NAIROBI, March 29 – He crossed himself, said a silent prayer before flashing that trademark toothy grin as he crossed the line in the chilly weather in Bydgoszcz.
In 33 minutes, Joseph Ebuya had achieved what no Kenyan man had managed to in ten years of trying. Since Paul Tergat won the last of his five senior men 12K World Cross Country title, a plethora of athletes had desperately tried but failed to bring the crown back home.
Having enjoyed the successes of John Ngugi, William Sigei and Tergat in Cross country, Kenya played second or third fiddle even as Kenenisa Bekele and Zersanny Tadesse battle d for top honours for the better part of this millennium.
And even when Bekele was absent in Amman last year, another Ethiopian, Gebrezagbier Gebremariam strode to victory.
But last Sunday, Ebuya came up trumps. The energetic Army man was class personified as he strolled to his first world title in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz.
Moreso, his victory continues a fairytale that started years ago. One of determination to succeed against the odds.
The last born in a family of ten from Barrkoi in Turkana District in Northern Kenya, Ebuya hails from a tribe that does not produce athletes, "I am the only athlete from my district," he once joked.
Coming from a very humble background, Ebuya’s parents could not even afford to send him to school and he has overcome many obstacles and challenges to become one of the stars of the sport.
Although Ebuya was born in Nyahururu, and was brought up there, his family is originally from Barrkoi. His family is Turkana but they moved to Nyahururu, hence his claim that he is the only Turkana athlete. Turkana is at the very tip of Rift valley – a dry place – while Nyahururu is in the central highlands of Kenya.
Due to financial constraints, Ebuya did not go to school, instead helping his parents with chores and farming on their tiny piece of land in Nyahururu. It is from this background that he took up athletics as a way out of abject poverty and he has already made huge strides in uplifting his parents’ lifestyle.
Ebuya has already bought his parents a ten-acre farm and built a house for them. "I want to change their lives because, through athletics, I have made some earnings which will help improve the life of my family," he said.
Nyahururu has produced its fair share of top athletes and, influenced by this, Ebuya had his first run in 2003. "I used to see John Kibowen, Benjamin Limo and Charles Kamathi training and I decided to try and see if I could also run. My role model and hero is Limo.
He has achieved so much and I would love to emulate him." Among the highlights of Limo’s career were his victories in the 5000m at the 2005 World Championships, in Helsinki, and in the 4km race at the 1999 World Cross Country Championships, in Belfast.
Lacking training gear for his first run, Ebuya donned leather shoes and jeans and when he realised that he could run, he stepped up training by joining a group of athletes in Nyahururu for the rest of the year. Having trained for most of 2004, Ebuya finished 24th at a cross country meeting in Eldoret in January 2005. In March, he made his track debut in Kisumu, finishing fourth in 5000m (14:04.2). Two weeks later, Ebuya was in Kakamega where, despite finishing 7th, he improved to 13:51.37.
In June, Ebuya took part in his first national athletics championships, representing South Rift region and finished a creditable fifth in a new personal best of 13:26.3. His performances saw him invited for the national trials in Nairobi for the World Championships, set for Helsinki. But he could only manage eighth place.
Running his first race in Europe, at the Karelia G meet in The Netherlands in July, Ebuya finished second behind Micah Kogo in 13:17.61, a personal best. Two days later, he lined up at the KBC meet, in Heusden, where he came in fourth but continued his rapid improvement by clocking 13:03.79. A first victory in Europe followed when he won a 5000m at the BMC meet in London (13:21.79).
Marking end of an impressive track debut season, Ebuya made his maiden appearance in the IAAF Golden League, finishing sixth over 5000m at the Van Damme Memorial in Brussels (13:07.06).
Ebuya began 2006 in great shape, finishing second (13:34.93) at the Nairobi trials in February for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. One month later, the Kaptagat-based athlete earned a second consecutive spot in the national team when he finished second in the junior race at the National Cross Country trials for the World Cross Country Championships, in Fukuoka.
At the Commonwealth Games towards the end of March, Ebuya stuck with the leading pack until Craig Mottram and Augustine Choge pulled away with two laps to go and he had to settle for fourth place (13:05.89). A week later, Ebuya was in Fukuoka to make his World Cross Country debut on 2 April, finishing fourth in the junior men’s race and helping Kenya win the team title.
