Wilfred Bungei (KEN) after his win in Zurich (© Getty Images)
World Rankings Event leader, Wilfred Bungei is looking forward to redemption after he missed out on the last World and Olympic titles. Bob Ramsak spoke to the 24-year-old Kenyan who is eager to set the record straight in Helsinki.
Middle distance ace Wilfred Bungei usually spends the autumn and early winter months far removed from the spotlight he’s become accustomed to, choosing instead the solitude required for his rigorous end-of-the-year training regimen. His lead-up to the 2005 season, however, couldn’t have been more different.
But his delay of a few months to his usual routine, one that propelled him to the fastest 800 metre performances in the world the previous two seasons, had nothing to do with injury or a change in his training program. Instead, he was planning a party for more than five thousand people who joined the Kenyan star to celebrate his marriage to wife Priscah.
“It was wonderful,” Bungei said, recalling the ceremony and reception at his home in Kibirisang, Kapsabet in late December, where a variety of musical, dance and comedy troupes entertained the couple’s guests. Smiling, he added, “I finally crossed that bridge.”
“It was fantastic,” Bungei continued. “In fact, it exceeded our expectations. And I was very happy that many of my colleagues were able to come: Bram Som from the Netherlands, Andrea Longo from Italy, and Wilson [Kipketer] came as well.”
Naturally, a 10-day holiday followed, further delaying his training and competitive plans. But now, Bungei said, “I’m just training hard and getting ready for the season. I’m feeling very confident and I feel great.”
That feeling of confidence is a far cry from the feeling that overtook him after his Olympic Games appearance last August, when, after arriving in Athens as a strong medal favorite, he finished a disappointing fifth in the final.
“After the Olympics I was a little bit down,” he acknowledged, but added that he quickly turned his Athens setback into all the motivation he needs as he prepares his campaign to capture his first international title next August in Helsinki. “Missing the podium,” he said, “this will really keep me strong.”
Yet despite a sub-par - by his standards - Olympic season, Bungei intends to stay near the top of the heap in the 800, a position he’s occupied for much of the past five years since first making his mark at the 1998 World Junior Championships in Annecy.
Bungei began running at age 17 in 1997 while still in high school, focusing primarily on the 400. A year later he added a lap to his preferred distance and hasn’t strayed much from the event since. “That’s when I discovered my potential,” he said. That year, he won the silver medal at the World Junior Championships and finished the year with a 1:47.21 best. He improved by more than two seconds in 1999, and already by 2000 was a regular fixture on the Grand Prix circuit. In Edmonton, he fought to a hard-earned silver medal at the 2001 World Championships just ten days before joining the sub-1:43 club with a 1:42.96 clocking in Zurich. A year later he improved further still, capping his season with a 1:42.34 PB in Rieti where he was barely out-leaned by World record holder - and second cousin - Wilson Kipketer. Only four others have covered the distance faster.
2003 would be better still. After racing to a bronze at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, where he finished third behind American David Krummenacker and cousin Kipketer in 1:46.54, Bungei embarked on a veritable rampage outdoors, spending virtually the entire season as the world leader.
He followed up three sub-1:44 wins in Hengelo (1:43.05), Seville (1:43.62) and Ostrava (1:43.24) in the first twelve days of June with three sub-1:45 efforts, winning six of his first seven races to firmly take on the favourite’s role prior the World Championships in Paris. But just two days before the mid-July Kenyan trials, he suffered a bout of pneumonia, knocking him out of the trials and subsequently from the start line at the Stade de France. It took seven days in a hospital to recover, he said, then another week before he was able to race again.
“It was really hectic for me,” he said. “Trying to prepare for a race since January, then just two days before the trials to get sick and not be on the team."
He came back with a runner-up finish in Berlin in early August and another sub-1:45 in Zurich, before leaving for his training base in Davos, Switzerland, where he watched the Paris competition unfold on television. Reflecting back on his hospital bed in Nairobi and the decision by the KAAA to keep him from the squad, Bungei took it in stride, but he did wonder what could have been.
“The federation, they didn’t even consider the fact that I was running so good here in Europe.”
Despite missing Paris, he fought on, capping the season with a 1:42.52 win at the Van Damme meeting in Brussels and a convincing victory at the World Athletics Final. His Brussels performance was the third sub-1:43 of his career; only five others have trodded that exclusive territory more often. In Monaco, virtually the entire field from the Paris final, save World champion Djabir Said Guerni, was reassembled. When he powered past compatriot Joseph Mutua en route to his 1:45.97 win, it was vindication of a sort.
“I am very happy because I did not expect to win against everyone who competed in the World Championships,” Bungei said after his win against one of the strongest fields assembled that year. Underscoring his performance was a slow opening lap of 53.03, a mid-race split that did not bode particularly well for Bungei who prefers a much faster pace. Fortunately for him, he said, he didn’t know at the time that the race was developing so slowly.
