By: Sam Apple
He rises at dawn. The minty-fresh air of an early summer morning blows past his face as he runs in stride, confident and comfortable. Heldy, formally known as Eliud Ngetich, has only two weeks before his next big race, the Slow Mag Half Marathon in South Africa. It is the last in a string of races for which he is partially sponsored. In routine fashion he begins to taper down to a “relaxing, 90-mile week” to give his body more time to rest and store up strength. As usual, this anxious time of restraining and preserving before every important race makes Heldy feel restless; it is not in his nature to lower in intensity, as he has trained himself always to push, to rebel against the impulse to stop, to be moving. Yet he knows what he must do to achieve optimal fitness on race-day, especially considering the slight pain in his right shin that is beginning to worry him. Off he goes, running with his regular crew of fellow professional runners, making small talk in the first few moments before each one retreats into his own respective and respectful zone of concentration and focus. Heldy, together with the rest of his pack, runs in synchrony, unity and, as always, subtle and silent competition.
Down a hill in Kenya, towards an endlessly distant valley, a young boy fetches water for his father’s farm. The high altitude of the region works to a runner’s disadvantage, making the journey longer and more arduous. No matter for Heldy, who has grown accustomed to tending to his father’s wide-ranging requests. Heldy’s family farm, like most, survives off hunting, keeping livestock and growing crops. With manual labor the only option, Heldy and his siblings work while their father manages. With these rural tasks, independent from organized society and infrastructure, the family promotes the children to the status of breadwinners, quite literally leaving the fate of their wealth, even the daily supper, in their young hands. A strong sense of trust and faith pervades their family dynamic. Heldy, the youngest male child in a polygamist family of 17 children, must carry his weight once his siblings start building their own families.
During his adolescent years, when Heldy wasn’t in elementary school, running was a means of survival. Very often he was called upon to descend from his tall hill to take water up from the river. Water, the backbone of his family’s livelihood, single-handedly sustained the farm’s crops and livestock. Those water trips were simple errands, though, only a matter of motivation and will. Hunting, on the other hand, especially when lacking a weapon, was entirely dependent on the skill – both the chase and the catch – of the hunter. Like many boys in Kenya, Heldy had to run up and down hills to catch antelopes and jackrabbits to feed his family. These chases could last from a half hour up to two hours, depending on how effectively he ran, how strategically he decided to make one turn versus another, how ferocious he forced himself to become. Weaponless but for the faculties of the body he was born with, Heldy became as fierce as an animal, seeking, overpowering and conquering prey. His abrupt motions mimicked the jackrabbits he chased, his agility and sustained endurance mirrored the antelopes who taught him how to run. With nature as his sagacious trainer, motivating him to improve and run faster, Heldy reveled in the struggles of those first, hard runs.
Besides the tobacco and water runs, Heldy is also sent on missions across towns and villages to deliver messages to relatives. These trips sometimes extend to over 150 miles, mostly encompassed by tiresome days and rejuvenating nights. Sleep is a means to have energy to run, and running is a means of abiding by his role as a good son and family member. He lives with constant purpose, acts at the maximum of his capacity and chooses to live every moment at his apex. He does not challenge the life into which he was thrust at birth, but instead he accepts it with grace and equanimity, absorbing the precision and discipline that is required by all of his various duties into his very essence.
“Good job,” Heldy hears over and over again, like a waterfall of never-ending noise and excitement. As the winner of his high school’s 10-kilometer race, Heldy begins to deeply appreciate all of the hardships he endured growing up. He is stronger, faster and more determined than anyone else, though he had not previously considered any of his work for his father as “training.” He was just being a good son, doing what he was supposed to do, what was required of him.
Nevertheless, Heldy now realizes the effects of his upbringing and considers what a career in running would be like. “It takes a lot of time to make it as a professional runner,” Heldy speculates. “Could I survive…before I make it?” Resilient to fear and doubt he keeps racing, the wins translating into trophies to bring back to his family. These cheap metal figurines, however, are the least of the gratification for Heldy’s victorious races, feats that are so overwhelmingly intangible, battles which are won more mentally than anything else. For Heldy, the greatest reward of races, win or lose, is the feeling of accomplishment and the transformation that incurs after the sustained effort of giving one’s heart. “In the beginning,” Heldy recounts, “I loved to run because it gave me an opportunity to prove I am that toughest.” Sitting in a classroom towards the end of his senior year of high school, Heldy is entranced by the warm sunshine illuminating the grass outside, what registers in his mind as perfect running weather.
Nevertheless, by high school graduation, Heldy is enamored by the world of mathematics, hoping to, one day, turn his proficiency with numbers into a career. Running as a career path isn’t being seriously considered, which, in retrospect, either reveals immense humility or a lack of understanding of the magnitude of his talent. In order to afford his two younger siblings the opportunity to receive basic education, however, he sacrifices attending university. With no job, school or much else, Heldy contemplates his life and considers his options given his lack of credentials or money. For a few months, Heldy stays at home and assesses what he wants to and can do with his life. Of course, he continues to run three times a day to maintain optimal fitness. Then, a kiss from God reaches down from the magnanimous heavens: the offer.
Like a beast that finally caught its prey after a long and treacherous chase, Heldy instinctively replies in the affirmative to the sports agents who came to his door and offer him opportunity in return for effort. He knows that this decision is the kind he will be able to tell his grandchildren about when teaching them the value of snap-judgments and intuition, the kind that will drastically change the trajectory of his life. Committed to reach his goal no matter the sacrifice, Heldy sells the bull he purchased with his life savings to fund the rest of his training and the races ahead of him. He remembers this scene as the first truly substantial step in his running career, this sign of approval and endorsement from the outside world that he had seen before with previous members of his community who became professional runners. The contract dictates that Heldy would go to South Africa, compete in races about once a week for several months in addition to an intense weekly training routine with international runners.
Heldy looks back on that time with both amazement and unease. It was there, perhaps, that he first recognized the danger of forcing his body to endure stress beyond the threshold of its capability, of revolting against the barrier of his skin and bones a little too far beyond what he could handle. Heldy vividly recalls the training. “This level of intensity was new to me and it was exhausting. By the time I fell asleep, it was already time to wake up. During the first few weeks, I kept thinking, ‘This is something I shouldn’t be doing.’”
On April 17th, 2011 in the sixth mile of the final and most important race of his tour, the Slow Mag Half Marathon, Heldy feels a pain in his right shin exacerbate with each new step. He finishes strong, even achieving a personal record, but intuitively knows his body is beginning to crumble. An expert at understanding pain, Heldy diagnoses himself as injured, a fate that forces him, ever so reluctantly, to release and withdraw.
Arriving back to his home in Kenya a few days later, Heldy allows himself two weeks off to recuperate. Every running expert in his village advises him that he will need one or two months for his injury to completely heal. To facilitate his recovery, Heldy pays other running professionals for massages, using only natural forms of medicine to restore his health. Because he constantly believes that he will soon be healthy, Heldy never questions his decision to pursue a running career.
“I never knew it was going to take that long to heal,” he says. “Every two weeks, I would try to run again and see if I was healthy. When I realized I wasn’t ready to return, I waited another two weeks to run again.” Eight months later, Heldy’s patience is nearly spent and his eagerness to run is barely able to be contained. But Heldy knows running is the only thing he wants to do. Running is his passion, the course is his home. He is compelled to return because he “couldn’t take it, didn’t know what to do with [his] time.” Races are the only time and place that make sense, perfect sense. Passionate and unstoppable, up and down the hills he runs more. The training continues.
Despite the injuries he has endured, there is nothing else in the world Heldy would rather be doing. Running formed his identity as a child, enabled him to survive and to become the person he is today. Heldy accepts this fate with a humble smile and a shrug of the shoulders, proud of his success and triumphs. His mental toughness is ingrained, inescapable even if he ever so desired. Positive psychology, unnerving focus and authentic confidence are the tools he uses to keep going amidst a fear of burning out.
Today, Heldy lives in Jacksonville, Florida, running three times a day with other professional runners and runs at least one or two races a month. The fear of pain was abolished within him; he realizes that challenges and pain present an opportunity to overcome, to surpass one’s own expectations. That is his definition of pure enjoyment. His past drives his present and his present is directed towards an unknown and indefinite future. Running as a means has turned into running as an end. Though he was unaware at the time, his experiences pushed him to choose the career path to which he is so evidently committed. A strange and mysterious force propelled his life in this very specific direction; Heldy acknowledges this fateful element of his life, and as always, adapts to the reality that is presented to him. He believes his greatest imperative is “to do anything that will make [him] faster and boost [his] career.” In his profoundly simple perception, everything besides for his passion is just background noise. He is in love with this sport in a way that characterizes the human yearning to adventure, to overcome limitations, to compare the distances inherent with this world and the measure of the heart within each and every one of us.
When Heldy runs, he carries his past on his shoulders. Fueled by the struggles he has overcome, he relentlessly treks on.