Ebuya was soon into his stride for the track season, clocking a personal best 13:02.97 for 5,000m at the Bislett Games in Oslo in early June. He continued his improvement with a PB 3000m (7:36.78) at a Norwich Union meeting in Gateshead, England, later in the same month. In July, Ebuya dipped under 13 minutes for 5000m for the first time, clocking 12:58.03 for 6th in Saint-Denis, France.
Winning his specialty distance at the National Junior Athletics trials, Ebuya booked his ticket to the World Junior Championships, in Beijing. Then, when one of the athletes selected to run in 10,000m in Beijing was sensationally axed from the team for being over-age, Ebuya was asked to fill in. He took up the challenge of both distances, winning silver in the longer race (28:53.46) and, four days later, the 5000m bronze (13:42.93).
After a couple of smaller races, the then 19-year-old made his debut at the World Athletics Final in September, finishing 8th in the 3000m (7:43.31). That marked the end of his track season in Europe but, back home; he won gold in 5000m at the 1st ANNOCA Games, in Nairobi, in November.
Like most of Kenya’s elite cross athletes, Ebuya desperately wanted to gain selection for the World Cross Country Championships set for Mombasa. But he came unstuck at the trials, finishing 11th, missing out on a chance to represent the country at senior level.
Back on the track, Ebuya competed at the Doha Grand Prix, setting a 3000m PB 7:34.66 for 3rd place. After a number of other races, he returned to Nairobi for Osaka World Championships Trials. The 5,000m is the blue riband of Kenya’s trials, with stiff competition and possibly the toughest race of the occasion, but Ebuya more than held his own and finished second (13:20.4) behind Isaac Songok.
The 20-year-old suffered huge disappointment in Osaka where he failed to qualify for the final. Probably struck by inexperience, he stayed closed in the pack in a very slow heat and was beaten in a mad dash for the tape. He finished 9th in a very slow time of 13:48.21.
Keen to make amends, Ebuya then took to the track. After placing 4th over 3000m at the Weltklasse Grand Prix in Zurich (7:41.05), he slashed almost eight seconds off his personal best 5,000m, clocking 12:51.00 for 4th at the IAAF Golden League Van Damme Memorial, in Brussels. In the World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart, he was 2nd in the 3000m (7:49.70) behind winner Edwin Soi. The following day, he lined up for his specialty but could manage only 4th ((13:40.43) while Soi completed his double.
Ebuya took a short break before starting his 2007-2008 cross country season with a win the ‘Cross Internacional Valle de Llodio 9.2Km race on 18 November. Ebuya sprinted away from compatriots Hosea Macharinyang and Kiprono Menjo to register Kenya’s first win in Llodio since 2002. On 25 November, Ebuya again beat Macharinyang to clinch victory at a 10km cross country race in Soria.
He continued his good form on 2 December, winning the 10.1km race in Alcobendas, Spain, again consigning Macharinyang to second place. His first race of 2008 was in Amorebieta, Spain, where he came in second after a thrilling battle with Ethiopia’s Tariku Bekele.
Next up was a dress rehearsal for the Edinburgh World Cross Country Championships where he came up against the elder Bekele (Kenenisa) five time long course senior World Cross winner. Ebuya finished fourth. "I learnt a lot by running against Kenenisa and I know that, if we keep up with him from the first minute, we have a chance of beating him but, if we let him go, then we stand no chance," he said.
Eight days later, he won a 10.23km race in Maliano, Spain, and, come the IAAF Permit National Cross Country Championships cum Trials; Ebuya braved a thrilling battle of top athletes to book a place in the Edinburgh squad after finishing fourth.
At the World Cross, Ebuya was the second best placed Kenyan in fourth position helping the Kenya win the team gold.
In July, after failing to make the Olympics team, Ebuya clocked his seasonal best in 5,000m (13:06.61) in Rome on 11 July and on 29 July in Monaco, he improved his personal best in 3,000m to 7:34.62. Shortly afterwards, he was called up to join the army which meant a break in competition as he underwent conscription.
He resumed training in April 2009 and made a competitive return in Hengelo in a slow 13:26.01. On 14 June, he improved to 13:21.28 in Berlin. At the 25 July trials for the World Championships, Ebuya ran his socks off to finish second in a seasonal best (13:20.2) and clinch a place in the Berlin bound squad.
“When I ran poorly at the nationals, I decided to go back and train hard and ensure that I made the Kenyan team. I am so excited that I came through because making the team is a big boost even to my family.”
