By Joe Santoliquito
Special to

CHESTER, Pa. -- The walking seemed endless. So did the sun, and the thirst. Every day.

Still, 9-year-old Macharia Yuot walked. And walked. And walked.

He walked because stopping might mean death. Or enslavement.

Yuot's life depended on how fast and how far his tiny bare feet could take him every day, with hot sand prickling every step, for a thousand miles with little or no sleep, day after day, night after night, across Sudan, the largest country in Africa. So he walked. For his life.

Today, 14 years later, Yuot -- winner of the last two NCAA Division III indoor championships at 5,000 meters -- will not complain about another practice lap around the Widener University track. He will not complain about lungs that burn near the end of a race, about feet that blister in preparation for Widener's outdoor season. He will not complain, either, about thrice-weekly bus rides to a job at a senior citizen's group home, where he helps feed the residents, or about the late-night returns to campus.

He won't complain because the bus rides end. The races end.

But 14 years ago, the walking seemed to go on forever.

Macharia Yuot
Courtesy of Widener University
Macharia Yuot will never complain about the loneliness of the long-distance runner.

"They lined us up single file, and they asked us to keep up," Yuot recalls. "There were adults who were like organizers, leading us. I remember at first thinking it was a game, because I was a child. But then, you go without eating food and your stomach aches for the first few days, and then you start to realize that you're not going to see your family again. You get scared."

Until he was 9, Yuot and his family, who are Dinkas, lived in the city of Palek in southern Sudan in the midst of the religious civil war that has raged in Sudan for more than 20 years between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. But when political unrest rattled the city, his parents placed him with a group that was caravanning children out of the country to escape the violence.

He was among more than 25,000 Sudanese boys who were sent away in similar fashion as their villages were burned and their livestock killed. To survive, they walked. They marched through their war-torn country, seeking refuge, first in Ethiopia, then Kenya and, eventually, the United States.

During the journey, many died of starvation. Many drowned. Some were shot. Some were devoured by crocodiles.

They became known as "The Lost Boys of Sudan," a name given the group by international aid workers.

"A good majority of the Lost Boys left when they were young, many of them younger than 10 or in early adolescence," says Christine Petrie, deputy vice president of the resettlement program with New York-based International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization instrumental in bringing the Lost Boys to the United States. "They were young and they went on this trek that was close to 1,000 miles. They had to endure all of the elements. Many of them saw death on their journey and in Kenya.

"The physical elements of the desert were extreme. The boys had to deal with hunger and thirst issues along the way. It's hard to believe what they endured. It's certainly a group of young men who are exceptional. What really got these boys through was a reliance on each other. A lot of Americans were taken aback by the journey they endured. The boys were admired for it. It was really a test of endurance to go through what they did. It's why each one of those boys is so resilient today."

Only about half of the Lost Boys who tried to escape Sudan survived the journey.

"I tried not to cry," Yuot says. "But when I saw other kids crying, I cried, too. People gave up. I tried telling people not to give up. 'If you give up, I'll give up,' I'd say to them. Some did give up, and they died there. I saw people die every day. After a while, it became a part of your life because you always saw it.

"One thing that comes to mind: Every time I saw someone die, I remember I didn't feel like eating that day."

Yuot's group, he says, tried to time its travel to evade other tribes it feared would attempt to kidnap the boys. Sometimes, that meant moving at night.

"Everything was planned," Yuot says. "Some days, we'd walk long, for hours. Other days, we'd walk short distances. The adults kept telling us, 'We'll walk for two hours,' but they'd fool us and we'd really walk for three or four hours. If we stopped, the guides would say, 'What, you want to die here?' I would get scared, and my body would get chilled. We had to eat when they told us. They'd pass us dried cereal, and that would have to last us for the whole day. Whatever I could fit in my hands, that's what I had to eat. You ate and drank when it was available.

"There were some areas of the desert when we had no water at all, so we had to drink out of small creeks where animals and other people used to go to the bathroom. I drank dirty water with mud in it. It reminds me that I can go a whole day now without eating if I have to. I can still run competitively or practice without eating. But I can't go without drinking anything.

"When I was thirsty, it didn't matter whether the water was dirty or not. You drank. Sometimes, you just had no choices."

Yuot is 23 now, and on schedule to receive a bachelor's degree in social work from Widener in December. More immediately, he will run in the Widener Invitational on Friday and Saturday, then in the Penn Relays on April 27-28. Then comes the Middle Atlantic Conference championship in early May and, later, his last NCAA meet. A year ago, Yuot placed second at the NCAA outdoor championship in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs.

Macharia Yuot
Courtesy of Widener University
Yuot is a study in survival, with a story that has a happy ending.

He also finished second twice (2005 and 2003) in the NCAA cross country championships. He is the first three-time All-American at Widener, whose best-known athlete might be former NFL kick-return specialist Billy "White Shoes" Johnson.

It might seem too obvious, too easy, to make the point that his past has produced a deep appreciation for every step he has taken in every race he has run at Widener. And it is. It's obvious and easy.

But it's true, too.

"When I was young, growing up in Sudan and traveling throughout Africa, the way I heard about America was all bad," Yuot says. "But what I've found is that it's not like that at all. There is no country in the world like America. I appreciate every single day, every single minute here. I have choices in America. I have choices to do things with my life and get an education. I had no choices but bad choices in Sudan."

No choices but to walk, forever. To walk and live, a minute at a time, a second at a time.

One day along the journey, 9-year-old Yuot was told the news from his home in Palek. His father, a 7-foot-6 Dinka, had died of "natural causes."

Still, he couldn't turn back.

"What could I do?" Yuot recalls. "I was hungry, thirsty. I thought about living every day. I couldn't bring my father back. I cried, but we were back on our feet walking again. I couldn't take the situation that seriously. I had to take his death. My mother had to go through other people to reach me."

Finally, Yuot's group reached Ethiopia. There, the sojourners found regular food and water. But they also found that their ordeal had only just begun.

The Lost Boys were put in shabby, cramped, disease-infested refugee camps and targeted by warring tribes opposed to the Dinkas. Now, Yuot concerned himself every day with not being shot. He still wasn't safe.

There is no country in the world like America. I appreciate every single day, every single minute here. I have choices in America.
Macharia Yuot
"Ethiopia was much worse for us than the journey," Yuot says. "We were given promises of education and that they would take us in. We got nothing. That was the worst because disease killed a lot of us. We were Dinkas, Christians; and some tribes hated us. It's something I couldn't understand because we were all Africans. Some Americans, black and white, say all Africans look the same, but we don't. We can tell the difference just by looking what tribes they're from.

"Ethiopia is where I saw more people die. I saw kids shot, and piles of dead. At first, I was scared. But you get used to it because you saw it every day. Seeing piles of dead bodies became a part of everyday life."

Once the decision was made to move the boys to Kenya, Yuot's life took a more positive turn. The survivors were given schooling; and, with a push from the Lutheran Church, many were brought to the United States in 1999. Yuot's travels took him from Kenya to Belgium to New York and, eventually, Philadelphia, where he lived in a group home. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia paid his tuition at West Catholic High School, where he played soccer until he was lured to the track team.

In his senior year at West Catholic, in spring 2002, Yuot caught the attention of Widener track coach Vince Touey.

"At first glance, it looked like there was going to be a lot that needed to be done," Touey says. "But the more Macharia ran, the better his gait. It really came upon him naturally. And I can say that because I didn't spend a lot of time working on his form once he got here."

Yuot's talent was one thing. The state of his finances was another. Touey had initial doubts that he could get Yuot into school and keep him there because Division III Widener offers financial aid packages but not athletic scholarships. Because of his refugee status, Yuot had to reach a certain score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language. So, in fall 2002, while he also worked a job at a convenience store, Yuot attended classes to prepare for the test. It meant a 40-minute bus trip from West Philadelphia to the Widener campus in Chester every day.

He passed, then enrolled at Widener in January 2003.

By that fall, Touey saw the first sign that Yuot might become a special runner. At the Van Cortland Park NYU Invitational, his first cross country meet ever, Yuot placed third.

But not until after a slight glitch.

Yuot saw the finish line for the women's 3.1-mile course and assumed the men's race ended there, too. But the men run five miles.

Macharia Yuot
Courtesy of Widener University
Yuot was feted recently by Tony Brown, a former NCAA champion at Widener, and school president Dr. James T. Harris III.

"We arrived late at the meet and couldn't go over the course like we usually do before a race," Touey recalls. "So Macharia stopped at the women's finish line. And I ran and told him to keep running. He was running really hard because he thought he was finishing the race. When I told him he still had a mile and a quarter to run, he rolled his eyes. But he did hang on and finished third in his first cross country meet. I knew then he was going to be very good because he was able to suffer over that last mile and a quarter."

Last year, the Philadelphia Sports Writer's Association named Yuot its Most Courageous Athlete. He was presented with an NCAA Inspiration Award, too, in 2005. Earlier this year, he was honored with the Giant Steps Award as "Courageous Student-Athlete" by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports.

Of his childhood trauma in Africa, Yuot seems to have something of a selective memory, perhaps purposely blocking out parts of his remarkable journey. Some of the Lost Boys were impacted indelibly by their trauma, such as their villages being attacked. But Yuot can't, or won't, remember the particulars about his parents sending him away. He recalls very little about the day he left his home.

"I wondered why my parents were leaving me," he says. "I was clueless, and I was told to follow the group. I remember that. There were dead we saw on the way. There were people dying while the group was walking by, and just left. There are some things I do remember and some things I choose not to remember. It just makes it easier."

But he remembers Sudan. And he remembers his family -- his four brothers and sisters, some of whom live in Kenya. And his mother, Ayor, who still lives in Sudan. He communicates with them frequently.

"The one thing I realize is that there is nothing I can change about Sudan today with my running," Yuot says. "The one thing that I can change is to make people from Sudan see that they can change their lives here in America. I'd like to give people from my country encouragement and appreciate that I'm still alive. I'm one of the Lost Boys, but I've created my own world."

Joseph Santoliquito is the managing editor of Ring Magazine and a frequent contributor to Sound off to Page 2 here.