In the darkest moments of her toughest training sessions, professional marathon runner Mary Ngugi likes to lean on her audience for motivation.
That’s not necessarily his coach, nor his training partners, but a much younger group of runners who have started frequenting Ngugi’s running track in the Kenyan town of Nyahururu.
After launching Nala Track Club several weeks ago, which she believes is the first women’s track club in Kenya, Ngugi has found additional fuel for her own training.
“[When] these girls are looking at me, there’s no way I’m giving up,” she says. CNN Sport. “It changes my perspective, I’m not just doing this for myself. I’m doing it for those girls looking at me.”
According to Ngugi, most of the girls recruited to the Nala Track Club are young, still in primary or secondary school, but with the potential to become one of the best runners in the future.
The club finds schools for the girls to attend along with their training, and since many of the recruits come from disadvantaged families, it even helps pay for school fees.
In her 16-year career competing in international races, Ngugi has never been trained by a woman. She hopes that Nala Track Club will one day be home to a group of all-female coaches, bringing a much-needed change to the male-dominated world of Kenyan track and field.
“I think with numbers comes power,” says Ngugi, “and that’s what we’re trying to promote: more female coaches, more female agents, more female managers.”
Nala Track Club is the latest step in Ngugi’s quest to empower female athletes in Kenya and beyond, particularly following the death of compatriot and long-distance runner Agnes Tirop.
Tirop, 25, a two-time world championship medalist and women’s-only 10km world record holder, was found dead with stab wounds at her home last year.
Her husband, Ibrahim Rotich, was charged with his murder several days later. She has since denied the charge, according to AFP. Legal proceedings are ongoing.
Tirop’s death sparked a national movement against gender-based violence in Kenya. For Ngugi, that meant launching the Women’s Athletic Alliance, a campaign that seeks to empower women through athletics and promote equality in sport.
“It’s sad that we had to go through something so traumatic to start the Women’s Athletic Alliance,” says Ngugi. “I was like…we have to do something. We can’t just sit back and wait for someone else to die.”
Earlier this year, in light of Tirop’s death, the Kenyan Ministry of Sports published a report on the worrying relationship between sport and violence against women in Kenya.
In the report, former marathon runner Catherine Ndereba, chair of the Committee on Gender Welfare in Sport, which compiled the report, referenced years of “rampant but unreported cases of discrimination, sexual abuse and gender-based violence against female athletes. in the country.
Elsewhere in the report, a survey of 486 Kenyan athletes revealed that 11% of those surveyed said they had experienced sexual, physical and emotional abuse, while 57% said they had received such abuse on more than 10 occasions.
Ngugi says the incidents of abuse are a product of the unhealthy level of power coaches wield over young athletes.
“When you come to a camp as a girl, you’re always afraid of what this coach would do to you… Maybe, they want to sleep with you, and if you refuse, they’ll send you back home. ,” she says.
“You don’t want to go home to the village. You want to chase your dreams, change your family’s life… That’s one of the main reasons why we have Nala Track Club, so these girls can chase their dreams without being afraid of the consequences.”
The issue of gender-based violence in Kenya is not just limited to sports.
according to a 2018 World Health Organization reportan estimated 38% of women in Kenya between the ages of 15 and 49 had experienced intimate partner violence, compared to a global average of 27%.
Looking beyond athletics, Ngugi points to the cultural norms that have created inequality between men and women.
“The males are always the top figure,” she says. “It’s always: you have to look up to men, you have to talk back to them, you have to do what they say… It’s a cultural thing that has to stop.”
The Sports Ministry report proposed a number of government actions to make the sport safer for women in future, but Ngugi wants to see immediate support within the athletic community, particularly from her male peers.
“Their silence is a bit disturbing,” he says, “because most of them don’t say anything. They don’t tell you, ‘Oh, we’re supporting what you’re doing.’”
Having competed in track and road races early in his career, Ngugi ran his first marathon in 2019 and has twice stood on the podium at the Boston Marathon since.
The next time she plans to run is in April, by which time she will be 34 years old and entering the final years of her professional running career. Before that, she hopes to win a big marathon and represent her country once more, perhaps at the world championships next year or at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
These days, Ngugi is juggling his training schedule, which can involve leaving the house before 5am. demands her time.
“Sometimes I ask the question, ‘Why did I start this?’” says Ngugi.
But when she goes to camp and sees the young athletes enjoying their career, it makes the busy schedule seem worth it.
“I look at these girls and I see how happy they are,” Ngugi says, “and I remember myself when I was young. If someone didn’t help me, I wouldn’t be where I am.
“It motivates me and gives me a pat on the back that what I’m doing is good.”