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The Power of One: Exclusive Interview With Toby Tanser

Toby Tanser has been assisting impoverished Africans since 1995. Photo courtesy of Toby Tanser.
Toby Tanser has been assisting the impoverished in East Africa since 1995. Photo courtesy of Toby Tanser.

Shoe 4 Africa founder continues to make a difference for impoverished East Africans.

Interview by: Duncan Larkin

Drive along one of Eldoret, Kenya’s rutted dirt roads on any given day and you just might see a lanky, pale white man with long hair pulled back into a tight ponytail running toward you.

That would be Toby Tanser.

Unlike the other rail-thin mazungos who occasionally come to Kenya to try and train with a group of the world’s best runners, Tanser is not there in search of secrets to help end the medal drought in countries outside of East Africa.

Not any more, anyway. He’s there to help a continent.

It all started back in 1995, when Tanser was one of those elite-runner mazungos training in Kenya. He had arrived in country with the sole purpose of training with the world’s best. He got off the plane with bags filled with his training shoes. Deeply affected by the poverty he saw during his stay, he left with nothing, deciding to give everything away — even the shoes on his feet. After that memorable trip, Tanser founded Shoe 4 Africa, a charity that gives donated running shoes to impoverished Kenyans.

Fifteen years later, Shoe 4 Africa has grown by leaps and bounds. The charity still takes used shoes, but also accepts monetary donations. With the money, Shoe 4 Africa sponsors races for HIV/AIDS awareness and has recently broken ground for a new school. Tanser isn’t resting on his laurels, however. Shoe 4 Africa’s latest project is enormous: building the largest children’s hospital in the entire continent of Africa — a $15 million project in Eldoret. recently caught up with Tanser from his home in New York City, just as he was getting ready to head back to Kenya. How is Shoe 4 Africa’s hospital project coming along?

Toby Tanser: It’s coming along really well. At the moment, what I am doing is building a school. The school should actually be completed by September. A lot of people ask me what does Shoe 4 Africa have to do with building hospitals? And my reply is, “What does Oxfam got to do with helping people?” It’s not in the name. I understand people get confidence when they see that I have a completed project, and so I’ve been building this school with Martin Lel in his home village. Once that is complete in September, (then) by December we will break ground with the hospital.

So even though you are seeking $10 donations for Shoe 4 Africa, can people still send shoes?

Yes. If you go to the web site, all the details are there. We are still very much doing the running programs. That’s the funny thing: 100% of our donations actually go to the hospital. On top of that, we are still doing all our other programs that compete for the money — and so we look for other places to find that money. It’s not that we actually stopped doing our other projects; we continue to do everything else, like the race for promoting AIDS awareness. The next race that is coming up is our Run For Education. We will have 700 school kids running in that. We give them all shoes, pencils, and exercise books. So we continue to do our core programs as well.

You have a lot of celebrity power behind Shoe 4 Africa. You have big names like Anthony Edwards and Natalie Portman supporting the cause. Do these people help you in a lot of ways?

It helps and it doesn’t help. For instance, I often get an email from people saying, “Hey, why are you out looking for money when you have those kind of people involved? What is our $10 going to do?” The actual fact of the matter is that having a celebrity endorse a charity doesn’t necessarily mean they open a checkbook. They aren’t the answer to all your financial problems. I mean, Anthony [Edwards] was very generous in giving us an episode of ER. But for instance, Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s great. He gives us products to give out for the floods in Kibera, but I think he gave us around $2,000. And so it’s good and bad. But Shoe 4 Africa is not really a celebrity organization. My thought and my belief is that the actual running community would come together and that was the thought behind a $10 brick. There are 30 million people in America who call themselves runners. If a fraction of all those people gave money, we could do something about not having this children’s hospital. Small donations really can make a big impact.

Your charity work is done primarily in Kenya and Tanzania but not in Ethiopia. Why is that? And do you have any plans to expand to other parts of Africa besides East Africa?

My goal is actually to go from one country to one country to one country. I actually did an event in Morocco in 2006. Ethiopia is a natural place to expand, because I have a lot of friends who are Ethiopian runners. The Ethiopian government is not so happy about people bringing new shoes into the country. It’s basically illegal. They don’t want second-hand things. Second-hand markets create the dependency on the West for charitable aid. It doesn’t promote industry as such. How I get around that with Shoe 4 Africa is that I actually don’t give out shoes — I make the women run for them to get something back. There are a lot of charities that will take over shipments of clothes and that doesn’t really help the local community, because it just teaches the local community to wait for the next shipment. But should I get the funding, I would very much like to expand into other African countries.

You’ve been around a lot of East African runners. As a coach, what are a few lessons you’ve learned from them that you try to impart on your athletes?

One of the biggest things that (the) East Africans (have) taught me was the fact that a bad day is just a bad day. When I coach Western athletes and somebody runs badly in the group, they go home to the Internet and research. Then, they come back to me and say, “Maybe I have an iron deficiency, or maybe I have something else going on.” And I tell them, “You had a bad run. You’ve had good runs, too. Just accept that you had a bad run and don’t think about it too much.” And it becomes this nagging thing on their minds. We are all looking for something when we have a bad run. So the lesson is not to over-think, not to over-analyze, to not look for what doesn’t need to be discovered. Africans are very philosophical in just accepting life as it goes. We are all looking for why we have a bad run or why you didn’t feel so good. Your mind begins to get doubts. And when you push, those doubts lead to excuses. Another lesson is distraction. I’ve found that African runners are extremely good at being able to focus completely on running — even the well-established runners. I remember Moses Tanui. I was training with him in 1996 for the Boston Marathon. He was 20 minutes away from his wife, but for three months he never went to see his wife, because if he went home, he would have to attend social events and would have people knocking on the door. And so he said, “Why not just be in the field training hard when I don’t need to think about these things?” Because in their world, if you have money and you live in Africa, somebody will come to your door saying, “Hey do you want to buy this? I live down the road. Will you stop by?” And the next thing you know, your mind is wandering away from training. It is easier running in Africa, because there are fewer distractions. I try to tell my athletes when you are doing hard training for a specific event, try to put as much of life’s complications away. Try to keep things as simple as possible.

You could say the Internet could be to blame for both issues you brought up. People rush to the Internet to find out why they had a bad day and the Internet can be one giant distraction. So do you think the Internet contributes to less-than-stellar performances for Western runners?

Definitely. We have come to such a stage of development with our lives that it is impossible to go back. We look for that. At a young age, we need distraction. One of the things I hear from people when they come back from Africa is, “Wow. I saw a guy sitting under a tree doing nothing. Ten hours later, he was still there doing nothing.” That is not an uncommon thing to see in rural Kenya. And if you asked the guy, he would probably say, “I was just there with my thoughts.” I sympathize with a Western runner, because concentrating for hours on nothing is not what we are the best at. We are programmed in a different way. We are programmed that if we are doing nothing, we should be doing something.

Do you think that Western programming is going to make things harder for Western distance runners to catch up with East Africa?

I think so, because look at trends. Look at countries that were good at running at certain points, like Ireland. The runners there were good during the times when their people suffered more. You look at the state of British running. In the 1980s it was really, really very good. This was during a state of economic decline in the nation and there wasn’t that much financial support. Now, for instance, you look at the 2012 Olympics, the British Federation has been pouring more money thinking that is going to solve the problem. But for me, it’s not. It’s about creating that hardship. I remember being very impressed when I read about China’s coach, Ma Junren, who said, “Don’t give me the kids who excel in sports; give me the kids who have suffered hardships.” The more hardships we have suffered, the easier it is to become a better runner, I think. Our life is getting easier with the Internet bringing food to our doorsteps. Machines and computers are getting more and more efficient at doing things. That trend is going to accelerate much faster in the West than in Africa. Africa is like going back 40 years.

There are stories out there about you as a runner in New York City winning races while wearing costumes. Is this true?

