ED EYESTONE, THE old champ, didn't know exactly how much trouble he was in until a fire alarm went off in the University Park Hotel late Thursday night. Standing in the lobby at 2:30 a.m. with the hotel's other guests, he made a quick head count of the Kenyans he would face a few hours later in the Deseret News/
Granite Furniture 10,000-meter road race. There were eight."I thought, uh-oh, I just saw the prize money go out the window," he said. "For a moment, I thought I should just turn off the alarm and sleep in. Why bother? I'm a realist."
He ran the race anyway. He should have slept in. Eyestone - who hadn't lost a road race in his home state in more than a decade and had won this race four times, setting a course record along the way - was no better than seventh on Friday. He finished behind six Kenyans.
John Kariuki won the race and the $2,500 first prize, not to mention a $1,000 bonus for breaking Eyestone's 12-year-old course record with a time of 27:33 (but it was a different course because of construction-forced changes). Eye-stone, 37 and still fatigued from running the 10K in Sunday's Goodwill Games, finished in 28:42, about 40 seconds slower than his winning time last year.
"Two races and 37 years take their toll," said Eyestone. That, and Kenyans. Kenyans stole the show on Friday morning. They took the first six places in the men's race, four of them running under 28 minutes, and the first two places in the women's race.
Eyestone is a two-time Olympian and one of the most decorated American distance runners of his time, but even he is no match for the Kenyans.
"Even if I had run as fast as I did last year, I probably wouldn't have finished in the money," he said. "But I thought I might as well go down fighting."
That was more than others were willing to do. Several other top American runners "bailed out" on the race at the last moment, as Eyestone put it, when they found out the Kenyan brigade would be here.
The Kenyans are another species when it comes to running. They have dominated distance running since Kip Keino upset Jim Ryun in the 1968 Olympics. Observers try to explain the Kenyan gift for running. It's genetics. It's the lifestyle. Some even say it's the fresh milk they drink. All that's certain is that they have won 31 Olympic medals since the 1968 Olympics, and that's despite boycotting two Olympics.
Every year, Kenyans set world records, win world championships and rule road racing, and within a year or two they are beaten by a whole new set of Kenyans nobody ever heard of.
"It's like basketball here," explained Kariuki. "Running is part of life in Kenya. It's our talent. My four-year-old son can already run a mile without stopping."
Kariuki tells a familiar story of his upbringing. He ran 10 miles to school and 10 miles home again, every day, up and down hills, at an altitude of 7,000 feet. He didn't know he was training, he says, only that he had to get to school.
Like so many of his countrymen, he comes to America for several months each year to make money on the road-racing circuit, which helps him care for his parents and his own family. Kenyan runners are like migrant farmworkers, moving to where the work is and then moving on when the season is finished.
"You have to be in good shape when you come here, because there are a lot of guys who come over here who are very good," says Kariuki.
So many that they're driving American distance runners out of business. With the number of races and prize money shrinking annually, it is even more difficult for Americans to support their running careers with Kenyans claiming most of the races and money. The name of the game for American runners: Dodge the Kenyans. Unfortunately for them, that is nearly impossible. These days it doesn't take much to attract Kenyans to a race.
"What are all these Kenyans doing here for 2,500 bucks?" Eyestone wondered aloud when he arrived at the hotel where he and the other runners were lodged.
That was enough to get Kariuki and his countrymen to the race, although they also came for something else. "I knew the course was downhill and I could get a good time," said Kariuki. "I wanted the course record."
So Kariuki and his countrymen got what they came for on Friday. Within hours they were boarding planes, soon to resume their search for more races and more paydays.