“One good thing for me is that I was not able to see the first 400, because if I would have seen the first 400, I would have really lost focus. Usually for me, I need a 51 or under, so it was good that I didn’t see the clock.”
Did he miss Said Guerni in the Monaco race?
“I would have loved to see him here because I know where he would have been,” Bungei said. “However, because this was more of a tactical race, as it was in the World Championships, without a pace maker, this is where at least I could have proved what I could have done in the worlds.”
The beginning of his 2004 season didn't equal his stellar start from the year before, but the major difference was his appearance at the Kenyan Trials, where he emerged victorious after a pair of sub-1:45 races in as many days, topped by his 1:44.38 win. He dipped under 1:44 with his 1:43.72 win in Madrid's Super Grand Prix less than a month later, and followed up with a 1:43.06 in Zurich for the first Weltklasse "A" race victory of his career. After that performance, one that would hold up as the fastest of 2004, Bungei arrived at the Olympic Stadium as a solid medal favourite. He began with an easy 1:44.84 win in his heat; with a treacherously difficult semi-final round advancing only the top two from each, a fast race was required, and Bungei obliged with a 1:44.28 run, the fastest clocking of the round.
In the final, Bungei wanted a fast pace but after a quick opening 200, no one was willing to maintain the pace, which then slowed considerably, allowing the pack to reach the bell en masse. Heading into the backstretch, Bungei decided he had little choice but to break from the tightly-knit pack. "When I saw it was 51.8 at 400, I knew it was too slow, so I had to take it."
His split second decision backfired though, as he was outsprinted down the homestretch, eventually finishing fifth in 1:45.31. But Bungei insists that his Athens disappointment is not weighing too heavily on his shoulders as he prepares for the 2005 campaign.
"Sometimes you ask yourself [what happened], and you tell yourself that you did everything possible. I do sometimes flash back to figure out what might have gone wrong, but I don’t think about that race that much.”
He admits though that he left the track at Olympic Stadium learning a very valuable lesson: he needed to add a variety of strategies to his racing arsenal.
“I don’t have to stick to just one tactic. I was in very good shape, but so was everyone else. It’s now a challenge for me to not only have one weapon.”
His Zurich win, he said, would be his highlight for the year.
“After the Olympics I was looking to run a fast time in Brussels, on that fast track.” He took a narrow 2/100s of a second victory to defend his Van Damme title, but his 1:43.48 didn’t quite fit into his definition of “fast.” He ended the season with a runner-up showing in Berlin’s ISTAF meeting before a distant sixth place finish at the World Athletics Final, missing a title defense he so wanted after his performance in Athens.
Despite his late start this year, he said his body responded quickly and decided not to forgo his indoor campaign entirely. He competed admirably indoors with one runner-up and a pair of third place finishes against quality fields, boding well as his sights are set firmly on Helsinki.
In the upcoming months, Bungei plans to divide his training time between his home base near Kapsabet and his European base in Verona where he trains under Italian coach Gianni Ghidini.
“He has really improved me,” he said of Ghidini, who has guided him since 1999. “He makes sure I’m ready.”
Keeping fast company, Bungei sometimes works with compatriot William Yiampoy and Youssef Saad Kamel, the former Kenyan Gregory Konchellah, at their Italian base. Last year, Kamel and Yiampoy occupied spots two and three on the yearly performance lists. But like World record holder Kipketer, he prefers to train alone.
“You are able to listen to your body,” he said. “If you’re training with a group, for instance like at a camp, you make your training too much like a competition.”
Bungei is still quite young - he won’t celebrate his 25th birthday until 24 July 24 - and plans to be a key player in his event for a long time to come.
“I feel that I have the potential to run fast, and I have the potential to win a title,” he insists. “But I’m not going to say which title. It’s a challenge for me whenever I see the top people who have run well, and still run well after 10 years. You can do that when you stay focused.”
For Bungei, staying focused also means staying true to the one event in which he excels. Don’t expect him to be entered in a 1500 race anytime soon. After consistently running 45 second laps in training, he said, if anything, he would consider a competitive 400.
“I realized after seeing many of my colleagues, particularly here among the Kenyan guys who do lots of different events, that if you just concentrate on one distance, you can be successful. Even 1000 metres, which I did indoors, was far. Last year, it seemed that the last 200 metres were like running up a hill.”
He’s making no predictions for Helsinki, though it’s obviously part of his plan this year. Instead, he’s planning a step-by-step approach.
“This year, I must focus first on having very good shape, to first see if I can run fast,” he said. “I’m not going to say sub-1:42, but maybe low 1:42. Then I’ll probably know my potential for the World Championships. Then,” he concludes, “I will have to have different tactics prepared.”
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 1 - 2005