Sammy Wanjiru in Chicago - 2009 (Victah Sailer) © Copyright
General News 12 October 2009 – Chicago, USA

At 22, Wanjiru already a legend in the making

Chicago, USASammy Wanjiru is fast becoming a legend in marathon running at the ripe, young age of 22.  He won the Beijing Olympic marathon with a performance that many consider the best of all time.  He has won four of his first marathons with an average time of 2:05:53, second in average to the best five marathons run by World record holder, Haile Gebrselassie (2:04:57 average).

If he can get the right weather and the right pacing, says Wanjiru, he’ll break Geb’s record of 2:03:59. 

“He is a very special runner,” said Bank of American Chicago Marathon runner-up Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco.  “To break the world record he will have to change his tactics.”  Goumri and others believe that running as fast as �����the Emperor,” as Gebrselassie is known in his native Ethiopia requires a tempered effort in the first half of the race and a negative split.

Gebrselassie ran 1:02:03 for the first 13.1 miles of his record race and covered the last half in 1:01:56.  In Sunday’s Chicago race, Wanjiru went out in 1:02:00, but couldn’t finish fast enough and reached the finish in 2:05:41. The lack of the necessary pacer to get him at least through 30K and a headwind that observers could see was stiff enough to blow around Wanjiru’s singlet during the last 6K doomed the record attempt in Chicago, he said.

2007 Chicago champion Patrick Ivuti made a valiant effort to assist Wanjiru, but could only make it around 25K.  At that point, Wanjiru said, he knew the record attempt would not succeed and he shifted his focus to winning the race. The effort and Goumri’s comments reignited the debate about how fast the top marathoners can run and how to do it.

Two hour barrier possible?

Can anyone run under two hours?  Wanjiru isn’t sure, but he believes he can run 2:02.  Khalid Khannouchi, whose course and former World record Wanjiru broke on Sunday, said that physiological tests showed that he could run 2:03, but he never was pushed to that time and injuries have sidetracked his career.  Having won plenty of prize money, including $500,000 for being this cycle’s World Marathon Majors men’s champion, and the Olympic Gold medal, Wanjiru has turned his attention to the World record.

He wanted to run in Berlin this year, but, he says, the race officials said no. So, he came to Chicago because the course is notoriously fast. Next year he will be looking for fast courses and the best pacemakers. At heart, however, Wanjiru is a racer, not so much against the clock but his opposition. Beijing was one of those races, he says.  “The thing there was to win,” he said.  “No pacers in the Olympics.”

Aggressive style reaped Olympic triumph

Contrary to previous reports, it was not a Kenyan team strategy to push the pace there, it was Wanjiru’s.  He is the most aggressive of runners and had no fear of the heat. 

“I trained in Japan and it was very hot there, so I had no problem with the heat,” he said.  He learned his aggressive racing style competing in both Kenya and Japan.  Racing in Kenya, he said, starts fast and pretty much is a survival of the fastest.

In Japan, says Wanjiru’s agent, Frederico Rosa, the races have a similar style with runners going out very hard and adapting their tactics as the race unfolds. In Japan, Wanjiru said, he learned about track training, surging, and varying race tactics, and the importance of the variety of the elements of an athlete’s development. Add to that his physical gifts, Wanjiru is built unusually for an African distance runner with a lean, long, but strong upper torso, and the quads more closely resembling those of a cyclist or speed skater than a distance runner.  He uses these physical gifts and mental strength gained from racing in Japan in developing his racing style.

“The course was very fast and I wanted to push,” he said of Beijing.

“I would push and look around, see how the others were feeling.”  From the gun, Wanjiru was at the front leading, or pushing the pace if it flagged.  Near the end of the race, he appeared to yo-yo back and forth, surging into the lead, getting caught, then surging away from silver medallist Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia and bronze medalist Jaoud Gharib of Morocco.

“I wanted to see how they were feeling,” he said. “I would look over at them and see how they had responded.”  Strengthened by the fatigue he detected in his rivals, he finally delivered the final blow with a decisive surge. 

He crushed competition and the Olympic record for the marathon in weather conditions nobody thought were conducive to such a performance. 

“It was a transformational performance,” said Chicago race director Carey Pinkowski. 

It was the stuff of which legends are made.

Jim Ferstle for the IAAF