Edith Chewangel Masai (mahSIGH), Kenya (3000/5000 m)
Born 4 April 1967, Chepkoya, near Kapsakwony, Bungoma District, Western Province, Kenya.
Senior sergeant in Kenya Prisons Service. Divorced mother of Griffin Sakit (born 1990).
Lives mainly in Nairobi. Based in Trier, Germany, during track season.
Manager/coach: Dorothee Paulmann.
Native language: Kony (Kalenjin). Third of four children of father's first of four wives. Father a farmer with 60 acres.
Completed second year at Kibuk Secondary School 1988. Joined Prisons Service 1990 as wardress; promoted to corporal, then sergeant 2001.
Began running in primary school. Among top placers in primary schools nationals at 800m and 1500m for three years; 2nd in 800m in secondary schools nationals 1988. Recruited into Prisons Service as an athlete but did not begin serious training until after divorce in 1999. Placed well in several Kenyan cross country meets that year and next. Prisons colleague Jacob Losian, running in Europe, persuaded fledgling manager Paulmann to give Masai a chance. She arrived in Germany at end of August, 2000. Ran 11 road races in three months, consistently placing well. Returned to Kenya for cross country, winning Prisons Championships 4 km and finishing 2nd to Rose Cheruiyot at 4 km in 2001 Kenyan World Cross trials.
Bronze at 4 km in 2001 World Cross in Ostend signaled international breakthrough. Followed with 68:27 half-marathon on slightly downhill course in Lisbon and world-leading (flat course) 67:53 in Nice. Won 5000m at Kenyan World Championships trials in Kenyan all-comers record (15:24.4) but just missed qualifying mark and was not named to team. Big wins in Oslo (14:46.06, outkicking Sydney Olympic Champion Gabriela Szabo), Stockholm (14:45.86) and Monte Carlo (8:34.79 for 3000) put her on Kenyan team and among favorites in 5000 at Edmonton, but bout of malaria in late July left her weakened before the final, in which she finished 7th. A PB at 3000 (8:31.76) in Zurich a week later showed she was recovering, but too late.
In 2002, after a few races on European cross country circuit, won 4 km convincingly at Kenyan World Cross trials. Did much the same at Dublin World Cross itself, winning gold at 4 km by 6 seconds. On 2002 GP circuit, carried on three-way rivalry with Berhane Adere and Gabriela Szabo over 3000 and 5000, Masai winning at 5000 in Rome and Stockholm and setting African record (8:23.23) behind Szabo and Paula Radcliffe in blazing Monaco 3000. Won Kenya Commonwealth Games trials 5000 and took silver (14:53.76) behind Radcliffe's Commonwealth record at Manchester Games.
Repeated her World Cross Country triumph with great authority in Lausanne 4 km and was regally dominant at 5000m in Kenya's National Championships and 2003 World Championships trials. Looked equally comfortable defeating top competition in two GP meetings before Championships and in her first round heat (PB 14:45.35), but Tirunesh Dibaba's closing sprint caught her by surprise in the final, where she settled for bronze (14:52.30, 0.58 seconds behind Dibaba). Reluctantly accepted selection for All-African Games in Nigeria in October and competed while ill, finishing 6th in 5000.
Began 2004 winning Prisons cross country and briefly talked of doubling in Brussels, but was surprisingly beaten into 3rd over 4 km in Kenyan World Cross trials. In Brussels, however, she reasserted her dominance, holding off a trio of Ethiopians (including Tirunesh) to win her third straight 4 km gold (and Kenya's only individual gold of the Championships).
Track season began modestly with a win over 3000 at Rehlingen (8:58.63) and a 5th at 5000 in the Rome GL (14:49.16) behind four top Ethiopians (including Athens rivals Tirunesh and Meseret Defar—the Rome amounted to Ethiopia’s Olympic trial). At the Kenyan Olympic trials, Masai astonishingly dropped out half way through the 5000 and initially rejected all entreaties to accept a spot on the Olympic team (Kenya had only three A-qualifiers). The Kenya press hinted at a dispute with Kenyan officials, but after a long meeting with Olympic selectors, Masai accepted a place on the team.
After that, she looked in top form—solid wins in Stockholm (8:40.03), London (14:58.96) and Zurich (8:36.43) in a span of 10 days indicated that she was ready to improve on 2003’s bronze medal. But a hamstring injury suffered during speed workouts a few days before departing Nairobi for Athens left her prospects in doubt. She ran judiciously in the heats and qualified with seeming ease, but in the final, when world record holder Elvan Abeylegesse cranked up the pace, Masai gradually lost contact and dropped out. She explained that her hamstring had flared painfully and she had been unable to accelerate.
She recovered quickly, however, as she was able to run a PB 14:42.64 to win in Brussels 11 days later, and a 14:59.11 for 2nd behind Berhane in Berlin nine days after that. Now, after two more weeks off, she should be ready for a big finish to her season in Monaco.
Yearly progression 3000/ 5000: 2001 - 8:31.76/ 14:45.86; 2002 - 8:23.23 (AfR)/ 14:48.14; 2003 - 9:10.06/ 14:45.35; 2004 – 8:36.43/ 14:42.64.
Other PBs: 10 km - 31:13 (2002); 10 mi - 52:45 (2002); half-mar - 67:53 (2001)
Edith Masai became a serious runner when she became a single mother. She had been a successful schoolgirl athlete and had been recruited into Kenya's Prisons Service as a runner, but as the married mother of a young son (Griffin, born 1990), she had little sporting ambition and trained just enough to keep her position on the Prisons team. When she split with Griffin's policeman father in 1999, however, she realized she would have to become more self-reliant. "I had no one to assist me," she says. "I had to do something." Her only skill was running, so she began to do more of it, without coaching but with strong motivation to be a good provider for her son.
Her story resonated with Dorothee Paulmann, herself a divorced mother of about Masai's age. Paulmann ran competitively and had been a national-class triathlete in Germany. In 2000, when she heard about Masai, she was a university language teacher tentatively trying her hand as an athletes' manager, based on friendships with a few African runners. She bought Masai a plane ticket, and when the shy Kenyan arrived in Germany, the two quickly formed a bond. Masai lived in Paulmann's house, and they traveled together to competitions. Masai's diffidence and her limited English appear to have been no barrier in this friendship. What the two women share is more important: ambition in the service of similar family commitments.
Friends in Kenya say Masai's success has hardly changed her. She has bought ten acres and built a new house near the western Kenya town of Kitale, where her son is in boarding school, but she still lives most of the time in simple Prison staff quarters in Nairobi. "She is not like some of the other wealthy runners," says friend Benjamin Itok. "She has no car. She travels by matatu [crowded public minivans]. She dresses in ordinary clothes. She will talk to anybody. You would never know she is a world class athlete. She is just a natural Kenyan woman."
A note about the name "Masai": It is not a tribal designation, but it does have to do with the well-known Kenyan tribe. Edith's people are the Kony, a branch of the Kalenjin living on the slopes of 4300 m Mt. Elgon. In fact, by some accounts, it was what the Masai called these people, "il Kony," that gave the mountain its name, and the people became known, mistakenly, as Elgon Masai. Edith shares her surname with Andrew Masai, a leading masters runner on the US road circuit. The two are not related, but they come from the same village, and their fathers were initiated together. Both men were given the name Masai at that time to commemorate an ancient victory of the Kony over the Masai. Among other Kalenjin groups, the corresponding name is usually the more familiar "Barmasai."
Prepared by John Manners for the IAAF "Focus on Africans" project. © IAAF 2002-2004.