Revisiting Sammy Wanjiru: The Man Who Changed The marathon

Revisiting Sammy Wanjiru: The Man Who Changed The marathon

As most American runners have Steve Prefontaine as their idol, I have Sammy Wanjiru.

Ryan Fan
Ryan Fan
461
views

Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru's 2010 Chicago Marathon victory was, in his coach's words, "The greatest marathon race I have ever seen, and the biggest surprise. It was a total shock."

When I think of my favorite race to watch of all time, it's not what most people expect: it's not an Olympic race or any featuring an American runner. No, it is Sammy Wanjiru's unexpected triumph at the 2010 Chicago Marathon. Sammy Wanjiru is, to this day, is my role model as a runner for a litany of reasons, including this race. But as most Americans have Steve Prefontaine as their idol, I have Sammy Wanjiru.

Near the end of the race, Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede and Sammy Wanjiru engaged in one of the most fascinating duels in marathon history. With both the runners near the front of the race near the end, both surged to the front and took turns taking the lead. Kebede would surge and open a gap on Wanjiru several times over the last mile, but Wanjiru would reel him in gradually, on his own terms. With less than a half mile to go, Wanjiru kicked, breaking Kebede and defeating him by 19 seconds.

On paper, it may have looked like Wanjiru was the heavy favorite to win the race. He held the half marathon world record at the time of 58:33, and two years before, in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, set the Olympic record in the marathon by almost three minutes.

The 2010 Chicago Marathon would be Sammy Wanjiru's last race: seven months later, Wanjiru died after falling off the balcony of his home in Nyahururu, Kenya. Many speculate into how Wanjiru's actually went down - while Eric Kiraithe, the Kenyan national police spokesman, would call it a suicide, Jasper Ombati, the local police chief, said it was probably an accident. But this isn't an article about how he died - there have been plenty on that. Nor is this an article about what might have been. Dan Silkstone, a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald projected Wanjiru to be the first man to run a marathon under two hours, in 2009. But who knows what would have happened? This is an article respecting how Wanjiru ran, and how he lived.

I'm fascinated by Sammy Wanjiru as a runner because of how unconventionally he ran and trained. Like Yuki Kawauchi, the famous Japanese marathoner who has run 79 sub 2:20 marathons, Wanjiru excelled when race conditions were subpar - he won both his races in Beijing and Chicago in the blistering heat, both around 30 degrees Celsius. Wanjiru would revolutionize the marathon through his unconventionally courageous front-running. He was never afraid to take the race out hard - evidenced by running the first 5k of the Beijing Olympic marathon in 14:52, nor was he ever afraid to make an aggressive move - nearly world record pace at the time. Wanjiru looked like he was beaten several times in Chicago, only to come back to life and destroy Kebede at the very end. Wanjiru did not "negative split" races (conserving energy during the first half and running the second half faster), he would often run the first half near world record pace to break his competition.

Steve Moneghetti, a former Australian marathoner, called the Wanjiru's triumph at the 2008 Olympic marathon "the greatest marathon ever run."


Xan Rice of The New Yorker wrote a fascinating article about Wanjiru's life, with somewhat of a dehumanizing element of depicting Sammy as a tragic hero. The caption of Wanjiru's painting in the article is "an Olympic marathon champion's tragic weakness," referencing his infamous drinking problem. But as reductionist as depicting Wanjiru as a Greek is, the article is a brilliant illustration of Sammy's career as a runner and the unconventional route he took to become an Olympic champion.

At 10, Wanjiru dropped out of school to support his family. However, he joined a training camp in Nyahururu full-time. Although young to be in the camp, Wanjiru excelled at local track meets and caught the eye of Shunichi Kobayashi, a sixty-year-old Japanese running scout. Through Kobayashi's connection, Wanjiru went to Japan on a scholarship to a Japanese high school. "Wanjiru, then fifteen did not know where Japan was. He had never traveled by plane. English was his third language, after Kikuyu and Swahili, and he spoke it poorly."

