I consider myself an avid fan of distance running, both in the United States and internationally, and some of the first videos any aspiring runner watches are world records. I remember almost seven years ago when I turned on YouTube to watch one of the most inspiring of all - the mile world record, in which Hicham El Guerrouj ran a time of 3:43.13 in 1999 to break the world record held by the 1996 1500 meter Olympic champion, Noureddine Morceli, by almost a second. At the time, I had trouble breaking a 7-minute mile. The fact that a human being could run that fast to me was incomprehensible.
But lesser known was the Kenyan man who finished right behind him, who pushed El Guerrouj to a faster time. The young Noah Ngeny also broke the previous world record by almost a second, running a time of 3:43.40. Soon after, I watched another El Guerrouj world record: the 1998 Rome 1500 meter record. El Guerrouj had three pacemakers in the race, and on the penultimate lap, the pack was slowing. The first of the pacemakers had done his job and dropped, but the second was veering off of world record pace. It seemed like El Guerrouj wouldn't have the record at that point.
However, the third Kenyan pacemaker took the lead and made a surge that put El Guerrouj back on pace. Within 50 meters, the two men put an insurmountable gap on the pack. "And this is what Guerrouj needs...surely he is on world record pace now," a British commentator said. The pacemaker would lead El Guerrouj through 1200 meters, and El Guerrouj would unleash his kick to break another Morceli world record by over a second to run 3:26.00 in the race.
Both El Guerrouj world records were so dominant that even today, they still stand. The pacemaker's name in the 1500 meter world record? Noah Ngeny.
Noah Ngeny was certainly no scrub before helping El Guerrouj set his most well-known world records. He set two world junior records in 1997, with times of 3:32.91 in the 1500 meters and 3:50.41 in the mile. To this day, he still holds the second fastest mile time ever when he lost to El Guerrouj that day in 1999.
The month after, Ngeny would finish behind El Guerrouj to take the silver medal in the 1999 IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Seville, yet again behind El Guerrouj. For his own glory, Ngeny would run a world record of 2:11.96 in the 1000 meter run in Rieti that year, breaking the 18-year record of the great Sebastian Coe, a record that still stands today.
The next year, in 2000, Noah Ngeny would run a time of 3:28.12 in the 1500 meters to become the third fastest man ever in the event at the time and the Kenyan record holder. But yet again, he finished behind the most dominant miler of all-time, El Guerrouj. For Ngeny, it seemed like an entire career in the shadow of El Guerrouj, as an athlete who simply came to prominence at the time of the greatest man ever. But in almost every major race, Ngeny was the closest man, lurking in the shadows to finally perhaps upset the man.
In the Olympics in Sydney that year, El Guerrouj was out for redemption. Four years before, in Atlanta, many believed he could have upset Morceli to take the title. But on the penultimate lap, El Guerrouj was tripped by the defending champion and the 1996 silver medalist, Fermin Cacho. In addition, his fall required everyone in the field besides the champion, Morceli, to jump over him, guaranteeing a Morceli victory. El Guerrouj himself would finish last in the race, despite being one of the favorites in the race.
In 2000, the Sydney 1500 meter final would down to a showdown between three men: El Guerrouj, Ngeny, and Ngeny's compatriot: Bernard Lagat. The Moroccan Youssef Baba would attempt to pace El Guerrouj and lead the heavy favorite to victory. The race would go out at a blisteringly fast pace of 54 seconds in the first 400 meters: on pace to break El Guerrouj's world record. In a championship race, this was too way too fast. Baba would slow down, but he would slow down too much: in the next 400 meters, he went through at 60 seconds.
Immediately, El Guerrouj got frustrated. He took the lead from Baba and proceeded to accelerate substantially: dropping the entire field besides Ngeny, Lagat, and Frenchman Medhi Baala in the next 200 meters. El Guerrouj would take the next lap in 56 seconds with only the three other runners still hanging on. With 200 meters left, El Guerrouj puts in one last acceleration, and both Ngeny and Lagat match it, and on the finishing straight - it is deja vu from the mile world record attempt: Ngeny is directly on El Guerrouj's shoulder.
This time, he passes him with 50 meters to the finish, and El Guerrouj is crushed, barely holding off compatriot, Bernard Lagat for the silver. Ngeny and Lagat embrace for a long time before hoisting their Kenyan flags, congratulating their competitors, and embracing their fans. The two take a lap around the track in a shocking victory for Kenya.
Noah Ngeny had finally gotten a gold medal, and above all, redemption. His time of 3:32.07 marked an Olympic record in the 1500 meters that still stands.
In November of 2001, Noah Ngeny was still one of the best middle distance runners in the world, winning the 2001 Brisbane Goodwill Mile Games. However, in that month, he would be involved in a car crash that would give him a severe back and pelvis injury that would sideline him his entire winter season.
He would never be the same runner. In 2003, he wouldn't qualify for the World Championships, and in 2004, he would not qualify for the Olympics. His best time after the injury would be 3:33.38. In 2006, Ngeny would officially retire from athletics at the age of 28. In the years after the accident, Ngeny would describe that he spent more time on the physiotherapy table than in his spikes.
But his involvement in athletics was not over. He would become a coach for runners in the Kenyan Defence Forces, becoming an important mentor for Micah Kogo, the 2008 bronze medalist in the 10000 meters. In 2016, he made the news again when he quit his post as a Kenyan athletes representative in protest of the sporting authorities' inadequate handling of the country's doping crisis. Afterwards, he sporting authorities for misusing funds in sending too many officials to the 2016 Indoor Championships instead of developing athletics.
Many would be beyond happy with the career Ngeny had as a runner: after all he was an Olympic gold medalist and a world record holder. But what is certain is that had he not been in that accident, he could have been and had so much more.