Updated 11 July 2012
Abel Kipkorir KIRUI, Kenya
(Half Marathon, Marathon)
Born: 4 June 1982, Samitui Village, Nandi district, Rift Valley province
Coach: Renato Canova
Manager: Global Sports
Force/Rank: Administration Police/Inspector
Gregarious, engaging, confident and outgoing, Abel Kirui is not the typically shy Kenyan athlete. Funny, bold and unafraid to make predictions, he is one of a slew of fast Kenyans who have taken Marathon running to a new level with incredibly fast times.
Over the last three years, Kirui has forged a reputation as a championship athlete, winning back to back world titles. He is ranked 17th on the World All-Time list after clocking 2:05:04 for third place behind two compatriots in Rotterdam on 5 April 2009.
Selected in his country’s marathon team for the World Championships in Berlin later that year, Kirui continued his ascent by becoming the Kenyan third winner of the global title in the footsteps of Douglas Wakiihuri (1987) and Luke Kibet (2007).
Knee and ankle injuries blighted his progress after that win, but having been given a lifeline to defend his title at the Daegu World Championships last year, Kirui showed his pedigree by becoming only the third athlete to retain his World Championships title (after Abel Anton 1997 & 1999 and Jouad Gharib 2003 & 2005) while three other men had earned consecutive World and/or Olympic titles (Abebe Bikila 1960 & 1964 Olympics; Waldemar Cierpinski 1976 & 1980 Olympics; Gezahegn Abera 2000 Olympics & 2001 Worlds)
The last born in a family of four, Kirui did not have to look far for inspiration. His close relative, Mike Kosgei Rotich, is also a marathoner. Furthermore, Kirui claims that his great grandfather was famous for his athletics prowess. “Our great grandfather was a runner, he used to chase an antelope and catch it,” Kirui said.
The 29-year-old Kirui started running while at Samitui Primary School. “I started running in standard six and seven,” he said (the Kenyan Primary School system goes from classes one to eight.). “I would compete in almost all disciplines, including Steeplechase.” This continued through secondary school education at Kimaren High School, where he ran in cross country, 5000m and 10,000m races, although he did not make much headway. “I lacked any idea of coaching then and all I just used to do was run without any plan,” he said.
His high school education completed in December 2001, Kirui was milling around still deciding what to do when he heard of the Administration Police recruitment exercise. He showed up, went on to win and consequently was conscripted. “I heard that there was recruitment and what you had to do was a win a race, so I just entered, won, and was the only one picked out of nine finalists,” Kirui said. “I moved to Embakasi for training.”
Kirui passed out in early 2004 and was posted to Mombasa. But, because of his budding career, the authorities also attached him to Kapsabet, so that he could train. “When I was attached to Kapsabet, my life changed tremendously in 2004 as I now had a job and I got a place where I could train,” Kirui said. “They gave me Kapsabet and Ngong to train.”
Now back in full training, Kirui had a better 2005. He made his first trip outside Kenya, travelling to Poland for a number of races organised by a friend he had met in Kapsabet, over distances ranging from 1500m to 10,000m as well as a 10km road race.
2006 would see the marathoner’s fledgling career continue to blossom. Determined to impress, he was victorious in two Half Marathons in Kenya in one month, winning in Marsden Madoka and Ndakaini. His exploits in Ndakaini and Madoka impressed his inspiration, role model and mentor Rodgers Rop, one of only five men to win the New York and Boston Marathons in the same year. Rop proceeded to introduce Kirui to German manager Volker Wagner.
“Rop is in the AP (Administration Police) and was my role model,” Kirui said. “He shone in Lisbon, Boston and New York and I decided I wanted to run like him. He likes me and gave me loads of support. He has a hotel near my home and he introduced me to Wagner after I shone in Kenyan races.”
On 2 April 2006, Kirui ran a season’s best at the Berlin Half Marathon (61:15) and, two weeks later, he was third at the Paderborn Half Marathon in 61:36. In June he resumed his affair with Poland, running a personal best 3000m (7:55.90) at the Kusoc Warszawa meeting. In September, Kirui made his debut at the Berlin Marathon, where he was initially put in as a pacemaker, but he decided to go the distance, placing ninth in 2:17:47.
“I was very tired since I had not trained adequately,” Kirui said. “My longest training before then was only one hour 20 minutes since I was still a road racer. But I soon realised that, if I increased my training, I would improve.” Just over two months later, Kirui competed in his second Marathon, in Singapore, clocking 2:15:22 to finish third in the Standard Chartered Marathon. “The humidity was very high and it affected me,” he said.
Always a confident man, Kirui sent a text message to the Berlin Marathon race director after his Singapore run, promising to be back in 2007 and set a good time. He was back in Germany in April 2007 for the Paderborn Half Marathon, which he won in 61:32. Having seen that he was in shape, Kirui crossed over to Austria, where he recorded 2:10.41 for third place in the Vienna Marathon on 29 April.
Kirui then went back to training ahead of the fall marathons. On 9 September, he ran his Half Marathon personal best (60:11) in Rotterdam. Twenty days later, Kirui made a return to the fast Berlin course, in a race that Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie was making a World record attempt.
“Haile is my best friend and has invited me to Ethiopia several times,” Kirfui said. “He is my role model, someone who has good character, a simple person (no airs or graces) who has done great things.”
Gebrselassie obtained his record with Kirui finishing second in a then personal best 2:06:51. He had arrived. But why pace for Gebrselassie when he was attacking Paul Tergat’s record? Isn’t there supposed to be a huge rivalry between Kenya and Ethiopia?
“One should be generous and God will reward him,” Kirui said. “If you give your elder person something good, God will give you great things. That is why I ran 2:05 in Rotterdam. Even after breaking the record, Haile shook my hand and was telling me: ‘Abel, you will come back and break this record’.”
The affable athlete had a lean 2008 by his standards. It started with DNF in the Tokyo Marathon on 17 February. He partly made up for that with barnstorming run of 2:07:38 as he won the Vienna Marathon on 27 April. The only race of note for the rest of the season was a PB in 10,000m (28:16.77) at the Kenyan National Championships in June.
Disappointed by 2008, Kirui started 2009 determined to improve on his fortunes. First came the lucrative Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in which he finished 10th in a seasonal best time of 60:27. Then came the Rotterdam Marathon in April. This time, he was like a man possessed, running a personal best (2:05:04), the then 12th fastest of all time, as he finished third behind winner Duncan Kibet’s Kenyan record of 2:04:27.
The World Championships, in Berlin, marked Kirui’s first appearance for his country at any level. “I was told to choose either the Chicago Marathon or the World Championships and I went for World Championships,” Kirui said then. “I am very grateful for the opportunity to run for Kenya. I am going all out for a medal. My training has gone well and I am ready for the race,” he stated before his debut.
Confident about his abilities at the time, Kirui believed he could significantly improve the World record of 2:03:59, “I don’t know whether my body will agree but I want to run 2:03:30,” he said. Did he really think he could do 2:03:30? “Yes I can, I can do it, I can run it,” he said with a straight face.
As he embarked on his journey to Berlin, he offered this priceless prediction. “If anybody beats me, they need to have their head, not blood examined. I’m sure I will win.”
Once the gun went off for the start, great tactical teamwork with four-time Boston Marathon winner, Robert ‘Mwafrika’ Cheruiyot (Omar Ahmed) who eventually placed fifth, playing the conductor and a sterling individual effort from Kirui delivered Kenya’s third Worlds marathon title in an event record time of 2:06.54 on 22 August.
Cheruiyot and Benjamin Kiptoo wore down the field as Kirui and Emmanuel Mutai were left to go for the top-two medals, a first for the country at this event. Like the late Sammy Wanjiru in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Kirui looked in control throughout the race, contested over a four-lap loop course that twisted and turned past many of the city’s famous landmarks.
“I love this city. When I got off the plane I knew then I could win, I was so confident. This morning I prayed with my coach for help, but I was so sure I would do it,” he said in his post-race reaction that included joking residents of Berlin were shocked to see him in the lead having raced there three time prior without victory.
Post-Berlin celebrations saw Kirui feted with a huge party and promoted to a sergeant in the Administration Police ranks, but that is how good the party got.
A hyped first appearance at the 25 April London Marathon opened the 2010 season for the new World champion and there, he held on to the lead pack until the last 4km when Ethiopia’s Tsegay Kebede and Mutai broke away to fill the top two as he raced 2:08.04.
