Born in Kenya, nurtured in Japan, Douglas Wakiihuri is an Olympic marathon favorite
September 11, 1988

From the high, green country around Nyeri, to the west of Mount Kenya, there came a mysterious boy. It is true he was born in Mombasa on the steamy coast, and was schooled in Nairobi, the capital city on the inland plateau, because his mother, Lydia, was a civil servant who worked in various prison offices, but his family home, his Kikuyu tribal home, was always Nyeri, near the mountain. The boy's name was Douglas Wakiihuri, and he felt fatefully moved by the 17,000-foot peak that eternally hides its craggy, broken face in clouds.

"We Kikuyu believe that maybe God lives on the mountain," Wakiihuri would say a few years later, when he was a man. "It could not be more important to us."

As a boy, he was small, with apprehensive eyes. Yet when he smiled, which was not often, one could see many sharp teeth that, once sunk into a task, would be hell to pry apart.

"In high school, I wasn't very social," he says. "I had friends. I didn't see them much. I spent most of my time doing my own things."

He loved the solitude and difficulty of running over Kenya's red earth, be it mud or dust. Yet Wakiihuri's Kikuyu had contributed little to Kenya's magnificent tradition of distance running. The greatest Kenyan runners, such as Kip Keino, Mike Boit and Henry Rono, were of the Nandi tribe.

"Most people say Kikuyu are bad runners, and, yes, the Nandi runners are very good," says Wakiihuri. "But they don't keep running consistently. They train for a month, win their race and then stop to enjoy life. If you can find a Nandi who can keep running, I think he can do wonders."

Wakiihuri persevered and applied to running the virtues of the Kikuyu, working no wonders, but maturing in a society that receives its male youth according to how effectively they master pain.

"When I was 12, I was circumcised," he says. He is aware that these simple words, referring to the rite that signifies the passage from child to adult among his people, cause his listener to flinch. "It's not that terrible," he adds. "It's like your mom asks you one day, 'Do you want to be circumcised?' "

He said yes. And he didn't flinch. "That's the Kikuyu way," Wakiihuri continues. "If you don't do it, you will never be a man. You will be left behind. It was painful, yes, but to live on without it, you would have the same pain, or more, because you would not be a man. You have to know where you are going."

It is likely you will also find the path on your own, with no male hand to guide you along the way. "I can't say anything about my father," Wakiihuri explains. "My mother never told me about him. I do not know him, if he is alive, nor his name."

So lonely sacrifice was bearable, if he knew its object. "When I was small, my mother told me how she had to struggle for years to get her job. She had no school and really suffered. I asked myself, 'What shall I do? What shall I be?' I wasn't good in class. So I said, 'I am going to select one way. Whether I win or lose doesn't matter. But this that I choose is going to be the only way, for me, to get to the top of Mount Kenya.' "

He chose to run. And he set off to the East.

Wakiihuri's first chance at the summit came in 1987, at the World Championship marathon in Rome. On a hot September day, he began in a manner few Africans have been able to stand—that is, patiently, in the pack.

The course's cobblestones and incessant turns around squares and fountains soon wearied the favorites, including defending champion Rob de Castella of Australia. With four miles to go, Wakiihuri put in his first hard surge. Only Ahmed Salah of Djibouti, the 1987 World Cup champion, was able to stay with him. "When we were left but two, I knew," says Wakiihuri. "I was tired, but he was also. He couldn't push any more."

Wakiihuri left Salah at St. Peter's Square and ran strongly on, in obvious command. Reporters, waiting at the finish in Olympic Stadium, frantically assembled the fragments known of this erect, expressionless man.

He was 23. He trained in Japan. He spoke Swahili, English and Japanese. He won by 42 seconds.

"Japan?" he was asked when he had cooled down. "You live in Japan?"

"Before I could climb Mount Kenya," said Wakiihuri very softly, "I first had to climb Mount Fuji."

Here is how it happened. When Wakiihuri was at school in Nairobi, he would sometimes see his uncle, Wilson Waigwa. A rare Kikuyu, Waigwa was a fine miler at the University of Texas at El Paso from 1974 to 1977. "He said if I ran well, maybe I could go to a U.S. college," says Wakiihuri. Waigwa, a cheerful soul, elaborated on the great parties and well-paid races to which such a course would lead. The young Wakiihuri, quiet and ascetic, was not sold.

But then, at 16, Wakiihuri met Shunichi Kobayashi, a Japanese writer and photographer based in Kenya. When Kobayashi spoke of a samurai spirit of commitment, Wakiihuri drank it in.

"I sensed there was another way of training in Japan," says Wakiihuri. "It was not only physical, but training mentally and spiritually."

The chief practitioner of this training was Kiyoshi Nakamura, the coach of the Japanese marathon champion, Toshihiko Seko. Wakiihuri wrote to Nakamura and spilled out his longings. In 1983, Nakamura arranged for the 19-year-old Wakiihuri to meet him in New Zealand, where he and some of his runners were in training. After several weeks of scrutiny, Nakamura arranged for Wakiihuri to train in Japan.

