Given that over 500 Kenyans ran under two hours twenty minutes for a marathon last year, and that most of the world’s big city race titles are taken by the men from the Rift Valley, ‘Kenyan wins marathon’ is probably the most overworked introduction in sportswriting. Yet Luke Kibet’s victory in the opening event of the 11th IAAF World Championships is something of, if not a shock, then a surprise. This Kenyan squad was generally reckoned to be the poorest ever assembled, and the critics were doubtless preparing an attack on the philosophy that money races nowadays largely outrank championships.
Kibet, aged 24 turned all that on its head within the space of a few hundred metres after the 31k mark in the hot and humid conditions that threaten to prevail throughout the ten days of competition in Osaka. “I heard that people were saying we were not strong,” said Kibet immediately after his victory, “but when I came here, I promised myself that I would do well, to prove them wrong.”
So he did, leaving the pack well behind when he started a surge that would last for over ten kilometres, running a marginally faster second half (by 20 seconds), and winning by well over a minute, in 2:15:59. That time will also be food for critical consumption, this was the slowest race in the history of the championship. But, given that the event began at 7am in 28 C heat, and 81% humidity, and ended in 33 C heat, with 67% humidity, that is hardly surprising.
This is by far the biggest win of Kibet’s career, which began at the turn of the century in his home town of Eldoret, the heartland of Kenyan athletics, at some 2000 metres altitude in the Western Highlands of the Great Rift Valley. He started out in track, specialising in the steeplechase, but concurrent with his best time of 8:25.4, he launched his Marathon career with a second place in Enschede, Netherlands in May, 2004. The location was due largely to his having joined the management group of Frans Denisen in Tilburg, where Kibet had already won the annual 10 Miles race in 2003.
Like many of the Kenyan athletes, Kibet is a civil servant, a member of the Prison Service. Theoretically, he is based in the capital Nairobi, but since his ascent to world class, which he cemented with a win in the Vienna City Marathon earlier this year, in 2:10:07, he only has to do nominal service, and does most of his training back home in Eldoret, where he is mentored by one of the Kenyan Marathon greats, Moses Tanui, at the training camp that the latter set up a half dozen years ago, in nearby Kaptagat. Kibet is married, with one child.
Kibet’s best time was set in Eindhoven, where he finished third in 2:08:52, in 2005, the same year that he won the Berlin 25k in a 1:13:51. The previous year, he had finished second in Berlin in a rapid 1:12:52. This world title has come in his eighth Marathon, and apart from the Vienna victory three months ago, he has also won the Taipei Marathon in 2005 and 2006. Considering how well he coped with the temperature and humidity, it is perhaps no coincidence that Vienna was very hot this year, and Taipei has similar climatic conditions to Osaka. Incidentally, such is the embarassment of running riches in Kenya, there is (almost inevitably) another Luke Kibet, who is also a marathoner, and won the Country Music Marathon back in 2004. But that Kibet is eight years older.
Speaking to colleague Jorg Wenig after his victory in Vienna, Kibet reported that he had had stomach problems in the early part of this year, and had only been able to train for three weeks prior to the event in the Austrian capital. He also said that he didn’t expect to be selected for Osaka, and had arranged to run in Amsterdam in late October. “I don’t know where I am going to run next,” he said after today’s race, “all I know is I am very, very happy to win.” Given that this was the first win for a Kenyan man in the championship since Douglas Wakiihuri in 1987, the whole of Kenya deserves to be equally overjoyed for and with him.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF