Marathon Man: Korir seeks running greatness via Chicago
His day job is working maintenance at Kurz Hall, a student residence at the University of Louisville. But before and after work this past summer, UofL graduate and former Cardinal track and cross-country star Wesley Korir could be found running the roads around campus or training on the university’s track at Cardinal Park.
It was all preparation for this Sunday when Korir is set to compete in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, one of the largest events of its kind in the world. The event draws scores of marathoners of all shapes, sizes, experiences and aspirations. Most of his fellow runners will be happy to achieve a personal best time, qualify for other marathons, or simply finish the race, but Korir’s aim is somewhat higher.
The native Kenyan, who graduated from UofL last year with a biology degree, is trying to become one of the top marathoners in the world. After only two career races, he’s knocking on the door.
One year ago, competing in his first 26.2-mile test—the 2008 Chicago Marathon—Korir surprised the field by placing fourth despite starting five minutes behind the 20 elite runners who had earned a spot at the front of the more than 40,000 other participants. He posted an impressive time of 2 hours, 13 minutes and 53 seconds.
If that didn’t get the attention of the marathon world, what he did in California on May 24 did. This time starting with the elite runners, Korir won the 2009 Los Angeles Marathon. Not only did he win the race over several seasoned marathoners, many of whom Korir admired as a kid, he set a new course record of 2:08:24.
“You never know what is pushing you,” said Korir, a deeply spiritual and devout Christian. “I think it’s one moment God had planned for me, and he definitely knows.”
The win was lucrative for Korir. He earned $100,000 as part of The Challenge, a battle-of-the-sexes format that allowed the top women to start nearly 17 minutes ahead of the men. Korir passed the women’s field at the 24-mile mark. He also picked up an additional $60,000 for time bonuses.
Suddenly, agents approached him. Some promised to make him a millionaire, but those promises fell on disinterested ears.
“My goal in life is not to be a millionaire,” said Korir, who did become a first-time homeowner over the summer. “My goal is to do what God wants me to do and to do it with passion. If God wants me to be a maintenance guy right now, I’m doing it—and I’m doing it with passion and giving it 100 percent. I give everything I do 100 percent.”
And while Korir has signed with an agent, he continues to rely heavily on a strong support group he has in Louisville.
“There’s something about Louisville,” he said. “I feel like I have a family here. I love the people. Without these people I would not be where I am.”
After his L.A. win, he also looked to follow a tradition started by previous successful African marathoners — that of using his prize money to help people in his homeland. Specifically, he wants to start an orphanage in his hometown of Kitale, Kenya.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I was born into a very poor family. My passion is to help poor children. God is giving me an opportunity to make a difference.”
Korir has not been back to Kenya since the New Year of 2008. His holiday trip home to visit family and do missionary work took a frightening turn with the outbreak of civil war. In Korir's phone calls back to Louisville, people like UofL track coach Ron Mann could hear “real distress in his voice.”
“It was scary,” Mann recalled. “We realized we had to get him out of Kenya, and an army of people here in Louisville went to work.”
The international flavor of collegiate track and field was a big help, the coach said. “We’re used to dealing with immigration issues, with U.S. embassies and all bureaucracy.
“It was a cooperative effort between him on the inside and us working on the outside. He was in the middle of it and he knew how to maneuver on the ground, to find ways to get where he needed to be, and we knew how to find out where he could go, so he could get back.”
Korir said the experience made him a better person with a deeper appreciation for life.
“Whenever I think about it—and I don’t like to think about it—it makes me thankful for everything I’ve got. I look at life from a different perspective," he said.
“I saw huge houses—rich people’s houses burned. Huge cars burned. People’s material goods, you can lose it like that. You can spend your life trying to make money to buy this house or buy this car and then in five minutes it’s gone.”
Korir so far has been unable to return to Kenya to start laying down the foundation for the orphanage, but he had a willing assistant this past summer in girlfriend Tarah McCay.
The UofL senior, herself a standout distance runner and team captain on the cross-country and track teams, traveled to Kenya to scout locations, work in different orphanages and report back to Korir.
For six weeks in July and August, McKay split her time among the cities and towns of Nairobi, Eldoret and Kitale, staying with Korir’s relatives.
“A major reason I wanted to go there was to learn about the culture, learn about where Wesley came from and learn the language,” McKay said.
Korir, she said, knows the exact spot where he’d like to see the orphanage—near the house where he grew up.
“He told me over the phone where he was envisioning it,” McKay said. “He told me, ‘At the top of this hill near this school. Close to this road.’
“It’s still mostly an idea. Right now, it’s about starting a foundation, developing a mission statement, a website. Get the message out.”
While in Kenya, McKay talked to people about the war.
“Feelings are suppressed,” she said. “There are clearly still grievances there. But they know it’s not productive for their country to continue fighting. They seemed thankful for normalcy—because during the conflict they couldn’t get food for a month, couldn’t leave their houses, couldn’t call people.
“It was kind of humbling (talking to them about it).”
The challenges of Korir’s life, including his impoverished childhood, Mann said, have shaped his winning attitude.
“Shelter over your head, clothes on your back, shoes on your feet: to him, these are all blessings. The things we take for granted for him are truly blessings. We can learn a lot from someone like Wesley.”
And for Korir’s running future, Mann noted there are time barriers to becoming an elite marathoner—walls a runner needs to break through to get to the top. The first is to break 2 hours and 20 minutes. He did that in Chicago last year. The second is to break 2:10. He did that in his Los Angeles victory in May.
“Now the question is: Can he become a great marathoner, one of the truly elite?” Mann said. “That requires running down in the 2:04 to 2:06 area.”
Korir wants to have no regrets after Chicago—or any race.
“Normally, when you don’t do good, what you do
is look back and try to figure out what you did wrong," he said. "I
just want to make sure I do everything right and let God do the rest.”