Twists, turns, titles for elite runner
-- Janet Cherobon-Bawcom
Janet Cherobon-Bawcom's New York City Marathon training started with a walk.
Along the dusty dirt shoulder of a hot asphalt roadway two miles outside the village of Kapsabet in the former Rift Valley Province of Kenya walked a 19-year-old girl. Having just departed her mother's farm, where she worked tending goats and cows and helped care for her seven precocious younger siblings, she was on her way to visit her aunt in the hospital nearly 40 miles north in the bustling metropolis of Eldoret.
It didn't take long for a local restaurateur from a nearby village to grind to a halt next to the girl and offer her a ride. Exchanging a few pleasantries as the car started moving and the warm air rushed through the windows, she felt awkward, knowing she shouldn't take rides from strangers. During the trip, the man tried to put her at ease, asking about her ambitions. Her responses came in clipped sentences. She had recently graduated from high school. She wanted to go to college. To be the first of her immediate or extended family to attend a four-year university. She had no money to do so.
"Have you ever thought about running?"
"Maybe a little, but I've never really run," she said stiffly, still feeling nervous about accepting a ride from an unknown passerby.
"You know, you have the build to be a good runner," he said in an urging tone as he offered his own coaching expertise. "I think you could train and get a scholarship."
It turned out this was one of those rare moments when the stars, the sun and the moon align, because this wasn't just any place in the world, any passerby or any girl. This was Nandi County, known as the "Home of Champions" for being the birthplace of runners such as Martin Lel, twice the winner of the New York City Marathon and three times the London Marathon, as well as Bernard Lagat, who has won five world championship golds in addition to a silver and bronze at the Olympics. The eager coach was Peter Rono, the 1988 Olympic champion in the 1,500 meters. The poor farm girl was Janet Cherobon-Bawcom , who would later gain U.S. citizenship and make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in the 10,000 meters. At the dawn of her elite running career, she also will be toeing the line as one of the top competitors in Sunday's ING New York City Marathon.
On that day, however, Cherobon-Bawcom quietly slipped out of the car, thanked Rono and hurried on her way. She had to make fast work of visiting her aunt before figuring out how to hitch another ride back to the farm where the cows needed milking and her single mother required help with her brothers and sisters. Sure, she could dream of getting an education, but running for an American university seemed as far-fetched as making that entire trip on foot from Kapsabet to Eldoret.
"At the time when he was talking to me, I was just thinking, 'I'm not a runner, you're talking to the wrong person,'" she said. "I never had ambitions of going to the U.S. for college, and there was no way my mom would be OK with sending me away."
Six months later, at 20 years old, as she continued to labor over how to raise the necessary funds to get an education, her mind wandered back to that sunny morning in the car with the stranger on the way to Eldoret.
"I started thinking, 'Maybe I should listen to that guy,'" she said. Not even remembering his name, she began walking toward his village in hopes of tracking him down.
"And on the way, he happened to drive by me again and said, 'I knew you'd come looking for me.'"
That was the day her training began. At the time, it remained unusual for a woman to be running outside her village, so she'd go into town and meet a group at the local track. To be sure, there is no shortage of running talent in this region of the world. Meanwhile, Rono spent a good six months persuading Cherobon-Bawcom's mother to allow her to pursue the opportunity.
"It took a while until I could even run six miles," Cherobon-Bawcom said. "Then I got some really good teammates and I finally knew what it was like to run fast. When it all started to really happen, even my mom was excited."
Soon enough, a scholarship to Harding University in Searcy, Ark., rolled in, just as Rono had promised. Cherobon-Bawcom moved to the United States in 2000 and was on the verge of accomplishing her greatest goal, but the transition from village farm girl to NCAA Division II standout, 10,000 miles from home, was not an easy one.
"There was a lot of crying and missing home," she said. "My uncle was the only one with a phone, and he lived a ways away from my mom, so I'd have to call him and set up time to even talk to her."
Still, she resolved to seize the opportunity to get an education at Harding, where she would win three Division II national championships and be named an All-American eight times.
"That was my plan all along. My mom said, 'You go study and come back home, we'll be waiting for you,'" she said. "I am running for four years and not an extra step, I thought."
Like in a race, Cherobon-Bawcom has learned that there are countless unknown variables that can alter a path that once felt certain. Perhaps the most significant for her was a young teacher named Jay Bawcom. A Searcy native, he traveled to Eldoret as a volunteer teacher the same year the budding young runner from Kapsabet came to his hometown to run for the local university. The Harding coach asked Bawcom if he would call upon the mother of one of his athletes, a mother who also happened to be a teacher. When he returned to the U.S., Cherobon and Bawcom met for the first time when he delivered a package of Kenyan teas and spices from her mother. It took several more run-ins in Searcy before they started dating and fell in love. Bawcom proposed in March 2005, on the same night she seized the NCAA DII 5,000-meter title.
After her time at Harding, where she graduated with a degree in health care management, Cherobon-Bawcom went on to earn her registered nursing license while her husband taught and coached cross country. Just as she had planned, she hung up her spikes. But not much in her life has gone according to plan.
"I was helping out with the kids my husband was coaching and running to keep fit," she said. "I decided to run a few local races and was competitive, so I moved up to regional races, but never really considered running professionally."
When Jay decided to make a career change in 2011 and start nursing school himself, the couple had to make the move from Georgia to Flagstaff, Ariz., home of Northern Arizona University. It was then that he suggested to his 32-year-old wife that she give running a go again.
"He said, 'What if you run for a year while I go to school, maybe get a coach, but no pressure,'" she said. "I figured I'd probably have to work the rest of my life and never have this chance again."
The newly minted U.S. citizen decided to seize the opportunity under the tutelage of famed coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels. Although she hadn't raced much beyond small-time events, the wide-eyed runner was suddenly thrust into the world of U.S. championship road races.
"I was in complete shock lining up against some of these women. I could hardly think about running, I was so in awe of them," she said, recalling how she once humbly approached Deena Kastor and asked her to sign her hip number.
Her first of these races in 2011 was the USA 20-kilometer championships in New Haven, Conn., which, to her surprise, she won. Then came the USA 10-mile championships a month later in Minneapolis, where she also took first place. A week after that, she blazed the streets of Boston and won the USA 10-kilometer championships. Up against Olympians and multiple-time national champions, Cherobon-Bawcom appeared to come out of nowhere.
During what she calls her "past life," referring to the time between her graduation from college and her serious return to competitive running, she says she ran "somewhere between seven and nine marathons, most of which were just long runs." All were run between 2 hours, 37 minutes and 2:53, and some she won. After her streak of victories on the roads, it only seemed natural that she'd take a crack at the 2012 Olympic marathon trials.
"I had never really trained seriously for a marathon, so I had no idea what I could run once I started training," Cherobon-Bawcom said.
At the trials in Houston, she shattered her personal best, running 2:29:45, finishing fifth behind established superstars such as Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher.
"I thought, 'Wow, I actually came close!'" she said, referring to the fact that she was just two spots out of making the Olympic team. "That's when thoughts started to creep into my mind that I could make the team on the track."
Moving to the oval that spring off of her supreme 115-miles-a-week marathon mileage, she suddenly seemed to have a legitimate chance. After barely breaking 20 minutes in her first 5,000-meter race at Harding, Cherobon-Bawcom ended up punching her ticket to London in the 10,000 meters by running 31:33 at the Payton Jordan Invite.
"When I made the Olympic team, I was just like, 'Wow! I definitely couldn't have even dreamed that one up!'" she said.
Since her 31:12.68, 12th-place finish at the London Games, she has headed back to the roads, seizing a total of eight U.S. titles between 10K and 25K.
Battling shin splints, Cherobon-Bawcom has had a light year in 2013. Still, she snagged titles in the USA 10K, USA 10-mile and USA 15K championships. The Tufts Health Plan 10K for Women on Oct. 14 was her first race back from injury since beginning training for the New York City Marathon. Running 32:28, she said, "I was really excited about that, having not raced for three months, and to go out and run a 10K that well without training for a 10K was really encouraging."
Cherobon-Bawcom had planned to run in New York City last year before Hurricane Sandy forced the race's cancellation, and the 35-year-old has been waiting to run another "serious" marathon since those 2012 Olympic trials. Hitting the same paces in workouts that she managed before that race, she's optimistic about Sunday's race.
In true Cherobon-Bawcom fashion, knowing few things in life are guaranteed and the road ahead is often unpredictable, she's unwilling to make forecasts when it comes to the outcome of the race, simply saying, "At the end of the day, I just want to compete and feel I gave it my best."
Regardless of the outcome, she will travel back to Kenya after the race with her husband, who will be doing AIDS research in the region from which she hails. This will be her first extended stay back in her homeland, the place she intended to permanently return to years ago.
"Life definitely hasn't worked out the way I planned," she said. "I think somebody out there is looking out for me, for sure, because it's been way better than I ever dreamed. I've been blessed beyond what I ever could have imagined. All this is icing on the cake."