Berlin, GermanyAs a man who counts Haile Gebrselassie as his best friend, it was kind of fitting that Abel Kirui should win the men’s Marathon title at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin today.
Berlin is the city where the legendary Ethiopian has twice smashed the World record and the 27-year-old Kenyan has played a part both times – in 2007 when he finished second as Geb first stole Paul Tergat’s world mark; and last September when Kirui paced his friend to the historic time of 2:03:59, the world’s first sub-2:04 Marathon.
To return to the Germany capital 11 months later and destroy the hopes of Gebrelassie’s compatriots by becoming World champion himself was a dream for Kirui, but one this gregarious and outgoing young runner was utterly confident of turning into reality from the moment he stepped onto German soil last week.
“When I was reaching the finish line I still couldn’t believe it,” he said. “But I love running in Berlin. I know it so well from my times here with Haile, and that made it so special for me.
“I love this city. When I got off the plane I knew then I could win, I was so confident. This morning I prayed with my coach for help, but I was so sure I would do it.”
Kirui has actually run the Berlin city Marathon three times in the past, the first in 2006 when he finished ninth, and he joked after today’s victory that the thousands of spectators probably couldn’t believe it was him in the lead.
“I have been in three great races here,” he said. “But they won’t have believed it when they saw me today because before I was always pacing or I was finishing with four legs.
“But I always wanted to be a great champion and now I made it.”
Kirui made it with some style. Like Sammy Wanjiru in the Beijing Olympics a year ago, Kirui looked in control throughout today’s midday race, contested over a four-lap loop course that twisted and turned past many of the city’s famous landmarks.
And like Wanjiru he smashed the championships record as he powered home down Unter den Linten to the finish line at the Brandenburg Gate in 2:06:54, almost a minute and a half inside Jaouad Gharib’s six-year-old record.
Berlin marathons are famously flat and fast, of course, although this was not the well-known World Marathon Majors route which has seen so many world records. Indeed, a number of runners, including Ethiopia’s bronze medallist Tsegaye Kebede, said they found the narrow corners difficult to handle.
Not so the Kenyans. After waiting years 20 years for a global championships Marathon gold before Luke Kibet’s win in Osaka two years ago, Kenya has now won three titles in three years. And this is no accident.
According to Kenya’s team coach Peter Mathu, today’s race had been carefully planned for more than five months. Indeed, such is the nation’s strength in depth at this distance that they could leave out such runners as Wanjiru and three-time London champion Martin Lel to deliberately pick athletes who hadn’t run in big city races for three or four months.
It meant their tactics today could be just as brutal as those adopted by Wanjiru and Lel to bring Olympic gold last year. The three leading runners, Kirui, Emmanuel Mutai and Robert K. Cheruiyot dominated the head of the field then pushed the pace through the last 10km to leave their Ethiopian rivals trailing.
“I knew at the start the race would be won between 35 and 38km,” said Kirui. “The race was very tactical but I stayed focused and calm ready for this.”
“All of our guys had trained just for this for five months,” said Mathu. “It was very important for us to train all our runners to be able to run at the front and keep increasing the pace. We knew this was the only way we could beat the rest of the field.”
Mathu picked out Cheruiyot for special praise as the tall four-time Boston marathon winner took on the brunt of the pace-making duties.
Cheruiyot himself, the first World Marathon Majors winner back in 2007, confirmed that a Kenyan victory was his main concern.
“All I wanted was the team title,” he said. It was only when Ethiopia’s Deriba Merga finally showed signs of wilting that he allowed his two teammates to go.
“When I saw two Kenyans were going to be on the podium, only then did I relax,” he said. “Before then I had to keep pushing and pushing. Even my teammates were telling me I was going too fast.”
With three in the top five it was no surprise that Kenya easily won the World Marathon Cup, although for Kirui his win was a personal as well as a team triumph.
Although ranked sixth on the world all-time list, thanks to his 2:05:04 third place finish in an incredible Rotterdam race earlier this year, Kirui has only ever won one race at the distance, the relatively minor Vienna marathon in April 2008.
Not that he’s ever doubted the victories would come. After all, as child of the Rift Valley, Kirui did not have to look far for inspiration to become a great runner. Born into a family of four, he started running at Samitui Primary school, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Mike Rotich who went on to win the Salzburg marathon in 2007.
He claims his family’s running history goes back much further, however. “Our great grandfather was a runner,” he said. “He used to chase an antelope and catch it.”
It wasn’t chasing animals but chasing a job that finally got Kirui serious about running. After leaving high school with no great ambitions, he entered a race as part of an Administration Police recruitment exercise, and won. “I heard that there was recruitment and what you had to do was win a race, so I just entered, won, and was the only one picked of the nine finalists,” Kirui said.
From then on he was training seriously. He eventually moved to Kapsabet and began travelling to Europe – Poland specifically – to get race experience. He raced in the Berlin half marathon in April 2006 and won a place as a pacemaker for the full marathon in the German capital later that year. He did his pacing duties and just kept going, clocking 2:17:47. It wasn’t quick, but he knew with training he could get better.
A year later, he was back in Berlin, pacing Gebreselassie to his first World record and the Ethiopian immediately became his role model. Now, just two years later, with the words “World Champion” next to his name, the ever-confident Kirui has his sights set on his mentor’s record believing he can lower it by half a minute.
“It needs total preparation and total commitment in training, but, for sure, I very much think I can run 2:03:30 in the near future,” he said. “I need to recover and take my time before I can bring my body back to the stage where it can run that fast. But I think I can do it, maybe next year.”
And where does he think this will happen? Berlin of course – where else?