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When Henry Wanyoike and Joseph Kibunja first started running, it was out of necessity. The childhood friends had no other way to travel the three miles from their Kenyan village to school. So they made the barefoot trek every day, in both directions, regardless of weather.
Thirty years later, Wanyoike and Kibunja are still running together, only now, they’re headed to the finish lines of races around the world — and often getting there first.
Although Kenya is known for producing champion runners, the duo stands out: Wanyoike is blind and Kibunja serves as his guide.
In 1995, two years after graduating from high school as a track star, Wanyoike suffered a stroke. He lost his sight and thought he’d never run again. Three years later, at a rehabilitation center, someone suggested he try with a partner. To his amazement, it worked. And it worked even better once his pal Kibunja took on the guide role.
They stay side-to-side and hold a foot-long blue and green rope between them — in Wanyoike’s right hand and Kibunja’s left. Through a combination of verbal and physical cues, Kibunja indicates when they need to turn, avoid an obstacle and, of course, speed up to stay ahead of the competition.
The technique has allowed them to win gold medals at multiple Paralympics, set world records (including the fastest blind marathon in just 2:31:31) and serve as an example for just about everyone they meet.
"Our message is that we need to work together. We can achieve more with combined effort," Wanyoike says, just after leading a group fun run at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., last month. He and Kibunja were part of the Kenyan delegation showcasing their culture to visitors on the National Mall.
The power of Wanyoike’s story, says Kenyan singer Linda Muthama, has made him one of the most beloved people in the country. She even sings a song about him: “He dreamed, he overcame.”
Photo: Joseph Kibunja guides blind runner Henry Wanyoike (in sunglasses).(Ryan Kellman/NPR)