How Zane Robertson overcame riots, hunger and malaria

To pursue a career in running, Zane Robertson, with his twin brother Jake, had taken the radical decision to relocate to Kenya's Rift Valley Province. The experiences he had there altered not only Zane's performances but also his perspectives.

New Zealand's Zane Robertson takes a selfie with other athletes ahead of the TCS World 10K run in Bengaluru.   -  Sudhakara Jain

Some things he has seen, Zane Robertson wishes, he would just forget. “On the way to Eldoret, there were dead bodies lying there. I don't know where the pigs came from but the pigs were eating the bodies. They were wild. I just saw a lot of burnt cars and smashed houses...and you know what happened there.”

Soon after New Zealand middle and long-distance runner Robertson had taken the radical decision to relocate to Kenya's Rift Valley Province with his twin brother Jake, pursuing a career in running, it became apparent that life was going to be more rough. They were both 17 and Iten, an hour's drive out of Eldoret, was a universe away from Hamilton, where they'd grown up. Money and sickness were concerns, but there were other things they were unprepared for. Like the post-election violence that roiled Kenya in early 2008 – a year into their stay there – and left corpses on the streets.

Early on, both my brother and I got malaria at the same time. We were living out in the countryside, quite far from any hospitals. We couldn't move for four days, so we lay in bed.

“The first night, everything kicked off,” Robertson says. “We heard a mob was coming to burn our houses down, because they were owned by a Kikuyu, the wrong tribe. We spent the night in a maize bush. We packed what we could. But the houses were forgiven because the owner's wife, Kalenjin, was from the area. And we could move back in. Fires were everywhere. It went on for over a month. The police cut the power; every night was really dark. Every time the police fired, you'd hear the mob cheer.”

Robertson is in the city for Sunday's TCS World 10K Bengaluru, and arrives as one of the pre-race favourites. His time of 27:28 at the Berlin 10K last October was the fastest for 2016 on the road, and the fourth best time ever by a non-African athlete. His 59:47 in Marugame two years ago made him only the fourth athlete from outside Africa to run a half marathon inside an hour. At last year's Olympic Games, he finished 12th in the men's 10,000m, smashing the New Zealand national record by eight seconds. At the Glasgow Commonwealth Games two years ago, he won bronze in the 5000m.

The bad days, he recalls with a chuckle, were really bad. “Early on, both my brother and I got malaria at the same time. We were living out in the countryside, quite far from any hospitals. We couldn't move for four days, so we lay in bed. We didn't eat or drink, we just felt cold or hot all the time, sweats. I couldn't see; most of my vision was white. It was one of the worst pains I've felt in my life. I thought we were going to die. On day four, I got up. I forced Jake up as well. We ate half a banana and drank some water. I went outside to wash my face. From there we started to feel better day by day. It took another week. We survived malaria without any medication.”

Robertson is now sponsored by Adidas, his brother by Nike. There's appearance and prize money. Things are better now, he smiles. Better than their early days in Iten, when he shared a mattress with Jake. “How hard were those times? Well, no lunch for weeks on end. We're surviving in camp in Kaptagat with just what's growing locally: cabbages, some unga (maize) for Ugali (a simple African dish). When available, the local tea shop used to hook us up with some tea. Other runners helped us out. It was like we're all family. We learnt quickly that what's ours is theirs and what's theirs is ours.”

Training in Kenya has altered not only Robertson's performances but also his perspectives. Non-Africans too easily use the supposed genetic superiority of East Africans as an excuse for their efforts, he feels. “You can see it from the start line. They don't even try and attempt, at the Diamond Leagues or the road races, to go with the first group. You never see that with the Africans. You always see them trying even if they know they are not as good as this guy. They try their best to be in the front group and one day they will succeed and be there at the finish. Both my brother and I put ourselves in their position. The hardship and the struggle...they don't have another option.”

Through all his struggles, though, there was never any question of returning home. “I always felt, 'I'd rather die here than go back to NZ because that's like giving up.' People said I couldn't make it. Sachin Tendulkar said, 'They throw rocks and you make milestones out of them.' A lot of people threw stones at me and my brother. We just used it for motivation.”