Marathon runner longs to help country he hasn't seen in years

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Guor Marial Maker was in Boston this week.  He is an elite marathoner, sidelined by an injury. 

His talent is worth a story, but then you learn of his childhood in South Sudan, where eight of his ten siblings were killed before he was ten.

Guor’s full story is one of the American Dream that includes the Olympics, US citizenship and now a chance to return home.

Everybody is pursuing a dream. Guor Mariel Maker never thought he would be running to catch his.

“It never come to my mind that this running would lead me to somewhere,” Guor said at his Flagstaff gym.  “I only knew academic is only way.  It will fulfill all dreams I wanted to do, either being a doctor, lawyer or pharmacist.”

A long way from his home country, Guor trains these days at high altitude in the San Francisco Peaks. 

Guor is fast, he can run a mile in less than four and a half minutes. When it comes to marathons, he is known as a 2:12 marathon runner which makes him elite.

But moving to Flagstaff was about more than one marathon, more than the Olympics, it was about reconnecting with the  country he left behind as a child.

Guor has been on the move since he was eight.  His parents wanted him to survive the civil war ravaging South Sudan for decades.

“Our house burned three times,” he said.  “When I was three, four and then when I was seven.”
It took him three years to get to his aunt and uncle's home and then to the United States.  But three years of working, hiding, being kidnapped for slavery, left vivid memories.

“Seeing that,” he said.  “Your older brother, who you look up to, and see him die in front of you like that as a kid.  It is something we never, never forget no matter what.”

So Guor works hard.  He tutors math and science students since receiving a degree in chemistry from Iowa State, where he was an All-American distance runner. 

And last summer, after a concentrated campaign, the International Olympic Committee let him run the marathon under the Olympic flag in London.  South Sudan was only recently recognized as an independent country, but those are the people Guor longs to represent.

“What I still picture in my mind is seeing the South Sudan flag flying on the course,” he said.  “That is the image I took away from that Olympics.  There is nothing more important than that.”

Guor has intense pride for his country and empathy for the people who have survived the war.  Even though it is a place he hasn't seen in almost 20 years.

“Have you seen your parents in the past 20 years?” I asked.

“Haven't seen them,” Guor said.

“But you know they're alive?” I asked.

“They're alive,” he said.  “I talk to them. I know they're alive. Yeah, my dad is alive. The only word he can say is, ‘I'm waiting for you.’  He's old.”

Guor now has plans to go back.  With the help of members of Congress, this refugee became a naturalized citizen of the United States in February.

“I'm citizen now. I can vote!” he said with a laugh.

And he has a passport, he can go home and maybe he can fulfill his dream of running for South Sudan in the next Olympics.

“No matter how bad I'm feeling,” he said. “I put my shoes on in the morning and train because of these people.”

Film director Bill Gallagher is in the early stages of making a documentary about Guor's story.  Next month, Guor hopes to take the crew to South Sudan to meet his family and see his path to freedom.