Twenty-five miles — nearly two hours — into the 2010 Chicago Marathon, Sammy Wanjiru’s seemingly lifeless countenance drifted to the back of the television feed broadcasting from the lead vehicle. His crimson singlet slowly faded into the receding late-morning shadows of the city skyline. In retrospect, a training cycle marred by injury, sickness, and Wanjiru’s battle with the demons of alcohol abuse made this the most likely outcome. Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede appeared destined for victory. Then Sammy Wanjiru delivered his signature performance. Michael Jordan, who poured in thirty-eight points in the legendary 1997 NBA Finals Flu Game, and Curt Schilling, dominant across six innings of “bloody sock” pitching that sent the Boston Red Sox to the 2004 World Series, had met their marathon counterpart.
Not yet twenty-four years old, Sammy Wanjiru had cemented himself as the future of marathoning. His gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games broke the Olympic record by nearly three minutes. He did it in brash, reckless fashion — despite eighty-four-degree heat and humidity — pressing from the gun in a blistering pace that the race commentators speculated would yield a late-race implosion. Sammy followed his Olympic triumph with course records at both London and Chicago. He entered Chicago 2010 as the defending champion and owner of the fastest ever marathon time on United States soil. But the final moments of that race redefined his legacy.
As Kebede squeezed the pace down over the final eight miles he methodically eliminated his competitors one by one. In his wake, shredded past Boston champs and future Olympic medalists littered Chicago’s streets. Awestruck, announcer Toni Reavis exclaimed, “Kebede’s just taking a baseball bat to these guys!” Only one man stood between Kebede and a season-ending $500,000 check for the World Marathon Majors grand prize: Sammy Wanjiru. When it looked like Kebede’s bat would knock Wanjiru out of the park like a hanging curveball, Sammy mustered a reality-defying surge onto Kebede’s heels. Was it the last gasp of a fading champion or Wanjiru reclaiming his rightful place atop the sport?
Astonishingly, we asked that same question two more times in the final mile. Kebede matched each move, reestablishing control, and unleashing a furious haymaker of a long, last kick. The Ali-Frazier comparisons ensued as shouting analysts realized the exceptionality of the drama they watched. Now in disbelief, Reavis, voice cracking as the action neared its crescendo, cried out, “Sammy’s been broken three times. He refuses to give in!” Yet, he was never really broken. He had taken countless body blows, but never a knockout punch.
The combatants turned right for the short incline up Roosevelt Road — infamous not for its elevation gain, but its preposterous location taunting fading athletes only a quarter mile from the finish. There, Wanjiru supplied the climactic scene, racing away from Kebede on the uphill. In the remaining brief dash to the tape Sammy created nineteen seconds of separation from his vanquished foe.
As Wanjiru collapsed across the line, the running world paused breathless. Calling on every ounce of energy in his failing body, the twenty-three-year-old marathon prodigy from the Rift Valley had stunned spectators with a series of comebacks over the race’s final ten minutes. He had summoned a reserve of mental and physical fortitude rarely seen 120 minutes into the unforgiving competitive crucible of the marathon. Wanjiru conquering the field, as well as his own mind and body, in the closing miles of Chicago 2010 evoked memories of the marathon’s greatest moments: Dorando Pietri (later disqualified for receiving a doctor’s aid) stumbling across the line for victory in the 1908 Olympics, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley dueling in the Boston sun, Rod Dixon charging through Central Park on an injured hamstring, catching and overwhelming Geoff Smith in the 1983 New York City Marathon. Following perhaps the greatest marathon ever run, Wanjiru ascended into marathon immortality. The only question left to answer in his career: Would he become the greatest marathoner who ever lived?
Chicago was Sammy Wanjiru’s last race. In May 2011 he died under curious circumstances after a fall from the balcony at his home. Wanjiru personified the tragic hero — complex, human, and flawed like so many of our athletic icons. Perhaps the critics were right and years of aggressive racing and hard living had sapped Sammy’s legs of their finest turnover. But his death robbed us of a career that might have produced major marathon victories and unforgettable finishes for another decade. Maybe Sammy Wanjiru would have broken the two-hour marathon barrier. Maybe he would be ranked number one in the world still today. He was born after current stars Eliud Kipchoge, Mo Farrah, Kenenisa Bekele, and Galen Rupp.
Wanjiru won the first Olympic marathon gold medal for his native Kenya. His meteoric rise blazed the path for fellow countryman Eliud Kipchoge who took the 2016 gold in Rio de Janeiro and later captured the world record. Kipchoge now claims the title of the “Greatest of All Time,” adding eight World Marathon Major victories and a 1:59:40 time trial to his Olympic conquest. These numbers make Wanjiru’s three major crowns and 2:05:10 personal best seem pedestrian by comparison. However, Kipchoge didn’t win his first major — at the site of Sammy’s last victory in Chicago — until the month before his thirtieth birthday. Moreover, Sammy never benefitted from the era of super shoes ushered in with Kipchoge and Nike’s Breaking2 campaign of 2016-17. Imagine Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, or Sammy Wanjiru in Nike’s Vaporfly or the many subsequent competitors now released by nearly every major shoe brand. Regardless, comparative excellence is a subplot in the Wanjiru story. He raced the marathon with incomparable grit and tenacity. The blue collar runner, toiling through countless lonely miles in pre-dawn anonymity, found beauty and camaraderie in Sammy Wanjiru’s tactics.
Wanjiru’s brazen, fearless, from-the-gun racing style transformed modern marathoning. Once the province of patient, judicious runners, the marathon became a test of guts and stamina immediately from the starting line in the Wanjiru Era. Our collective racing edge had been challenged. Limits seemed arbitrary and traditional racing norms felt antiquated. Ryan Hall, Wanjiru’s American contemporary, followed a similar tack a month before Sammy’s death. Under ideal conditions, Hall seized the lead in Boston, took the field through halfway on world record pace, and hung on for a career best 2:04:58 — the fastest time ever recorded by an American. Another American, our country’s preeminent distance luminary, provides the most compelling parallel for Wanjiru’s career and legacy.
Steve Prefontaine lived and raced with bravado. Others of his time made distance running popular. Pre made it cool. The hair, the mustache, the charisma, the national records. It all transcended running sub-culture. At the height of his ability and acclaim, Pre left us too early. Killed in a car wreck thirty-six Mays before Wanjiru’s death, Steve Prefontaine also passed at the tender age of twenty four. Sammy Wanjiru was my generation’s Steve Prefontaine. He signifies the fearless optimism of youth, the emptiness of promise unfulfilled, and the eternal struggle with what might have been.
Every marathoner who presses through the interminable “wall” channels Sammy Wanjiru’s spirit. The 26.2 mile foot race changed after Sammy entered the Bird’s Nest in Beijing alone, dashing across the track on his way to gold. It was never the same after his sprint up Roosevelt two years later. It will never be the same without him.
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