Twelve years is a long time to wait, particularly for a proud distance-running nation like Tanzania, which has no shortage of athletic talent but so often has to play second fiddle to the superpowers of Kenya and Ethiopia to its north.
But on a warm, sunny day at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, 26-year-old Alphonce Felix Simbu finally ended their medal drought, battling his way to third place in the men’s marathon to claim just the second medal for Tanzania in the history of the championships.
The first was won back in 2005 by Christopher Isengwe, who took silver in the men’s marathon in Helsinki, and it’s no coincidence to learn that’s around the time Simbu, then 14, first took up the sport.
“I started with a coach who was a teacher in primary school,” he recalls. “He told me one day you will run good. I always heard people saying they’re going to the World Championships and I said to myself, 'one day I will be there too'.”
Back then, Simbu was better known as a 1500m and 5000m runner, winning a Tanzanian title over the latter distance in 2011, which was where he first came under the watch of national team coach Francis John.
Baptism of fire
He entered Simbu for the All Africa Games that year in Maputo, Mozambique, where the 19-year-old got a rude awakening about the level required at the top level, coming home eighth in the 10,000m in 29:58:20 in a race won by then world champion Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia in 28:18.22. Five of the seven rivals to finish the race lapped Simbu.
But back then he was just a talented teen without the required workload behind him, and over the years that followed John put him through his paces, having him log between 180 to 200 kilometres per week in training to build the endurance engine he would need to reach the top.
“In 2015 I changed my mind and said he must go to the marathon,” says John.
Simbu made his debut that year in Gold Coast, finishing a decent sixth in 2:12:01, which earned him selection for the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.
There he came through the field over the latter half of the race to finish 12th in 2:16:58, which was enough to guarantee his spot on the Tanzanian team for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
“We started training in January,” says John. “We trained for six months in Arusha, west Kilimanjaro, at an altitude of 2400 metres.”
Hitting the right note
Training consisted of two runs per day every day except Sunday, when Simbu would rest and attend church.
For many years he was a keen gospel singer in the church choir, but soon running took priority. “I left because of training,” he says, “but I will return to it again.”
In Rio he came up against the titans of his event, men like Eliud Kipchoge, Feyisa Lilesa and Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, but applying a patient strategy once again paid dividends, Simbu slicing through the top 10 over the closing miles to finish fifth in 2:11:15.
“I was happy,” he says. “I wanted to get a medal but I missed it, so I said I’m going to wait, train hard and you will see the results.”
He started 2017 with a bang, taking victory at the Mumbai Marathon in January in 2:09:32, which soon had London Marathon organisers extending an invitation. There, in late April, he again finished with a strong burst to place fifth, setting a PB of 2:09:10 in a race won by Kenya’s Daniel Wanjiru in 2:05:48.
That run convinced him he had no one to fear when he returned to London a little over three months later for the World Championships.
Man of bronze
The first Sunday morning of the championships dawned warm and sunny, ideal conditions for doing many things, but not for running a marathon. Simbu, however, was non-plussed. “The weather was hot but because I train in different weather in Tanzania I knew I would be able to run well,” he said. “But it was still tough.”
The early pace was steady, a group of 25 passing halfway together at the front.
“Our plan was to keep always with the leaders,” says John. “But the guys changed my plan early.”
Just after halfway Kenyans Geoffrey Kirui and Gideon Kipketer, along with Ethiopia’s Tamirat Tola, injected a vicious change of pace which drew them clear of the field.
It left Simbu running side by side with Daniel Wanjiru well behind, although his coach had seen the way he could close out races so he still had hope of a medal.
“He is strong in the finish,” says John. “I said to him, 'keep on going'.”
Kipketer soon couldn't live with the leading duo and fell back through the pack, then entering the closing kilometres Simbu hit full throttle, dropping Wanjiru and closing in on Tola, who was fading fast in second.
Kirui took gold in 2:08:27, with Tola hanging on for silver in 2:09:49, followed closely by Simbu, who crossed the line in 2:09:51 to crown an unforgettable day not just for him, but for the people of Tanzania.
“This is a historic moment in my life, my best achievement,” said Simbu. “I’m very happy because it was a long time since Tanzania won a medal.”
It was also a proud moment for his coach, who sees Simbu as the ideal protege. “He has a strong mind, always listens to coach,” says John. “It’s good luck that he never becomes sick or injured. He never says he can’t do something because it’s hard.”
The biggest upside to Simbu’s medal, believed John, was not so much for the man himself but for the youngsters watching at home. “I’m looking at the medals for the young guys, for the future,” he says. “He trains with the young guys and we hope he can motivate them with the medal.”
Simbu, a father to a one-year-old baby boy, was also acutely aware of what it could mean for the future of Tanzanian distance running.
“It will provide inspiration,” he says. “Now athletes in Tanzania will get morale and they are going to train hard because they can see that if they train hard they can also do well. In 2020 there will be many of us.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF