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Kenyan runners' second home: Norristown

More than 700 runners at a Doylestown 5K race last month would have found the midpoint water station undermanned and overwhelmed had it not been for five last-minute volunteers.

Lisa Buster, a sports agent, helps Silas Sang, one of several Kenyan runners she manages, with a debit-card purchase. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Lisa Buster, a sports agent, helps Silas Sang, one of several Kenyan runners she manages, with a debit-card purchase. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)Read more

More than 700 runners at a Doylestown 5K race last month would have found the midpoint water station undermanned and overwhelmed had it not been for five last-minute volunteers.

"C'mon, c'mon! You look strong! You're almost there," the volunteers cheered as they frantically passed out cold drinks to the panting throng.

The role reversal was amusing, to say the least. For these were not ordinary volunteers, but world-class athletes from Kenya, capable of running consecutive sub-five-minute miles effortlessly.

Minutes earlier, two of their compatriots had helped start the race - Linus Maiyo and Jane Murage. Murage, 22, an adorable sprite with a radiant smile, fired the starter's pistol. Little more than a week before, both had won the 10-mile Broad Street Run, Maiyo first among men, Murage first among women.

The Kenyans had been brought to the event by their manager, Lisa Buster. Over the last two decades, Buster has singlehandedly turned Norristown and environs into a training center for Kenyan runners, which is to say for some of the best runners in the world: John Kagwe, two-time New York Marathon victor, and Catherine Ndereba ("Catherine the Great"), four-time winner of the Boston Marathon, two-time Olympic silver medalist, and reigning world marathon champion.

Buster, 40ish, calls her business Promotion in Motion International. The Kenyan runners call her their "American mom."

"When we are over here, we are like her family," said Maiyo, 26. "She is there to meet our needs in every way possible. When I'm back home in Kenya, I miss her a lot, and I call her on the phone once a week."

Buster, who grew up in Rydal and now lives in Royersford, began her business in 1984 after working as a radio sports reporter and television news anchor. For 12 years she was married to El-Mostafa Nechchadi, a top Moroccan marathoner who is now an American citizen and who still coaches some of her athletes, including Ndereba.

She is not a runner herself - years ago, she ran in a pet race with her dog and finished last.

The Kenyan runners board in a three-story brick rowhouse on a quiet street on the west side of Norristown that Buster bought about 10 years ago. They are a short jog, via the Schuylkill River Trail, from Valley Forge National Historical Park, a favorite place to train.

"It is so big and open, with hills and flats and many trails," said John Itati, 35, a past Broad Street Run champion and two-time winner of the Baltimore Marathon. "I like running on the grass. It's like being back in Kenya." The Kenyans also train at nearby Norristown Farm Park and do speed work on the track at Ursinus College in Collegeville.

Buster, who manages about 20 Kenyan runners, handles all the administrative work - visas, race entries, contracts, travel arrangements, local errands, and transportation, medical, and personal needs. In turn, she takes a 15 percent cut from the runners' earnings - sponsorship deals, appearance fees, prize money. The winner of a major race can earn in the six figures.

Buster is a sports agent, but her runners refer to her as their manager because her role is more encompassing than brokering deals. "I don't just negotiate their contracts, but get involved in anything having to do with their lives," she says. "The only thing they have to worry about is stepping into a plane and onto a starting line."

At any one time, about a half-dozen runners live in the Norristown house, for which they pay a fee. The decor is dormitory-Spartan. Out back, rows of running shoes air in the sun. The Kenyans rotate cooking and cleaning chores. They keep to themselves and are focused on training. "Running is their job," Buster says. "They are very disciplined and dedicated. They train, eat, sleep, and train some more."

For recreation, they read, listen to music, knit, and watch television, especially soccer and professional basketball and Christian programs. The men followed the NCAA basketball tournament, rooting for "neighbor" Villanova and North Carolina, Buster's alma mater.

