Runner makes the journey from Kenya to Cholla, becoming one of S. Arizona's top distance runners

2013-10-13T00:00:00Z 2013-10-17T13:39:06Z Runner makes the journey from Kenya to Cholla, becoming one of S. Arizona's top distance runnersBy Zack Rosenblatt Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Step outside, barefoot. Walk on the concrete.

The sun is scalding — 95 degrees — and every degree can be felt as your feet hits the pavement.

Stand in one spot, and within seconds the burning starts. It begins at the heel and extends to the tip of the toes.

Your feet start playing their own game of hot potato — it’s too hot to stand in one spot for more than a couple of seconds, so you move to another spot. And another. You try to find the shade, to let your feet cool down.

Or you just run.

Like Cholla High School’s Deng Deng.

Growing up in Kenya, in a refugee town called Kakuma, Deng’s feet were rarely clothed — socks or shoes. For most of the year, the weather in Kakuma hovers around 95 degrees with around 45-50 percent humidity.

Deng played soccer barefoot, and he ran to class barefoot.

“In Kenya, they don’t have good shoes. They just have barefoot,” he said, sitting in a classroom at Cholla, wearing a throwback, long-sleeve San Diego Padres T-shirt, shorts and a pair of white sneakers, each double-knotted.

“Sometimes when it’s too hot, you don’t know what to do. Walking in the middle of the desert, you can just feel the sun.”

Deng’s favorite phrase is “Keep’r up,” and he said that’s how he fights through the pain.

It’s keep it up, it’s keep your head up. Keep going. Keep running. Keep walking on the sidewalk, even when it hurts.

He can’t afford not to.

“My mom tells me ‘keep’r up, and you’ll get what you want,’  and I said, ‘OK momma.’ ”

Old Pueblo winner

Deng, a junior, has become Cholla’s best cross country runner. He won the Old Pueblo Invitational at Lincoln Park on Sept. 21 with a meet-best time of 16:46. It was split up by grade, but Deng still outran the seniors — all 59 of them.

Eleven days later, he set a course record (17:14) in a meet against Desert View and Amphitheater at Thomas Jay Regional Park. He finished an entire 1 minute 6 seconds better than the second-place finisher.

“I was like, ‘I’m gone, children,’ ” Deng said with a smile. “I went all the way, then I took off, then I left them. I want someone on the level that can keep with me.”

It was his fourth first-place finish in a row, in his fourth-ever meet. Saturday morning at the Rattler Invitational, he placed ninth out of 358 runners, finishing in 15.34.3 — a personal-best.

Before the spring, he had never even run competitively before. He wanted to be a basketball player — like Luol Deng, his hero. Luol Deng, no relation, fled a war-torn Sudan as a kid, played basketball at Duke and is now an All-Star for the Chicago Bulls.

But Deng Deng admittedly wasn’t exactly the next Luol Deng. When he picked up a basketball for the first time — his freshman year at Amphitheater — he didn’t even know what to do with it. He didn’t dribble, he would just run with it, and pass it to someone else.

He transferred to Cholla in the fall, and played basketball for Chargers coach Masai Dean.

Track and field — and its fall cousin, cross country — was a better fit.

Cholla cross country coach George Parra saw Deng run in the spring. One thought crossed his mind.

“I said, ‘Well, we gotta get that boy,’ ” Parra said.

Parra told Deng that if he wanted to get a college scholarship, it’d be in track and cross country, not basketball.

Deng listened.

“Before Deng Deng came here (to Cholla), we were probably an average team,” said Josue Rodriguez, a senior. “But he kind of boosted everything up.”

Deng’s times must improve for colleges to take notice. But they have already: Deng has shaved 2 minutes off his time since the summer.

Deng ran to school

Deng is running through the streets of Kakuma.

It’s 6:30 a.m., and school starts at 7.

His stomach is talking. For every few breaths he takes, it grumbles.

Deng didn’t eat breakfast that morning. Often, he didn’t eat anything the entire day prior, either. He’s minimally hydrated, too.

He has to run, because he can’t be late for school.

If Deng is even a minute late, the doors at school will shut. The gate will lock, and he will be forced to sit by the gate for an hour, in the heat, until he is forced to pick up all the trash on his school grounds. He’ll probably get beaten with a stick, too.

“For you to run that hard and you’re not even  …  ” Deng paused. “You’re still hungry. You just woke up a couple hours ago, didn’t eat breakfast. Didn’t eat yesterday. It’s hard. You just drink water.

“So,” he added, “I would just make sure to run faster than everyone else. I didn’t want to clean.”

When he was at school, though, it was hard to focus.

Ever tried going to school, or to work, on an empty stomach?

Deng’s mother, Akech Ngong, was doing all she could to fill it for Deng, and his five brothers. She worked every day, and most nights, as a midwife, and a nurse.

“I take care of my family,” she said. “So when I get that money I buy my kids clothes, shoes, and they can eat food.”

“That money” was 3,000 Kenyan shillings, once a month. That’s 50 American dollars. Good enough for some cans of beans, corn and some vegetables, such as okra. Once a month, the United Nations would give families some food, but for a family of eight, it wasn’t much.

“We would say the good life in the future is still ahead,” Deng’s mother said. “We’d pray that we could come to America.”

Waiting to go to US

Every day after school, Deng or his brothers would check the bulletin board, close to where they lived.

On it were lists of names.

At the top was the “head of the family,” the father or the mother, and below it the names of the children.

It was a list of families that would be approved for a move to the United States.

For four years, starting in 2005, Deng Deng or one of his five brothers would look at the list. No luck.

The UN Refugee Agency and the U.S. Resettlement Program work to determine which families can get asylum in America. And there’s a bit of mistrust when it comes to Kenyan children, which led to the Dengs’ hold-up.

“They didn’t trust my mom, didn’t trust us,” said Majok Deng, Deng’s 12-year old brother. “They thought we would come over here and do bad things, do drugs.”

They told their mother that when kids go to America, they run away, they don’t listen, and they do drugs.

She told them no, they won’t do that. That’s not how she raised them. Eventually, they listened. Eventually, it worked. One day, Lual Deng, Deng’s 21-year-old brother, walked up to the bulletin board.

He looked up and down, and came across…

Akech Ngong.

Ajang Deng.

Majok Deng.

Deng Deng.

Leek Deng.

Lual Deng.

It was official — Deng, his mother and four of his brothers were going to America. They were handed a piece of paper that said they would be going to Tucson. Their path to Tucson would stop in Zurich, Switzerland, and then Chicago before landing at Tucson International Airport.

Deng didn’t know anything about the Old Pueblo, just that it wasn’t Kakuma.

“I didn’t know anything about anything in America,” Deng said. “I just know America is a beautiful place were you can live your dreams, do what you want, go to school, get a good education. That’s what they used to tell us.”

Father still in Kenya

The Dengs have been in Tucson for three years now, and Deng’s mother has worked at Fry’s for most of that time.

Their father, a teacher, is still in Kenya, so she still is the lone support system for her family, which includes four of her sons. Mayen Deng, 25, stayed in Kenya, along with their father, and Lual moved to Texas to find a job.

Deng sometimes will go a couple of days without seeing her — he often goes to bed around 9 at night. So, she bought him a cellphone — an HTC smartphone — so she can check in on him throughout the day.

One day last year, though, Deng and his brothers visited their mom at work. They saw her outside, pushing around clusters of shopping carts.

When they got home that night, Deng’s eyes watered up.

He told her, crying, “you do this work for me right now, but later on, we will help you.”

“It made me strong,” she said. “To hear him come tell me that, OK, he’s going to do something. That day, and now, I’m strong.
He’s not cocky, he’s confident. He knows he’s fast, because he has to be.

For his family. For his country. He wants to bring his father to America, and happiness to his homeland.

“When I run through the finish line, I have to go hard,” he said. “So, the only thought in my mind is my mom. My mom and my brothers. That’s all that’s in my mind and that’s how I go faster to the finish line.

“Because,” he added, “it’s hard, but you have to finish it all the way through. I need to keep’r up.”

Contact reporter Zack Rosenblatt at or

573-4145. On Twitter @ZackBlatt.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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