NAIROBI, August 21- The last time Kenyans stayed up to watch a championship marathon in Beijing, spontaneous celebrations broke out as the late Samuel Wanjiru entered the Bird’s Nest unchallenged to set the 2:06:32 Olympics record at the 2008 Games.
In most estates countrywide, even among those who customary brand athletics as ‘marathon’, neighbours poured out of their houses to toast the monumental victory as those who were in their chosen watering holes and dens drunk to the victory with abandon.
Wanjiru, the first and only Kenyan Olympic marathon champion unified the nation on that August 24 morning as a nation still bleeding from deadly post-election violence united to acclaim the stocky athlete who exemplified the most successful team at the quadrennial extravaganza.
Almost seven years to the day, world record holder, Dennis Kimetto, the man he succeeded Wilson Kipsang and Paris Marathon winner, Mark Korir will retrace Wanjiru’s steps when they take on the streets of Berlin and finish 42.198km later at the Bird’s Nest.
Understandably, Kipsang drew inspiration from the fallen marathon titan who went to rest on that tragic May 16, 2011 night as they prepare to wrest the title from Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich at the first medal race of the 2015 IAAF World Championships at the Chinese capital.
The race is scheduled to start at 2:35am and just over two hours later, the country will be expecting to toast their latest heroes in a sport where Kenya has established a tradition of excellence.
Victory in the toughest race known to man will also go a long way to respond in the most emphatic manner demining allegations of widespread doping sparked by the August 1 expose by German TV, ARD that have cast a dark shadow over Team Kenya.
Understandably, the huge chunk of pre-race buzz is on Kimetto, 31, who stretched the standard to the hitherto uncharted 2:02:57 territory when he broke Kipsang’s 2:03:23 world record in the streets of Berlin.
Only once in the history of the IAAF World Championships has the world record-holder won the men’s marathon: 1983, when Rob de Castella ran 2:10:03 for the victory, nearly two minutes slower than his 2:08:18 world mark from Fukuoka in 1981.
Kimetto would like to double that number in Beijing on Saturday morning, and comes to the line with some confidence that he can do it.
He has little to no record in championship marathons, having arrived as a top-flight international runner in 2012 when he broke the 25km world record in May that year and then finished immediately behind training partner Geoffrey Mutai at that year’s Berlin Marathon, his 2:04:16 being the fifth-fastest ever at the time.
He followed up with course records at the Tokyo and Chicago marathons in 2013 before running 2:02:57 in Berlin last autumn to set the current world record and become the first man ever to run faster than 2:03.
Discovered in 2008 by Mutai – who went on to record an eye-popping 2:03:02 at the 2011 Boston Marathon – Kimetto attributed his records to patient development and dedication over six years.
The timing of his rise to marathon prominence, however, means that his appearance on the starting line in Beijing will be his first championship marathon; his previous races have largely been big-city races with time bonuses and dedicated pacemakers.
He appeared unconcerned by the differences in tactics usually seen between championship races and paced city marathons. “I feel suited to championship races,” he explained when meeting the press in Beijing on Thursday.
Kimetto deferred most questions to Kipsang, the man whose record he broke last year, and he has frequently used Kipsang as an interpreter, preferring Swahili to English.
His previous marathon outing in 2015 was somewhat short of the lofty standard he set in Berlin last year, finishing third in London behind Eliud Kipchoge and Kipsang where his countrymen left him behind in the closing kilometres.
He wouldn’t commit to an ordering, but Kimetto agreed that it was possible for Kenya’s trio of himself, Kipsang, and Mark Korir to sweep all three medals here in Beijing – the only result that could possibly better the gold-silver performances from 2009 and 2011 when Abel Kirui won both races at the expense of Emmunuel Mutai and Vincent Kipruto.
While apparently unconcerned about the air conditions in Beijing, Kimetto did concede that anticipation of heat and humidity played a role in his preparations.
The forecast for Saturday morning includes temperatures in the low 20s at the start of the marathon, approaching 30C by the end, making Kirui’s 2:06:54 championship record from 2009 appear safe for another two years.
Kipsang invoked the name of Wanjiru during the marathon press call saying, “He inspires me so much. At that time I was not at the top, but now I think I am at a similar level and I can perform like (Wanjiru).”
Speaking after touring the course on Friday, the two-time London and New York marathon champion declared the team is ready to wrestle the title from Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich, who also trains in Iten and Chepkoilel among the Kenyans.
“The course and weather are good. Very good,” the designated spokesperson for the men marathoners said as he joined teammates among them captain Ezekiel Kemboi to bask in the hot Beijing sun.
“We have made corrections from the last two championships and we will also inspire our runners,” the London course record holder emphasised.
Although little has been said about him in the run-up to Beijing in face of his illustrious teammates, Korir, 27, is just getting started and is the perfect dark horse bearing in mind only the retired Douglas Wakiihuri, who opened the World Championships marathon winning doors for Kenya in 1987, ranks as the only reputable runner to bag the crown.
Luke Kibet, who followed his footsteps in 2007 and Kirui who won the next two were never rank-favourites before they triumphed in Osaka, Berlin and Daegu with Kipsang taking Olympics bronze in 2012 when he came in as the man to beat.
Korir blossomed to earn his place in the celebrated Kenyan team for Beijing after he managed to convince selectors to be included in the final three of the men’s marathon team for Beijing.
His inclusion in a preliminary squad of six in April 2015 was inspired by his shocking victory at the 39th edition of the Schneider Electric Paris Marathon, crossing the line at the IAAF Gold Label Road Race in a personal best of 2:05:49 on April 12.
“I was delighted to hear my name and I was quietly confident I would make the team since I had run so well in France. Before we started training with the national team, I told myself, if selected, fine and if I miss out, I would look for a race to run in September.
“Training with a world record holder and the one who came before him has given me the push to enter World Marathon Majors races and drop my career best to 2:04 then 2:03.
“The experience they have shown me has given me much morale to get to their level,” he said of his Team Kenya debut at the Worlds and the illustrious company he will fly the flag alongside in the first medal chase of the 33rd edition of the biennial IAAF showpiece.
“We have the World Record holder, former record holder and they have trained together with Paris Marathon winner. We want to sweep the medals and start on a high,” marathon coach Isaac Kirwa said on Friday.
“They have their strengths and they will help each other because they are here to represent Kenya,” he added.
Commonwealth bronze medalist Abraham Kiplimo and newcomer Solomon Mutai will be Kiprotich’s understudies in the Ugandan camp with Moscos silver medallist, Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa fronting his nation’s charge for the honours.
-Material from IAAF used in this report