Meet the Kenyan labourers in Dubai who can keep pace with world champion runners

A pest controller and a factory machine operator, who can run 5km in 14 minutes, dream of racing glory

As the sun sets on another hard day at work and the men living in labour accommodation in Jebel Ali begin to settle down for the evening, a pest-control worker and factory machine operator change their clothes and take to the streets to quicken their strides.

Kenyans Charles Rotich, 39, and Dennis Nyakundi, 29, have been running for most of their lives but did not even own running shoes when they first began winning races in the UAE and setting local records that rivalled those of Olympic champions.

As children, they each won cross-country competitions for their schools in their home country and dreamt of becoming athletes.

But losing parents and falling into financial troubles forced them to abandon their ambitions and find steady jobs instead.

At 23, Mr Rotich trained with marathon world record-holder Eliud Kipchoge for five years.

“We used to meet on the track and run together. He used to run cross-country – he was also a champion then,” said Mr Rotich.

“Then when I came to Dubai, we lost contact.”

Mr Rotich began running for his high-school team when he was 15.

He said "almost all the people" in his home town of Kaptabongen were runners,.

"If you wake up in the morning, you find thousands of people running. The climate is good and it is hilly, which is good training because you run high altitude that is almost 2,000 metres."

Like many young athletes, his dream was to represent his country at the Olympic Games.

But his father died after Mr Rotich finished high school and he was left to "put food on the family table”.

He would run when he could but he had fewer opportunities to train.

Charles Rotich. Courtesy Coach Suleiman

In 2016, he moved to Dubai to work as a pest controller and would run about 10 kilometres after work each day, and between 15 to 21km at the weekend.

Two years later, he ran his first race in the UAE and won.

His running partner, Mr Nyakundi, also began taking part in races, winning the 5km trail run in Mushrif Park in Dubai and breaking the record set by race organiser Suleiman Baboo.

Mr Baboo, a 40-year-old South African, has been coaching runners in Dubai for 10 years.

“When Dennis came, I just knew that I was going to get beaten by that guy,” he said.

“I have been a trainer for 20 years and studied the art of running and specifically Kenyans’ running skills and strides.”

Mr Nyakundi beat his time by two minutes.

"After the race, I spoke to him and asked about his best timings," Mr Baboo said.

“He said he finished 5km in 14 minutes and 10km in 29 minutes. I couldn’t believe it – those are close to world records.”

The world record for a 5km race is 12:35.36 and the 10km record is 26:11.00.

Dennis Nyakundi. Courtesy Coach Suleiman

Running has been a lifeline to Mr Baboo, who, at age 18, was in a major car accident and told by doctors that he would never walk again.

But he was walking again four days after the accident.

“I saw this as a sign that my life mission was to help others achieve greatness by being the best versions of themselves," Mr Baboo said.

“Then one year ago, I received a call from a Dubai clinic called Health and Happiness. They said they were looking for runners to form a team for the Dubai Marathon corporate race.”

Mr Baboo enlisted Mr Rotich and Mr Nyakundi to form a team.

Mr Nyakundi started running when he was 15 and represented his school in Kenya's cross-country championships.

He stopped running after he graduated because of living costs and "lack of support".

After moving to Dubai for work in 2016 and befriending Mr Rotich, he also began taking part in races and improving his pace, setting similar times to his running partner.

"It is my 29th birthday todayand I pledge to finish a 10km race in 28 minutes by September," Mr Nyakundi said.

He plans to travel to Kenya in the summer, when he will train more vigorously.

Mr Baboo's team also included Frank Golya, a 31-year-old Kenyan who came to the UAE in 2015 to work as a security guard.

“Now I am working with Asylum, an obstacle course gym in Ras Al Khaimah, as a performance coach," he said.

As a boy, Mr Golya dreamt of being a professional athlete but when his parents died the family of six siblings did not have enough money to sustain his ambitions.

Though he was given the chance to attend an elite high school two months after his mother's death, Mr Golya chose to enrol at a school near his home to cut costs.

“I used to run every day from my home to the school. It was around 5km going and 5km running back," he said.

“And because of that my running developed and I became among the top three runners representing high schools across the country.”

RAK, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , Feb 23 –  Frank Golya from Kenya running in the mountains near his home in Ras Al Khaimah. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online/Instagram/Big Picture. Story by Haneen

After finishing high school, he had to find a job to support himself and could not run professionally, he said.

Since the runners began representing the clinic, they have been receiving more support and recognition, and are dreaming again of becoming international Olympic runners.

They are also being sponsored by New Balance, which provides them with running kits and shoes.