"Would an American coach have accepted me the way Mr. Nakamura did?" muses Wakiihuri now. "A good runner, yes, but not such as I was in '83."

"When my husband first met Douglas, he told him, 'From today, I am your father,' " says Michoko Nakamura, the coach's widow. " 'If you are ever lonely or in pain, come and we will talk.' Douglas had a pure heart. They made a good son and father."

Seldom has there been a father of more parts. Nakamura was born in Seoul in 1913, to very poor, superpatriotic Japanese parents. He first ran, he later said, to hide his tears when he had no lunch. He didn't live in Japan until he went to Tokyo's Waseda University at 18. There he set a Japanese 1,500-meter record that stood for 13 years.

Nakamura ran the 1,500 in the Berlin Olympics in 1936 but didn't make the final, which was won by Jack Lovelock of New Zealand over Glenn Cunningham of the U.S. "I was overwhelmed by the athletic ability of Westerners," Nakamura would write in his autobiography.

Drafted in 1938, Nakamura became an officer in the military police, where he saw action as a sniper. After the war he made a living by selling sake and tobacco on the black market and importing and selling sporting guns. He started coaching runners as well, and became associated with Waseda University.

There he came into his own as a passionate philosopher-disciplinarian. Before workouts the team sat in his trophy-hung parlor and absorbed his lessons on life. From Zen masters, the Bible and his own experience, Nakamura taught that when body and mind are truly one, the ego evaporates. "The important thing is not short hair or long," said one of his pupils, Shinetsu Murao. "The important thing is that when the coach says to go to the barber, the pure mind is obedient."

When Seko arrived at Waseda in 1976, Nakamura, then 63, saw his talent. "I caught my breath," he wrote in his autobiography, "thinking, this young man is God's last great gift to me." When Seko graduated from Waseda, Nakamura, with the financing of a spice company, formed the S & B track club to continue his guidance. It was to this club, to this mikado of a mentor, that Wakiihuri came in the spring of 1983.

"It was rough, at first," the Kenyan says now, over a lunch of fish, chicken soup and mochi, the starchy, glutenous pastry that you chew and chew, and gag on and have to discipline yourself to swallow. "A little mochi gives hours of energy," Wakiihuri continues. "But for me, the food wasn't the problem, or the way they sit cross-legged so your knees go bad. It was the language and the different ways of thinking. Even after I'd gone to Japanese school and I understood the words, there was the vagueness, the indirection."

At first, Wakiihuri roomed with Murao, who speaks English, but Nakamura separated them after 2½ months, to make it harder on the Kenyan apprentice. "It had to be done," says Wakiihuri, accepting.

Nakamura had Wakiihuri visit Shinto and Buddhist shrines. "I can't say I'm a religious person," says Wakiihuri, "but to understand the Japanese tradition, you must do what has been done for all the years."

Just so, the intense young runner submitted to all Nakamura asked. "I did not understand all the bowing and thanking before running or eating. But I did it. And gradually I saw that by respecting Mr. Nakamura, we respect running, we show the right seriousness."

His restraint now exceeds that of the Japanese. When Wakiihuri ran last winter in the corporate relays, he carried the red S & B sash with obvious power and an aspect of serenity. The effort is surely as hard for him as for the others, but he cares to show it less. "If a guy is exhausted, fine," he says. "But if he's able to run a good leg and then collapses for the TV cameras, it's not really honorable."

When Wakiihuri came solemnly into his fold, Nakamura was plotting the future of all his, runners according to a grand plan. They would reach their peaks at the Seoul Olympics, and he would return with them to his birthplace and preside over their victories. Then the cycle would be completed, and he would retire. Training twice a day, 120 miles per week, Wakiihuri improved steadily in road and track races, though never threatening teammate Seko, seven years his senior, who won marathons in Fukuoka (four), Boston (two), Tokyo, Chicago and London.

Seko's one bad race came in the Los Angeles Games, when he faded late and finished 14th behind Portugal's Carlos Lopes. Seko competed knowing that Nakamura had been diagnosed as having stomach cancer and had asked his doctors to postpone surgery until after the Olympics. "After the Games he had a third of his stomach removed," says Murao. "He knew he was going to die in the near future."

The doctors gave him two or three years. Nakamura was disgusted. "He felt it better to die in 1985, not in 1988," says Murao. "He said that many times." Athletes in mourning would not be able to give their best in Seoul.

In May 1985, Nakamura went to Shiozawa, near the mountains, to go trout fishing. "He tied his own flies," says Murao. "Fishing was his only pleasure. He could be alone, to think, in natural life."

His first day on the cold water of Shiozawa, Nakamura caught 10 trout. The next day his boat was found overturned on the riverbank. Nakamura lay nearby, where he had drowned.

While not calling it suicide, the Nakamura runners understood this to be what one of them has termed "a happy death."

