For those of us who know Kenyan athletes as gentle, accomodating and largely ego-free people, the murderous riots following the contested elections in the East African nation a year ago came as a huge shock. But it was as nothing compared to the shock that some of the athletes had.
World marathon champion, Luke Kibet was a victim of stoning, which required stitches and several weeks off training. But infinitely worse, his mentor former Olympic athlete, Lukas Sang was killed while trying to mediate between warring factions in the town of Eldoret, hitherto known as the heartland of Kenyan distance running, but which took on a baleful reputation as the centre of some of the worse violence.
“Lukas was a sort of elder brother to me,” said Kibet, on the eve of his run in the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (Sunday, 7th). “When I had my first race in Eldoret, Moses Tanui and Lukas came to talk to me and advise me. Even now, people don’t call me Luke, they call me arap Lukas, son of Lukas. The same people who stoned me killed Lukas, I was stoned at eleven (o’clock), they killed Lukas at twelve. It made me so sad”. Fearing for his own safety after that, he made sure he had a gun at hand. He was memorably photographed on his sofa at home brandishing an AK47. But the running suffered.
After the elation of his surprise victory in the marathon at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka 2007, the events in Eldoret were the start of a bad year for the 25 year old Kibet. He couldn’t train for close to a month, due to his injury, and though he didn’t feel ready, he let himself be persuaded to run the London Marathon in April. He could only finish twelfth.
Equally persuaded, as reserve for the Olympic Marathon – to the super-trio of Sammy Wanjiru, Martin Lel and Robert K Cheruyiot – that he would not go to Beijing, he was told the day prior to the team’s departure that Cheruyiot has dropped out. “I went to Nairobi for a visa, by myself, no one was helping me. But I got the visa, and left the next day. That was August 13, the race was on August 24, but again I wasn’t ready”. While colleague Wanjiru ran one of the greatest Olympic marathons in history, Kibet quietly dropped out.
“It wasn’t a good year,” he said reflectively, while a mix of reggae and African music was quietly playing on an expensive mini-music centre in his Singapore hotel room. “I hope I can finish the year better in tomorrow’s race”.
Kibet’s road to the top of the marathon mountain began in the town of Moiben, in Uasin Gishu province, “thirty nine kilometres,” he precises, from Eldoret. As a 13 year, living with his grandmother, Judith, he had the uncommon experience of seeing the likes of Paul Tergat, Moses Tanui and Joshua Chelanga running regularly past the front door of the house. “It was about seven in the morning, before I went to school. And seeing the 1996 Olympics on television. I watched (Joseph) Keter and (Moses) Kiptanui winning. I was sweating just watching it, and my grandmother said, why don’t you try it? And she bought me some shoes and a tracksuit, and I started running when I got back from school, about 7 o’clock every night. Thirty minutes at first, the longest would be an hour”.
That televisual experience would eventually entice Kibet into the steeplechase, where he ended up as Kenyan number four. But a best time of 8min 25sec, albeit at altititude was never going to threaten the sharp end of the field, and some sharp end of spikings in track races eventually persuaded him to try the marathon. By this time, he had moved to Eldoret, and was training regularly at Tanui’s camp in nearby Kaptagat. He works for the Prison Service, but as with many athlete/civil servants, the post is largely nominal, apart from representing the Service in national championships. He is married to childhood schoolfriend, Lydia, and they have two children, Eddy Kiptoo, 4, and Valery Cherotich, 2.
“My first marathon was as a pacemaker, in Holland, Enschede, in 2004. I paced until 25 kilometres, but decided to keep going, and finished second, in 2.11.06. I still run track and cross country, for speed. I was third in the Prison Service 10,000 metres this year, in 27.50”.
His victory in torrid conditions – 33C and over 80% humidity at the end – in Osaka was no surprise to Kibet, since he had won twice in Taipei, in 2005/6 in similar conditions, and his victory in the Vienna Marathon in 2.10.06 last year also came in an early summer heatwave. That performance earned him his world championships spot. But prior to the race, all the emphasis was on what a poor team the Kenyans had sent to Japan.
“Everybody was saying, we were young, we were not strong, there was nobody famous. It made me more determined. But even when I was in the lead, I wasn’t sure I could win. I knew there was no one ahead, but I was afraid of people coming from behind. Right to the finish, I wasn’t sure”. But his marginally faster second half of the race had earned him victory by more than a minute. And the first World marathon gold by a Kenyan, since Douglas Wakiihuri 20 years earlier.
“I’m looking to 2012 now, and getting directly onto the Olympic team,” he says. “But I want to defend my title in Berlin next”. That is the World Championships in the German capital next August. But first, the little matter of tomorrow’s Singapore race. For sure, it’ll be hot, 22C and 80% humidity already forecast for the 5.30am start. With the likelihood of at least 26C at the finish, it’ll be another hot one. But we have just the man for the job.
PS, Kibet won the race by over two minutes, in a course record 2.13.01.