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A Kenyan XC legend - Ismael Kirui

Ismael Kirui (183) of Kenya in action during the 1990 Junior Men's race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aix-les-Bains, France (Getty Images)Ismael Kirui (183) of Kenya in action during the 1990 Junior Men's race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Aix-les-Bains, France (Getty Images) © Copyright

Ismael Kirui was born to run. Running is in his genes: the younger brother of the late Richard Chelimo, another brother, Willy Kirui, won bronze at 5000m at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. His half-sister is Catherine Kirui, a past winner of the IAAF Cross Challenge. And Moses Kiptanui, the three-time 3000m steeplechase World champion and international William Mutwol are both cousins.

Ismael Kirui
Born: February 20, 1975, Kapcherop, Marakwet

With a family background steeped in running, Ismael Kirui’s innate talent soon demonstrated itself to the wider world, when, aged just 15, running 10,000m in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Kirui took the silver medal behind his brother, Richard Chelimo, at the IAAF World Junior Championships. His debut at the World Cross, at Antwerp in 1991, saw Kirui place seventh in the junior race.

But a year later, on the snow-strewn hills of Franklin Park, Boston, Kirui claimed his first World title, running away with the junior title and beating Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie into second place.

It was a rivalry which the two young men would resume later that year at the IAAF World Junior Championships staged in Seoul, Korea, where Kirui stepped down in distance to 5000m for a duel which is remembered even today. On this occasion, Gebrselassie prevailed, beating Kirui by a mere 0.05sec to secure his second gold medal of the championships, significantly with Hicham El Guerrouj, of Morocco, chasing his rivals home in third place.

Kirui had attended Chesubet secondary school where the veteran schools coach Boniface Tiren honed his running talent. He joined the armed forces in 1992, starting in Eldoret RTS, then Thika Engineering Battalion, then Nanyuki. His running training gathered pace at this point.

Thwarts Gebrselassie

After an individual bronze medal in the senior race at the 1993 World Cross at Amorebieta behind William Sigei, as Kenya swept the first five places, Kirui found himself sent off to Stuttgart, Germany in the summer as the key element in a tactical plan to beat the brilliant Ethiopian, Gebrselassie.

Running with Michael Cheshire and Paul Bitok, the idea was to unsettle their east African rivals. It was a contest which resonates right through to today, the distance running rivalry between Kenya and Ethiopia one of the keenest in world sport.

On this occasion, Cheshire set a terrifically fast pace through to just after the 1km mark. Then Kirui - who came into the race as the junior World record holder - took off. He covered the sixth lap in 60.21sec, and opened up a 20-metre lead. The advantage had doubled by the time the teenager had reached the 4km mark. Only into the last lap did the trio of Ethiopians begin to make inroads into Kirui's lead - but it was all too late.

Kirui claimed the World 5000m track gold medal in a World junior record 13:02.75, Gebrselassie less than 1sec adrift at the line, though he was to get some measure of revenge on the Kenyans a few days later when he won the 10,000m title, beating Moses Tanui and Kirui's brother, Chelimo, into the minor medal placings. The experience was to influence the rest of Gebrselassie's career, as he would never again attempt the formidable 5000-10,000 double on the global stage.

Kirui returned to the World Cross in 1995, when once again he got the better of Gebrselassie. But over the tough, windswept hills of Durham, in north-east England, Kirui found one runner too good for him that day, as his team mate, Paul Tergat, took his first World title, with Kirui taking the silver ahead of Salah Hissou, of Morocco, and Gebrselassie.

It was gold for Kirui on the track that summer, though, when he retained his 5000m World track title in Gothenburg. This race was in stark contrast to his previous World title winning performance. In the absence of the world's two fastest men, Gebrselassie and Moses Kiptanui, who opted for the 10,000m and Steeplechase, this time the final started at a very slow pace. Only Kirui managed to start winding up the speed in the middle of the race, leading into the last 600m and, with a final lap in 56.56sec, he held off the finish of Morocco's Khalid Boulami.

Achilles injury ended career

Sadly for Kirui, though, a World Cross bronze medal in Cape Town in 1996 would mark his last great success on the world stage. A persistent Achilles tendon injury thwarted his Olympic ambitions that year and although he continued to race to a high standard for the next couple of years, it would ultimately end his international career. Even an operation in a Swiss clinic failed to resolve the matter, although he recently made a tentative return to racing, on the roads, running a 65min half-marathon last autumn.

In 1996, Kirui married another runner, Rose Cheruiyot, and they now have three children, living close to the heart of Kenyan running in Eldoret. Kirui declines to give too many details: "Just say I invested wisely and I am comfortable."

Kirui, now 32, is more forthcoming in his views on the state of Kenyan cross-country running. "Morocco and Ethiopia realised our strength — training together, unity of purpose. Now, they are on top of us. We are disintegrating while they are solidly behind their coaches and national federations," he says.

For a man who has running in his blood, in his family, the team ethic is important. "Athletes used to train together and run as a team. These days, they train separately, and their managers influence them to train individually.

"Coaches draw individual programmes. This is affecting us. There are many camps now, which is also affecting our strategy and planning. We used to train as Armed Forces and our camp was at Ngong’, not as different camps like Kaptagat, Nyahururu, Iten or wherever."

Omulo Okoth for the IAAF