Benjamin Limo on his way to the 1999 World XC short course title (Getty Images) © Copyright
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A Kenyan XC legend – Benjamin Limo

This lanky and affable man was such a talented athlete that the Kenyan armed forces could not wait for him to complete his secondary school to join them.

Benjamin Kipkoech Limo
Born: August 23, 1974, Chpkongony, Uasin Gishu

Limo started his career running 400 metres races at his local primary schools, including Tuluobei primary, where Lornah Kiplagat also went to school.

“Even in primary school, my teachers always wondered how I was able to take on senior boys and beat them in district and even provincial championships. By then, I already knew my future lay in running,” says Limo.

While at Chabera Boys Secondary School in Marakwet in 1990, Limo continued excelling in athletics. He was there for two years before transferring to Lelboinet in Keiyo, gradually moving up in distance. He can’t forget certain events that marked his career in 1992, one of them when he tripped during a provincial secondary schools race in Marakwet. Vincent Malakwen, who was to later establish himself as a great middle distance runner, won.

The same year, close to his 18th birthday, he was snapped up by the forces. He became a full member of the armed forces in 1994, based at Nyali Barracks, Mombasa. He attended Combat Engineering Course in Isiolo then he was posted to Engineers Battalion in Thika in 1997. He is now a Senior Private, or Senior Sapper, as he prefers to call it.

Limo resumed serious running training when he came out of college. At cross country, he tried the 12km race first, which he ran in Kwanthanze secondary school during one of the national championships series in late 1997. His third place finish that day really encouraged him.

At the Armed Forces Championships the following year he finished 18th; he knew he was facing a tough future in the 12km race given the stiff competition.

Limo was lucky, therefore, in his timing. That same season, the IAAF introduced its short-course, 4km race, to be launched in Marrakech in Morocco in March.

Limo immediately switched to the short course race for the Kenyan Trials. He finished third, and so gained selection for Marrakech and was part of the Kenyan team that landed a cleansweep of the top five places.

John Kibowen won the race, followed by Daniel Komen and Paul Kosgei. Limo was fourth, ahead of John Kosgei. With Kipkiriu Misoi in eighth place, Kenyans easily won the team title.

World title in Belfast

In the absence of Kibowen the following year in Belfast, Limo easily won the title, with Paul Kosgei in second place.

His performance on the track the same year, did not disappoint, as he finished second in a photo-finish to Morocco’s Salah Hissou in the 5000m in Seville at the IAAF World Championships.

But Limo suffered injuries and was out for most of the 2000 cross country season. He needed a three-week stay with the Irish physio, Gerard Hartman, to get himself back on track.

But then came the famous collision at the Kenyan Olympic trials. Strategically positioned with a lap to run, Limo was in the group that included Paul Tergat, Richard Limo, Sammy Kipketer, Julius Gitahi and Albert Chepkirui. But as the bell, Limo, KIpketer and Chepkirui all sprawled to the tartan track and never recovered. He finished fifth and out of the Olympics.

He did not get back into racing much again until the 2001 cross country season, which culminated in his finishing third over 4km at Ostend behind team mate Enock Koech and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele.

The following year, Limo was suffering with malaria during the Armed Forces Championships, and managed only 14th and so missed the World Cross. Instead, he did some American road races, winning a 10km in Alabama, getting a second place in Crescent City 10km and a third place in another 10km in North Carolina.

Later in the year, he attempted a few races in the European track circuit, winning in Oslo and Monaco, but he was passed by Salah Hissou in Rome. A win in Berlin and defeat in Zurich followed, together with a Commonwealth Games silver medal in Manchester in a race won by Sammy Kipketer.

The following winter, and Limo was back in the Kenyan cross country team, travelling to Lausanne and finishing third over 4km at the World Cross, having led with 400 metres to go.

Helsinki Limo

In 2005, Limo only finished eighth at the Kenyan trials, meaning he missed the plane to France for St Etienne-St Galmier.

Yet that disappointment was turned around to deliver possibly his finest summer season. While in training camp with Albert Chepkirui at Kaptagat, Limo was approached by some officials from that summer's Helsinki World Championships.

“We were given some small gifts and taken through orientation. This really inspired us."

After Limo claimed the 5000m World title, he returned home to greet a new-born son and duly named him Helsinki.

Limo married Margaret Cherogon in 1998. Their first daughter, Marion Chepkemoi, was born in 1998, while their second, Diana Jeruto, is 7 years old and Sharon Cherotich is 5. Then, in 2005, came Tony Helsinki Kigen.

Limo's family has 50 acres of arable land in Chepkongony, complete with a good stone house and two tractors. He farms maize and wheat and rears livestock. He also has a residential house in Elgon View, which is one of cool neighbourhoods in Eldoret. Limo also has plans to start building a commercial block in Eldoret’s central business district.

Limo, now 32, has strong views about how Kenya's runners could improve.

"We used to identify a strong person around whom the team plan was weaved," he says. "These days, we run individually. Because we have so many athletes and many managers, each athlete plans his race individually with his own manager.

"However much the coaches try to inculcate team spirit in the camp, they are overruled by managers. There is too much division. Sometimes we plan races only for managers to turn around and change all that overnight. This is killing the sport.

"Unlike Ethiopia, who have a small manageable number of runners and thus easier to co-ordinate, Kenya has too many athletes scattered in many camps doing different things."

Omulo Okoth for the IAAF