All smiles - Sammy Wanjiru with his Marathon debut souvenir in Fukuoka (Kazutaka Eguchi/Agence SHOT) © Copyright
General News

Wanjiru, Kenya’s next marathon great?

Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya and the Japanese corporate team Toyota Kyushu won the 2007 Fukuoka International Marathon at the start of this month with an outstanding 2:06:39. It was the course record as well as second fastest marathon debut time in history.

Wanjiru had twice set ratified World records at the Half Marathon, a current fastest of 58:35, and so naturally his marathon debut had been awaited with much anticipation.

Genes and heroes

Wanjiru started running in Kenya when he was 15-years-old - “I was running about 30 minutes a day at the time,” said Wanjiru. And with minimal training, he recorded 14:06 for the 5000m.

His talent, perhaps, came from his mother’s side. His mother was a runner, but while she was far from even national class a cousin on that side of the family, Joseph Riri, was a world class runner, having recorded 2:06:49 marathon in the 2004 Berlin Marathon.

John Ngugi, 1988 Olympic 5000m champion and one of the greatest ever cross country runners was Wanjiru’s first hero. “I used to see him run cross country races,” recalls Wanjiru. He also admired Eric Wainaina, and Paul Tergat.

Quick move to Sendai

Samuel Kabiru, now 24-years-old with a 27:59 10,000m track best, was attending Sendai Ikue high school in Japan, and was also a big influence. Thanks to talking to him Wanjiru started to think about going to Japan himself. The opportunity came quickly as he soon took part in a cross country race, which was designed to select the runners to attend high school in Japan, and he won!

Wanjiru moved to Japan in the spring of 2002 to attend Sendai Ikue High school located in Sendai, a city of a million 350Km north of Tokyo.

“The hardest thing about a life in Sendai was the winter,” recalls Wanjiru.  In the winter, temperatures dip below freezing point and snow accumulates on the ground which of course is not usual for a guy from Kenya!

Otherwise, Samuel had no trouble acclimatizing to the life in Japan. It took him only one year before he became reasonably fluent in Japanese.

Surprisingly he recalls that “the training was quite difficult in the first year.”  Perhaps twice-a-day training in Sendai was quite tough for Wanjiru, who had been training for only 30 minutes a day back in Kenya. 

Excels at XC and road…but little speed work

In high school, Wanjiru excelled in Ekiden and cross country. As a student he won Chiba XC twice and Fukuoka XC thrice, while in the national High School Ekiden Championship, the most important Ekiden for the high school students, Wanjiru recorded the stage best for three consecutive years. “I enjoy passing runners in ekiden” said Wanjiru.

However, his performances on the track left a lot to be desired. In the National Inter-High School Championships, Wanjiru was third, second and third at the 5000m over this three years of participation. The results were partially explained by a lack of speed work in his training programme. It was by design. His high school coach did not believe in fast speed workouts on the track. So his speed work did not include short fast intervals but instead was carried out on the road at the pace around 2:45 per Km with the repetition distance of around 2000m.

Marathon ambition

After his high school graduation, although several Japanese corporate teams showed interest in recruiting Wanjiru, he decided to join Toyota Kyushu because of their trainer Koichi Morishita, the 1992 Olympic Marathon silver medallist.

Hoping to move quickly to the marathon because he mistakenly thought he lacked speed he was keen to seek the guidance of Morishita, who was coaching the Toyota Kyushu team in Fukuoka.

“Sam (Wanjiru) is a real professional runner. He is a good role model for the other team members,” said Morishita. 

But Wanjiru began to think again about such a quick move to the marathon after cracking 28 minutes (27:32.43) for the 10,000m in the 2005 Hyogo Relays, and decided to stay with shorter distances for a while longer. 

The world immediately saw the result when later in 2005 at the Brussels Golden League meeting Wanjiru set a World junior 10,000m record (26:41.75). He then followed that triumph later that month with the Rotterdam Half Marathon in 59:16, a World Half Marathon record.

The Rotterdam result was not a surprise for his coach - “When Wanjiru ran the Sendai Half Marathon (July) in 59:43, I thought he could set the World record in his next race.”

Wanjiru ended 2005 with the words, “I like to crack 59 minutes at the half marathon,” and although Haile Gebrselassie broke Wanjiru’s World Half marathon record with 58:55 in January of 2006, Wanjiru took it back in 2007 when he ran 58:53 (not ratified as no EPO test - Ras Al Khaimah, 9 Feb) and then recorded 58:35 for the current record which he set in The Hague on 17 March.  
Training and patience

But the Marathon was always central to Wanjiru’s thoughts and Morishita hopes to guide his pupil to an Olympic gold medal.

“He can set a World record in the marathon, but I would like to emphasize winning over fast time. I like to coach a winner,” said Morishita. “Sam (Wanjiru) never gives up during the race. Such characteristic is important for the marathon.” 

It training in tandem with patience that are the most important aspects for the marathon running in Morishita’s mind, and ever since Wanjiru joined Toyota Kyushu, Morishita has been showing him marathon videos and teaching everything about the marathon.

“I have no regret in running for the corporate track team,” said Wanjiru. He realizes the pros and cons of running for the corporate track team in Japan. One negative aspect is that the runners cannot freely select the races they wish to run.

There are other restrictions. Foreign runners must live in Japan for at least 180 days in the year, one of the reasons why Wanjiru had to skip the New York City marathon. Since Kenyan runners like to spend some time in Kenya every year, the time they can spend racing abroad is limited. Of course, for most runners the positive aspects of being a member of corporate team in particular the financial and training stability it offers far outweigh the negatives.

Beijing unlikely?
Wanjiru’s next marathon is of course awaited with much anticipation. He might run London in his attempt to make the Kenyan Olympic team.

However, Morishita has a different idea: “If Sam is going to run a spring marathon, he has to start the marathon training before he fully recovers from his last marathon and he could be exhausted by the spring. Instead, I am thinking of him running his next marathon in the fall.  He ought to run two more marathons as an experience, and then go for the fast time in his fourth or fifth marathon.”

Morishita had brilliant marathon career, having won his first two marathons before finishing second in the Olympics, but his career was cut short and he never ran another marathon after the Olympics because of a series of injuries. Perhaps, learning from his experience, Morishita is planning a long and fruitful marathon career for his star pupil.

Ken Nakamura for the IAAF