Two days ago in a snow covered Edinburgh a young, shy Kenyan annihilated arguably the world’s finest endurance runner to send shockwaves throughout the sport. This relatively unheralded athlete destroyed ‘King’ Kenenisa Bekele by thirty-six seconds when storming to an unprecedented victory in the BUPA Great Edinburgh International Cross Country - IAAF Permit - race. Joseph Ebuya had arrived on the 2010 scene with a bang.
The 22-year-old capped off a sterling 2009 with wins in the Yecla cross-country (Murcia, 13 Dec) the Corrida de Houilles 10km (Paris, 27 Dec) and the Amardora 10km in Lisbon on New Years’ Eve. Yet despite beating some established performers, Ebuya had yet to shine on the bigger international stage.
That was until however, the 27:33 10km runner decided to steal the show in the Scottish capital last weekend inflicting the first defeat in a cross country race on Bekele since his ‘did not finish’ at the 2007 World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa in 2007.
In the race of his life, gliding over the undulating course in freezing and slippery conditions, Ebuya led a Kenyan clean-sweep in Edinburgh, having broken Bekele after just thirteen minutes of the 9km race had been run.
“I was very happy to win the race – it is a good start to 2010 for me. Titus (Mbeshi – 2nd) and I are training partners so we worked together well. He was very strong and constantly pushing the pace. We were surprised, as Bekele is normally very difficult to beat. I knew we had a good lead but I did not know I was going to win until I crossed the finish-line. From now on I think I like the snow.”
Humble beginnings and a solid support network
The exploits of the 7:34.62 (3000m) and 12:51 (5000m) runner over the same course where he attained his first global senior performance of note – fourth place in the 2008 World Cross Country Championships – have thrust Ebuya into the international limelight and mark an massive improvement since his thirteenth place in the World Championship 5000m in Berlin last summer.
The Sammy Rono and Ricky Simms coached athlete has come along way since 2006 the year in which he took the World Junior 10,000m silver and 5000m bronze medals and fourth place in the Commonwealth Games 5000m.
“I started running in 2004 by joining in with the PACE Sports Management runners when they went for morning runs. After a few months, they saw I had potential and invited me to come and live in their camp. I did not have money for food or running shoes so this was a big opportunity for me. Ricky brought me to Europe in 2005 for experience and I ran 13:03 in Holland in my second race, I think he was impressed.”
Ebuya, who names the Memorial van Damme meeting in Brussels as his favourite event, and Bekele, Noah Ngeny and Benjamin Limo as his heroes, never looked back, taking the time to learn English and to read and write.
“It was very difficult but I had good people to help and guide me – I have learned a lot in the last four years.”
Ebuya’s athletic career has flourished alongside his educational achievements, with the two aforementioned World junior medals in 2006, followed by a sponsorship from Nike.
Nyahurunu-born Ebuya, who now shares his time between Kaptagat in his home country and Teddington, London during the summer season, speaks highly of the solid support network that turned his life around.
“Ricky is the person who has helped me get to where I am now. He has taken me from having nothing to beating Bekele. He has high standards and has been telling me I can reach the top if I stay disciplined and train hard. We have a very strong team, with Usain Bolt (the Olympic and World 100m and 200m champion and World record holder) giving us inspiration to do well.”
Simms, in turn, has nothing but admiration for his protégé; “Joseph’s story would make a great movie one day – maybe if he wins the Olympics. Joseph was exceptional - he is one of the best examples of an athlete who had nothing. When we gave him his first shoes and track suit, he got injured immediately as he was not used to them. Running has given him a complete change of life. He has still a lot more to come if he can stay focussed and injury free.”
Held back by Army training
With training partners such as World 10km record holder Micah Kogo and women’s World 5000m champion Vivian Cheruiyot, in the forty-strong squad, Ebuya trains two-to-three times per day.
The achievements of Ebuya, who comes from a family of eight children, are all the more impressive as he could not train for athletics for ten months from mid-2008 to early 2009 due to doing basic army training.
Following this sabbatical, Ebuya returned to athletics competition by posting an eye-catching 12:59 in Zurich and making the Kenyan World Championship team, after only three months of training, thus explaining his below-par position in Berlin last August.
“I am now training for the Armed Forces Cross Country Championships,” Ebuya explained, “then I will compete in the Kenyan trials and the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.”
Following his remarkable breakthrough this year, the Premier League football enthusiast said: “I will try to win but it is a very tough competition.”
Regardless of the outcome of Ebuya’s efforts at the World XC in Bydgoszsz, Poland this coming March, the man who dreams of winning the Olympics in London 2012 and is currently building a house, with hopes of running a business in Kenya after his athletic career. With his defeat of Bekele last Saturday he has already progressed quicker than his wildest dreams would have thought likely and he has done it all so unassumingly.
Nicola Bamford for the IAAF