Buster finds clients through word of mouth. She became a sports agent accidentally. During a trip to Italy in 1983, she met a couple of elite international runners - a Dutchman and a Briton - who expressed interest in visiting her in the United States. Buster, who was doing celebrity promotions for an ad agency in Philadelphia, found races for them here that offered substantial prize money. The Dutch runner began begging her to find similar races for his chums. A business was born.

Buster declines to discuss how much she or her athletes make. For top-level competitors, the U.S. running circuit can be lucrative. Big-name marathons give out millions in appearance fees, and winners of those races can claim prize money in the tens of thousands of dollars. The men and women champs at Boston each receive $150,000. There are also bonuses for those who break records.

But when their winnings are published, Buster says, her runners are "absolutely panic-stricken" because robbers and thugs back home sometimes target them and their families. The Kenyan winner of the 1997 Boston Marathon, Lameck Aguta, was beaten into a coma while on his way to visit his parents and robbed of $10,000. He was hospitalized for three months and spent years trying to regain his form.

Buster used to manage athletes from other countries but gradually came to confine her services to Kenyans. Not only are they superb runners, but they are also pleasant, cooperative and humble, she says, with none of the arrogance and surliness of many American professional athletes. "You tell them what to do and they listen," Buster says. "They are very happy to let you do your job, and they do theirs."

Among Kenyans, it's considered poor form to boast, so it's sometimes difficult to elicit their accomplishments. When Silas Sang, 31, was asked how he performed in his most recent race, a 10K in Jersey City, N.J., he replied, "Not bad." It turned out that he'd won.

Question Kenyans about their reluctance to brag and they will say of their feats, "It's all in the past." They are resolute about living in the present.

On the day of the 5K, shortly after 1 p.m., Buster stopped at the Norristown house, and seven Kenyans piled into her SUV. An hour later, they were in Doylestown, where chiropractor Johnny King-Marino treated each to a session of muscle work, kneading out kinks, opening joints, adjusting imbalances. Such chiropractic healing is unavailable back home.

When it was Itati's turn, King-Marino said: "John is a miler who wants to be a marathon runner. . . . When he's running a marathon, he's so fleet of foot that it causes problems."

Itati, 35, won the Fifth Avenue Mile in 2003 in a blazing 3 minutes, 56 seconds. The price for such performance: chronic tendinitis in his knees.

"It is our history in Kenya that we have to run good," said Itati. "We feel the pressure of tradition. When we race, we feel we must bring something back home."

After each adjustment, King-Marino received his only fee: a hug, delivered Kenyan style, on both sides of the face. The Kenyans would also thank him by volunteering at the evening's 5K, which King-Marino was sponsoring.

That was hours away, so there was time for grocery shopping. Again, Buster was chauffeur. At a Costco store in Montgomery Mall, the Kenyans filled a cart with staples: milk, eggs, chicken, spaghetti, cooking oil, 25 pounds of sugar for tea. ("We eat sugar," Buster explained, "they drink it."). Often, the Kenyans stock up on cornmeal so they can make ugali, a porridge-like side dish that has the consistency of dense polenta.

"It is our super food," Ndereba joked. "If you eat it, you will become a good runner. But you must also train."

Murage stopped at the Costco photo desk to pick up an enlargement. She beamed as she pulled it from the envelope - a shot of her crossing the finish line of the Broad Street Run in triumph.

By the time the Kenyan contingent arrived at the 5K, hundreds of runners were assembling. Shortly after 7 p.m., Murage fired the pistol, and they were off.

Twenty minutes later, as runners sprinted and staggered across the finish line, Murage was there, offering smiles and words of praise: "Nice job!" "You did great!"

When one runner wobbled and seemed ready to retch, Murage put her arm around her to steady and comfort her. When another runner was too exhausted to remove the timing chip attached to her shoelaces, Murage - regarded as the heir to Catherine the Great and already one of the world's most promising female long-distance runners - kneeled down and untied it.