Wanting Water Everywhere: Runner Uses Yoga to Raise Money for Native Kenya

Thursday, July 03, 2014
Hanover — Elite distance runner Sam Chelanga has settled in the Upper Valley in part because the wooded hills remind him of his home village in Kenya. Now he’s hoping friends in his new surroundings can help him improve the land of his roots.

Chelanga, 28, hails from the remote village of Kabarsel in Kenya’s Saimo Hills, an hour’s car ride from the nearest hospital. With no access to filtered water, Kabarsel’s residents resort to puddled holes dug in the wooded areas, storm runoff below ledges and other primitive methods for their drinking, cooking and bathing needs.

Illness is rampant in the village, Chelanga said, and he thinks much of it could be prevented if residents simply had access to filtration. He’s raised $1,500 so far for small water filters that cost $100 apiece and are being made available to Kabarsel’s people at a village church.

“There are a lot of things that need to be done in my village, but the first thing that makes people healthy and happy is clean water,” Chelanga said after a recent training run in Hanover. “Unfortunately, having a well drilled would be very expensive. If we went through (international nonprofit) water.org, we’d have to raise about $130,000.

“So we decided to start small, just to have a small distribution center where people can have their water cleaned of germs. We’ve got five of them so far, and we have enough for another 10.”

Chelanga has teamed with Hanover-based massage therapist Anna Terry for a yoga class to benefit his project. On July 16, Terry will lead a 90-minute course at downtown’s Game Set Mat, with donations going to the filters and related equipment.

Terry is the director of integrative health at Dartmouth College and owns the personal wellness company, Body Kinesis. The for-charity class July 16 will focus on mobility and muscle recovery.

“Sam is a great runner with a really great story,” said Terry, a West Canaan native and former U.S. kayak team member. “It’s going to be a very informative class. We’re hoping a lot of people will sign up to help support the cause.”

Chelanga didn’t have Internet access until after high school, when he ventured to the capital city of Nairobi and reconnected with his brother, Joshua, a pro distance runner who was a two-time world cross country champion on team Kenya before placing third at the 2001 Boston Marathon.

“I told Joshua, ‘I really want an education,’ and he said, ‘You better start running,’ ” Chelanga recalled. “I did and started emailing college coaches (in the U.S.). I took my SATs, which was very hard because all of the learning is different in Kenya.”

Chelanga eventually landed at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University before transferring to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He enjoyed a brilliant career running for the Flames, twice setting NCAA records in the 10,000 meters and winning the individual cross country national championship as a senior.

Recruited by Nike, he joined the company’s Oregon Track Club Elite before experiencing burnout while living in the Pacific Northwest.

“In college, you have all kinds of people cheering for you, a lot of support. Then all of a sudden, you’re on your own and there’s a lot of pressure,” Chelanga said. “You run in the morning and you know you’re going to be doing the same thing over and over again, and you get to the point where you’re in danger of just going through the motions.

“I imagine it can be the same for a professional baseball player. You grow up playing this game that you love and just having fun because you love it. Then you’re doing it professionally and at some point I could see how it would just feel like hitting the ball over and over. I had to find my passion again.”

Chelanga reached out to friend Ben True, a former Dartmouth track star and fellow pro whom he’d met while competing collegiately. Having married a native of Plymouth, N.H., Chelanga trained with True several times during trips to New England and settled in West Lebanon last year following the birth of his son, Micah.

“As a new dad, I feel like this is a great place to find myself,” said Chelanga, who next month is moving to Lyme Road in Hanover. “I look at the hills here and it reminds me of my village. And I love the people here. I feel like this is living the good life.”

Chelanga won’t ignore the plight of his homeland, where he said many ill residents refuse — or don’t pursue — medical treatment until their conditions become irreversible. Both of his parents died at the closest medical facility, Kabarnet District Hospital.

“My mom died there when I was about 8 years old,” he said. “She had an operation and didn’t make it, which happens to a lot of people because they don’t go there until they are very ill, and the hospital is very poorly equipped. ... My dad died there last year, he was 76.”

Chelanga feels many of the fatalities could be avoidable, and one way to help would be to start with clean drinking water. Eventually, he’d like to see a dispensary built to provide all of Kabarsel’s residents with access to filtered water.

“Most people get sick because of what they eat and drink,” Chelanga said. “We’re starting small to improve the situation. You have to start somewhere.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

Personal bests for elite distance runner Sam Chelanga, of West Lebanon:

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