A 13th finish (64:17/4 July at the Sapporo Half Marathon preceded his New York Marathon debut (7 November) where Kirui again faded in the latter stages to finish ninth (2:13:01), his worst performance for three years.
“I need to come up with another training strategy. It was raining in the area (Kapsabet base) forcing me to change to Iten and use tarmac and this cost me since I felt my back aching. I’m sorry for this because I can do better. I will get a massage then prepare for my training to defend my title and aim for Olympic gold. I believe I can do it and Abel will be back,” Kirui said upon arrival from the Big Apple.
The World champion started his 2011 by declaring in January he would not seek to defend his title, instead focusing on breaking the World record in Berlin this fall. "I know and understand it is a tall order. A lot has to be done with a lot of effort taken for one to set or break a World record. I am training and focusing on it," said Kirui who shifted his training from Iten to Kapsabet said.
His first appearance of the season was at the Paris Half Marathon (6 March) where he raced 62:08 for seventh before featuring in the rarely competed 30,000m race at the Pre Fontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon where he finished second to Moses Mosop in 1:30:00.01 (3 June).
When Athletics Kenya announced their provisional men marathon squad for Daegu, Kirui’s name did not feature among the ten selected, but after six of the country’s top performers declined, including the Mutai pair of Geoffrey and Emmanuel, Patrick Makau and Mosop, the federation turned to him by virtue of holding a bye for the championships as a defending champion.
“I was not thinking about running here, but I’m a soldier and when I’m called to defend my country, a good soldier drops everything to do duty,” the sergeant explained the reason behind taking up the belated call up.
In South Korea, Kirui destroyed the field to win the men’s event to add to Kenya’s triumph in the women’s race. In yet another show of distance running power, Kirui crossed the line in 2:07:38, nearly two-and-a-half minutes ahead of team-mate Vincent Kipruto (2:10.06) — the biggest winning margin in World championships history and the second fastest at the event since his Berlin effort two years earlier.
Vincent Kipruto was his compatriot bridesmaid in South Korea as Kirui became the first runner from his nation to hold on to the world title after deciding to turn on the gas, striking out alone at the 28km mark. His rivals could not live with him and he had established an 11sec lead over Kiptanui by the 30km mark with Kirui’s 25km to 30km split of 14:18 the fastest ever 5km split at a world championships.
Kirui did a celebratory dance after crossing the finishing line of the race run in cloudy conditions with humidity lower than in previous days in the South Korean city.
On his return home, he was promptly elevated to the rank of Inspector in his Administration Police force and had his new uniform and lapels pinned on him by AP Commandant, Kinuthia Mbugua and Internal Security, Permanent Secretary, Francis Kimemia at Nairobi’s Harambee House.
“I thank and welcome the recognition after my win. I’m so proud and ready to defend Kenya in the remaining races. I will also seek to participate in local races but for now, I’m happy about it,” Kirui said. “When I won in Berlin, my good force made me a Sergeant and now, I would not mind being promoted to Chief Inspector. I feel like flying back home immediately since I’m so happy with this.”
Although he was promoted to one rung below his desired position, Kirui noted, “When I win the Olympics or break the World record, they will give it to me, I know it will come.”
“Reading and watching what they have been saying about my win is like a flowing story that has its own sweetness all the time. It was a good thing since when I was not doing well, especially after London, I promised Kenyans I will be back and when I slept, I would keep saying I would be back.”
He expressed his gratitude to the panel of selectors who turned to him and included him in the team after initially being overlooked. “Athletics Kenya has their role to play and if they did not choose me, I would have gone to another big race and performed but the last committee that said I should be in the team, knew inside I could deliver and I thank them.”
Kirui told of great sacrifice he put in to represent his nation with distinction, putting his win down to tactical running. “It takes a lot to win for the country and I decided to take-off mid race since I know the Ethiopians were there and they were strong. I have never run at the Olympics and I hope they keep their promise to include anyone who won at the World Championships. If they do that, I will drop everything and prepare for them since winning at the Olympics would be a great honour.”
Inspector Kirui dedicated his gold to his AP force saying, “I was the only one from the force who was selected and to return to the family as a winner, it is a great thing.” After the promotion ceremony, Kirui was escorted in convoy to his Kapsabet home where a party was thrown to toast his achievements.
