MACHARIA YUOT had never run more than 21 miles in training before, so in his 25th mile at the Philadelphia Marathon last November, his thighs burned with every step. Adding to the challenge: A day earlier—his last day of collegiate eligibility at Widener University—he had trudged 8K through the mud in Wilmington, Ohio, to capture the NCAA Division III cross-country championship and then jumped on a plane to make it to Philly for the marathon's 8 a.m. start. "People thought I wouldn't finish," says Yuot, who took sixth in 2:25:39. "Being any number is better than that. I'll never quit."
Maybe that's because Yuot, 25, can remember a time when stopping would have cost him his life. When he was nine, the religious civil war that would take the lives of two million Sudanese from 1983 to 2005 engulfed his hometown of Paleek. Parents parted with their children rather than see them enslaved or made to walk through minefields to clear the path for soldiers.
Yuot, one of the 26,000 other Lost Boys of Sudan (as estimated by the American Red Cross), started walking through the sub-Saharan desert in search of refuge. He did not know at the time that the walk would stretch for 1,000 miles to Ethiopia, that his father would die while he was gone and that, 16 years later, he still would not have been reunited with his mother, brother and two sisters. All Yuot knew was that he had to keep walking. "Somebody would say, 'One hour more,' but it would be five hours," says Yuot.
Back then he never strayed from the middle of the pack because he saw what happened to the boys who did. "It was like having hunters in the forest, but you don't know where," he says of the soldiers who stalked the boys to shoot them down. And then there were the snakes, and the lions that would occasionally drag a boy away in their jaws. Yuot would dream about his family, only to awaken to endless desert. He and a 10-year-old boy he walked with tried to focus on what older boys promised them awaited in Ethiopia: a school and their own beds.
But when Yuot's group arrived, there was nothing. He continued to hope, even while his companion could not. "One day he started saying, 'If I were home, I'd be eating this and that,'" recalls Yuot. In the morning the boy was dead. "He just gave up," says Yuot.
Yuot lived a nomadic life in Ethiopia, and then in 1991 an armed militia chased the boys into the Gilo River. Though no official figure has been established, survivors have estimated that up to 1,000 boys drowned, were shot or attacked by crocodiles. Those who made it across walked 400 miles to a refugee camp in Kenya. There Yuot went to school and began learning English. In 2000 the U.S. government airlifted about 3,600 Lost Boys to the States; Yuot was one of the chosen. He landed in Philadelphia and lived with Sudanese foster parents while attending West Catholic High from January 2001 to June 2002. During his senior year he competed on the track team, but he didn't stand out and didn't particularly enjoy the sport. But in 2003, after spending three months at a language institute to further improve his English, Yuot enrolled at Widener, where he studied social work, and decided to join the track team. Widener coach Vince Touey saw his potential, despite a rough start. (In Yuot's first collegiate 8K cross-country race he sprinted to what he thought was the finish at the 5K mark and had to stumble in the rest of the way.) But Yuot hit his stride by the end of the season, finishing second at the 2003 NCAA Division III cross-country championships and was named All-America. The following year, at the 2004 cross-country nationals, Yuot got so dehydrated during the race that he was taken to a hospital after the competition. Still, he was again named All-America and finished 24th.
In 2006, at the Division III track nationals, Yuot became the first runner in any division to win three distance events, taking the 10K, the 3K steeplechase and the 5K on successive days. Yuot now has his sights set on next week's USA Cross Country Championships in Colorado. The top nine finishers will represent the U.S. at the world championships in March in Kenya—where Yuot could meet family members for the first time as an adult.
For him to even have a chance, however, he must first be granted U.S. citizenship. A Philadelphia real estate company that Yuot interned with has been helping him apply, but whether he will make the deadline remains to be seen. "Even if I can't run there, I'll train for the marathon [in the 2008 Olympics]," says Yuot. "The more you struggle in life, the better you are as an athlete, a brother, a husband or wife. Quitting is a habit. I won't quit."
Making Their Marks
Yuot is not the first talented African distance runner to come to the United States. These American record holders are all naturalized citizens.
STEPHEN NOWLAND/NCAA PHOTOS
FRONT RUNNER Yuot, who fled war-torn Sudan as a child, paced the field at the Division III cross-country championships.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES