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Fast Forward: Crazy Catherine, on top of the world

Third of five parts

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Crazy, she was. Everyone knew it, every last one of the students at Ngorano Secondary School.

Four-year-old Jane idolizes her mother, marathon world record holder Catherine Ndereba. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette photos)

Photo journal

Map of Kenya

Kenya statistics

She woke up early to run before class. After class, she completed the workouts assigned by her coach, then went off alone to practice some more.

The girls heard her creep out of the dorm every morning. They watched her arrive barely in time for dinner every night. They didn't understand. So they teased her.

Crazy Ndereba. Crazy Ndereba. Crazy Ndereba.

"Some were runners, and not even they were able to understand what I loved," said Catherine Ndereba (dah-RAY-ba). "Something was in my blood. I could not part with it."

Even as a young girl, that something was at work in the daughter so speedy she could fetch water in half the time her siblings required.

As a young woman, that something drove her to finish training runs that forced teammates, men and women, to drop out.

In the summer of 1998, that something compelled her to leave her husband and 1-year-old daughter to compete for three months in the United States.

And this past October in Chicago, that something propelled her to one of the greatest achievements in running history. Six days after Japanese marathoner Naoko Takahashi became the first woman to break the elusive 2-hour, 20-minute barrier, Catherine Ndereba obliterated her world record with a time of 2 hours, 18 minutes, 47 seconds.

Everyone on the international running circuit did a double take.

"I heard, and I was like, `What?' " said Hellen Kimayo, one of Kenya's most enduring female road racers. She laughed and cupped a hand to her ear. "I had to take time to listen again and again and again ... she was only a mile or so behind the men!"

The modern Kenyan couple

Whatever unknown force powers Catherine Ndereba, it is not the only thing that makes her stand out among Kenya's women runners.

More about Catherine Ndereba

Catherine Ndereba's remarkable record

Online map:
Catherine's hometown


Others have won big races while juggling their careers with family obligations. Several, including 1996 Olympic silver medalist Pauline Konga, have achieved their greatest athletic success after getting married and giving birth. Many are personable, photogenic and popular.

But no one else has combined such a breath-taking performance with an ability to make casual acquaintances feel like life-long friends and a husband who gladly -- and visibly -- supports her career and helps raise their daughter.

This unprecedented combination has turned Catherine Ndereba and her husband, Anthony Maina, into influential role models. They represent the modern Kenyan couple -- and a whole new way for men and women to regard each other in Kenyan society.

"If people can believe that a woman is as successful as a man, they have started something," said Stephen Mwaniki, who coached Catherine in her hometown of Nyeri, two hours north of Nairobi. "That is not in this part of the world."

Anthony's willingness to care for their daughter Jane when Catherine is on the road enables Catherine to ignore criticism that she should stay home and be a "proper" wife. It also helps her overcome the guilt when she calls home to hear Jane say, "I want to go where Mom is."

A prison romance

Catherine and Anthony met at Kenya Prisons College in Nairobi during the summer of 1994. He went to become a prison guard. She went to become a better runner.

Audio interview

Download an MP3 sound file, edited and optimized for the Web, in which writer Lori Shontz explains why, out of all the athletes she has interviewed, Catherine Ndereba and her husband Anthony Maina stand out for their hospitality.
(File size 693K)

More audio with future installments of the series.

Visit the following sites to download players for Windows or Mac machines to listen to the file:

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Most top Kenyan runners work for the government, but they aren't supported the way athletes from the former Soviet bloc were. They are employed by one of three state agencies -- the police, the army or the prisons -- whose national contests are as competitive as the championships sponsored by the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association, the country's governing body for track and field.

Some runners compete well enough in secondary school to get job offers from these agencies when they graduate. Catherine didn't, but she trained locally in Nyeri for several years and gradually improved. By 1994, she was competing well enough that all three agencies were interested in hiring her.

She took a month to decide whether to pursue a running career or try to become a teacher. Once she decided to run, she considered just as carefully her three options.

She couldn't see herself as a police officer or soldier. That left the prisons, about which she knew nothing. Mwaniki's wife ran for the prisons, and she set Catherine's mind at ease.

Unlike many former Soviet athletes, Kenyans with government jobs are expected to actually work. So Catherine entered a seven-month training program at prisons college.

