As a five-time world cross-country champion, two-time Olympic 10,000m silver medallist and former world marathon record-holder Paul Tergat was one of the most versatile distance runners of his generation.
Possessing an almost regal elegance, a smart tactical brain and an exemplary big-race temperament, the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships has boasted few finer champions than Tergat.
Virtually invincible on cross country and with only the Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie his superior over 10,000m, it was with some inevitability that the Kenyan would also enjoy success on the road.
Predominantly focused on cross country and track for the first and middle phase of his career, he nonetheless showed enough to suggest his star potential on the road. In 1995 he produced his first sub-hour half marathon (he totalled seven sub-hour times in his career) in Milan to win in 59:56 while three years later he set a world record of 59:17 for the distance at the same Italian venue.
In 1999 he secured a fifth successive world cross-country title, bolted to a 59:22 clocking at the Milan Half Marathon and claimed silver behind Gebrselassie over 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships in Seville. In the autumn, he felt ready to compete at his first IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, which that year took place in Palermo.
“I was not in any hurry to prove anything but took every achievement – including defeats – as a learning experience for the next race to do better,” explains Tergat, 48. “I took my time running in track and cross-country events, only doing selected half marathons between. Over time, I became well suited for the half marathon but it was cross country and track that gave me the necessary experience to attack the longer distance.”
Preparing for Palermo by minimising his training on hard surfaces to avoid injury, Tergat faced a strong field in Sicily including 1997 champion and compatriot Shem Kororia and 1998 silver medallist Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa.
Drawing upon his tactical nous, coupled with his significant physical gifts, he adopted a conservative tactical approach.
“In terms of strategy, I decided to stay in the pack for most of the course so as to avoid a burn-out,” he recalls. “This enabled me to unleash a devastating attack at the latter stages of the race as I went for the prized win.”
Tergat opened up a winning gap on the field and appeared set for glory until an official accidentally blocked his path in the final 100 metres, which nearly led to catastrophe as Tergat lost his balance.
“This interruption definitely brought me great disorientation, a loss of momentum and focus,” he comments. “Nonetheless, I picked myself up quickly after the mishap and continued to attack for the tape.”
Tergat, however, would not be denied pipping Ramaala to gold as both recorded the same time of 1:01:50 with Ethiopian Tesfaye Jifar one second further back in bronze.
“It was a very dramatic recovery and I attribute it to the self-confidence, preparation and strong will that was in me,” recalls Tergat, who currently serves as President of the Kenyan Olympic Committee.
“This new title provided me with immense satisfaction that my execution was right and motivated me to set my sights on new challenges.”
In 2000 Tergat emerged in even better shape. In March of that he trimmed 11 seconds from his half marathon world record with a 59:06 performance in Lisbon before going on to take silver in the 10,000m in a captivating duel with long-time rival Gebreslassie at the Sydney Olympics.
He returned to the competitive arena some seven weeks later in Veracruz, determined to create history and become the first man in history to successfully defend a world half marathon crown. While an errant official had nearly derailed Tergat’s ambitions in Palermo, it was to be brutal temperatures in the high 20s (Celsius) which were to prove his main enemy in a race where many athletes withdrew before the start.
“The conditions at Veracruz were disastrous,” he recalls. “As a result, I had to ensure I ran tactically to achieve my objective. I adjusted my pace so that I simply stayed with the group as the race developed until the right time to attack and go. The decision, therefore, to leave it late was deliberate, informed by the prevailing hot and humid conditions. I had to avoid making a mistake of attacking early in the race which would have led to dehydration.”
Tergat mounted his attack in the final kilometre and proved too strong for the opposition, registering a time of 1:03:47 to hold off Tanzanian teenager Phaustin Baha Sulle by a second. Jifar, a further two seconds adrift, earned a second successive World Half Marathon Championships bronze medal.
The time may have been modest – due to the intense heat and humidity – but it was a sweet win for Tergat who, unlike in 1999, also helped secure team success for Kenya in Mexico, a place of historic running significance to his country.
“The victory was not just of special significance but was very sentimental as well,” he explains. “This is where our legendary athlete Kipchoge Keino became the first Kenyan to participate in an Olympic Games. Being here was like a ‘homecoming’, a visit to the land where our father of athletics brought to our motherland a lot of fame and honour.”
His success over the half marathon distance provided him with the confidence to launch a hugely successful marathon career. In Berlin in 2003 he set a world marathon record of 2:04:55 – a mark which was to last four years – and he later triumphed at the New York City Marathon.
But among his welter of titles and world records, the World Half Marathon Championships will always retain a special place in his heart.
“The half marathon is the mid distance between 10km and the marathon and this gives it a special place to athletes who want to move up to the full marathon,” says Tergat. “If an athlete can handle this transition successfully by way of wins and posting good times, then they are on their path to a good debut and performance at the marathon. That is why it remains a very special event.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF