The Story of Sam Chelanga, Kenyan and American
By Paul O’Shea
With the Wind:
Finding Victory Within
By Sam Chelanga
Morgan James Publishing
114 pp., $13.75
I’m always interested in books about runners and coaches. Recently, two entries came on the scene, Born to Coach by the self-important Bill Squires, and the well worth your credit card number Running the Dream by marathoner Matt Fitzgerald.
A third entry came into view a short time ago: With the Wind: Finding Victory Within, the autobiography of Sam Chelanga, one of the accomplished Kenyan runners who have had an impact on American distance running in the past two decades.
Sam Chelanga won back-to-back NCAA cross country titles in Terre Haute, setting the still standing LaVern Gibson course record of 28:41.2 in 2009. On the track he won the collegiate 10,000, also in record time. After gaining U.S. citizenship, he represented this nation in the 2017 World Cross Country Championships, finishing a creditable 11th, the first American.
Chelanga, whose brother Joshua finished third in the 2001 Boston Marathon, was a Paul Tergat discovery in 1990s Kenya. When Fairleigh Dickinson University offered the young runner an athletic scholarship, Tergat played a key role in getting the Kenyan out of Nairobi and into the United States.
A visa snafu almost kept Sam Chelanga at home. After his fourth attempt to contact the U.S. Embassy failed, he asked the two-time Olympic bronze medalist for help. Tergat called the U.S. Embassy and successfully lobbied for his protégé. Chelanga boarded a plane out of the country and a few days later, representing Fairleigh, won an invitational at Van Cortlandt Park.
That first cross country season in America was an athletic success, as he placed 16th in NCAA Division One at LaVern Gibson, a venue he would continue to find profitable. But Chelanga was unfulfilled at Fairleigh. Despite his achievements, “I found what I thought I wanted, but there was still a vacancy for happiness. Happiness did not lie where I thought it had.” At the indoor nationals he met Liberty University’s Josh McDougal and it was a university-changing event.
McDougal had won the NCAA individual cross country crown a few months earlier. The Kenyan transferred to Liberty, and in the 2008 cross nationals, Chelanga finished second, five seconds behind Galen Rupp. The next two years Chelanga won the national championship he’d been targeting since he was a freshman. All three victories by McDougal and Chelanga were under the direction of Liberty’s Brant Tolsma. Before leaving Lynchburg, Virginia and turning pro, the author won four national cross country and track titles.
Chelanga devotes a chapter to his national collegiate 10,000 record, and the workout that almost prevented him from the mark. Stanford’s Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational is an early-season focus for distance runners. Looking to beat the American record Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar asks Chelanga to pace Rupp. Despite suffering from an injured foot, Chelanga’s a supporting player to Oregon’s leading man. Instead, at the finish Chelanga is two seconds ahead of Rupp, runs 27:08.49, a collegiate record, but it is Chris Solinsky who captures the American record with 26:59.6.
Since becoming a citizen in 2011, Chelanga had wanted to earn a U.S. vest and compete at the world majors. His opportunity came in 2016 when he toed the line in the Olympic Trials 10,000. Unfortunately, 90-degree Eugene heat drained him and he trailed badly in the early miles. Laps later, the temperature took its toll on his competitors. Chelanga re-groups and picks off runners. Working his way through the field he finishes sixth. Because two runners ahead of him elect to run in other Olympic races, Chelanga is fourth, the alternate on the team.
Heat again was an enemy a year later at the World cross country in Uganda. With three of his sisters seeing him race for the first time, he was the first American to finish at Kampala, in eleventh place. But a Twitter message goes ass over teakettle. He posts: “I wouldn’t recommend racing in Africa. Super thankful for eleventh place overall.”
“Somehow,” he writes in his book, “my sarcasm was lost in translation. Instead of what I thought was just a simple social media post to say thank you and to show appreciation for a great day in Uganda, I was bombarded by negativity and hate.”
Four notable mentors and runners, Jerry Schumacher, Ben True, James Li and Scot Simmons, coached him in the professional years. Turning pro, he signed with Nike, but the pressure to perform at the elite level was daunting. “I had a difficult time separating the life as an elite and the love of running I knew that was in me. The contract, expectations, schedules, money and all that I was supposed to live up to was overshadowing all I thought the life of an elite would be.”
He had just won the national 25 kilometer title, and finished as top American at the world half marathon. Surprisingly, he then left world class running at age 35 and turned to the military where he enlisted and became an officer at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
With the Wind gets off to a slow start. Before his story is recounted in 114 autobiographical pages there are six pages of Advance Praise, encomiums from fellow athletes Emma Coburn, Carrie Tollefson, Molly Huddle, and LetsRun’s Jonathan Gault. Then, approval from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell (Junior). Next are two pages each of Content, Preface, Acknowledgements, and Introduction. Finally, a single-page epigraph. That’s an 18-page tempo run just to get to the starting line. Unfortunately, I don’t believe your endurance is fully rewarded.
While Chelanga’s book is capably written, especially when compared with the dross that emerges in much of the running canon, this reader wanted more. More rewarding would have been a deeper dive into his other races. With national records, major college wins and international meets on his resume, there are certainly stories to be told. In these pages, we find too few.
There is so much more Chelanga could tell us. What was it like to run for the elite coaches? What were the differences in training philosophies, workout schedules? The performance enhancing scourges that infected Kenyan and other world-class athletes calls out for examination and comment by the author. How does he feel about major medals won by doping athletes, the loss of income by runners who watched the tainted win accolades and bonuses?
Yes, Sam found victory by going within, but he’s left something in the call room.
Paul O’Shea follows athletics (track and field and cross country) from Fairfax, Virginia.