After ten years of marriage, of cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood, giving birth to two children, helping herd cattle and farming land in their Kenyan village, 29 year-old Winny Tonui told her husband that she wanted to become a professional runner.
That would mean leaving their Kenyan village of Olereut. That would mean leaving her two children. That would also mean asking her husband to be the sole caretaker of their family, a highly unusual arrangement in their African village. People would talk. But she would have to leave, at least for a while, to truly be able to make a go of it. Her husband told Winny, “If you want to run, you run. Do not worry about what other people say. If you want to run, you run.?
According to people in their village, running was for children. In their esteemed Kalenjin tribe, world-renowned for producing the greatest Kenyan runners, if you have not achieved success as a child, there is no point in running as an adult. But Winny was undeterred. After having already made four 2-kilometer trips of carrying a jug of water the size of a typical water cooler jug, she would knot up her skirt, hold it in her hand and run through the village every day.
Without proper footwear, though, her feet were sore and swollen, especially after the daily 8K trips for water. Even worse, she was losing weight, while women in her culture were expected to gain weight. And since she wasn?t a professionally trained runner, she was the topic of much discussion in her village, the object of open ridicule.
But her husband believed in her.
So Winny entered her first race, a local competition for older school children. Since it wasn?t timed, the only way she could stand out was to just win the whole thing. She did. One month later, she won a 5K race at a district meet. She was starting to be taken seriously, and she was offered the chance to come to America and make a go of it. Her husband agreed to take on all of her responsibilities at home, an unusual move that brought about its own attention in the village. While waiting to travel, though, deadly riots spreading through Kenya made it impossible for her to fly out, delaying her opportunities and making the possibilities she was seeking even more uncertain.
But eventually the chaos did calm, and she was finally able to leave Africa. On April 21, 2008, Winny’s dream became a reality when she won the Dismal Swamp Half Marathon, in Virginia – her first race outside of Kenya. Five days later, she won The Franklin 5K race in North Carolina. She also picked up a sponsorship from Spira athletic outfitters.
And now? She sees what’s next. She hopes to win more prize money to take back to her family. She hopes to inspire other women in her village, in her country, and around the world to overcome the barriers that they perceive are stopping them from following their dreams. She hopes for change.