NAIROBI, Kenya, April 28 – “I had to get unfit for the First Lady to be fit!” was how former world marathon champion, Douglas Wakiihuri laughed off his latest achievement in a stellar career, crafting the history making London Marathon finish by First Lady Ms Margaret Kenyatta last month.
While the spouse of President Uhuru Kenyatta received worldwide acclaim and acres of newspaper space and airtime on local media outlets, Wakiihuri, 50, receded to the background as he embarked on one of the most difficult jobs in the sport.
On April 13, he was able to add another feather in his glittering cap in the sport when Ms Kenyatta crossed the line to become the first holder of her office in the world to complete the classic 42.195km distance in London.
His list of pioneer achievements is staggering; first Kenyan to win the world marathon title (1987) a record that remained for 20 years, first Kenyan winner of the London Marathon (1989), first Kenyan winner of the New York Marathon (1990), first Kenyan Commonwealth marathon champion (1990) and first Kenyan Olympics marathon medallist in 1988 (silver).
Of course, he was also the first Kenyan runner to feature in a television advert when he endorsed the Nissan Sahara pick-up in the early 90s as well as dropping a few musical albums.
Never afraid to sail uncharted waters, Wakiihuri took up a job that few would have cherished, that of coaching a soon to turn 50 year-old woman with no prior athletics experience and turn her into a finisher of the toughest race on earth in less than six months.
And this was no ordinary lady; it was none other than the titular mother of the nation who came along with a group of aides and security staff who also had to get fit and run the distance alongside their boss.
Personally, it also gave him a chance to return to the course he conquered 25 years earlier not to compete as a Masters runner but to ensure his athlete got to the line, slow stride by slow stride, an arduous task for someone used to run hard even at 50.
When Ms Kenyatta’s Communications boss, Maina Kigaga, through aides reached out to the retired legend with the job proposal last October, Wakiihuri weighed the gravity of the tough job ahead but his reputed urge to make history soon drove him to accept.
“At first I could not believe they had settled on me, we have many coaches in this country and when they told me what they wanted, I had to draw a unique programme since this was a first time runner and the sensitive nature of her position,” Wakiihuri told Capital Sport.
After months of meticulous preparations Ms Kenyatta crossed the finish line in 7:05:38 to crown what captured the hearts of many locally and abroad as she chose to use Kenya’s best sporting export to raise awareness and funds for her ‘Beyond Zero’ campaign to support maternal health care by stocking all 47 counties in the country with mobile clinics.
“Indeed, she went beyond zero to achieve her objective. She was very driven and motivated and as her coach, I’m proud to have been involved in her noble charity work. It is not easy even for an elite runner to prepare for the marathon, let alone a lady approaching 50,” Wakiihuri enthused.
“For that sacrifice I ran the slowest marathon in my life which was an experience I never thought I will do but all in all, my main aim was to see the team cross the finishing line unlike seeing an experienced athlete trying to get the job done.
“I never thought I will go back to London not to compete but to run for fan,” the 50 year-old legend added.
The First Lady is seeking Sh500m (USD 5,753,742m) to fund the initiative that seeks to end maternal and infant mortality in the country.
“It’s one of the rare dreams that any athlete could have and through what I have been doing in marathons it’s was an opportunity that came along and I took it whole heartedly.
“I remember when we started one kilometre was a very long journey where we used to cover in 45 minutes but eventually we improved.
“This enabled her run the half marathon on March 9 and that was the main break through since it was the first time she was running, she opted to try it and she did it in 3:35:00,” Wakiihuri narrated.
“At that point we had done 95Km in training when we went for Sagana for one week camp,” the 1990 New York champion explained.
He was referring to inaugural the First Lady Half Marathon that ran in Nairobi on March 9 where amid tight security and chaos at the end when she was joined by the Head of State, Ms Kenyatta covered the 21km course borrowed from the Sotokoto Nairobi International Marathon that Wakiihuri is the Race Director.