Oyster Bay Turkey Trot runner vies for clean water in native Kenya
On a day of thanks for a juicy fowl, a heated home and great football, Olympic hopeful Stephen Sambu will try to break the Long Island 5k record as he chases something real basic -- clean water in his Kenyan village.
Sambu, 25, must beat 14 minutes and 43 seconds at the second annual Oyster Bay Turkey Trot Thursday -- and if he does, the race organizer will donate some of the registration fees to help buy a water-purification system for his agricultural village of Berur in western Kenya.
Berur means "blessing" in his tribal language, which is Kalenjin. But after heavy rain, the groundwater turns into something like a curse, "not even good for animals," he said.
"People are becoming sick because of the water . . . and some people die from untreated water," said Sambu, who graduated in May from the University of Arizona as an All-American track star. "It tastes like dirt. It's mixed with a lot of stuff that floats across the road."
Sambu had turned down an invitation to a sunny turkey trot in California after Vince Giambanco, founder of the Citius New York race team and trot organizer, said he'd work with the runner on the water initiative.
Giambanco's offer: People would "bet" on whether Sambu will bust the record by pledging donations to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society on charitybets.com, and Citius would match that total toward water purification.
"If you can't get clean water, it's pretty devastating," said Giambanco, 26, of Manhattan, an assistant coach at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point.
Sambu is fresh from taking the 2013 men's title in the Boston Athletic Association's three-race series and its $100,000 pot, some of which will go toward his cause.
As Giambanco sees it, a professional track runner would confer serious legitimacy to his turkey trot and draw more professional entrants.
"He is completely on the rise," Giambanco said. "Turkey trots are done all over the country, and I am very, very confident that he's the fastest person running any turkey trot in the country."
Sambu's personal goal is to finish the circuit -- from Oyster Bay High School, along the harbor, then back -- in 13:59. He said his best 5k time was 13:13 on a track and 13:21 on roads, but he's more used to running in warmer weather, not in Thursday's biting chill.
Giambanco said he'll still donate to Sambu's cause even if he fails to bust the record and meet his personal goal.
"We're not going to give up on him if he runs 14:01," said Giambanco, who met Sambu a few years ago through a college running athlete. "We're going to do this for the long haul."
Down the road, Sambu wants Giambanco to see Kenya's water woes firsthand, and the race organizer wants to set up a nonprofit with the athlete.
Sambu said he's been lucky all his life not to have gotten ill on water in Kenya -- until he returned home this year.
"I was so careful," he said.
But he said he suspects he ate food cooked with dirty water and spent five days in the hospital.
"I'm scared to go back home," Sambu said, but he added, "I need to go back and make some change."
Going into the trot, he's a little nervous carrying the weight of his village's clean water.
"It'll make me work harder," Sambu said, "because I know I have to do this."