Sammy Wanjiru: The Runner They Left Behind – The Sunday Times

Sammy Wanjiru lived as he ran: fast. In a country overflowing with talent, he was one of the finest athletes Kenya ever produced – a man who broke world records as a teenager, a serial marathon winner, and an Olympic gold medallist. But it was not just his results that made him special. Kenya has spawned plenty of runners with speed. It was Wanjiru’s style. Although he yet to reach his peak, Wanjiru possessed qualities – steel, timing, a sense of occasion – unique to supermen: Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer. Sammy didn’t just win races, he destroyed his opponents.

Despite his greatness, it’s quite possible you’d never heard of Sammy Wanjiru before reading this article. In Britain, athletics is a fringe sport, and the marathon – a 26.2 mile road race – is an event that only flares into life for most of us once a year, in a festival of wacky outfits and charity appeals. Not so in East Africa. In the past 15 years, because of the enticing jackpots available in Europe and America, the marathon has become serious business. The world’s most prestigious races are now dominated by Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes, who – by dint of their natural physique, altitude training, and cultural affinity with distance running – have redefined the sport. 44 of the 50 quickest marathons of all time have been run by Kenyans and Ethiopians.

With such prowess has come acclaim. When the great Ethiopian runner Haile Gebreselassie returned to Addis Ababa after winning the 10,000 metres gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, around a million people came onto the streets to cheer him. And, as the prize money for athletes has risen, the relationship between the public and their heroes has evolved. In Kenya, the peccadilloes of marathoners are now reported in the gory detail we would reserve for Premiership footballers.

Wanjiru was Kenya’s brightest star. 5 foot 4 inches tall, with dark chestnut skin, a goofy smile and an affable, pliant personality, he was not a natural celebrity. But, no doubt, he was the best. With an economic action, powerful legs, mental tenacity and the lung capacity of a racehorse, he was, says his coach – Claudio Berardelli – “almost the perfect, three-dimensional athlete.”

Wanjiru himself was bullish about his talent. He said he would not only better the world record (which was, at the time of his death, Gebreselassie’s 2 hours, 3 minutes and 59 seconds, and is now Patrick Makau’s 2 hours, 3 minutes and 38 seconds) but would penetrate the mystical two hour mark for the marathon. Believe me, if Wanjiru had done so, you would have read all about him. His name would have joined Roger Banister’s and Usain Bolt’s in the pantheon. But now, we’ll never know. He’s dead, at only 24 years old.

It was a pathetic, tawdry way to go. Late on 15 May, Wanjiru fell from the balcony of his house in his hometown of Nyahururu. The details of Sammy’s death have been viciously contested. The police – who have never delivered an official verdict in the case – initially believed it was suicide. Wanjiru’s mother, meanwhile, believes that he was murdered (although how, she will not say). But the most probable explanation – the one which, I am told, will likely be confirmed should detectives ever produce a report – is less dramatic.

The story goes as follows: on the night of his death, Terezah, Sammy’s wife, returned to find him in bed with another woman, Jane Nduta. After a brief argument, Terezah locked the bedroom door from the outside. Wanjiru walked out onto his balcony, before trying to jump or climb down to his driveway. He slipped on a tile, banged the back of his head, then fell forwards onto the tarmac below. The fall shouldn’t have killed him, but it did. He was, as Nduta and his friends confirmed to me, blind drunk.

Wanjiru, it seems, was quite often drunk. But his drinking was only part of a shambolic lifestyle that combusted most spectacularly in December last year, when, in a widely-reported incident, he was arrested for allegedly wielding an AK-47 assault rifle and threatening to kill his wife. He was due in court ten days after his death on weapons charges that carried the threat of a long prison sentence. But, as I would discover, the chaos in his life started long before his very public demise.

Samuel Kamau Wanjiru was not always such trouble. He was born on 10 November 1986, and raised in a one-room mud hut in the farming village of Githunguri, about 20 minutes’ drive from the nearest big market town, Nyahururu, in the central province. His mother, Hannah Wanjiru, did not know who Sammy’s father was (although, after his death, at least three men have claimed to be so) and raised him with the help of her family. Often, when Hannah was scouring Nairobi for work, Sammy lived with his grandparents, Samuel and Rebecca.

When I meet the elderly couple, they are sitting on plastic furniture outside the corrugated metal bungalow their famous grandson built for them. The mud hut where Sammy grew up is right next door. Sammy, they say, grew up poor, but not desperate. He didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was a teenager, but his mother made enough to afford the small tuition fees at a local school – which Sammy ran to, every day, 12 miles and back.

Rebecca tells me her grandson was always a good boy, “and very obedient.” Even as a kid, it was obvious he was fast. (His grandfather told me his speed was genetic – as a boy growing up in colonial-era Kenya, Samuel had been known as “the aeroplane”.) And, when Sammy’s talent first manifested itself in the playgrounds of his primary school, he was sent to the local athletics club.

