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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sammy Wanjiru
November 10, 1986 - May 16, 2011

Sad day for running and runners everywhere

While watching the Chicago Bulls dismantle the Miami Heat in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, I received the sad and shocking news that Sammy Wanjiru, 2008 Olympic Marathon Champion and one of greatest marathoners ever, has died in Kenya, aged 24.  

The initial details seem to indicate either a fall or jump from a balcony at his home in Kenya, resulting in injuries from which he could not be revived.  This much as been confirmed by his manager Fredico Rosa.

Wanjiru was an incredible talent, and had an aggressive racing style that may well have produced a world record given enough racing in the right circumstances.  He was never afraid to push the pace, both early and often, in the big races.  His marathon CV is simply astonishing, perhaps the best ever, as outlined in this obit piece by Letsrun.com

Sevens races and five wins, including London, the Olympics and Chicago.  But two performances stand out, perhaps two of the great marathons in recent memory.  

First, the Beijing Olympic marathon was without doubt one of the great performances ever seen.  Unaided by pace-makers, Wanjiru attacked repeatedly off a fast tempo, in hot, humid conditions and absolutely destroyed the world's best over the second half of the race, running 2:06:32.  That time in the heat and humidity of Beijing is simply breath-taking.  That he was able to put almost a minute into second place, and almost four minutes into the rest of the world class field is a sign of an astonishing performance

Then in Chicago last year, he and Kebede produced the race of the year - a marathon that resembled a bicycle race, it was so full of surges and counter-surges in the final few kilometers.  Many times it seemed that Kebede had him beaten, but Wanjiru hung on and eventually found the most brutal surge of all to win the race, and the World Marathon Major title.  That race typified Wanjiru - brave, brutal and full of heart. 

Unfortunately Wanjiru's racing strategy was so aggressive that it probably reduced his chances for a record, but it produced the kind of head to head, fascinating battles that the sport needed.  What is the pack to do when a runner like Wanjiru surges so early?  Let him go?  Never, because he was too much of a threat to hang on for a win even if he melted down and limped across the line. 

Perhaps with maturity we could have seen some refinement of his pacing strategy and a record, although sadly now that will never come to pass.

Recently Wanjiru made headlines for a domestic dispute with his wife in which he pulled a gun on her and was charged with attempted  murder.  That case was resolved favourably for Wanjiru, but considering that those events happened, we could at least assume that not all was well in his personal life.  We all have personal demons, and it appears as though Wanjiru's might have gotten the best of him.  

This is a sad reminder of the transience of life and talent.  Wanjiru was indestructible on the roads, but unfortunately, his personal life reminds us that this did not apply elsewhere.  Sammy Wanjiru was a racing genius, a man who shook the world of marathon running, and we are all shaken once again by his tragic death.

We will all have to wait as official reports come in that hopefully will reveal more details about the circumstances around his death.  For now, we will just say rest in peace, Sammy.  The running world will miss you.