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.

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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."

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To The Coach Who Ruined The Game For Me

We can't blame you completely, but no one has ever stood up to you before.
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I know you never gave it a second thought, the idea that you're the reason I and many others, never went any farther in our athletic careers.

I know you didn’t sincerely care about our mental health, as long as we were physically healthy and our bodies were working enough to play. It’s obvious your calling wasn’t coaching and you weren’t meant to work with young adults, some who look to you as a parent figure or a confidant.

I also know that if we were to express our concerns about the empty feeling we began to feel when we stepped onto the court, you wouldn’t have taken the conversation seriously because it wasn’t your problem.

I know we can't blame you completely, no one has ever stood up to you before. No one said anything when girls would spend their time in the locker room crying because of something that was said or when half the team considered quitting because it was just too much.

We can't get mad at the obvious favoritism because that’s how sports are played.

Politics plays a huge role and if you want playing time, you have to know who to befriend. We CAN get mad at the obvious mistreatment, the empty threats, the verbal abuse, “it's not what you say, its how you say it.”

We can get mad because a sport that we loved so deeply and had such passion for, was taken away from us single-handedly by an adult who does not care. I know a paycheck meant more to you than our wellbeing, and I know in a few years you probably won’t even remember who we are, but we will always remember.

We will remember how excited we used to get on game days and how passionate we were when we played. How we wanted to continue on with our athletic careers to the next level when playing was actually fun. We will also always remember the sly remarks, the obvious dislike from the one person who was supposed to support and encourage us.

We will always remember the day things began to change and our love for the game started to fade.

I hope that one day, for the sake of the young athletes who still have a passion for what they do, you change.

I hope those same athletes walk into practice excited for the day, to get better and improve, instead of walking in with anxiety and worrying about how much trouble they would get into that day. I hope those athletes play their game and don’t hold back when doing it, instead of playing safe, too afraid to get pulled and benched the rest of the season.

I hope they form an incredible bond with you, the kind of bond they tell their future children about, “That’s the coach who made a difference for me when I was growing up, she’s the reason I continued to play.”

I don’t blame you for everything that happened, we all made choices. I just hope that one day, you realize that what you're doing isn’t working. I hope you realize that before any more athletes get to the point of hating the game they once loved.

To the coach that ruined the game for me, I hope you change.

Cover Image Credit: Author's photo

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The Warriors' Fans May Need To Be Concerned About Stephen Curry

The six-time All-Star point guard's PPG has dipped over the past few games.

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The Golden State Warriors have been the most dominant NBA team over the past five years. They have claimed three NBA championships in the past four seasons and look to pull off a three-peat as they currently hold first place in the Western Conference more than halfway into the 2018-2019 NBA season. Warriors point guard Stephen Curry has been one of the primary reasons for their sustained success and is regarded by many around the NBA as the greatest shooter of all time and one of the best point guards in the league today. However, his points per game (PPG) total has dipped over the last few games. Should this be concerning for Warriors fans?

Curry got off to a hot streak early in the season and has had a few notable games like every season. He scored 51 points in three quarters while tallying 11 three-pointers against the Washington Wizards in the fifth game of the season and has delivered in the clutch with high-scoring games against the Los Angeles Clippers on December 23, 2018 (42 PTS) and Dallas Mavericks on January 13, 2019 (48 PTS).

However, Curry's consistency and point total have slipped over the past few games. He only put up 14 points and had a generally sloppy three-point shooting performance against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 2, and only 19 points four days later against the San Antonio Spurs, who were resting two of their best players, Demar Derozan and Lamarcus Aldridge due to load management. In addition, he only managed 20 points against a hapless Phoenix Suns team who made an expected cakewalk win for Golden State much harder than it should have been.

Perhaps Curry's numbers have dipped because he is still adjusting to having center Demarcus Cousins in the offense, or maybe I am simply exaggerating because Curry's standards are so high. The Warriors have won fifteen of their last sixteen games and are currently in cruise control heading for the top seed in the Western Conference. Perhaps the Warriors will ask more of Curry if the situation gets direr.

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