When Duncan Kibet broke his leg in a car accident at the age of 16, the prospects of his walking properly, let alone becoming a world class runner were pretty remote. Fifteen years later, the legacy of the break is still visible above his left ankle. But the combination of living in Eldoret aka Running Town, Kenya, of his elder brother Luke Kipchumba starting to run well at the start of the century, and hanging out with Kenyan stars, like Moses Tanui and Moses Kiptanui, Kibet, then aged 25 thought he’d give it a try.
Never thought about being a runner
So successful was that foray, and despite his own misgivings about moving up to the ultimate distance, Kibet goes into Sunday’s real,-Berlin Marathon as the second fastest man in history. But he faces a metaphorical car crash this time, since alongside him he’ll have the man who has won the last three Berlin races, the last two of them in World record time, hence the number one fastest man in the world, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.
“I never even thought about being a runner,” said Kibet on arrival in Berlin on Thursday, “all we did at school was run on sports day, that was it. And when I broke my leg, it never crossed my mind. I was scared to run. But my brother encouraged me, and gradually, I saw I could do it”.
The Kenyan diaspora had already begun, and again, on his brother’s recommendation, he moved to the Paris suburbs and ran in France for close to two years. But even running what for anyone else would be an excellent time in winning the Lille half-marathon in 2003, 60min 59sec for a Kenyan was, literally, nothing to write home about.
But when his younger brother, Shadrack Biwott got a US college scholarship, and helped arrange some races in the US, including another half-marathon victory, in 60.22 in San Jose 2006, agent Federico Rosa, who has a stable of leading Kenyans went to sign him up when he returned to Kenya.
Taking the marathon seriously
Although Kibet had paced a couple of marathons in France in 2004, and jogged through to the finish in 2.20, Rosa reports that his hardest job was persuading Kibet to take to the marathon seriously. “That’s true,” says Kibet, “I was really scared it was going to break my leg again. And I was scared of the distance”. But Rosa’s counsel prevailed, and although both agreed he wasn’t on optimum form when he went to Vienna 2008, he finished second to compatriot Abel Kirui (who won the recent IAAF World Championship race in Berlin), in 2.08.33.
He followed that up with a victory in Milan in October last year, in 2.07.53, and then really shook up the world rankings, with another victory, over training partner, James Kwambai, in the Rotterdam Marathon in April this year, both men clocking 2.04.27. That is one second slower than Geb’s Berlin World record of two years ago, and less than a half minute outside the Emperor’s World record 2.03.59 from Berlin last year.
Berlin race director, Mark Milde admitted to doing a little arm-twisting to get the world’s two fastest men to line up against each other. “We wanted some drama this time, not just another World record attempt,” said Milde. Of course, it’s quite possible he may get both. And Kibet needs no prompting to praise the world number one. “I feel honoured that he let me into the race. I really admire Haile, for all he’s done for athletics over the years, and for everything he’s done for Ethiopia”.
His confident address, in excellent English to the press conference in one of Berlin’s smartest hotels underlines a common assessment of Kibet, that, ‘He is not a typical Kenyan’. That is as much to do with the shyness of many of his compatriots, who come from country communities. But the rasta beard and the bling (jewellery), and the Manchester United shirt he occasionally sports as a soccer fanatic mark him out as a bit different.
Looking for personal best time
On Sunday he has an opportunity to make a real difference. Geb already had a shock in the latter stages of last year’s race, when Kibet’s training partner Kwambai pulled alongside the Ethiopian at 35km. “I thought he was a pacemaker,” said Geb afterwards, admitting it was just the impetus he needed to break away again, and take the World record under 2.04.
Kibet already has a share of a world record, but it’s the sort that usually only exercises statisticians and the editors of the Guinness Book of Records. With his brother Luke’s 2.10.57 from Seoul 2003, and his own 2.04.27 from Rotterdam 2009, they hold the fastest siblings’ time in the world, 4.15.24, just five seconds ahead of the Kimaiyo brothers, Eric and Boaz.
As for a record to himself, he has a pointer. Last weekend, Kwambai ran 59.09 for third place in the Rotterdam half-marathon, a result which should inspire Kibet, who feels he is on at least equally good form, and sow a seed of doubt in Geb’s mind. Kibet may be confident, but not overly so.
“When I went to Vienna, I wanted to run 2.10, and I did 2.08.33. When I went to Rotterdam this year, I thought I was capable of high 2.05, low 2.06, and I did 2.04.27. I want to do better than that; I want to run a personal best”.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF