A Decade In Kenya Turned Two Teens From New Zealand Into World-Class Runners

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The plan had seemed so simple when it was hatched in their mom’s basement. But as the plane was landing in Nairobi, the scabby ground growing closer, 18-year-old Zane leaned over to his twin brother and said, “Jake, what are we going to do?”

Zane meant immediately, when the two pale New Zealanders with their hiking packs emerged, blinking, into the streets of Nairobi, but he may have also needed a reminder of the big picture. What was the plan again?

That moment of reality struck on January 1, 2007. Jake and Zane Robertson’s plan was to run. The twins had left home to take their nascent running talent to Kenya, the home of distance running, immerse it in the Kenyan lifestyle, and work until they reached the very top of the sport. They were there to become professional runners, and to compete at an Olympic level. The plan didn’t come with an end date.


On Jan. 14, 2018, Jake won the Houston Half Marathon with a time of one hour and one second, beating a super-deep, world-class field and earning $20,000 along the way. Zane had posted a stellar 59:47 half marathon in 2015. They are the fastest New Zealanders ever at that distance, and near the top of the heap on a global scale. Jake is sponsored by Nike, which, together with prize money, has allowed him to live comfortably, travel, and build a house in Iten, Kenya. His times at 10K and half marathon would certainly make him a strong candidate for a New Zealand Olympic or World Championship team. All of this to say that, within 10 years, the plan worked. All the boxes were checked.

And none of that is easy—hitting 4:35 per mile for 13.1 miles? Earning a living as a runner? Becoming an Olympian? Those are laughably lofty goals, the kind fresh-faced kids often have but rarely achieve. Difficult as it is to scissor one’s legs at great speed for a long way, Jake’s true achievement may be in overcoming more subjective struggles along the way—loneliness, poverty, uncertainty, being an outsider, physical hardship, becoming an adult, becoming an individual.


I spoke to him at length via Skype from Iten, where he’d just gotten out of a massage.

Deadspin: Little log cabin in Hamilton, New Zealand, the early days: Do you have siblings other than Zane? Did you participate in other sports? Did you and Zane always do the same things? What did your parents do?


Jake Robertson: No other siblings. Rugby is a tradition in New Zealand. All boys must play rugby. I played field hockey for a year, and soccer. I loved basketball, but in New Zealand, basketball becomes like rugby—very physical. I was too small to play well against huge guys. The whole time I was going to races and winning everything; me and Zane would be one-two in every race. Yeah, we had the same interests, the same friends, and of course we were living in the same house, so we did most things together. Zane stayed in rugby for an extra year after I’d stopped. But Zane was not my best friend; there was someone else I considered my best friend. My mother was a kindergarten teacher, father was an electrician. We were on the top side of poor or the bottom of average economically. Our parents divorced when I was 10 or 11. It was not that hard; we were expecting it. There were a lot of fights, ever since we can remember. But I was not the sulking type. We spent time with our dad but continued to live with our mom because that was where the house was.

When did you start running seriously, and why?

In elementary school, we won every interschool race by a long way. But when we got to high school, I got beaten at the North Island level, and I didn’t like that feeling. So I trained for a month, and in cross country I was untouchable. In 2005, I went to the World Junior Track and Field Championship for New Zealand in 3,000 meters. I was 15 at the time, competing against 18-year-olds. I was obviously talented, and I didn’t like losing. I watched the 2004 Olympics—Bernard Lagat, Kipchoge. They inspired me; I wanted to be at the Olympics. When I started training in high school, I wanted to be at that level.


You’ve mentioned you were bullied; why were you bullied?

We were different. It was tall poppy syndrome. New Zealand has that pretty bad. People sense you’re different. It’s funny, if we had lived in America, I think we would have been popular, but in New Zealand, if you don’t play rugby, you’re picked on. It happened in high school more because we stopped participating. Kids yeah, but teachers too were unfair to us. They called my mother claiming we were anorexic. It was just from the high mileage; it was ridiculous. My mother was furious. When we started winning national titles, teachers started treating us with respect, but it was too little too late. I hated high school. We sat for our finals in October 2006, and the next day were on a plane to Africa.


Why did you decide to move to Kenya? Why not just train there for a while?

We didn’t like New Zealand; getting bullied made us decide to stay away. Money was another reason: We were very low on money so going back and forth was not possible. The only other option was coming to the States for college. Colleges called; they were calling even after I’d moved here, but I saw a way forward. I thought, no one’s ever done this [lived in Kenya] long enough to see the fruits of it. I believed this could work.


When you mentioned foregoing college and moving permanently to Africa to your parents, what was their reaction?

Everybody tried to discourage us straight away. They didn’t have the insight I had. I’d met Kenyan athletes at World Cross [Country Championships] in 2006. They invited us to come and live and train with them, that Kenya was a safe place. Everybody [in New Zealand] thinks Africa is dangerous. They’re scared about what they don’t know.


Did you purchase your own airfare? Why the round-trip ticket? Could you have wired for money in an emergency?