The Nyahururu Municipal Stadium – where Wanjiru trained, on and off, for the rest of his life – is barely worthy of the title. The dirt running surface has no markings. The changing facilities are shabby. An untended football pitch lies fallow in the middle of the track. Elite American and European athletes would baulk at having to prepare for world class events in such surroundings. But, the dozens of Kenyans I met there were not so fussy. By running in Nyahururu, they have two significant advantages: rivalries are intense, meaning big improvements can be made in training. More importantly, Nyahururu is at 2,200m. By running where the air is thinner, their blood has naturally developed greater oxygen-carrying capacity than those who live and train at sea level.

At the age of 15, Wanjiru visited Nairobi for the first time, to compete in a cross-country race. Although he came third, his talent was spotted by an agent from Japan, who offered him a scholarship to finish his schooling in Sendai. At the time, Wanjiru told the agent “me, I don’t know where Japan is.” But, having discussed the offer with his mother – who told him she had no money to continue his education in Kenya – he accepted.

If this sounds like an odd path for a young Kenyan to take, it is one that has been well-travelled in the past. Dozens of Kenyans have been awarded scholarships to Japan, where they compete in long-distance races that are popular with Japanese television audiences. But how did Sammy feel, leaving his family to travel to Japan at the age of 15, speaking no Japanese? To gain some perspective, I asked Douglas Wakiihuri, who was the first Kenyan to travel to Japan under such an arrangement, and who later won an Olympic silver medal and the London marathon.

Wakiihuri is now 48 years old. He tells me that, when he went to Japan, at 19, “it was difficult, especially when you don’t understand the language. But for me loneliness was not a choice. I think I would have been a lonelier person being at home and not running, than running somewhere I don’t know.”

Still, it can’t have been easy for Wanjiru. He rarely saw his family. There were no other Kenyans on his team. Luckily for him, his talent blossomed fast. By the age of 18, he had started to clock some extraordinary times. In August 2005, he destroyed the world junior 10,000 metre record in Brussels in 26.41 minutes – a world class time, which only 12 men have ever bettered. Two weeks later, he broke Paul Tergat’s world half-marathon record in Rotterdam in 59:16 minutes.

It was this last performance that piqued the attention of Federica Rosa, who, for a fifteen per cent cut, manages some of the world’s best runners. Rosa signed Wanjiru there and then. It proved a sound decision. Berardelli estimates that Wanjiru made at least $6million in the next five years.

Wanjiru’s life changed irrevocably in these weeks. He became a star, with all the attendant pressures that stardom brings. Indeed, these pressures are more pronounced for a Kenyan than they would be for a Brit. As soon as one achieves status in Kenya, one is expected to look after one’s own. Wanjiru knew and embraced this cultural requirement. He was generous to a fault. In a pattern that continued for the rest of his life, he sent money back to Nyahururu as fast as he could earn it.

Wanjiru also fell in love. On 23 August 2005, three days before his spectacular performance in Brussels, he married Terezah Njeri, a local beautician, whom he had met as a teenager on the Nyahururu athletics track, and had courted sporadically on visits home during 2005.

I meet Njeri in the bar of the Thomsons Falls Lodge, where Wanjiru and his pals would often drink into the night. She has a beautiful, doll-like face, a tiny voice, and six fingers on her right hand. Njeri says she couldn’t have married Wanjiru for his money. When they first became a couple, he didn’t have any.

“Actually, it was me who earned the money back then, because I had a job at the salon,” she says. “When he stayed in town, we all lived together – me, Sammy and his mother – in the same room.”

This claustrophobic arrangement sparked a long-standing enmity between the two most significant women in Wanjiru’s life. (Njeri says, candidly, that Hannah Wanjiru “always hated me.”) Luckily for Wanjiru, in the months that followed his marriage, he was often away. When he sent money home, however, his wife and mother quarrelled. At the heart of the dispute was the question of control. For instance, Njeri says that “Sammy could not buy a present for me without his mother getting jealous.”

In 2006 and 2007, Wanjiru built two large, ugly houses in Nyahururu – one for him and his wife, and one for his mother. They are only 50 metres apart. In retrospect, this was a big mistake, as it created rival power bases. But how was Wanjiru to know how to invest his money? He had come from nothing, and was still only a boy.

Indeed, when I visited the house where Sammy died, it seemed to have been decorated by a child with an unlimited budget. Flat screen televisions blared music videos in the sitting room. Hundreds of pictures of Wanjiru hung on the wall. A gaudy wildlife scene had been painted on the high security wall which flanked the driveway. The tile where Wanjiru slipped in his last moments was still missing from the sloping roof beneath his balcony.

Despite Wanjiru’s stressful domestic situation, his times continued to improve. In 2006, Gebreselassie had broken his half-marathon world record, but in 2007, Wanjiru took it back. A month later, he smashed it again. It was his second record-breaking run, in The Hague, that set tongues wagging: 58.33 minutes. It’s hard to explain the scale of that achievement. Try running at 13.5 miles an hour on a treadmill and you’ll understand.

Perhaps more exciting than the time, however, was Wanjiru’s precocity. If he could achieve these results at 20, what could he achieve when he reached the distance runner’s peak age of 25-32? The answer seems to be: anything. In 2007, Wanjiru won his first marathon, in Fukuoka, in 2:06.39 – then the second fastest debut of all time. A year later, he won gold at the Beijing Olympics. Dave Bedford – the English former World Champion, who now organises the London Marathon – says Wanjiru’s performance was extraordinary.

“He ran the fastest Olympic time ever in hot and humid conditions that encouraged a slow tactical race,” Bedford told me. “No one was expecting a front-running onslaught. To break the Olympic record by three minutes was stunning. At that moment, he became in my eyes instantly the best and most exciting marathon runner in the world, maybe ever.”

After Beijing, Wanjiru’s life shifted gear again. Not only did he become a national hero, he was now the father of two children. He had also, it seems, become easy pickings in his home town. One local described him to me as “the bank.” Another associate says that some of his new friends were “local criminals.”

“He started to change after Beijing,” says Njeri. “He got new friends – some good, some bad. He started to take alcohol. He refused to go to training sometimes. When he was with me, he was so good. He loved his kids. He couldn’t go to sleep without knowing they were OK. But when he was with his friends, I don’t know what happened to him.”

Wanjiru’s most obvious vice was his libido. This is not unusual among Kenyan men, where polygamy is not considered taboo. But, even by Kenyan standards, Wanjiru had an appetite. At the time of his death, at least three women were claiming to be his wife. The second “wife” had a child by Wanjiru. There were also several girlfriends.

Moreover, everyone in Nyahururu wanted something from Wanjiru. He built houses for his wives and relatives, rented houses for girlfriends, covered his friends’ restaurant bills, and paid for younger athletes’ kit and travel. Wanjiru’s friends tell me he was paying dozens of children’s school fees. As Berardelli says, “Sammy’s great problem is that he could never say no.”

Daniel Gatheru was Wanjiru’s best friend. A short and skinny marathoner with a penchant for bling and a ticklish sense of humour, he knew Wanjiru all his life. Gatheru meets me just after completing a 35km training run. He looks as if he’s spent the last two hours playing lawn bowls.

“To me, Sammy was the way he was,” he says. “I knew him even when he didn’t have any money – when he was at school, when he was in Japan. He was always the same.”

What changed, says Gatheru, was the world around Wanjiru. “Especially in Nyahururu, everyone was telling him: I want this, I want this, I want this.”

Gatheru says his friend’s occasional drinking binges were symptomatic of other pressures, particularly the ructions between the women in his life. Ibrahim Kinudhia – Wanjiru’s coach in Nyahururu between 2008 and early 2010 – agrees.

“From 2010, you could see he was under pressure. You can look at a person and see that psychologically, something was distracting him. If he drank, it was because of his mental state. He didn’t talk about it. But you could see he was not the normal guy he used to be.”

By mid-2010, Wanjiru’s management realised they had a serious problem. Their star athlete appeared to be in freefall. They decided to assign him a full-time coach in Berardelli, an affable 31-year-old Italian. They also realised they needed to get him away from Nyahururu. He was encouraged to train in Eldoret – the high-altitude running capital of Kenya – or in Italy.

Berardelli met Wanjiru for the first time in Italy, in July 2010. He was unfit, overweight, but suddenly unburdened by pressures at home. In this new environment, Wanjiru trained hard, before heading to Eldoret, where Berardelli rented a house for him. Back in Kenya, his training for the Chicago marathon in November was hampered by illness, but he kept telling Berardelli ‘don’t worry, it’s going to be alright.’ Even so, Berardelli considered pulling him out of the race.

Thank God he did not. In what would be his last marathon, Wanjiru beat his Ethiopian rival Tsegaye Kebede in an extraordinary display of swagger and psychological warfare – and broke the course record. His manager called it “the greatest surprise in a race I have ever seen in my life.”

The money that came with Wanjiru’s Chicago triumph – $115,000 for the win, $500,000 for winning the “marathon majors” league, and a further $200,000-$400,000 appearance fee (less US taxes and his management’s cut) – seems to have weighed him down. He returned to Nyahururu: to old friends, and old problems. By Christmas 2010, his relationship with Njeri reached a new nadir. On 28 December, he allegedly brandished an AK-47 and threatened to kill her. He was arrested, and bailed. Njeri subsequently asked for a divorce, before reconciling with Wanjiru before television news cameras on Valentine’s Day this year.

