Updated 12 August 2008
Martin Lel, Kenya (Marathon)
Born: October 29, 1978, Kipngeru Village, Kapsabet, Nandi district, Rift Valley Province
Coach: Claudio Berardelli
Manager: Federico Rosa
Kenya has yet to win the Olympic Marathon gold medal and, if there is one person expected to end that jinx, it is Martin Lel. For the past three years, Lel has been one of the most dominant athletes in marathon running. With three wins in the London Marathon, and two in New York, a personal best of 2:05:15, and the leadership in this year’s World Marathon Majors series, Lel goes into Beijing as the man to beat.
He has redefined marathon running with his strategy of staying at the back of the lead pack before unleashing his trademark finishing kick to set him apart from his would-be challengers.
Lel was born in Kipngeru Village and attended Kiprigen Primary School before joining Chemuswa Secondary School. He is the fifth-born in a family of ten and two of his brothers, Batram Kimutai and Dominic Kimugor, are budding athletes. Martin was an average athlete while in high school, reaching the secondary school provincial championships in cross country in 1998. He also used to run 1500m and 5000m races on track but did not do well
It was while at Chemuswa that he met his great friend – four-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Cheruiyot. Their first meeting, though, was anything but cordial as Lel took a bicycle that had been left unmanned in the school compound and rode it for a while. Unbeknown to him, it was Cheruiyot’s and upon returning it, Cheruiyot set about him with a stick.
“I wanted to play a practical joke on the owner of a bicycle that used to be parked at school,” Lel said. “So I took it and rode for a kilometre but, when I returned, I met a fuming owner who went on to whip me with a cane for taking his bike.
“He gave me four strokes but I ran away before he could give me a fifth. He then chased after me and, when he finally caught me, we had run for so long and I started laughing. He asked me: ‘Do you know who I am?’ I told him ‘no’ and he said ‘Robert Cheruiyot is my name’. We began laughing together and became firm friends then and until now I consider him my best friend.” Since then the duo have remained tight and both were selected to champion Kenya’s quest for the elusive gold in Beijing.
After completing his secondary school education in 1998, Lel was employed to run a food store, “I was employed by a businessman after school to make ends meet since my family was not doing well,” Lel said. In late 1999, Simon Bor (1999 Los Angeles Marathon winner) and his cousin, Noah Bor, took Lel to their camp and helped him up his training. “They entered me in the 2000 Discovery Race, in Eldoret, where I met my manager,” Lel said. The manager was Dr Rosa whose son, Federico, later took over the role.
“Dr. Rosa saw that I had the ability to perform better over longer distances and convinced me to take up marathon running when young,” Lel said. “He noticed I had the strength to endure combined with speed to finish and we began working to improve that for marathon running.”
Lel lined up for his marathon debut in Prague in 2002 but failed to finish. Five months later, in his second marathon, he finished second (2:10:02). Lel was growing in confidence and, in 2003, he won the Lisbon Half Marathon in 60:10. On 21 April, he made his debut in the Boston Marathon, finishing third (2:11:11) in a race won by his friend, Cheruiyot.
Selected to represent his country at the 2003 World Half Marathon Championships, in Vilamoura, Portugal, Lel took the gold medal (1:00:49) and, .a month later, registered his first big city marathon victory when clinching the New York Marathon in 2:10:30. He stayed with the defending champion, Rodgers Rop, before pulling away after 18 miles.
In early 2004, Lel dipped under the 60-minute barrier at the Lisbon Half Marathon (downhill course), clocking 59:51 for second place. He returned to Boston on April 19, again finishing third (2:13:38). He then suffered a serious stress fracture that sidelined him from taking part in the autumn marathons.
Lel began 2005 with a 59:42 timing in the Lisbon Half Marathon (downhill course) and, six weeks later, he clinched his first London Marathon crown in a then personal best 2:07.26. Lel stayed with the leading pack until three miles to go when he made his move. He again missed out on the New York Marathon through yet another injury.
In 2006 Lel smashed his Half Marathon personal best by running 59:30 to win in Lisbon (downhill course), beating Samuel Wanjiru, the present World record holder. A month later he was in a world class field that lined up to take on the streets of London. Haile Gebrselassie, Hendrick Ramaala, Stefano Baldini and Felix Limo were all on show.
Lel made the decisive move with five kilometres to go, breaking everybody bar Limo, who stuck to him like glue. Limo then pulled away in the final 200m to win in 2:06:39. Lel had to be content with second in 2:06:41. “I miscalculated my finishing kick that day and paid for it,” Lel said. “I didn’t know that Limo was so strong.”
Lel again missed out on New York Marathon through injury but he was back and straining at the leash in 2007. Another world class field was awaiting him in the London Marathon and this time Lel held back until the final 600m, when he sprinted away to register his second win in London (2:07:41). In the autumn he won the Great North Run, in Newcastle, England, after again defeating Wanjiru.
In November, Lel was back in New York. In a race that did not have pacemakers, he took part in setting the pace then, with a few hundred metres to go, he sped away from Morocco’s Abderrahim Goumri to win in 2:09:94, becoming the first man to win both London and New York in the same year.
Nothing, however, had prepared Lel for what would happen in Kenya in the aftermath of the December 30 General Election. With violence breaking out in most parts of the country, Lel and several other athletes were airlifted to Namibia where they continued with their training schedules. Despite that setback, Lel proclaimed he was in the best shape of his life ahead of the 2008 London Marathon.
Again he kept close to the pacemakers throughout the race and, when they dropped, him, Wanjiru and Goumri kept it up. Wanjiru and Lel then pulled away in the final three kilometres. In the last 400m, Lel applied his trademark kick to win his third London Marathon crown in a personal best 2:05:15. He became the youngest man to win five major marathons and kept in the hunt for the World Marathon Majors series with a perfect score of 75 points out of three races.
A couple of weeks later, Athletics Kenya officials named Lel as one of a three man team for the Olympics. He will team up with Wanjiru and Luke Kibet, the World champion who was a late replacement for the injured Cheruiyot. Despite his unparalleled success, Lel remains modest about his achievements. “All my races have been tough,” he said. “Cheruiyot beat me twice in Boston and Rodgers Rop once in New York before I gained more experience and started winning.”
And what about his finishing kick? “I make no special preparations for my finishing kick,” he said. “It’s all in the mind. Every time I come near the finish, my body suddenly feels strong, the fatigue goes away and I am able to sprint.”
Countryman Paul Tergat lost the World record for the Marathon to Gebrselassie last year. Will Lel attempt to get it back for Kenya? “My friends tell me that it will come for me, and I am sure it will,” he said. “But, for this, you will need preparation, like in Berlin where a race is a set up for one athlete.”
Marathon: 2:05:15 (2008)
Half Marathon: 59:30* (2006) /1:00.49 (2003)
Marathon: 2002 - 2:10:02, 2003 - 2:10:30, 2004 - 2:13:38, 2005 - 2:07:26, 2006 - 2:06:41, 2007 - 2:07:41, 2008 - 2:05:15
Half Marathon: 2003 - 1:00:49, 2004 - 59:51*/-, 2005 - 59:42*/1:01/37, 2006 - 59:30*/1:01.25
2002 2nd Venice Marathon
2003 3rd Boston Marathon
2003 1st World Half Marathon Championships
2003 1st New York Marathon
2004 3rd Boston Marathon
2005 1st London Marathon
2006 2nd London Marathon
2007 1st London Marathon
2007 1st New York Marathon
2008 1st London Marathon
Prepared by James Wokabi and Mutwiri Mutuota for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008