Despite those adverse circumstances, Wanjiru went to Japan regardless with the urging of his mother. He told his coach on the very first day that he would win an Olympic medal, and later led his school team to two national titles. In 2004, the Toyota Kyushu corporate team signed him to a large salary. In the same race that Kenenisa Bekele broke the 10000-meter world record in Brussels, Sammy Wanjiru set a new world junior record of 26:41. Two weeks later, Wanjiru broke the world half marathon world record with a time of 58:53. Later that year, he shattered his own record with a time of 58:33.

But after his victory in Beijing, Wanjiru returned to Nyahururu and returned home, to his friends and family. Altruistic with his newfound fame and wealth, he helped his relatives, supported orphanages and charities, and picked up tabs at bars and restaurants. He used his money to support other athletes, including his childhood friend, Daniel Gatheru. "A true friend who is more than a brother, that was Sammy."

Returning home, Wanjiru dealt with many familial stress with his wife, Njeri, especially after taking a second wife against her wishes in 2009. That year, he started drinking excessively. "The idea that the world's best marathoner - whose competitors were exploiting the latest in sports science and counting every calorie - could be drinking to this degree would strike most top coaches as crazy. But, at first, Wanjiru got away with it," said Rice. But that year, he set a course record in the London Marathon with a time of 2:05:10. He won the Chicago Marathon with the fastest time ever in a U.S. marathon. He did that while intentionally falling back to support and encourage his friend, Isaac Macharia, and then unleashing a 600-meter sprint.

Wanjiru was not the first elite and dominating Kenyan athlete to drink excessively and run, Henry Rono, in 1978, broke four world records in 81 days: the 10,000 meters, 5000 meters, 3000-meter steeplechase, and the 3000 meters. While his family and close friends urged Wanjiru to get help about his drinking. Often, after winning marathons and big races, fans and athletes would pack the Nairobi airport to support him. But after he dropped out of the 2010 London Marathon due to a knee injury, only his friend, Isaac Macharia, would welcome him back.

Later that year, Wanjiru started training for the Chicago Marathon, but his coach thought he was in such bad shape that he considered withdrawing him from the race. But he ran, was beaten several times, and won regardless, despite being in relatively horrible shape. After his win, however, that coach, Claudio Berardelli, said that "Sammy showed that he was not just an athlete with an incredible physiology. He was, first of all, a fighter."

When Wanjiru died, he had been drinking.Berardelli would compare Wanjiru to Steve Prefontaine, the icon of American distance running who famously said: "to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." Prefontaine died in a car accident after returning from a post-race party, and the police released a statement saying his BAC was .16, twice as high as the legal limit.

Again, while most of my running peers have Steve Prefontaine, I have Sammy Wanjiru, and this is just an attempt to raise recognition to the runner and the man. His friend, Isaac Macharia, puts his legacy best: "When Sammy won in Beijing, he showed everybody that it is just not about the course or the weather...He changed the marathon completely. He would not give up. He feared nobody."

Cover Image Credit:

scontent-iad3-1.cdninstagram.com

Popular Right Now

When You Give A Girl A Dad

You give her everything
78049
views

They say that any male can be a father, but it takes a special person to be a dad. That dads are just the people that created the child, so to speak, but rather, dads raise their children to be the best they can be. Further, when you give a little girl a dad, you give her much more than a father; you give her the world in one man.


When you give a girl a dad, you give her a rock.

Life is tough, and life is constantly changing directions and route. In a world that's never not moving, a girl needs something stable. She needs something that won't let her be alone; someone that's going to be there when life is going great, and someone who is going to be there for her when life is everything but ideal. Dads don't give up on this daughters, they never will.


When you give a girl a dad, you give her a role model.

If we never had someone to look up to, we would never have someone to strive to be. When you give a little girl someone to look up to, you give her someone to be. We copy their mannerisms, we copy their habits, and we copy their work ethic. Little girls need someone to show them the world, so that they can create their own.


When you give a girl a dad, you give her the first boy she will ever love.

And I'm not really sure someone will ever be better than him either. He's the first guy to take your heart, and every person you love after him is just a comparison to his endless, unmatchable love. He shows you your worth, and he shows you what your should be treated like: a princess.


