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."