Grandfather of Kenyan Running in New Mexico (Part II)

By 1988, Peter Koech was a veteran professional distance runner with over a decade of international competition under his belt. He was versatile, excelling over distances from 1,500M to 10,000M. The 5,000M and Steeplechase offered the ideal combination of speed and endurance. While avoiding being classified as a Steeplechase specialist, Peter honed his hurdling technique and by 1988, he was prepared to shine on the world stage.

4 Runners

Runners all: Abraham, Peter, Henry Rono, Joseph

At the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Julius Kariuki and Patrick Sang joined Peter in the Steeplechase Final. Any one of them could win the day, and as with most races, they ran together at the front for most of the race. Patrick Sang fell off the pace, but Julius and Peter raced together all the way to the tape, with Julius finishing in an Olympic Record time of 8:05.51 to Peter’s 8:06.79. Julius and Peter accomplished what they set out to do – reaffirm Kenyans’ dominance in “their event.”

Having won a Silver Medal, Peter focused on running his perfect steeplechase. He applied all his experience and energy to the 1989 outdoor season. On July 4 in front of 14,700 track fans in Stockholm’s Olympic stadium, it all came together. Urged on by the rhythmic clapping of the crowd, Peter gave it his all, hurdling the final water barrier and sprinting to a World Record time of 8:05.35. Peter’s record stood for more than three years until the great Moses Kiptanui set the first of his two World Records, later breaking the 8 minute barrier.

During his time at Washington State, Peter and his friend and fellow Nandi tribesman Henry Rono ran a couple of indoor meets at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. With the mile-high elevation, arid climate, nearby 10,000’ high mountains with endless trails and indigenous locals, they felt at home. After leaving Washington, they decided to make Albuquerque their training ground. The two explored the Sandia Mountains, ran intervals on the UNM track and, over time, welcomed more Kenyans to the Duke City. The years passed and as their running careers wound down, they found good jobs at the ABQ Sunport, where they continue to work to this day.

As Kip Keino is the Grandfather of Kenyan running, Peter and Henry are the Grandfathers of Kenyan running in northern New Mexico. The Kenyan diaspora spreads through word of mouth and this land has become the home of over 400 Kenyans, a fraction of whom are professional runners. In 2014, Kenya’s Ambassador to the U.S. visited Albuquerque during the 50th anniversary of Kenya’s independence. She was astonished to find over 100 Kenyans in attendance.

As one example of how messages are passed on among runners, Peter told Simon Sawe about Albuquerque. After moving there, Simon told Abraham Kosgei (GRC’s own), who moved to Pojoaque and Abraham told Caroline Rotich (2015 Boston Marathon winner), who told Aliphine Tuliamuk-Bolton (2015 Santa Fe Thunder women’s winner and women’s course record holder) who made Santa Fe her home 3 years ago. Santa Fe has its own hugely popular Kenyan restaurant, Jambo Café, and the city threw a parade for Caroline Rotich after she won the Boston Marathon in 2015. Abraham has devoted his life to helping indigenous youth and elders live healthy active lifestyles as a trainer and coach at the Pojoaque Pueblo Wellness and Healing Arts Center, and by co-founding Global Running Culture and Santa Fe Thunder.

From the time he was young, Peter Koech witnessed the ascendancy of Kenyan distance runners and led his people to faster times than had ever been run, and lands previously unreachable. His story is still being told and his three sons, one of whom graduated from Harvard, and two who are blazing their own trails, carry on the dream. We are proud to call Peter our friend and to honor him at the 2016 Santa Fe Thunder Half Marathon. We hope you will say hello to Peter during Santa Fe Thunder’s race weekend: it is a gathering of the Global Running Culture and an opportunity to meet, and run with, new friends from around the world.

Smooth Running,

Joseph Karnes
Race Director