NAIROBI, Kenya, May 2 – The last few weeks have been delightful for Kenyan marathoners.From Turin to Vienna to Rotterdam to Boston and finally to London, Kenyan athletes have blazed the trail in typical fluid style winning race after race.
Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai shocked the world by posting the second fastest times ever in marathon 2:04:27 before Olympic champion Samuel Wanjiru continued his quest for glory by winning London marathon in course record of 2:05:10.
Interestingly, most of the victors in the races have been new names. Few had ever heard of the bearded and jewellery adorned Kibet, while Kwambai has not really set the world alight.
None of the so called usual big boys was present – Martin Lel, Robert Cheruiyots of this world were missing.
But despite their absence, the Kenyan dominance continued. Daniel Rono-a virtual unknown who was second in Boston- the perfect example. Evans Cheruiyot who won 2008 Chicago marathon is another example of young upcoming marathoner.
But while the men have blazed the trail, unearthing new talent over the last few months, the women have remained pretty much the same over the past few years.
Catherine Ndereba who was seventh in London in only her second appearance in the race remains Kenya’s most potent marathoner while Salina Kosgei was the biggest winner of the spring winning Boston at a relatively advanced age of 32.
The selection of the marathon team for this year’s World Athletics Championships in Berlin showed just how much depth there is in the men’s category. Other than Wanjiru, the rest could be termed as hitherto unknown athletes that include Rono, Kwambai, Kibet, and Emmanuel Mutai.
Three time London champion Lel, World champion Luke Kibet, four time Boston champion Robert Cheruiyot were named as reserves. That such quality athletes missed out on the team speaks volumes.
But a glance at the women’s squad and Catherine Ndereba and Kosgei lead a bunch of unknown athletes in the team. The duo was in Beijing and Ndereba has been in every Kenyan marathon team named since 2003!
2009 Turin marathon champion Agnes Kiprop, Hellen Kiprop and Irene Limika set to make their debuts for the country in the 42K distance.
Hellen Kiprop is the highest ranked Kenyan female marathoner in the world at 21 for the year with a 2:25:35 effort at the Dubai Marathon.
Limika on the other hand is a former steeplechaser who is only cutting her teeth in this most gruelling of races though she is no spring chicken.
The reserves have 2008 Paris champion Martha Komu, Rispa Kimaiyo, Lydia Cheromei, Irene Mogaka and 42 year old former World Cross Country short course champion Edith Masai.
Another way of looking at it is that while the world’s top four male marathoners of the year are all Kenyan, as are 11 of the top 20, the highest ranked Kenyan female marathoner is Agnes Kiprop in 21st.
A far cry from six years ago, when Kenyan women had four of the ten top marathon performances of the year.
So why have the female athletes not matched up to the exploits of the men?
Why is Kenya not producing quality female marathoners to take over from Ndereba and company?
That Ndereba will be making her fourth appearance at the World event while no Kenyan man has made the team for two consecutive world events speaks volumes of the sheer depth of talent in the men category.
AK Chairman Isaiah Kiplagat says that female marathon running is not as developed as men’s, “While the men have long rich tradition, the women have only start running seriously following in the footsteps of Ndereba and Loroupe or even Chepkemei.”
The long serving chairman adds that it takes longer for a woman to get used and learn how to run the marathon.
“While men can take up running the marathon when in their early twenties, women seem to struggle to do likewise and only really settle into road running when they hit mid twenties. That is why we are lacking young marathoners running in the women category.”
Kiplagat’s sentiments were echoed by New York and Boston winner Ibrahim Hussein.
“Women are able to get into the marathon groove once they have given birth. Giving birth gives them more endurance and perseverance and sort of finds balance in their hormones which makes them run the marathon better,” said Hussein.
Absurd as it sounds, there could be some truth in Hussein’s statement.
Ndereba who is arguably the world’s most successful a marathoner has achieved most of her success since she gave birth in 1997, Salina is a mother of two, World record holder Paula Radcliffe was back winning New York marathon just 17 months after giving birth to baby Isla in 2007.
Last year’s Olympic marathon winner Constantina Dita is a mother of two and won the title at 38! And this year’s London marathon winner Irina Mikitenko is a 36 year old mother of one.
Another reason put forward by Kiplagat was poor prize money when compared to the men’s races, “For a long time, the prize money in the women’s marathons was way less than the men’s and there was no huge incentive for female athletes to pick up on it as in the men.”
Kiplagat though is convinced that the trend is changing, “the prize money has increased and Ndereba and Salina are setting good examples that can be followed by the younger girls. More women are now taking up marathon.”
He says this year’s World Championships should unearth a new crop. “This year’s team is almost completely new and if we can expose some of these ladies and they do well then we will be fine but am confident that Kenyan women will catch up.”
Only can only hope that for Kenya’s sake, he is proven right.