MOSOBECH, Kenya, May 23 – It’s approaching 6am and a van carrying a battery of international journalists pulls up by the roadside.
Mosobech is just off Nandi Hills, deep in the bowels of Rift Valley, the cradle of middle and long distance running in Kenya. Here, hills dot the scenic landscape of lush green canopy covering tracts of tea and maize farms.
It’s biting cold, foggy and effects of the previous night’s torrential downpours still evident from the gush of water and mud.
Our welcoming party is testimony to this village’s endowment – four athletes, one of them a woman. She clearly stands out; towering the men, sporting gloves to ward off the cold and glasses to block flies and insects.
Pamela Jelimo, the Olympic 800 metres champion. The teenage phenomenon who rose seemingly out of nowhere early last year and stunned the world with her sheer, raw, talent.
The men, her training mates, are husband Peter Murrey, Jackson Ruto and Ezekiel Kiprop.
I have accompanied a group of foreign journalists who have been flown into Kenya by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to “spend a day in the life of Jelimo, experience her typical day and get to see the ‘real’ Jelimo.
The 19-year-old shot to instant fame in 2008 when she blazed the two-lap race going undefeated all year to win an African title, World Junior, Olympic gold and capping it with the IAAF Golden League jackpot. She bettered her own African and national records about five times that year.
We were just in time for their morning run and off they went, down the muddy road, synchronised four pairs of legs, their rhythmic footsteps swallowing grounds with consummate ease.
The mud does not deter them as they glide towards Kiropket Primary school where they make a U-turn and go back towards their starting point. On the way, a young school girl joins in the fun, keeping up with then for at least 100 metres before stopping.
The next Jelimo perhaps?
Forty five minutes and ten kilometres later – which seem like forever to us – the quartet are back to the tarmac road.
A series of warm down exercises, complete with stretching, is followed by a short walk to her new home.
The Million dollar woman has a newly constructed house; simple but exemplary by rural standards. Made of bricks and iron sheets, the only sign of opulence is a double-cabin Nissan pick up parked outside.
Murrey’s first task is to get the cow to a paddock while Jelimo ushers us into the house.
The walls are dotted with pictures of her in action. Winning in Addis Ababa, in Beijing, in Stuttgart.
Medals earned from a fantastic year on the track adorn the walls while on one side stands a wall unit full of trophies – IAAF Rising Star, 2008 Sportsman of the Year award. Congratulatory messages and ribbons hang from the wall, each with a message for the girl christened ‘Kapsabet Express’ because of her sheer speed.
There is also a picture of Mr and Mrs Murrey, taken in December 2008 when they revealed their marriage.
Minutes, later Jelimo and her husband are showered and offer us tea. A gracious and modest host giving off none of her world status while Murrey blends in the background, letting his lady take the centre stage as curious journos shoot queries.
The two fell for each other when they met at a school’s competition. Their love is radiantly visible.
Two hours later we are in Kapsabet stadium eight kilometres from her home for the days’ track session.
Opened in 1969, the stadium is in dilapidated state. Bricks are falling off the perimeter wall leaving gaps, the main stand spots rusty iron sheets with poles leaning dangerously and barely able to support the roof. There is no tartan track.
Jelimo is ready to get going and for the next hour, we witness a punishing and rigourous schedule. The intervals are brutal, coming thick and fast but she comes back for more.
She is not alone in the stadium; Africa 1500 metres champion Haron Keitany, Belal Mansoor Ali, Tarek Mubarakare are all working on their speed under the watchful eye of the local manager Barnaba Korir.
Talent is in abundance.
One hour later, the session ends and after another warm down, Jelimo suits up. Ever the perfectionist, she is seeking opinion from the journalists, “how was it? Do I look in good shape? How did I do?”
We have been scheduled to do an interview now, but dark clouds have been gathering, and as soon as we set up, the rain teems down determined to halt our progress. The interview is postponed to after lunch.
Lunch is at the Kapsabet Police canteen – a fitting venue since Jelimo is in the Police Force.
Soon we are tearing into delicious goat ribs and chicken with gusto. Murrey gets his wife a salad that she nimbles on.
Finally, the interview and for the first time the whole day, Jelimo gets apprehensive. It’s the one thing she still has not gotten used to.
