time World Cross Country champion decide not to defend her title when every indication is that she is still on top of her game? Is there something she is trying to hide from the public?
These were some of the questions Edith Masai faced in 2005 when she did a disappearing act from the Kenyan cross country team. The Kenyan athletics community was abuzz with speculation, some which bordered on the absurd.
“Champions must be talked about," she says. "They are viewed as super human beings, which is very unfair. We are just normal people like any other.”
"After the Prisons championships, I was preparing for the trials when I stepped on a stone while training and dislocated my ankle. I never recovered and I made a deliberate decision not to try and force things against God’s wish. I then decided to train for marathon as I was going to make a debut that same year in Germany.”
In 2006, Masai again missed the World Cross, and later that spring in Berlin, Germany she posted the fastest half marathon time in the world for the year, 67:16.
Edith Chewanjel Masai
Born: April 4, 1967, Chepkoya, Mount Elgon
Although Masai did some running in primary school, it did not go beyond inter-schools competitions. In fact, Masai only started serious running at the age of 32, when a divorce left her as a lone-parent with a young son to bring up. Yet she soon made it to the very top of world running.
Masai has gone on to win three World Cross Country 4km gold medals - in Dublin (2002), Lausanne (2003) and Brussels (2004) to go with the bronze medal she won in 2001 in Ostend.
But the 2003 World Championships 5000m bronze medallist disappointed many when she dropped out of the Olympic 5000m race in Athens in 2004, when many thought she was going to finish in the medal places. “One can’t force something against God’s plans," she says. "Whatever God has planned for an individual will always come to fruition, but if it is not meant for you, it can’t work."
Her attitude applies to her marriage and her former husband. “If he was meant to be mine by God’s arrangement, we would still be together. “But God has a reason for everything. He knows the reasons why the marriage could not work, and why I ended up being a successful athlete. God opened the ways for me at are 32. Anything which happened before that was not meant for me. I appreciate whatever I get. If I win I celebrate, if I lose, I appreciate my performance.”
Masai was promoted to senior sergeant in Kenya prisons service in 2003, thanks to her second World cross title in Lausanne. She won the World Athletics Final 3000m title that same year.
Masai has a German manager, Dorothee Paulmann, who is the force behind her success, and coached by Kenya prisons coach Gideon Chirchir, Masai will concentrate on marathons from this year, just as she turns 40, having surprised the athletics world when she debuted over the 26-mile distance in 2005 in Hamburg and won in 2:27:06.
“I approached it like any other normal long run. When I reached the 41km mark, I found myself alone and just went,” she says.
Masai owns a five-acre stretch of land in Kenya’s maize basket of Kitale, where she farms maize and wheat and raises a few cattle. She also has a house in Ngong, a town a few kilometres outside Nairobi where many athletes, including the marathon world record-holder, Paul Tergat, live.
Masai’s typical day starts at 6am with a long run, some hill work, or speed work on flat surface in the forest which she does for not more than an hour.
She returns home and rests after breakfast. At 10am, she goes for some hill climbing, up and down on between 200 to 300 metres, which she does for between 45 to 50 minutes. Lunch is followed by some rest until about 5pm, when she goes for some easy jogging.
Masai says that women runners should not be too emotional because it will just distract them from the sport and will affect their performance. “Leave everything to God. Stop worrying over emotions, over love etc. Work hard and be disciplined and focused and this will work out,” she says. She says that this is what has affected many female athletes, who excel when young, only to vanish when they reach their late teens.
Omulo Okoth for the IAAF