That's where Catherine met Anthony. The students lined up alphabetically for drills, so Ndereba ended up next to Maina, who had grown up only an hour away from her family's home in Central Province, the traditional home of Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu.

Anthony was friendly from the start. Catherine resisted him at every turn.

He spoke in Kikuyu, their mother tongue. She answered in Swahili, one of Kenya's national languages. To speak Swahili with a member of your own tribe is to hold that person at arm's length, similar to a French speaker using the formal vous instead of the familiar tu.

Anthony persevered. He polished her shoes, knowing that her sloppiness hurt her during inspections. She appreciated it, but didn't reciprocate.

Anthony continued to chat her up and tease her, and eventually she stopped being bothered by it. She began conversing in Kikuyu. On graduation day, Feb. 24, 1995, they effectively sealed their relationship by posing together with their families for a photograph.

Catherine and Anthony were both assigned to Nairobi West Prison. He worked full-time, and she worked when she wasn't training or competing.

Two months after graduation, Catherine represented Kenya in international competition for the first time. The next year, she just missed making the 1996 Kenyan Olympic team in the 10,000 meters, but she compensated by winning so many road races that both Runner's World and Running Times magazines named her Road Racer of the Year.

Catherine's 4-year-old daughter, Jane, waits for Mom to pass on her morning run. Catherine and her husband Anthony train together every day.

Catherine and Anthony were married that year, as well.

She never asked his permission to carry on with her running career. "He could see what I had done," she said. "I was double sure he would let me continue what I was doing."

Anthony never considered trying to stop her. "I said it in my heart -- I should not discourage her," he said. "I should let her go until she feels it is enough."

Reversal of roles

Anthony's attitude was rare but not unique. Starting in the early 1990s, when prizes for women grew large for both track meets and road races, men became more accepting of women who wanted to compete.

"It's totally opposite of what used to take place," runner Esther Kiplagat said. "They have now seen the sense that if you are able to help each other, you can live a better life."

Anthony is revolutionary, however, in the way he has dedicated himself to helping his wife achieve her goals.

Although he has the same lean build of a runner as Catherine, he never participated in the sport growing up. Running isn't a vital part of Kikuyu culture the way it is among the Kalenjin. In Kenya's fragmented society, which is so conscious of ethnicity, few people expect runners from tribes other than the Kalenjin to excel.

Anthony was active as a youngster, though, often playing soccer at the side of the road after school. The games were for boys only. The girls never demanded to play, and the boys never invited them.

"You could not ask in the first place -- it was not accepted," Anthony said.

By the time he and Catherine married, Anthony's views on women athletes had evolved. He even decided to start running, too, so that Catherine would have a steady training partner. (Anthony now claims with a grin that he can beat her at short distances, though he can't touch her in the marathon.)

When Catherine got pregnant in 1997, he not only supported her decision to keep competing but also agreed to stay home with the baby while she traveled. Anthony doesn't take care of Jane by himself -- some of his and Catherine's sisters live with them in their two-story townhouse, and they employ two house girls -- but the arrangement is still quite unusual.

Since giving birth, Catherine's career has taken off. She returned to the U.S. road-racing circuit in 1998 and picked up right where she had left off, earning the title Road Racer of the Year. She ran her first marathon in 1999 while continuing to excel in shorter events. In 2000, she won both the Boston and Chicago marathons. She defended both titles in 2001 and placed second in Boston this year.

About this series:

Kenyan men have dominated long-distance running for more than 30 years. Kenyan women are just coming into their own. They are beginning to win fame and prize money -- and to show how sports can lift up women, families and nations in the developing world.

Sunday: The rise of Kenya's women runners

Monday: The pioneers who led the way

Tuesday: Crazy Catherine, on top of the world

Wednesday: Fast Forward: Lornah and her camp for girls

Thursday: Looking toward a new Kenya

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is grateful for the support provided to the Kenya project by the Pew International Journalism Program, www.pewfellowships.org


Anthony organizes their household life around Catherine's schedule, needs and wants. She has had to fight plenty of battles, but only the same battles a talented male athlete would face, like getting appointed to national teams. Peace reigns at home.