Even after his rapprochement with his wife, Wanjiru’s personal life was in pieces. Njeri encouraged the police to drop the attempted murder charge, but there was still the charge of handling an illegal weapon. Wanjiru was due in court on 25 May. In the meantime, Wanjiru decided to buy Njeri a house in Ngong, outside Nairobi, to move her away from his mother. But, in her place, he collected new girlfriends, and fresh demands. By April 2011, Gatheru had called Berardelli and Rosa to blow the whistle on his friend.

Berardelli remembers Gatheru telling him: “please guys, get him out of here, it’s the only solution. He is completely under pressure, and I have to pull him out every morning from the house to train. He’s a little bit confused. He doesn’t want to talk about his private problems.”

Rosa and Berardelli were adamant: Wanjiru needed to sever ties with his life in Nyahururu. He was to stay at Berardelli’s house in Eldoret, then travel to Oregon to train. If all went to plan, he would target the New York Marathon in November this year as his comeback. After that, he would assault the world record, either in Berlin or London. Then, he would defend his Olympics crown.

Events sank this scheme. In the week before his death, Wanjiru and Gatheru travelled to Eldoret, as planned. They slept early and trained hard. It was as happy as Berardelli had ever seen Wanjiru. But, only days before he was due to travel to America to continue training and – his management hoped – leave his hometown worries behind, he returned to Nyahururu to visit his lawyer. In familiar settings, he fell into bad habits. He got drunk at the Thomsons Falls Lodge. He then met his girlfriend in another bar, ordered two fried eggs, drank some more, visited another bar, drove home, passed out, was discovered by his wife, attempted to climb down from his balcony, slipped and died.

Two months after his death, Wanjiru had still not been buried. During a wide-ranging family squabble, Wanjiru’s mother refused to inter her son before his cause of death had been established. In one incident, captured on camera, she attacked members of her own family with a machete as they inspected the burial site. Meanwhile, girlfriends and spurious relatives emerged from the woodwork, each with their own specious claim to Wanjiru’s millions.

Eventually, the funeral took place with a police guard. Without the attendance or blessing of his mother, the body was taken to the Nyahururu athletics track, before being buried in the back garden of Wanjiru’s farm, ten minutes out of town. Now, a pink marble headstone bears the legend: “IN LOVING MEMORY OF SAMUEL KAMAU WANJIRU. YOU FOUGHT THE GOOD FIGHT, FINISHED THE RACE, AND KEPT THE FAITH. YOU WILL LIVE FOREVER WITHIN OUR HEARTS.”

Three days after the funeral, I visited the plot with Gatheru. A wheelbarrow stood next to the plot, filled with earth. In the background, a dozen Friesian cows fed with their backs to their old boss, and a chicken clucked beside his grave. Sammy’s best friend is, in normal circumstances, a garrulous, cheerful man. But, for a few moments, he stood with his head bowed, and one of his bright blue Nike trainers cocked against the headstone, in silence.

Wanjiru lived to run. Every one of his friends says the same thing. When he trained, he enjoyed torturing himself. Often, he would scorch a lightning pace, only for his heart and lungs to “blow up” (a sensation another athlete described to me as “like dying”). Sometimes, he would fall behind his training partners, just to see whether he could sprint past his group again. He enjoyed the process of testing his limits; he had no fear of the accompanying pain.

“I don’t want to be too philosophical about it,” says Berardelli. “But when Sammy ran, he was free.”

I smiled when I heard those words. But, the next morning, Berardelli showed me just what he meant. He was training a tall, young marathon prospect named Matthew Kisorio. We followed him in Berardelli’s pick-up truck as he ran with his three training partners through the Nandi tea plantations, an hour’s drive south of Eldoret.

It was a bright early morning, and as the sun hit the waving fields of tea plants they exuded a light, fresh aroma. The runners, meanwhile, advanced from a sluggish early pace to a fair lick, with their heels scraping past their backsides, and their feet on the loose mud making the sound of a drummer on a hi-hat. Kisorio burned one training partner after an hour. The second dropped out after 80 minutes. The third jumped in the car at 100 minutes.

By the final few miles, Kisorio ran alone, at near world-record pace. I watched him, from the flat-bed of the pick-up. He appeared to be in a trance. His eyes were distant, his breathing deep and measured, and his limbs relaxed as they increased their cadence. If I had to guess what Kisorio was thinking about, I would say: nothing. He had become the sum of his moving parts. To Wanjiru, with his legal, marital, financial, and social problems, to think of nothing but running must have been freedom indeed.