When you give a girl a dad, you give her someone to make proud.

After every softball game, soccer tournament, cheerleading competition, etc., you can find every little girl looking up to their dads for their approval. Later in life, they look to their dad with their grades, internships, and little accomplishments. Dads are the reason we try so hard to be the best we can be. Dads raised us to be the very best at whatever we chose to do, and they were there to support you through everything. They are the hardest critics, but they are always your biggest fans.


When you give a girl a dad, you give her a credit card.

It's completely true. Dads are the reason we have the things we have, thank the Lord. He's the best to shop with too, since he usually remains outside the store the entire time till he is summoned in to forge the bill. All seriousness, they always give their little girls more than they give themselves, and that's something we love so much about you.


When you give a girl a dad, you give her a shoulder to cry on.

When you fell down and cut yourself, your mom looked at you and told you to suck it up. But your dad, on the other hand, got down on the ground with you, and he let you cry. Then later on, when you made a mistake, or broke up with a boy, or just got sad, he was there to dry your tears and tell you everything was going to be okay, especially when you thought the world was crashing down. He will always be there to tell you everything is going to be okay, even when they don't know if everything is going to be okay. That's his job.


When you give a girl a dad, you give her a lifelong best friend.

My dad was my first best friend, and he will be my last. He's stood by me when times got tough, he carried me when I just couldn't do it anymore, and he yelled at me when I deserved it; but the one thing he has never done was give up on me. He will always be the first person I tell good news to, and the last person I ever want to disappoint. He's everything I could ever want in a best friend and more.


Dads are something out of a fairytale. They are your prince charming, your knight in shinny amour, and your fairy godfather. Dads are the reasons we are the people we are today; something that a million "thank you"' will never be enough for.

Cover Image Credit: tristen duhon

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

The NBA Draft Lottery In A Nutshell

A quick overview of the 2019 NBA lottery and which teams got the best picks.

113
views

The NBA draft lottery took place on Tuesday night where all of the NBA teams were looking to see their fate heading into the 2019 draft. Many people know that anything can truly happen with a lottery. This year proved that statement again as the New Orleans Pelicans claimed the number one overall pick. The Pelicans had just a six percent chance of claiming the number one pick yet they still beat the odds. The Pelicans are now in the driver seat with picking up top prospect Zion Williamson from Duke University. Most teams that knew they weren't making the playoffs tried to tank this year in order to pursue the college basketball icon.

As for the remaining top five picks, the Memphis Grizzlies got the number two overall pick, the New York Knicks with the number three overall pick, the Los Angeles Lakers at number four, and finally the Cleveland Cavaliers at number five. Most of the teams with the highest percentage of claiming the #1 overall pick did not even make it in the top five which is rare. An example of this is the Phoenix Suns who had one of the worst records in the NBA this past season with a record of 19-63. The Suns got screwed over at this year's lottery where they claimed the #6 pick.

The teams that got the most out of this year's lottery were the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Atlanta Hawks. The Atlanta Hawks, in my opinion, got the benefit of the doubt this year as they have secured two spots in the first 10 draft picks of the 2019 NBA Draft. There is a lot of talent in this draft class so this is a make or break draft for a lot of these struggling teams. Prospects like RJ Barrett, Ja Morant, Jarrett Culver, and Cam Reddish. A lot of these prospects are ready to make an impact on whatever team they end up on. As for the projected number one overall pick Zion Williamson, he has gotten compared to NBA greats such as Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley.

During an interview with Bill Simmons on his podcast show, NBA star Kevin Durant said that Zion is a once-in-a-generation athlete. The 2019 NBA draft should be quite interesting to see where these top prospects end up playing for. One thing is for almost certain in that the New Orleans Pelicans are going to end up with Zion Williamson with the number one overall pick in this year's draft. With that being said the Pelicans could have quite a bright future with this future star and hopefully, the rookie can help keep NBA star Anthony Davis in New Orleans. Anything can happen though during the NBA draft and we will just have to wait and see what happens.

Related Content

Facebook Comments