Kenya's three-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Cheruiyot has come a long way to claim his place among the elite.
At one time, he was homeless and worked in a friend's barber shop to eke out a living. He even contemplated suicide because life had become so unbearable.
After his April 16 win at the Boston City Marathon, complete with $100,000 prize money, Cheruiyot is enjoying a comfortable lead in the race for a $500,000 grand prize.
The 29-year-old, who was inspired by Paul Tergat to take up distance running, is leading a group of top names on a circuit of five elite city marathons in Europe and the United States.
He has 75 points after winning all the three races he has entered -- last year's and this year's Boston events, plus Chicago last year. Compatriot Martin Lel, who won in London on April 22, is second with 40 points, ahead of last year's London winner Felix Limo, also Kenyan, who has 35 points.
Called the World Marathon Majors, the two-year cycle of events features races in Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London and New York. The world championships and the Olympics are also included when they fall within the two-year period.
The 2006-2007 cycle will include August's world championships in Osaka, Japan.
Cheruiyot declines to discuss his prospects on the marathon circuit, preferring to look further ahead to the 2008 Olympic marathon.
"My target now is next year's Olympic Games. I want to win gold in Beijing and won't stop at anything to get it. Training will be important because one will have to be very ready to win it," Cheruiyot told Reuters.
"A fourth Boston win is also possible next year. By the grace of God, I will win because as long as I train well everything is possible," said Cheruiyot, who won his first Boston race in 2003.
Cheruiyot maintains his humility despite being one of the richest sportsmen in Kenya today.
He recalls with a wry smile how he used to beg cigarettes from watchmen to while away cold nights in Mosoriot, a small market town 20km south of Eldoret.
Born on Sept 26, 1978, in Kapsabet, Cheruiyot had a difficult childhood.
"My parents separated while we were young. While my mother remarried, my father sold our only piece of land and disappeared."
A relative took him in, promising to pay his school fees, but only did so for two terms.
"He turned me into a house boy, cooking, washing dishes and children,milking cows, among other domestic chores which was very humiliating," said Cheruiyot.
He was moved to a cheaper school, but again could not continue as the fees were not paid.
He walked 60km to Iten, north of Eldoret, to look for his elder brother who was doing odd jobs there to ask him to help with the fees, but the brother could hardly make ends meet himself.
Disappointed and hungry, the young man walked back to Mosoriot.
"Many things crossed my mind including suicide but I resigned to fate. I approached a friend who owned a barber shop for help. He hired me for 20 shillings a day. That was enough for food. I befriended watchmen who allowed me to sleep in the verandas," he said.
"Luckily, another relative took me in her house. Having been an athlete in school, I started training. Then I met a former athlete who was employed as a driver at the training camp in Kaptagat owned by (Italian company) Fila," he said.
The driver introduced him to a former Boston Marathon champion, Moses Tanui, who was the team leader at the camp.
Tanui allowed Cheruiyot to stay. Within two weeks, he had finished 24th in a local race organised by training camps funded by sports apparel manufacturers.
Tergat, then the world marathon record holder and a close associate of Tanui, came visiting. His presence inspired Cheruiyot.
"After he left, I looked at his portrait and wanted to be like him," he recalled.
Tergat returned the following day and trained with the group. Impressed by Cheruiyot's determination, Tergat gave him his training shoes, telling him: "I think you can make a good runner if you train hard."
Cheruiyot went to Italy for six months and won 540,000 shillings ($7,500), which he used to buy a piece of land and six cows.
This year's Boston race was extremely tough, Cheruiyot said.
"It was a very difficult race because of the rain and cold. I was hoping to run 2:07 but the conditions were too bad. It was the most horrible weather I have ever run in."
His victory in Chicago last October was marred by a slip, which left him sprawled on the finish line. He suffered head injuries and his Italian manager wanted him to go for surgery but he declined.
"That would mean the end of my (marathon) career. Although I have suffered headaches since then, I can't countenance having my head opened up by a surgeon right now," Cheruiyot said.