After finishing second in the Great Bupa Southern 10K run in Birmingham (30 October) where he raced his 46:40 career best over the distance, Kirui retreat home to recharge his batteries and shape up for the next season.
In mid January 2012 Kirui was first included in the probables for the Kenyan Olympics men marathon team.
“I had a vision that I would run the Olympics in 2012 and I’m really ready for it and my mission is to be in the mix for the final squad in April,” Kirui, the first repeat winner of the Worlds title said from his training base in Iten shortly after the announcement. I have a strategy for the Games and my aim if to put all my effort and compete at more the 100 percent to defend the title we won in Beijing and all my heart to win is there,” the affable runner added.
Kirui changed his training base from his native Kapsabet and Ngong in the outskirts of Nairobi mid 2011 when he linked up with Italian coach Renato Canova in a bid to escape home distractions.
“Sometimes, when one is training at home, he also actively engages in family and business responsibilities which can disrupt the rhythm. Sometimes, the builders will tell you we have ran out of this and the family will say we have ran out of something else and it can reduce focus,” he explained.
He started 2012 with a half marathon win in Barcelona clocking 60:28 in February. In April, Kirui was part of a star studded line up that started London marathon. Kirui looked comfortable for most of the race and was second at the 40K mark, but just as he had done in 2010 and 2011, he faded badly in the closing stages to finish sixth. As fate would have it, of all the hopefuls, only Wilson Kipsang had sealed his spot with his win, which opened a chance for Kirui.
A few days later, Kirui’s place in the London team was confirmed. He would team up with Kipsang and Emmanuel Mutai in Kenya’s quest to win only a second Olympic title.
This would be the realisation of a lifelong dream, “Even if you ask my wife, my dream was not even to run the World Championships, it was to run in the 2012 London Olympics. I had predicted that when I was a new athlete. It’s high time to prove myself in London so that I can show I can bring something from the Olympics.”
After he won his second Worlds gold, Kirui sagged into his knees in prayer for his friend, the late Samuel Wanjiru whose title is up for grabs at the London Olympics. “I was so downcast about the death of Wanjiru. We travelled together in a private jet (to the 2010 London Marathon) eating together; laughing together - the guy had a good heart. When he passed away, I was so sorrowful. I prayed for Wanjiru before I ran in Daegu.”
Married, and the father of Tevin Kipchumba and Joylin Chepchumba, he has worked hard to uplift his family.
“When I was finishing school there was only one cow and I have tried to bring our family back to the level it should be. Even when I was trying to go to Poland, I was trying to get a way of supporting the family.”
He also takes care of one his brothers, who has a mental condition. “I have taken him to Eldoret for scans and at times he improves before becoming worse again,” Kirui said. “Maybe it was highland malaria but then it refused to heal. Maybe he took herbs and mixed it with modern medicine.”
Kirui is also investing in his own future. “I have built a good house in Kapsabet and I started building rental houses so that, in case I get injured, I have something to do,” he said. “Athletes get stressed when injured but I want to have something to do.”
10,000m: 28:16.86 (2008)
Half Marathon: 1:00:11 (2007)
Marathon: 2:05:04 (2009)
10,000m: 2005 - 28:30.15; 2006 - ; 2007 - ; 2008 - 28:16.86; 2009 - 28:23.7
Half Marathon: 2006 - 1:01:15; 2007 - 1:00:11; 2008 - ; 2009 - 1:00:27: 2010-1:04.17; 2011-1:02:08; 2012 - 1:00:28
Marathon: 2006 - 2:15:22; 2007- 2:06:51; 2008 - 2:07:38; 2009 - 2:05:04; 2010- 2:08:04: 2011-2:07:38, 2012 - 2:07:56
2006 9th Berlin Marathon
2006 3rd Singapore Marathon
2007 3rd Vienna Marathon
2007 2nd Berlin Marathon
2008 1st Vienna Marathon
2009 3rd Rotterdam Marathon
2009 1st World Championships (Berlin)
2010 5th London Marathon
2010 9th New York Marathon
2011 1st World Championships (Daegu)
2012 6th London Marathon
Prepared by James Wokabi and Mutwiri Mutuota for the IAAF "Focus on Athletes" project. © IAAF 2009-2012