Mourning Sammy Wanjiru, “The Greatest” Marathoner?

Wanjiru breaking the half-marathon world record at The Hague in 2007. Photo by FaceMePLS.

Like everyone else, I was shocked to hear that Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya, the reigning Olympic marathon and World Marathon Majors champion, died Sunday in a fall from a second-floor balcony in his home in Nyahururu, Kenya.

To call it sad is an understatement. He was the bright, shining young star of the sport. That his personal life often fell short of the dazzling man he was on the pavement, and of the hero-worship he inspired, is also sad. Reports of his death have involved more talk of his personal woes than of his running. That his life ended tragically, under questionable and preventable circumstances, and in a manner that only highlighted his humanity is, quite simply, heartbreaking.

But for those of us that did not know him, except as that brazen young kid who not only talked the talk, but walked the walk of a champion, I’d like to remember his legacy as a runner.

I’ve followed Wanjiru’s career for years now. Like the rest of the running world, I watched with my jaw swinging open as he obliterated the rest of the field at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It was one of those performances that people still talk about and probably will for years. Indeed, I included that stunning performance in my list of The Decade’s Best Moments in Running, and Runner’s World called it the best running performance ever.

With his historic Olympic gold—astonishingly the first for a marathoner from Kenya—he announced the arrival of a star who seemed destined to become one of the greats.

Some, like LetsRun.com, have already called him the greatest marathoner to ever live, a title others, like Runner’s World, reserved for marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie, or even Abebe Biklia, like the Los Angeles Times proffered.

No doubt, Wanjiru was great. He won the Olympic marathon in 2008 and the London and Chicago marathons in 2009. He repeated his victory in Chicago in 2010. He clinched the World Marathon Majors titles in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.

Now, at far too early an age, in far too macabre of circumstances, he is gone. And the world of running is reeling from the loss of a runner who was unable to live out his full potential. No doubt, he will be missed in the elite corrals, and when the time comes to crown the 2010-2011 World Marathon Majors champion, many will wonder, “What if?”

To put a loss like this in perspective, it’s important to note that Wanjiru was still at the peak, if not the beginning, of his career. At just 24 years old, there were many—including Virgin London Marathon Race Director David Bedford—who believed it was only a matter of time before Wanjiru broke the marathon world record.

He’d already broken the half-marathon world record three times and made it well known he was gunning for the marathon record. After all, Haile Gebrselassie set the current record of 2:03:59 at the age of 35. With a personal best of 2:05:10 and a guts-on-the-floor racing style, Wanjiru could have done better at some point in the next decade of his career.

But now we’ll never know. We will always wonder what could have been. We’re left to mourn the amazing competitor he was. And he was amazing.

He was the rare athlete who was always exciting to watch, and in my opinion, the most exciting runner. He seemed to relish racing, not just running. He was at his best without pacers in toe-to-sweaty-toe competition. One need only watch the finish of his last marathon to appreciate what a phenomenal racer he was. If Wanjiru was running, you knew you were in for a hell of a ride, and the 2010 Chicago Marathon, was no exception. It now stands as the last testament to his legacy.

In fact, Wanjiru was such an exciting competitor that he inspired the running equivalent of fan fiction—hypothetical match-ups that spanned the time-space continuum. Many a runner has dreamed of the never realized Gebrselassie-Wanjiru run off, or philosophized alternate realities where Gebrselassie at his peak could race Wanjiru at his peak. If Paula Radcliffe and Wanjiru were the same gender, who’d be the fiercer competitor? Where does he stack up against Frank Shorter, Grete Waitz? We’ve all argued over who should rightly claim the title of “The Greatest.” No doubt, Wanjiru’s premature death will only fire those flames.

I can’t help but think of Steve Prefontaine, the American track legend who died tragically in a car accident in 1975, also at the age of 24. Unlike Wanjiru, Prefontaine never realized his dreams of Olympic gold. He finished fourth in the 5,000 meters at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and was eyeing gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Many thought his best performances were still ahead of him.

So perhaps part of the reason Prefontaine is so legendary now is that we never found out if that was true. He never got to live out his promise. If he had run Montreal and finished out of the medals, the name “Pre” might not be whispered in hallowed tones. It’s the James Dean effect—so much promise unrealized.

Like Dean, when it comes to movie stars and musicians, there is no shortage of legends who met tragic, premature ends—Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe; the list goes on and on. But many of them died in the twilight of their careers, after they’d already cemented their status as legends.

But Wanjiru at the prime of his career—rather than the beginning or the end—falls somewhere in between.

Would Wanjiru have broken the marathon world record? Who knows? And you know what? Who cares?

Wanjiru was the real deal. He proved to the world in five dazzling marathons that he was a champion. He was a gold medalist. He was a world record holder. That is his legacy as a runner. And greatest or not, he is now sadly one more legend for the running world to mourn—and immortalize forever.

The rest is silence.

Karla Bruning

About 

Karla Bruning is a race announcer at the TCS New York City Marathon + other major events, TV host for the New York City Triathlon + contributor to Shape, Redbook, Runner's World + other publications. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now it's her job. She's run 8 marathons, 30 halves, 10 triathlons + open water swims. When she's not running, talking about running or writing about running, she's snuggling her baby, spoiling her dog + compulsively traveling.

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05 2011

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