Speaking to reporters here today, Wanjiru maintained his usual cheery bearing. He seemed unperturbed by his extraordinary trip with other African athletes via private plane which took them from Nairobi via Djibouti, Asmara, Luxor, Madrid and finally to London, arriving yesterday afternoon. It’s all part of the job.
“The travel was very good,” Wanjiru said in a press conference today. “They did a good job to get from Kenya to here. They did a good job.”
But behind that nearly constant smile, Wanjiru hides a vicious streak which is readily apparent in his racing. He has developed a punishing racing style, using multiple hard surges to tire his opponents before scampering away to victory. He did this most effectively when he set his Olympic Marathon record in Beijing in 2008, and again here last year when he encouraged the pacemakers to press the pace early and tire his opponents. Mostly self-coached, Wanjiru has developed his own workouts to perfect his surging technique.
“Sometimes I do it in training,” he said. “I run for five kilometers and rest for four kilometers.”
Instead of training in one of the established Kenyan camps that his manager, Federico Rosa, has set up in Eldoret, Kaptagat or Kapsait, Wanjiru prefers to stay near his home in Nyahururu where he has a more informal training group. Sometimes training with former world 10,000m champion Charles Kamathi, Rosa said in an interview that Wanjiru developed unusual self-discipline from his six years in Japan where he attended high school in Sendai then moved to the Japanese corporate system with the Toyota Kyushu team. He takes training advice from Rosa’s chief coach, Claudio Beardelli, but Wanjiru has developed his own training plan and workouts.
“This is working very well,” deadpanned Rosa.
For Sunday’s race, Wanjiru said that he wasn’t particularly concerned about the finish time, but that he expected the race to be fast, in the 2:04’s, even though he rated the course as “very hard with a lot of curves and slopes.” (He noted that the Chicago course was much faster).
“Let me say on Sunday, it’s a tough race,” he said. “Everyone wants to see who will fight each other.” He added: “I don’t know about a world record, but a course record is possible.”
After losing to Martin Lel in London in 2008 in a sprint finish, Wanjiru made sure the designated pacemakers went out hard here last year. Kenyans Elijah Keitany, Sammy Kosgei and John Kales split the first mile in 4:35 and the first (downhill) 5 km in 14:06, a 1:58:59 marathon pace. The halfway mark was hit in 1:01:35, forcing the exhausted pacers to slow down. When the pace sagged, Wanjiru rested, then attacked again with a 4:37 19th mile, dropping everyone but fellow Olympic medallists Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia and Jaouad Gharib of Morocco. More surges in the final kilometers dropped Gharib first, then Kebede, giving Wanjiru the victory in a personal best and course record 2:05:10.
Race director Dave Bedford has stacked his field against Wanjiru (London is never a set-up race for one athlete). In addition to Kebede (2:05:18 PB) and Gharib (2:05:27), there are also Kenyans Duncan Kibet (2:04:27), Abel Kirui (2:05:04) and Emmanuel Mutai (2:06:15), and the world half-marathon record-holder Zersenay Tadese, who dropped out here last year in his marathon debut, weakened by an illness.
When he’s not training, Wanjiru revealed that he enjoys karaoke, a hobby he learned in Japan. His favorite Japanese song is titled “Sakura,” a song which gets it’s name from a particularly beautiful flowering Japanese cherry tree.
When Wanjiru gets back to training after this race, he appears to have Haile Gebrselassie’s world marathon record in mind. Then again, he might return to Chicago to defend his title.
“I think after this one I will train for Berlin,” he mused. “I’m not sure. Maybe Chicago.”