Seated by her side, Murrey again maintains quiet only bursting to life when asked if he has sacrificed his career to help her, “Of course not, I will also continue pursuing it.”
The questions shoot up fast: Was she surprised by her achievements as was the rest of the world?
“It was a surprise. I didn’t expect to win in Addis but because I wanted to have exposure, I gave it my best. It was great to beat great athletes like Maria Mutola (the larger-than-life Mozambican.)”
What about the Golden League victories?
“I was determined; I took it race by race because I didn’t want to lose having won four of five races. It was determination and courage and the will to run well that gave me strength.”
Her sudden emergence put countrywoman and World champion Janeth Jepkosgei who had captured the nation’s affection in 2007 in the shadow. Is there any animosity?
“She is my role model. She is like my sister and there is no grudge. We even train together when she is in Kapsabet.”
We flash back to that night in Beijing when she became the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic gold with a scintillating 1:54:18 run.
“It was a surprise. I didn’t expect that I could be the first woman to win gold for Kenya but, with good training, I was determined to do well.”
“Winning gold was very nice because many people didn’t expect that Kenyan women could win at the Olympics. But with that win, we can do better like Nancy Langat did in the Olympics.”
Having achieved so much, it must be hard for Jelimo to pick herself up and start all over again. She is yet to race in Europe and skipped the indoor season.
“I am aiming for the World Championships. I have only run one race in Kakamega that was for endurance so that I can be ready for Berlin this year.”
The 800 metres world record of 1:53.28 set by Jarmila Kratochvilová way back in 1983 is the longest standing track record.
Last year, Jelimo came mightily close in Zurich, clocking 1:54.01 – the third fastest of all time – but one of the criticisms levelled (if you can call it that) was that Jelimo was still inexperienced in running the distance.
“I am upping my efforts in training and hard work. I am also trying to gauge myself, comparing to last year and improving where I messed last year.”
And for those who spoke of her inexperience, Jelimo is working on her speed to “distribute that finishing power nicely so that I can start 100 to 200 to 400 so that I can stay competitive throughout the distance.”
Her heroics have earned her not only money but also new-found fame and publicity as the country took to her lung-bursting efforts.
Probably the most popular Kenyan athlete- quite a feat from a country that has produced Kipchoge Keino and Paul Tergat, she has become a household name, a far cry from the shy girl of a year ago.
Her return to Kenya in September last year was like nothing ever seen before. Friends, family, cabinet ministers and curious onlookers thronged the airport breaching all protocol to catch a glimpse of their new hero. Did she expect it?
“I didn’t even expect to have many people welcome me at the airport. But stepping out of the place I was so surprised to see my mother there and my family. I was in shock.”
President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister extended the welcome, hosting the starry eyed teenager at the President’s office – the first athlete to receive personal audience since Kip Keino in 1968.
“I couldn’t believe it. It’s a day that I will remember for the rest of my life. They congratulated me and asked to continue doing well.”
Her Golden League jackpot win came with $1 million prize money on top of other winnings. Any ideas what she wants to do with it?
“I want to work on my career, and then at the end I can sit down and invest the money. For now it’s just building a small house for my mother and one for me and my husband.”
Done with another round of questions we head off to meet her mother in Koyo village 25 kilometres from Kapsabet town.
The homestead is typically Kenyan – chicken dotting around and a dog half asleep just outside the recently constructed house complete with a solar panel.
Mama Rhoda is ready to welcome us, shaking everyone’s hands and saving a hug for her daughter.
We are ushered into the sitting room and here, Jelimo is truly in her zone.
First up is the traditional Kalenjin milk (Mursik) which is served to everyone and minutes later, the millionaire daughter is back to wash peoples’ hand as they get ready for dinner.
Rice, beans, matoke, chicken beef, make up a sumptuous dinner served up buy Jelimo in her typically powerful presence.
Having spent the whole day quizzing her, now it’s her turn to set the agenda – we are at her beck and call. She says we eat and eat we do (not that we needed the invitation, we are starving!). Having a delicious meal with an Olympic champion as your waitress? A priceless experience.
An hour later and with our trousers bursting at the seams, it’s time to say kwaheri to Jelimo.
We come to the end of a fun filled 13 hours spent in a typical Jelimo Day.
What a champion, what a lady.
A day in the life of Pamela Jelimo.