There are no distance coaches in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, so Kargbo works under the tutelage of a local sprinter. Like many in the muggy, tropical climes of West Africa, he is felled by malaria about once a year: he has no doctor, but knows from the delirious fever and cold sweats that accompany the condition. If his legs hurt, his solution lies at the local pharmacy. “I buy hot rub and put it where the pain is,” he said. His weekly long run is 25 miles, winding through the beaches and hills and traffic-clogged streets of Freetown, where throngs of bystanders gawk and cheer. In Sierra Leone, running is an unusual pastime, as it is in most of Africa, where people gravitate toward soccer. When West Africans do take to the track, it is usually to sprint. The region churns out world-class sprinters but has had few long-distance champions.
“When I run at home, people think it’s strange,” Kargbo said. “But I keep going anyway. I think it’s part of my blood now. It is my passion and it is my talent.”
In pursing that talent, Kargbo has become the best marathon runner his small country has produced.
Kargbo, 22, won the Sierra Leone marathon last year in 2 hours 38 minutes 27 seconds, and then beat that time in Liberia in August, running 2:35:15, a national best for his country. Kargbo won $1,500 at that marathon, far more than an average year’s salary in his country. He placed the prize money in his saving account and no longer has to worry about paying for food.
“My main food for running is rice,” he said. “And for a treat, I buy juice and cassava leaves.”
More important, the New York City Marathon accepted him into its sub-elite field, one level below the professional runners.
He hoped the New York City Marathon would propel him into a higher echelon of runners, but he ended the day in a hospital, where he was treated for exposure. His time was a disappointing 2:58:54, but he is determined to improve.
Where he is from, a runner’s life is fraught with challenges. The 5-foot-3 Kargbo structures his runs around days spent as a coffee courier, walking between office buildings peddling beverages. The job earns him $80 a month — a respectable salary in a country where about 60 percent of citizens live below the national poverty line. He trains at 5 a.m. to avoid the suffocating midday heat.
Kargbo never knew his mother and grew up sleeping in the living room of a house he shared with his grandmother, stepmother and an aunt. Later, when he moved to Freetown to support himself and pursue his running career, he slept on a mattress in the corner of a barren room in an abandoned hospital. He often could not afford enough food.
He completed high school at age 20, like many Sierra Leoneans whose lives were interrupted by a wrenching civil war. He saw his best friend shot to death at age 7 by rebels as he fled with besieged villagers into the bush.
Kargbo considers himself fortunate by relative standards, however. “Some people had their arms and feet cut off,” he said. “But luckily not my family.”
His trip to New York was his first time out of Sierra Leone, save for the bus trip to neighboring Liberia for the marathon there in August. His chaperone, a former aid worker from Australia named Jo Dunlop, financed his trip through a crowd sourcing campaign. Dunlop found them a place to stay in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
When he told his grandmother he was going to run in New York, she replied, “I told you one day you are going to represent your country.” She could not watch because her village, the one where Kargbo grew up, has no television.
He said he knew New York would pose a new challenge. “It’s the biggest competition,” he said. “My coach told me: ‘You are a small athlete. The winners are big athletes. If you compete with them you will not finish the race.’ ”
In many ways, Kargbo’s career has been a lonely one. He is faster than anyone he knows, so he has no one to push him to improve. He has nearly no way of connecting with the pockets of elite runners in other parts of Africa that have produced champion marathoners like Khalid Khannouchi, Willie Mtolo and Geoffrey Mutai.
“I run against myself,” he said.
But there are signs of a nascent distance running movement percolating in West Africa. Sierra Leone and Liberia have each recently started marathon, which are populated by locals eager to try the sport. But times lag behind international standards.
Kargbo, though, has raised the profile of the sport, becoming something of a hero in a country that is eager for symbols of national pride. When he visited a West African restaurant in the Bronx recently, the patrons knew who he was.
David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene,” said West African runners had a long way to go.
“If there were cultural incentives and more of a fan base in West Africa, you might find more talented distance runners there,” he said. “You aren’t going to find the talent if the sport isn’t popular or part of a tradition. No one wonders why hockey isn’t coming out of West Africa.”
Kargbo found inspiration in August when he ran in Liberia. Nathan Naibei, an elite Kenyan runner, showed up and easily set the pace. With little competition, Naibei instead focused on Kargbo, who was trailing him, urging him to keep pace and handing him cups of water. The two now trade emails, and Naibei recently sent him a training plan. Kargbo tries to follow it, aspiring to be like his counterparts across the continent.
He is not there yet. He is hoping to make the London Marathon and try again to establish himself on the international stage. But for this runner, that finish line is a long way away