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Online fund-raiser brings Kenyan marathoners to run in California

By Faith Karimi, CNN
updated 1:25 PM EST, Sun December 8, 2013
Shadrack Chepyego, left, and Japhet Koech, far right, arrived in San Francisco from Kenya last week.
Shadrack Chepyego, left, and Japhet Koech, far right, arrived in San Francisco from Kenya last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • San Francisco man reads book called "Running with the Kenyans"
  • He uses Facebook to find two runners mentioned in the book
  • He starts fund-raiser to bring them to California to run in a marathon
  • The marathon is Sunday

(CNN) -- It's the journey of thousands of miles that started with a single step.

Two Kenyans, whisked across continents to run a marathon Sunday in Sacramento, California. Their trip funded via a crowdsourcing effort that started with a friend request and a popular book.

A few weeks ago, Japhet Koech and Shadrack Chepyego got a Facebook message from Conyers Davis.

Davis, a San Francisco resident, had learned about the two men in the book "Running with the Kenyans," by Adharanand Finn.

Shadrack Chepyego trains for the marathon, which will be held Sunday in Sacramento.
Shadrack Chepyego trains for the marathon, which will be held Sunday in Sacramento.

And he had a question for them.

"I sent them a friend request and a note asking if they would be interested in racing in California -- if I could raise enough money to cover their airfare," Davis says.

Koech, 26, was a little skeptical, but decided to take the risk.

"We didn't really know what to make of it, but didn't want to miss a great opportunity either," he says.

And so began the process that took the two men nearly 10,000 miles from their tiny running town in western Kenya. The two are from the Eldoret area, where the most elite Kenyan marathon runners hail from.

Davis, 35, set up an online fund-raising campaign called Kenyafornia. He urged donors to give $26 each -- a dollar for every mile the two would run in the California International Marathon.

They could not afford to pay for the trip. Running is a sport that does not come with a paycheck in Kenya. Koech works at his uncle's gas station while Chepyego is a farmer.

"These guys work so hard and are such hardworking and dedicated runners," Davis says. "I wanted to bridge the divide between talent and opportunity."

He exceeded his goal for funds in a little over a month. Armed with nearly $9,000 from the fund-raiser, he set out to make the trip happen.

Local celebrities

After delayed visas and red tape that almost made them miss their flight, the pair arrived in San Francisco last week, and have become local celebrities. More strangers chipped in to ensure they stayed warm during the cold spell.

When Davis picked them up at the airport, he thought they had forgotten their luggage. They had one backpack each with running shorts, shoes and minimal change of clothes.

"They didn't have much in the way of warm clothing," Davis says.

"Luckily, The Gap heard about the guys and was concerned that they would be cold," he says. "They very kindly opened up their flagship store and gave them lots of clothes to stay warm. It was amazing."

Fleet Feet, a local running supply store, gave them warm racing gear to wear during the marathon in Sacramento.

'Like playing basketball with LeBron James'

The two have trained at San Francisco landmarks including the Golden Gate Bridge, where residents waved. Others joined in, running along with them.

Both will return to Kenya on Thursday. But they'll never forget the kindness of strangers, they say.

"The best part has been meeting the Californians," Koech says. "Everyone has been so friendly. Our experience will inspire many people back in Kenya, especially many of the younger runners."

Davis, who describes himself as a novice runner, works at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy.

Though he spent many sleepless nights planning the logistics of the trip, he says it was all worth it.

"I'd do it all over again," he says. "Running with the Kenyans is like playing basketball with LeBron James. These guys are masters of their trade. It has been very exciting and very humbling to watch."

Davis will run his first marathon with his new friends Sunday.

The title of the book that started it all will become his reality.

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