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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Ferocious discipline drives Kenyan marathoner

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Students at Le Jardin Academy talk with Mbarak Hussein. Later this year, the reigning Honolulu Marathon champ will attempt to become the first person to win four Honolulu Marathons.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Mbarak Hussein

Age: 38

Tribe: Nandi

Hometown: Kapsabet, Kenya

Current residence: Albuquerque, N.M.

Recent accomplishments: Three-time Honolulu Marathon champion (1998, 2001, 2002); Seoul International Marathon champion (2002); fourth place, Boston Marathon (2002).

Personal bests: 10K, 27 minutes, 45 seconds; 15K, 42:55; half-marathon, 1:03:21; marathon, 2:09:45.

Big Brother: Brother Ibrahim also won the Honolulu Marathon three times, and holds the course record (2:11:43).

Big Sister: Sister Zaituni ran cross-country for the University of Hawai'i in the 1990s.

After their prepared questions for Kenyan marathoner Mbarak Hussein had been exhausted, the third-graders at Le Jardin got down to the important stuff.

"Did you have any pets in Kenya?" inquired Taylor Cabiles, 8.

"Two dogs and two cats," Hussein replied. "But in Kenya, the dogs stay outside."

And what were your pets' names?

And what's your favorite food?

And did you have a lot of chores when you were a kid?

And, and, and ...

So it went at the Windward academy Monday as the reigning Honolulu Marathon champion (1998, 2001, 2002) kicked off a busy week of goodwill visits at O'ahu schools.

A guest of the Honolulu Marathon Association, Hussein is meeting with elementary school students to share information about his African culture and heritage, and to inspire students on how discipline and dedication can empower people to achieve greatness.

But back to those questions. Hussein remembers a cat named Chui (leopard) and a dog named Simba (lion). His favorite food is the Kenyan staple ugali, a mash made from cornmeal. And, yes, he did have a few chores after school.

Speaking of school, the one Hussein attended was three miles from home. And so, because timeliness is a virtue, Hussein ran three miles to school in the early morning and three miles back home at noon — barefoot, of course, just like everybody else.

When he reached fourth grade, afternoon classes became mandatory. So the ritual expanded to a run to school, a run back home at noon for lunch, a run back to school and a run back home at the end of the day. That's 12 miles a day, five days a week. And that's before the chores.

"Kenyans are good runners because life in Kenya is not easy," Hussein said. "Running is not a game like basketball or football. Running is hard, and if you are used to a hard life, then it helps you to become a good runner."

Hussein belongs to the Nandi tribe, which, with a population of about half a million, has produced a disproportionate number of the world's top distance runners.

Indeed, even among Kenyans, a nationality that has become synonymous with distance running success during the past decade, the Nandi are considered exceptional.

Kenyan runners train at high altitude — roughly 6,000 feet — but Hussein is quick to emphasize that it's the ferocious discipline that these runners embrace that makes a difference.

Indeed, despite his concern that life in the United States might be a little too easy, Hussein still runs 120 to 140 miles a week in training for his marathons.

It's not even certain that Hussein is the best runner in his family. Older brother Ibrahim has also won three Honolulu Marathons, and his 1986 victory in 2 hours, 11 minutes, 43 seconds is the course record. He also won the Boston Marathon three times, and the New York Marathon once.

It was Ibrahim's success that brought Mbarak to Hawai'i.

Mbarak, 19 at the time, accompanied his older brother to Honolulu in 1985 and, with no training and no experience in competitive running, decided to see what he could do at the marathon. He finished in under three hours.

"I was not a runner when I was growing up," Hussein said. "I played soccer."

With his brother's help, Hussein headed to Texas to attend South Plains Junior College and Lubbock Christian University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. While in college, Hussein competed in the 800 and 1500 meters, then switched to cross-country and marathon.

Despite his late start in the sport, Hussein — with his sprinter's kick and chess player's mindset — has distinguished himself as one of the finest marathoners in the world.

At 38, Hussein has defied the odds by posting some of his fastest times in his most recent runs. And while he's a cautious favorite to become the first person to win four Honolulu Marathons, no one is betting against him.

"I think being older helps," Hussein said. "I have the discipline and the respect for the sport to do whatever it takes. Can I win at 40? That is a challenge. I'd like to do that."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-2461.