Quad-City Times Bix 7 runners and Kenyans Simon Ndirangu, left, and Shadrack Kosgei prepare greens for a dinner stew Thursday during their stay on the campus of St. Ambrose University in Davenport. (Tim Leibold/Quad-City Times)

Tim Leibold

It has been more than 15 years since I walked across the stage in Lee Lohman Arena at St. Ambrose University to receive my college degree.

I went back to school Thursday, visiting my alma mater to spend time with many of the Kenyan elite men and women runners who will be competing in today’s 38th running of the Quad-City Times Bix 7.

Although my return was short — only six hours — I took on a full course load, learning lessons in cuisine, etiquette, history and language along with what kind of things go on with the elite runners leading up to the 7-mile run through the streets of Davenport.

On Kenyan time

Wearing shorts, a light, easy-breathing shirt and running shoes, I was ready for a fast-moving pace as I arrived at the Andrews C townhouse, where the elite runners check in before getting their room assignments.

The check-in room — also called the hospitality room — is set up for athletes to come and go, eat, watch TV or get on the Internet, which mostly was used to visit Facebook when each runner took a turn on the laptop.

When associating Kenyan runners with pace, “fast,” “faster” and “even faster” are prime descriptors.

On Thursday, the clip could best be described as a leisurely stroll.

There was no need for a clock. I was on Kenyan time.

The mindset comes from their homeland. Because of the warm-weather conditions and the amount of training that takes place, Kenyans try to find any way to conserve energy, which includes walking at a very slow pace along with a lot of resting.

Center of attention

As we piled out of our 15-passenger conversion van during a shopping trip to Wal-Mart to buy ingredients for our evening feast, the stares and gawking were immediate.

It was hard not to notice seven very fit, but frail, Kenyans making their way to the entrance of the West Kimberly Road store in Davenport.

The stares almost cost me a limb or two as one driver was more focused on the scene than the road. One man approached one of the runners and asked if they were here for the Bix 7. After the man wished them luck, one of the athletes gave the man a thumbs-up and a word of thanks.

The curious looks had little effect as the seven men chatted in Swahili while filling plastic bags with tomatoes, cabbage, kale, onions, green peppers and cucumbers. Also on the list were beef, chicken, a 20-pound bag of rice and a couple of knives.

Food wasn’t the only concern, Silas Sang, who is making his first Bix 7 visit, wanted to purchase a laptop, while other Kenyans checked out clothing.

All in all, the grocery bill totaled less than $85 and was by far the healthiest trip to Wal-Mart I’ve ever made.

Kenyan cuisine

Back at St. Ambrose, the aroma of cooking quickly filled the room and took over the conversation as I sipped on my pre-feast drink of warm chai, which consists of sugar, water, milk and tea.

The male and female Kenyan runners took turns chopping vegetables. The smell of onions, cabbage, kale and green peppers simmering in a pan of water along with chopped beef piqued the taste buds of the 10 to 15 people crowded into the kitchen.

With stew preparation taking up one of the burners, a big silver pot filled with ugali occupied the rest of the stove. Ugali is a porridge of water and cornmeal that is eaten by most tribes in Kenya.

The stew, which was served to me by three-time Bix 7 champion Catherine Ndereba, melted in my mouth while the very thick ugali was bland and heavy on the stomach.

Despite the lack of taste, I was guaranteed of one thing by the Kenyans: The ugali would make me run fast.

While most of the Kenyans took their meal outside to eat — with many of them using just their hands — I took in the feast at the kitchen table with a fork.

The talk

Only a few of the Kenyans taking part in Thursday’s festivities have a good understanding of English.

Shadrack Kosgei, who won this year’s Steamboat Classic in Peoria and was fourth at last year’s Bix 7, was my translator.

Kosgei, who has three children, ages 8, 6 and 1, in Kenya, says the talk among the men leading up to Saturday’s race mostly is training-related.

When asked whether talk about today’s race would come into play, Kosgei held up his thumb and index finger and placed them very close together.

“Very little,” he said. “Not good.”

Fitting conclusion

As the table was cleared and the pots, pans and stove were scrubbed, many of the Kenyans grabbed bottles of water, oranges and grapes and headed to their rooms about 10:20 p.m.

I collected my notepad and cellphone and headed for the front door.

From the distance, Ndereba, who was heading out the back door, chimed in.

“It was so very nice to meet you, Tim. Have a great night.”

What a great way to end my first day back at school.