“I am looking forward to doing well in Berlin. I am going all out to get a medal. If it’s gold, I will be very happy but any medal would be satisfactory especially as I am just back from the army.”
In Berlin, Ebuya barely squeezed through to the final after finishing seventh in his heat (13:22.41). On the final day of the championships, Ebuya took the race to the rest of field early on but he faded off in the business end limping home in 13th place in a time of 13:39.59.
He improved considerably in Zurich with a sixth finish (13:00.22) on 28 August and in Brussels on 4 September, he ran a seasonal best time of 12:58.16 as he again finished sixth. Two days later, he ran another seasonal best-this time in 3000m (7:37.63) in Rieti despite coming in 11th.
Eager to make up for the poor track season, Ebuya was back on the road on 20 December finishing second behind Sergio Sánchez at the Venta de Baños Cross Country meet in Spain.
A week later he ran a seasonal best in 10K (28:35) in Houilles, France and four days later, Ebuya ushered in the new Year in the best way possible by winning the Silvestre 10k race in Lisbon Portugal.
Ebuya resumed where he had left off with a famous win over the great Kenenisa Bekele at the BUPA Great Edinburgh International Cross Country on 9 January. Ebuya and Titus Mbishei broke Bekele just 13 minutes into the 9km race.
Together this duo dominated with Ebuya, effortlessly pulling away on the final circuit to take a two-second win over Mbishei, whilst Eliud Kipchoge finished third.
Ebuya, 2006 World Junior 10,000m silver winner said of his surprise victory; “Bekele is very strong, as is Kipchoge so I’m hoping with sustained training back in Kenya I can get through the (Kenyan) trial (for the World Cross Country Championships)."
"Today was a very good day for me; I prayed to Jesus and I thank him. I hoped he would help me to do well there.”
How did Bekele, smarting from his only second career defeat in cross country running (the first was the DNF in Mombasa 2007 World Cross) take his loss?
"After the race Kenenisa refused even to offer me greetings. This is a sport, not war. Anyone can win or get beaten but I will go to Poland to do my best. Beating Bekele was a proud moment in my career but World Cross victory would top that," Ebuya revealed.
Then came the Kenya trials on 20 February where Ebuya mastered the muddy conditions to finish third (35:44.8) in the men’s 12km long race to earn automatic selection for Bydgoszcz World Cross.
His niece, Alice Aprot, will join him in Poland after she was handed one of the wildcards in the junior women’s 6km race after running 20:24.6 for fifth at the same event.
"Having her in the squad makes me proud since it will inspire our people to take up the sport more seriously. In Turkana, there is a lot of potential but we have few mentors in the sport.
"I encouraged her to take up athletics, even bringing her to competitions and the effort she has put to make the team is a sign that her persistence is bearing fruit," Ebuya spoke of Aprot.
"I draw a lot of inspiration from what he has achieved," Aprot, who had to seek permission from the uncle before speaking to FoA.
"It’s my first time in the Kenyan team after two years of trying and I’m so delighted to be part of it. Having Ebuya here as well makes the experience even better," the soft spoken but lanky junior 6km exponent added.
Now, he is not the ‘only Turkana athlete’ in Kenya!
Born 20 June, 1987, Nyahururu
Height: 168 cm (5′ 6"); weight: 66kg
Manager: Ricky Simms
Team: Armed Forces
3000m: 7:34.62 (2008)
5000m: 12:51.00 (2007)
3000m: 2005 – 7:49.2; 2006 – 7:36.78; 2007 – 7:34.66; 2008 – 7:34.62; 2009 – 7:37.63
5000m: 2005 – 13:03.70; 2006 – 12:58.03; 2007 – 12:51.00; 2008 -13:06.61; 2009 – 12:58.16
2006 4th World Cross Country Championships (junior men)
2006 4th Commonwealth Games, 5000m
2006 2nd World Junior Championships, 10,000m
2006 3rd World Junior Championships, 5000m
2006 8th World Athletics Final, 3000m
2007 9th h1 World Championships, 5000m
2007 2nd World Athletics Final, 3000m
2007 4th World Athletics Final, 5000m
2008 4th World Cross Country Championships (12K)
2009 13th World Athletics Championships (5000m)
2010 1st World Cross Country Championships (12K)
Prepared by James Wokabi and Mutwiri Mutuota for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008