and Korir saw people he hadn’t seen for years. One was Lucas Sang, who had been on Kenya’s eighth-place 1,600-meter relay team in the Seoul Olympics.

“I talked to him,” Korir says. “He asked me, ‘When did you come from America?’ ”

Minutes later, another tribe ambushed them and Korir watched Sang being killed.

“He was only a little in front of me,” Korir says. “I saw a machete swing and then I saw them burning his body.”

In the aftermath, some reports said Sang was hit by a rock. Korir says he saw a machete swing. Sang was eventually identified only by an unburned piece of his track suit.

“I remembered what my brother-in-law said,” Korir says. “There was a church on fire, and I ran through the smoke. I used it as a shield and ran into the cornfields to hide.”

It took weeks for Korir to get out, to Uganda, to acquire a new visa and fly back to Louisville.

“I’ve never felt the way I felt when I got home to Louisville,” he told the Courier-Journal. “I said to myself, ‘I’m home, at last.’ ”

The marathon

In the fall of 2008, Korir entered the Chicago Marathon. His coach, Mann, had convinced him that marathon running was his future. Korir said he’d try.

In Chicago, they told him his credentials did not qualify for one of their 20 elite spots, so he had to start five minutes behind that group of 20. He accepted that he’d have to do the best he could under the circumstances.

“Pretty soon,” he says, “I’m running and I realized I am catching up to the front.”

He eventually passed 15 of the elite 20, crossed the line sixth and was placed fourth overall by adjusted times. Then he was told he would not be given the $15,000 his placing earned because only the elite 20 were eligible for that money.

It was with this interesting blip on his resume that he came to Los Angeles for last year’s marathon. It was May 25, the first-ever Memorial Day L.A. Marathon. He made the press-book listings of the top runners but was hardly expected to win.

He had his traditional pre-race meal at Subway, and that became the story angle afterward. He told reporters that he always buys two sandwiches before a race, eats one and saves the other for after. But this time, he came out, saw a homeless woman sitting there and gave her his other sandwich.

He says he started the race, knowing that many of the runners in the front group with him were faster.

“I told myself to just hang with them,” he says.

At the halfway point, they were still there, so he decided to break it down. Hang for another mile, maybe two. Which he did. But suddenly, instead of being left in the dust, he was passing runners.

“I was asking myself what was happening,” Korir says.

Soon there were four, then three, then two alongside Korir. They were race favorites Laban Kipkemboi of Kenya and Tariku Jufar of Ethiopia.

“Then the Kenyan whispers to me,” Korir says, “that if I can keep going, to go for it, because he has nothing left.”

Jufar took off. Korir caught him. Jufar did it again. So did Korir.

“I decided,” says Korir, as he took off for a final sprint, “that if he’s going to catch me, he’s going to have to do it at the finish line.”

Korir says he still didn’t believe until the finish line came into sight and he heard the public address announcer say, “Here comes the winner, Wesley Korir.”

His time of 2 hours 8 minutes 24 seconds is the fastest in the L.A. Marathon’s 23-year history.

The maintenance man

Korir was in California for a few days last week because it was cold in Louisville and he needed to train in some warmth. He has raced three times in California -- two half-marathons in Carlsbad and the 2009 L.A. Marathon -- and has won all three.

When he lines up for this year’s L.A. Marathon on Sunday, March 21, he will be a known runner. What won’t be known is that, win or lose, he will probably be back on the job in Louisville on Tuesday, as he was last year, when he won a total prize worth $188,705.

“Lots of people told me,” he says, “that they expected me to go home and give my two weeks’ notice on the job. I’d never do that. I like what I do too much.”

What the man with the college degree in biology pre-med does is repair work.

“I do plumbing, air conditioning units,” he says. “I can paint, fix just about anything.”

He works for a maintenance company that contracts with the university for work around campus. It’s the job he took when he arrived as a student and he’s still doing it. Before he came to California for some training, he had to ask his boss for time off.

“I drive the same old car I’ve always had and I live in a little house,” Korir says. “I want to be the same person I’ve always been.”

He often surprises people.

He was fixing a toilet in a dorm recently and heard a student struggling over a chemistry equation. He put down his tools and showed her the answer.

“She couldn’t believe I could know that,” Korir says.

Korir’s favorite maintenance man moment came shortly after his adventure in the Chicago Marathon. He was fixing a light for a woman from Chicago, who started talking about seeing the Chicago Marathon and this amazing runner who started five minutes behind and passed most of the other runners.

He eventually got down off the ladder and told her why he was laughing.

“That was me,” he said.

A month from now, the maintenance man will be the most talked-about participant in the L.A. Marathon, an event always seeming to need some help.

Maybe Wesley Korir can fix it.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com


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