Yeah I actually stopped running in 1999 when I came to New York. So when I started again, it was actually for fun. I had this fun feeling that running was not a production; running is supposed to be a stress reliever and for enjoyment. I liked that about New York; they have races like the Rat Race down on Wall Street. And they have the Pajama Run and all these kind of weird events. I think it’s good, because especially in a big American city, life can be very stressful. So it’s great to have a sport with a lighter side to it.

Photo courtesy of Toby Tanser.
Photo courtesy of Toby Tanser.

What’s been your favorite costume that you’ve worn in a race?

I think my favorite costume was the race where I dressed up like a dog. I had this huge, balloon-sized head. It was massive. It was a really heavy costume. I was running in the race and what happened is that the woman who was brought in for the race, an elite Russian, had been a friend of mine. I was talking to her at the start. So I actually ended up starting near the front of the field even though I was planning to jog with my friends who were also dressed up like dogs. At the first hill, a famous New York coach came next to me and hit me on the head. It hurt. And he said, “Idiots like you should be at the back of the field. This is where real runners belong.” So I ran the whole way in front of him just on purpose and that was fun, because the guy was so determined to try and get in front of me. I mean it was a ridiculous costume. The size of the head was half the size of me. That has to definitely be a highlight.

Did you beat him?

Yep. I beat him by a long way.

You just had the opportunity to meet Prince Harry at a race for wounded veterans that you were directing. Describe that experience.

That was absolutely an amazing moment for me. I was absolutely humbled, because I’ve never really been a royalist. I’ve been ambivalent about the royal family. I was born in Britain. But my grandmother, who’s Icelandic, was very fond of the British royal family. I always thought it was odd. I wondered why she felt so passionate about the royal family. So when Prince Harry came, I thought it would be interesting to actually meet one. I was bowled over by his humility, his compassion, and just what a really nice guy he was — how he took time to talk to the soldiers. He was a really, really interesting person. I was so happy that he came to New York and ran the race. As the race director, it’s your dream to get someone like that to come. When he came, he said, “I don’t want much publicity.” So we didn’t do anything big with PR like interviews. It was so nice to see that he was just interested to see what was going on and to hang out with athletes. It was a very compelling thing. It was also nice, because he does a lot of work in Africa, too. So I’m hoping there’s going to be some follow through where are two charities can do things together.

You said you stopped running competitively in 1999. Where do you see your future as a runner?

The funny thing was is that when I was a young boy, I ran pretty well. I got to the national level. I was told that I had talent. I believe the same thing about the Kenyans. There are some people who have genes that help them very much with running. I remember one day I was with my school coach. And there was a kid’s race of two miles and an adult race of 10K. And he said, “You should run the kid’s race, because you are going to win it.” I said, “No, I want to run the long one, because I want to keep running.” The teacher didn’t really get that. He was like, “You won’t get a medal for the school.” But running for me has never been about the position. I’m not really interested in running competitively. When I became a Master recently, I didn’t do any Masters races. That really doesn’t interest me. I run for a purpose and that is for my own sanity. Competing is really kind of a social thing, really. Running for me is like brushing my teeth. It’s as natural as that. It makes me feel good and so I will continue to do it. As far as my running goes, I’m going to run this December from the Indian Ocean to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is about 40 miles a day of running with that huge climb at the end of it. The reason for that is 10 years ago, I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro by running up it. I wanted to see the Millennium when it was over by sipping a beer while the sun went down in 1999 to 2000. Unfortunately, I went with a woman who wasn’t very interested, so instead, we went to the African coast and I was attacked. [In 1999 Tanser was mugged and beaten in Tanzania.] This year, a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you have a climb up Kilimanjaro as a fundraising trip?” And I thought, “Well forget the climb part. Why not run up it as I was originally planning to do.” And then I thought, “Why not start at the African coast where I was attacked?” And that’s how I got this idea to run from the sea to the stars. You start at sea level and finish at the stars, because Kilimanjaro is the world’s highest freestanding mountain. And the idea is that when I reach the peak, we will break ground for the children’s hospital. I’m actually not an ultra runner. I don’t like long distances. For this, I’ve started training for it. I’m trying to add miles so I can actually cover the distance.


Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, has just been released.