Our parents bought the round-trip tickets—they were pretty sure we weren’t going to survive. We kept pushing back the return ticket until it ran out, at the end of 2007. After that, we’d have had to buy a new ticket. It’s very true—we were prepared to die rather than come home, but our parents were willing to help out financially.


In a way then, you had less of a safety net than young Kenyan runners.

Here, their family is enlarged—they have uncles, second cousins. They’re never out on the street. There is no complete poverty in Iten and Eldoret, partly because it’s good farmland but mostly because everybody has extended family who will take them in and feed them. You have to go to Turkana district to see real poverty. On the bus back to the airport in Houston, the Kenyans [runners who’d come in for the race] were remarking on all the homeless people, and they were shocked. There are no homeless Kenyans.


Describe that moment of feeling really on your own in Kenya.

It was the first time we had been alone, not staying with friends or with a team. We were just about to land in Kenya when Zane asked me, “Jake, what are we going to do?” It all fell on me. I had to act like we had a plan. We took a bus to Eldoret and stayed in a hotel there. They tripled the price because we are white, so we got screwed, but the next day we stopped the first runner we found, who took us straight to the guy I knew. It’s a small running world.


When you landed in Nairobi, what exactly did you have with you?

Not sure how much money we had. Cell phone, yes, training gear, a camera, iPod. No credit card. Within a month it would all be stolen. We found the guy I knew from World Cross but the training camp where he was in Kaptagat was all full, so we went to a cheaper camp down the road. It was just farmland athletes trying to avoid farm work. We didn’t realize at first that they were robbing us part by part. They’d take a T-shirt from the clothesline as it was drying. I came back from a run and found the iPod gone from my bag, along with the phone. After a month, we had one pair of training clothes, one pair of training shoes, and a pair of spikes, so at least we could race. Next day we found [Saif] Shaheen [world record holder in steeplechase] training in Iten. He heard our story and said, “That’s a poor life. Tomorrow I’ll get you a house next to me. You’re on me in Iten.” So we moved to Iten with Shaheen’s training group. He didn’t charge us rent. We went to the market and bought one pair of other clothes, so one training outfit, the other clothes, training shoes, spikes—that’s what we had.


You weren’t sponsored and didn’t have a job. Had you thought about how you would buy food, pay rent?

When the Kenyan junior athletes invited us to come join their camp, I had a good idea we would be taken care of. Pro athletes, they take care of young athletes. Shaheen took us in. He didn’t charge us rent and we got the meal at night at his camp, basic stuff. We got sent some money from our family.


You did have each other. Could you have done it by yourself, without Zane?

I really don’t think so.

Were there Kenyans at Shaheen’s camp of your age?

There were no Kenyan athletes our age. They’re all still in high school. Kenyans are older when they’re put in school, so by the time they’re out of high school, athletes are all in their mid-20s. That’s why you run into age-cheating. World Juniors is supposed to be 19-and-under, but in Kenya, if you don’t have a manager and you haven’t had an opportunity to race, you’re a junior. You’ve got 30-year-old guys in the junior race.


Tell me about a typical day in those first couple months. Also about your living quarters.

We had a 10 x 10 cement block room, and we bought a mattress in the market. Shaheen said it straight, “If there’s anything you need, just ask me.” Week by week, he was surprised that we didn’t ask for a better mattress. We tried to be respectful.


Wake up at 5:40 a.m.—my watch wasn’t stolen. 6:00 a.m. sharp, we start. We’d meet on a specified road, like St. Patrick’s Junction. After the run, we’d go back to the house and have two cups of Kenyan tea and two slices of bread. Then rest. Then go to the gym in Iten and do a major core workout. The other athletes would have lunch but me and Zane created a system—we just wouldn’t make it back for lunch, and go strong until dinner. It’s a 3K walk back from the gym. If we’d missed out on lunch, we’d have a cup of tea. Then 30 to 40 minutes of easy jogging, then come back and prepare dinner. We had electricity but there were regular blackouts. There was an outside tap that was turned on once a week, if you’re lucky twice a week, but completely at random. You had to collect water in big 135-liter drums. If you were out training when the water was turned on, sometimes a neighbor would try and help. There were outside latrines, a hole in ground. The camp did have a small TV but in spare time we did chores—washing clothes, washing dishes, sleeping, going to the road and chatting with friends. We’d walk out to the road and sit there to watch people pass. A friend walks past, he sits down to talk.

Did you get dropped in workouts?

We were getting dropped every single day. Shaheen was very smart and he cared for us. He said, “Don’t train with me every day. It’s gonna kill you.” From that point, we jogged and did easy runs alone, and only joined him a couple times a week. It changed the way we thought—just because the program works for somebody doesn’t mean it works for you.


I want to go back to your diet in that first year: You were doing all this mileage on bread and tea, two small meals a day?

