Monday, May 16, 2011

Sammy Wanjiru, 1986-2011

Sammy Wanjiru, a great young Kenyan marathoner, passed away yesterday. He won Olympic gold in the marathon in Beijing in 2008. He won the London Marathon and he finished first in the Chicago Marathon, twice.

If you've been to a race expo and seen t-shirts that said "Kenyan in Training", "In my mind, I'm a Kenyan. In my legs, I'm a chubby white guy", "I run with the Kenyans", or some similar sentiment, well, Sammy Wanjiru is one of the guys those shirts refer to, and even among them he was considered elite.

Amby Burfoot, an editor at Runner's World (and a Boston Marathon champion) called Wanjiru's Olympic race, run in very hot, humid conditions, "the greatest marathon ever".

I had never heard of Sammy Wanjiru until I picked up a copy of Runner's World when we were stuck at BWI on our way to my wife's Disney Princess Half Marathon. At the time, I was struggling with ITBS about a month out from my own marathon, and optimism was hard to come by.

As I sat reading while we waited for our flight, a story about Wanjiru's victory over a great competitor in the 2010 Chicago Marathon -- despite sickness and injury -- gave me some much-needed inspiration , and later provided me with some comfort after the Shamrock Marathon when I hadn't really met my own expectations (Please read the whole article, by Ed Eyestone, available here):

Wanjiru admitted the week before the race that he had missed several days of training due to a stomach virus three weeks earlier. Most of us in the know forecasted that, as 2009's Chicago Marathon champion and course record holder, he would pick up his huge appearance fee, cruise along until the going got tough, then pull the rip cord. When race morning dawned some 20 degrees warmer than normal, it was presumably the final coffin nail for Wanjiru. The hotter the conditions, the more the less-conditioned athlete will suffer.

And then the gun went off.

Against expectations, Wanjiru hung with the leaders until it is just a two-man race and held off one of the favorites with a sprint to the finish.
Sammy Wanjiru has run faster races, he has won more celebrated races, but never has he run a more inspiring race. He proved that even when you are not at 100 percent, you can still give 100 percent of what you have. And he showed that believing in yourself is the most important principle of success.
If you're reading this blog, you probably don't have a fraction of the talent of Sammy Wanjiru. (Edited: see comments) Most runners will never win a race, much less some of the biggest marathons in the world. But, like Sammy, most of us will probably struggle whether it's due to injury, illness, or schedule challenges that have impacted our training. I think the lesson that this story can teach the non-elite runners of the world is that you can still go out and run the best possible race that you can at that moment. Maybe that's a 4:58 marathon. Maybe it's a 7:00 marathon. A one-hour 5k. A jog around the local park.

It doesn't matter. Just give it all you've got.

R.I.P, Sammy.

The quotes above are from Ed Eyestone's excellent article from the March 2011 issue of Runner's World, "Enduring Lessons":,7120,s6-238-244--13839-0,00.html

Amby Burfoot's article today, about Sammy Wanjiru, "Wanjiru: A Marathon Star with a Short -- but Blinding -- Arc", from


  1. I take umbrage at your statement: "If you're reading this blog, you probably don't have a fraction of the talent of Sammy Wanjiru." Talent is merely poppycock that can only be recognized after the fact.

  2. Thanks, Danny. I obviously hadn't thought of it that way and I think your point is excellent.

    My own educational background is in Psychology, where the debate of nature vs. nurture is in the background of almost every topic and it was lazy for me not to consider it here.

    In using the word "talent", it was absolutely not my intent to imply that Sammy Wanjiru was only great because of natural ability, or that his dedication and work ethic were not amazing, or his training regimen not among the most rigorous in the world.

  3. Or, that Brian Stetler could not have run a sub 2:12 marathon if he had put his mind to it at age 12. Really, you could have.