Updated July 27, 2008
Omar AHMED (Robert Kipkoech CHERUIYOT) Kenya (Half Marathon/Marathon)
Born: September 26, 1978, Kapsabet, Nandi District, Rift Valley Province
1.88m / 65kg
Coach: Claudio Berardelli
Manager: Federico Rosa
(He should not confused with 21-year-old 2009 Boston fifth finisher and Frankfurt Marathon title holder, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, an upcoming force in world’s ultimate distance running.)
Following his conversion to Islam, the four-time Boston Marathon champion widely known as Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot or by his nickname, ‘Mwafrika’ (Swahili for African) has now adopted Omar Ahmed and wishes to be referred to by his new Muslim name.
The term ‘rags to riches’ is overused but, in Ahmed’s case, it could not be more appropriate. A little over a decade ago he was living on KSh20 a day (USD30 cents) earning his living as a barber in Mosoriot trading centre in the bowels of the Rift Valley.
But, 12 years on, Ahmed is one of the most accomplished marathoners of his time, with four Boston Marathon titles to his name, two Chicago Marathon crowns and was the inaugural winner of the World Marathon Majors (WMM) series which saw him pocket half a million US dollars.
Ahmed has had to work his way up, although he has represented his country only once. After failing to finish at the 2002 World Half Marathon Championships, when he was given his chance for his second national vest – in the 2008 Olympic Games marathon in Beijing – he withdrew injured.
Ahmed, who was born in Kapsabet, had a tough and troubled childhood as his parents separated when he was young."My father was working with a white settler who left him a big farm," Ahmed says. "He sold everything and went away. My mother became crazy and also ran. They left us on somebody's veranda."
Food was rare and he survived on a meal a day. “We would take Dextrosol (flavoured glucose that was sold in sachets) with water at lunchtime in school then wait for the evening meal,” he said. Eventually, Ahmed went to live with his mother's cousin who had promised to pay his school tuition of Sh6, 800 ($105) per term. In exchange, Ahmed became the family house help.
"I would wake up at 5 o'clock and go to the dairy to milk the cows," he says. "Then I would prepare breakfast for the children to go to school, take a shower and go to school myself at 7:30. Then I would come back and prepare lunch for the children. This was a woman's work, but it was what I had to do to survive."
Lack of school fees saw him drop out of Secondary school in 1997 while in Form Two (second year). Worse came a few days later as his relative literally chased him out of the house. He went to Mosoriot trading centre looking for his brother, who was a policeman, in the hope that he would help him. But, with his sibling unable to get him back in school, he then took up a job in the barber shop and worked assiduously earning Sh20 a day.
“Life was hard and I used to wear one shirt and one pair of shorts,” Ahmed said. “I could only afford another pair once a year. My budget would be Sh10 for food and Sh10 for cigarettes. I was a chimney, I would smoke as much I could afford plus the cigarettes were important because I would use them to bribe the watchman to let me share his shelter at night.”
But fate smiled on him in June 1999, when Keter Chepta introduced Ahmed to the Fila training camp in Eldoret. A year later, he teamed up with former Boston Marathon winner Cosmas Ndeti in Machakos, “I was living in Ndeti’s servants’ quarter and spent six months training near Machakos Hospital College before moving to Kerugoya,” he said.
In February 2002, Ahmed took part in the Discovery run organised by former Boston winner Moses Tanui in Eldoret where he earned his first pay some Sh10,000 ($133) for registering a podium finish. “I had never seen so much money in my life and I wanted to buy a cow,” he said.
The real pay-off was a contract from Fila, which brought Ahmed to Italy for an advanced apprenticeship - a totally new adventure as he boarded a plane for Europe. Once in Italy, Ahmed won the Roma-Ostia Half Marathon and set a then personal record and course record of 1:00:06.
In March of 2002 he placed third in the Berkane International 9.46K (26:57). The next month he placed fifth at the Stramilano Half Marathon with a time of 1:02:37. He then lined up in the World Half Marathon Championships but registered a DNF. In December 2002, he won his first marathon, clinching the Milan City Marathon in 2:08:59.
It was in Italy that Ahmed met former World Marathon record holder, Paul Tergat, who would go on to play a major role in his career. Having first been drawn to athletics by a picture of Tergat finishing second at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Ahmed met his hero and requested to join his training camp back home.
In 2003, Ahmed won his first Half Marathon in Lisbon, where he clocked 1:00:24 and, in April, he made his debut in the Boston Marathon, winning in 2:10:11. Upon his return back home, Ahmed bought a piece of land, built a house, reunited his parents and settled them there. “They are now back together and look like decent people.”
Things were not so rosy for Ahmed in 2004. He split from Tergat after a disagreement and his performances nosedived. He returned to Lisbon Half Marathon with a third place finish in 59:54. Back in Boston to defend his marathon crown, he failed to finish. Ahmed won the Rotterdam Half Marathon in 1:00:11 but he could manage only 12th place in the Chicago Marathon (2:14:23).
2005 was no better for the lanky athlete as he could only manage fifth in Boston in April (2:14:30) In November of the same year, he was fourth in New York (2:11:01).
Disappointed with his dip in performances, Ahmed made peace with Tergat in early 2006 and it was reflected in his almost instant improvement as he won Boston for the second time, in April, breaking Cosmas Ndeti’s 12-year-old course record with 2:07:14. In November, Ahmed won his first Chicago crown in dramatic circumstances.
It had rained heavily earlier and, having led for most of the second part of the race, Ahmed slipped as he approached the finish-line, hitting the back of his head on the tarmac. He was rushed to hospital where he spent two days after tests showed he had suffered brain contusion.
"I was not sleeping for one and a half months," he said adding: “It was a bad and sad moment as I don’t know what really happened but I have put it behind.”
Despite that, Ahmed’s win put him in the driving seat for the inaugural World Marathon Majors series as he had 50 points from two races. He began 2007 with a third place at the Discovery Kenya Cross Country race and fifth at the Ras Al Khaimah International Half Marathon (1:00:38) on February 9.
With the World majors in sight, Ahmed was back in Boston in April 2007 where he overcame one of the worst weather conditions in history. It rained so much and, such were the strong headwind gales, that Ahmed ran the first half in a sweat shirt before going on to pull off his third Boston victory in 2:14:13.
The win gave him an unassailable lead in the Majors series with 75 points from three races. Almost always a victim of weather conditions, he was back in Chicago in October, where he finished fourth in a race run in extremely hot conditions. It was enough to confirm him as the overall winner of the WMM series.
“I am not thinking about the money,” Ahmed said at the time. “That will be after I retire. I actually look at it as my retirement benefit since am not employed. When I retire the money will still be there so it’s better not to think about it now.”
He then had to train in Namibia for five weeks at the beginning of 2008 as post election violence in Kenya took its toll, returning once relative calm had been restored. In April Ahmed was back in Boston, seeking his fourth crown there. Having declared interest in participating at the Olympics, he needed a good showing to convince the selectors that he was ready.
Ahmed ran with the pack until the 23km mark, when he made a surge to open a huge gap. He attacked the rest of the course on his own, winning in 2:07:46 and becoming the youngest four time winner of the race. Despite being a quarter of a mile ahead of second-placed finisher, Ahmed said it had been tough.
“This was the hardest,” he said. “Boston is not an easy course, it’s very difficult, but I enjoy running the hills. When I made the move, I wasn’t scared. I like to push the race and it wasn’t fast. I need company to run a fast race, but I’m not disappointed. I’m very elated. It’s very good for me.”
Shortly afterwards he was selected to the national team for the Olympics where he was hoping to give Kenya her first Olympic gold in the event. Ahmed embarked on rigorous training that took him to Italy then returned to his homeland after a month to step up speed work, training in the hills of Ngong, 60km from Nairobi.
But on 16 August, the day set for the Kenyan marathon team to depart to China, Ahmed stunned the nation when he announced that he had withdrawn from the Olympics and instead given his place to World champion, Luke Kibet. “I asked to be left out of the team when it became clear that an injury in my left thigh would not allow me to run past five kilometres,” he said. “There is no use for me to go there only to pull out of the race.
“For the sake of the country, I will not travel and I believe the team will be strong enough to bring gold,” a disappointed Ahmed added. Samuel Wanjiru went on to bag Kenya’s first ever Olympics marathon top medal in an event record of 2:06:32.
A third place finish with what is now his official personal best over the distance at this year’s Lisbon Half Marathon (1:00.05) in March announced Ahmed’s return to competitive action after recovery from injury. The Lisbon Half course has undergone changes to make it IAAF Road Race records compliant.
He returned to his Boston stomping ground in April pursuing a memorable fifth triumph and third straight win but it was not to be when he pulled out of the race at the 30km mark. He disclosed a stomach bacterial infection was responsible for his withdrawal
Ahmed returned home and was initially named in the provisional marathon squad for Berlin in June before he was confirmed as a definite starter a month later.
“For me, it’s all about the World Championships this year,” Ahmed said adding, ““I cannot say I’m the favourite because all Kenyans are the best and they will have trained well and we will bring back gold.”
Explaining his change of religion, Ahmed explained, “I became a Muslim purely for religious purposes but I have had problems with changing my name on official documents. I have nothing against Christians or their beliefs but I’m more at peace with myself now.
“I cannot understand why our laws are so difficult when it comes to changing names. They can have Robert Cheruiyot on my passport but in my heart, I’m Omar Ahmed.”
When reports of his troubles with his new faith were highlighted in local media, officials of Jamia Mosque, the largest in Nairobi asked to be connected to the new convert.
“The Jamia people talked to me and are helping resolve my problems with official documentation in addition to tutoring me in Islam,” Ahmed said as he watched his compatriots compete for places in the Berlin squad from the stands on July 25 Trials.
Later, as he lined up with the rest as the team was formally introduced, only his radiant smile was visible as dusk descended over Nairobi.
Marathon: 2:07:14 (2006)
Half Marathon: 1:00:05 (2009)
Marathon: 2002 - 2:08:59, 2003 - 2:10:11, 2004 - 2:14:23, 2005 - 2:11:01, 2006 - 2:07:14, 2007 - 2:14:13, 2008 - 2:07:46
Half Marathon: 2002 - 1:00:06, 2003 - 1:02:12, 2004 - 1:00:11, 2005 - 1:01:45, 2006 - 1:02:51, 2007 - 1:00:38, 2008 - 1:00:50; 2009-1:00:05
2002 dnf World Half Marathon Championships
2002 1st Milan Marathon
2003 1st Boston Marathon
2005 5th Boston Marathon
2005 4th New York Marathon
2006 1st Boston Marathon
2006 1st Chicago Marathon
2007 1st Boston Marathon
2007 4th Chicago Marathon
2008 1st Boston Marathon
Prepared by James Wokabi and Mutwiri Mutuota for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008-2009