At one point Shaheen got injured and disappeared. Everybody [the other runners] left after Shaheen left, so the camp was hollow for a month. But we could still pick up bread and milk at a little shop, and Shaheen paid for it. We were being respectful; we were not going crazy, sometimes vegetables, just enough to get by. We had one luxury meal a week—chapati and a stew of greens, sometimes a bit of meat—but even that was cheap. We were fans of the Kenyan lifestyle—just run, that hard work, and privation will make you stronger. At that point we believed it, but that isn’t true. Nutrition is important. That’s what’s getting me ahead now. I take care of my diet. Some Kenyans struggle, their energy is down because their diet is poor. I would say it helps mentally to become strong, to go through that, but after a certain amount of time it stops helping.


What was the lowest point? Did you ever think about giving up?

Probably just after the election in 2008. As foreigners, we weren’t targeted in the violence [there were tribal massacres after the Kenyan election] but we’d seen dead bodies on the side of the road. We moved away from Iten for almost a year. We felt need of a change; we had bad memories. The culture in Iten was different back then. Iten was very rural. Everybody’s Christian so you expect everybody to be good people, but like every other country, there were some people who weren’t. There were maybe two or three white people coming through in a year, and they stayed two weeks, max. People were speaking badly of us. They did not understand people being friendly, and they spread bad rumors about me and Zane. There were threats; someone threatened to stone us to death. It was time to leave. So we moved just outside Eldoret and joined Patrick Sang and Eliud Kipchoge’s group.


Around that time, we got very sick drinking from a water hole that wasn’t clean. Maybe typhoid. It scared us—we went to bed on Friday and woke up Sunday night. It was the first time it [possibility of death] was real. Me and Zane forced ourselves to have a glass of water and half a banana each, and we had a talk— “If one of us doesn’t wake up, don’t worry. It’s okay. You continue on and achieve what we came to do. Let mom and dad know that we went out happy.” It did occur to me, I wondered if I could still get a scholarship to the States. That thought lasted until I was better. Two weeks later, I was definitely staying.

Zane moved to Ethiopia to work with that Sub2 Project, right?

Zane moved to Ethiopia in 2011, before Sub2. He met a girl he liked, they hit it off, and he moved there to see if it would work out. I joined them for a while, but then came back to Kenya. Bunch of con men, those Sub2 guys. There are no more Sub2 athletes. But Zane discovered a new training group there, with Guye Adola. He found a good system there, and ran his 59:47 off training with that group.


You and Zane have lived together, shared the same interests, the same dream, you’ve done everything together. A relationship like that can be helpful, even vital, but it can also be difficult—there was no guarantee you would both become world-class runners.

We would fight regularly, as you can imagine, living in a small room—about household jobs, about training, but on a life scale, no, we agreed. We had each other; we wouldn’t have survived if it was not for each other.


This connection with Zane, we were always close—twin brothers, both talented, same interests, same group of friends. You go through shit together. Me and Zane, we were the opposite to twinning; we were very upset if we didn’t get recognized as an individual. Growing up, it was more important then than now, but we are two people. If one of us didn’t achieve the dream, the other would help him do something to remain in the sport. Be an agent or something. But really that was never a thought pattern. When we started to think like that, we pushed it to the side. It’s negative. I had two years [2015 and 2016] struggling with injury. That’s when Zane ran 59:47 [for half marathon]. I was happy for his success. I told him, “You’re really on top now. We’re becoming what you wanted to become.” You don’t hate on others for achieving, especially someone from your family. That’s one of the great things—there’s no badness in sport. You’re happy for the other person and humble: it goes both ways.

We will always have something. Zane has an Ethiopian girlfriend but they live here [Iten]. I built my house. We have our own lives apart, but we’re still as close as brothers can be.


Having invested everything into becoming a top runner, and having had some success, a hint of your potential, two years of injury, in 2015 and 2016, seems about the hardest thing yet about your journey. And harder still because, unlike all the other things you’ve endured, this was your own personal test. Zane was running very well at the time. How did you stay positive? And mostly, how did you fill your time in Iten, where there isn’t much to do besides run and farm?

It was a very tough time because of not knowing what the problem was. The progress in training showed me that I was still on the rise, but couldn’t get the time right to get to a race. The one time I did get to the rave, the injury happened during it. I never gave up hope.


When I couldn’t train, I’d smash the gym. In fact, I started competing with core bridges or planks, getting up to almost two hours. I’d do all the house jobs, play pool or 8 ball at the roadside pool house. I’d spend most of my free time making buckets, playing basketball; obviously not jumping too much while I was hurt, but shooting was fine, and kept me sane.

You sacrificed a lot for your dream—no college, no partying, no video games, no flush toilets. Was that necessary? What do you tell kids who want to be professional runners?


I have no regrets. I tell kids there’s no set path. It’s only about work ethic—if they work hard enough, they can do it in any country. The Kenyan lifestyle may not be necessary, but it made me a helluva lot stronger. I’m thankful I’ve done it. Being a half marathoner takes mental toughness; I’m accustomed to the grind, I can hold it together. Iten and Eldoret are a lot more westernized now— Eldoret has 5G [internet connection].