Samuel Wanjiru was a man who did things young and quickly. He moved to Japan aged just 15 to pursue his running career, ran a world junior record of 26:41 in the 10,000m aged 18, broke the half marathon world record at the same age, and stepped up to the marathon barely into his twenties. He married young and tragically died young too, passing away yesterday at the age of 24.
At this stage, the details of Wanjiru’s death are unclear, but what is known is that he fell from a balcony at his home following a dispute with his wife. Wanjiru was a troubled athlete, famous not just for his incredible marathon performances but also for his drinking and his erratic behaviour. Only months ago was he arrested for allegedly threatening to kill his wife with an illegally acquired AK-47 rifle. Though the couple publicly resolved their differences, it was clear that there were deep-lying problems. Matters came to a head yesterday, when Wanjiru’s wife reportedly found another woman in the house and the ensuing argument led to him being pushed or jumping from the first floor.
A sad end indeed for a man who should rightly be heralded as a marathon running legend. Quite simply, he has pushed the limits of marathon running like no other man has done before. He has no world record to show for it, and in today’s era of super-fast times his 2:05:10 personal best is a modest one, but the times do not tell the whole story. His gold medal winning performance at the 2008 Olympics was a breathtaking display of powerful front running, and changed the marathon forever. Wanjiru’s style of marathon running, and indeed his attitude to his competitors, was like nothing ever witnessed before. Rather than sitting back and hanging in behind the leader, he would push the pace from the gun, constantly asking questions of his rivals. If you wanted to compete against him, you would have to do it from the start. Every time he raced a marathon, Sammy Wanjiru grabbed the race by the scruff of the neck and kept shaking until no one was left. His slowest ever marathon was run in 2:06:39 on his debut.
He also broke the mould in other ways. Stepping up to the marathon was once the preserve of seasoned track runners, moving up in distance once the top end of their track speed had gone. No longer is this the case. Along with his great rival Tsegay Kebede, he started young in the marathon and reaped the benefits of racing 26.2 miles at the peak of his powers. Wanjiru burst on to the scene in an era when Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat, Hendrick Ramaala and Jaouad Gharib were leading the world marathon circuit, all well into their 30s. What he lacked in experience however, he more than made up for in grit, determination and an unrivalled work ethic. Most ahletics fans are unanimous in the opinion that it was only a matter of time before the world record would have been his.
It is fitting that his last race was a race that epitomised his style of running. In an epic battle of wills against Kebede, he dug deepest to win the 2010 Chicago Marathon. Dropped repeatedly in the last few miles, he put in a powerful surge near the finish to shake off his rival and claim the World Marathon Majors title. He will not be back this year to defend his Chicago crown, nor will he be present in London, scene of his 2009 London Marathon victory, to defend his Olympic gold medal.
He leaves behind his wife, Teresa, and his two young children Anne and Simon. Almost as importantly he leaves behind a legacy in his event and the memories of the most exciting marathon racer the world has ever seen.
Samuel Kamau Wanjiru, 10 November 1986 – 15 May 2011