A young Kenyan woman walked alone early one morning, on her way to the bus stop to visit an aunt in the hospital. A man pulled over and offered her a ride. She'd been told never to get in a car with a stranger.
"But I didn't have much money for the bus. Something caused me to get in the car," Janet Cherobon-Bawcom recalls. The decision would take the poor village girl far beyond Eldoret, her destination that day, to a life in the United States.
The driver was Peter Rono, Kenya's 1988 Olympic 1500-meter champion. The woman, 19 years old, was an awkward passenger during the 25-mile drive from Kapsabet, replying briefly to Rono's questions, especially one about whether she'd ever thought of taking up running.
"I didn't pay much attention," said Cherobon-Bawcom. But she didn't forget the question. Two years later, frustrated that she'd been unable to afford to train as a nurse and was instead tending cows and goats and looking after her brother and sister, she remembered something Rono had said: Running was a route to American colleges.
She found him again and began to train under his guidance. At 22, she was accepted into Harding University in Arkansas, helped by a community collection to pay for her ticket and some running gear from an uncle, former Berlin Marathon champion Sammy Lelei.
Cherobon-Bawcom struggled at Harding and feared losing her scholarship. But gradually she improved, and she closed her collegiate career with an undefeated 2005 outdoor season, winning the NCAA Division II 5000- and 10,000-meter titles.
After graduating from Harding with a degree in healthcare management, she moved to Rome, GA, got married, and took a teaching job. She thought her competitive running days were over. But her American husband, Jay, was coaching high school cross country, and she ran with the boys. Soon she was earning money in road races.
She made her marathon debut in 2006 and ran 11 marathons in five years, six of them in 2:37. She was training for the ING New York City Marathon last summer when she received approval to represent the United States in international competition. (She'd become a U.S. citizen in 2010.) She withdrew from the New York field to concentrate on the U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston in January, where she placed fifth in 2:29:45, just two spots away from making the Olympic team.
She'll be contesting the NYC Half for the second time, having placed 11th in 1:11:38 in 2011. "Last year I had a wonderful experience but a horrible race," she says. "This year, I'm hoping I can have a great race to match the great experience of being at the NYC Half."