Nakamura is buried in a cemetery near his home in the Sendagaya section of Tokyo, under cherry trees and bright, polished marble. "When he died," says Wakiihuri, who often carries Nakamura's favorite red roses to his grave, "it came into my mind that every man must have a time when he now depends on no one but himself."

Yet Michoko Nakamura asserts that her husband's spirit will continue to guide the S & B runners until their destiny is played out in Seoul. (Indeed, she said it was his posthumous permission that gained this Western visitor a few days' entry into the tightly bound group.) Murao, who had been Nakamura's assistant, took over the coaching reins of S & B. The runners still meet in the parlor of Nakamura's house before training. There is an elk head from New Zealand, and a bear's from Oregon, both shot by the patriarch. Out the window, where roses climb, there used to be a gnarled old tree from which Oman, mistress of the third Tokugawa Shogun, hung herself in the early 1700s. Her ghost stuck around. Nakamura wrote in his autobiography that the tree never could abide people after that. Tree trimmers used to fall out and get hurt.

"We finally had to get rid of it," says Michoko Nakamura, blending old and new Japan, in a sentence: "The story was driving down property values in the area."

A large photo of an exuberant Nakamura, and a bronze bust of the man, throw his strength over the room. They convince you of the truth of his widow's merry words, "My husband's personality is so strong, criticism never reached his heart."

Here, therefore, is the place to try to grasp how it was that Seko, Wakiihuri and the others could so blithely surrender their independence to this authoritarian man.

"There is a Zen teaching," says Murao, "that if there are people lined up at the well, and you are first, and you drink and spill the rest, the others will be angry. You must drink and pass it on."

The water is knowledge. Nakamura, in his dominant way, was passing it on. And the parched soul, be it Japanese or Kenyan, must accept or go thirsty. It is a perfectly natural metaphor, for what is good running besides compelling one's body to obey one's commands? It must be equally natural for at least some men to feel that if they obey another in mind, they are on the symbolic path. "We know he changes us," Seko has said, "but we want it to happen."

The question is how the pupil knows the right master. How do these pure hearts find each other? By luck or fate? How many miss?

The last miles of the Olympic marathon, on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 2, may well evolve into a struggle between men born below two sacred mountains. Of the eight top-ranked marathoners in the world last year, four were Japanese and two were Kenyan. The strongest should be the training partners and friends, Seko and Wakiihuri.

Both are expert at husbanding reserves. Both will be running under the ghostly eye of their spirit lord.

Which will outlast the other? All things being cool and equal, Seko. He has been the most consistently excellent marathoner of our time. But it takes a heat runner to win an Olympic marathon. Since the Melbourne Games in 1956 the winners of the marathon—Alain Mimoun, Abebe Bikila (1960 and '64), Mamo Wolde, Frank Shorter, Waldemar Cierpinski (1976 and '80) and Lopes—have all been splendid in the heat. Wakiihuri's Rome victory shows him to be superior in just such conditions, as is his countryman Ibrahim Hussein, the winner of last year's New York City marathon.

Also, if pressure kills, it kills Japanese. One result of the homogeneity of Japanese popular culture is that if someone strikes a few imaginations, he strikes everybody's imagination, and so is lionized until he is crushed. "The pressure is all on Seko," says Murao.

So bet on Wakiihuri, the foreigner, the man whose win would even disconcert the nationalistic spirit of his coach. "I know he is likely to develop to the point where he can beat all the Japanese," Nakamura once wrote of Wakiihuri. "I'll be delighted, but at the same time, it will be hard to take."

That ambivalence seems at the core of what Wakiihuri has taken on. Whether he wins in Seoul or not, his heart finds itself of two cultures, and of neither.

Each of his countries is shot through with stereotypes about the other. "Back home people think every Japanese boy can make you a wristwatch, or a TV set," Wakiihuri says. And a couple of years ago, when the film The Gods Must Be Crazy [retitled Bushman for Japanese audiences] played in Tokyo, people ran after Wakiihuri saying, "Bushman, Bushman."

Wakiihuri doesn't know where he will finally live, in the country of his birth or of his way. "I have to finish what I am doing now—getting stronger—before I decide."

He thinks, and even dreams now, in Japanese. But he knows he has been drawn for his running's sake into a society tremendously unwilling to accept him. Reminders of this abound, even in the way the Japanese cannot generally think of him as a permanent resident. "When are you going home?" he is asked. "And they look so surprised if I say, I am home.' I try to be a person of where I am at the time. If I try to be Kenyan here in Japan, I cannot. So I'll continue to be of two ways."

Always a foreigner.

"Yes, to those who are not my friends."

PHOTOROBERT WALLIS/J.B. PICTURESWakiihuri runs with power and an aspect of serenity. PHOTOROBERT WALLIS/J.B. PICTURESThe Kenyan makes frequent pilgrimages to the gravesite of his mentor, Nakamura. PHOTOROBERT WALLIS/J.B. PICTURESDouglas visits Michoko Nakamura, in whose house S & B runners meet before training.