"The problem with women, the problem is we men," said Mwaniki, Catherine's former coach. He pointed at Anthony. "He is a great man. If it was not [for him], she could not be going so far. Some men marry to retain a woman, to have her in her place."

Anthony shrugs off questions about Catherine's career and his key supporting role as if it is no big deal. His matter-of-fact attitude is itself something special.

Julia Gitobu, a former professor at Nairobi University who received both her master's degree and doctorate at universities in the United States, knows all about it. Her husband, who worked in personnel management, stayed home with their children, too. He lost count of the times he was asked, "What sort of man are you?"

Gitobu, a grandmother, now works for Winrock International, a non-government organization that trains women for leadership positions in agriculture. She spends her days coordinating programs that teach women management and assertiveness skills. Yet she still finds it difficult to practice those skills -- which she has in abundance -- in public.

"If I go to a social function with my husband, I have to behave like the wife regardless of what happens in my house," Gitobu said. "I cannot give the picture of a deviant wife. We both go home laughing.

"If I go into rural communities, and they announce that a professional is coming and the spouse and they are together, everyone thinks it is Professor Gitobu and Mrs. Gitobu. When they find out that the woman is the professor, from that second on they are paralyzed. They don't know what to do."

Kenyans may be growing accustomed to Catherine and Anthony's relationship because their reversal of roles has been so high-profile. But it still prompts questions.

A couple of hours after Catherine set the marathon world record, a formal press conference concluded and reporters clustered around her, hoping for one extra personal glimpse. One asked what she says to people back home who disapprove of her spending time away from her husband and daughter to compete.

"I tell them if I have nothing to sacrifice, I have nothing to gain," Catherine said.

Crazy no more

Three weeks after her historic performance, Catherine returned home to Nyeri for the Dedan Kimathi Half Marathon. She was one of three international athletes who grew up in the area and helped sponsor the race, which is named after one of the "freedom fighters," as the Kikuyu call them, who died in the Mau Mau revolt during the struggle for Kenyan independence.

The organizers were thrilled to have her.

They are always looking for role models to inspire the local runners, and they have already seen evidence that Catherine can do the job. A month after her first Boston Marathon victory, there was a 10-kilometer race in Nyeri, and 30 women entered. Previous races hadn't attracted more than five.

"We have discovered a lot because of her," said one of the coaches, Andriano Musonye. "We say they can train like Catherine. And now there are so many upcoming -- they say if Catherine can do better, why not us?"

Catherine arrived a half hour before starting time, dressed in black heels and a forest green dress, a present from Anthony that she managed to keep clean despite the ever-present red mud around the finish line.

Organizers were still marking the course. They drove two wooden poles into the ground and hung a blue advertising banner between them: "Pure Drinking Water Highlands." In the lower left-hand corner, they pinned a handwritten sign: "FINISH."

Runners milled around the finish area, stretching and jogging as goats grazed around them. One man walking to church observed the scene and remarked that the Nyeri area hasn't produced many good runners, the way the Rift Valley has. "Here we have just one, Kamathi," he said, referring to the 2001 men's world champion at 1,500 meters.

Catherine Ndereba leads in the women's race in last October's Chicago Marathon. Catherine won, blowing away the world record with a time of 2:18:47. Race organizers offered her a male runner to set a fast early pace. She refused, but Robert Johnson ran nearby, making sure none of the male runners got in her way.

He had never heard of Catherine Ndereba.

This was not shocking because not even a world record got her top billing in coverage of the Chicago Marathon by one of Kenya's two major newspapers, The Daily Nation.

The headline read "Fruitful 10 days for runners." The story focused on the men's race, in which heavily favored Paul Tergat -- the current national hero, with six world cross-country titles -- had been defeated by a lowly pacemaker, another Kenyan. Only after an analysis of the Kenyan men's dismal performance at a half marathon did the article mention her remarkable time.

The people in Nyeri who really noticed Catherine -- and her relationship with Anthony -- were the women.

They noticed that Anthony was simply there, supporting his wife's running career, that he handed out medals to the top women finishers, that he carried Catherine's bags.

Catherine made a point of speaking with the female award winners, which appeared to be as big a thrill for her as it was for them.

"I see the young girls, and they get more focused," she said. "They would not call me Crazy Ndereba anymore."

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