After one of the greatest world record sprees in the history of track and field, the only man to have ever run under 8 minutes for 2 miles rapidly disappeared from face of the sport.
In the spring of 1999, a 30-year-old New Hampshire journalist, Kevin Beck, adopted a golden Labrador retriever puppy. A hardcore fan of elite-level running as well as a competitive road racer himself, Beck named the dog Komen, after the Kenyan track star Daniel Komen, who was then just a few years into a career that promised to be the greatest in the history of the sport.
Little did Beck know that, at the tender age of 23 (officially—those close to Komen estimate he’s at least three years older than advertised), Komen’s best days were already behind him. Indeed, if Beck had adopted his puppy even one year later, he probably would have named it Haile instead—as in Haile Gebrselassie, a runner who was Komen’s only equal in the mid-1990s and who is still competing at the highest level today.
In 1994, Daniel Komen was just another aspiring young Kenyan runner who had never raced outside his own country and whom nobody outside his country had ever heard of. In 1996 and 1997 Komen put together the two most astonishing years of distance running the world has ever seen, winning dozens of races against top-flight competition and setting numerous world records, some of which are still on the books.
“Nobody has ever done what he did over a two-year period,” says Duncan Gaskill, who was Komen’s co-agent with the late Kim McDonald throughout his career. “For me, the sad thing was that it didn’t last five or six years.” Or 20 years and counting, like Gebrselassie’s career.
By the summer of 1998, Komen had already begun to slide. His peak was so brief that it fell entirely between Olympiads. In early 1996 he was on his way up and failed to qualify for Atlanta. In 2000 he was on his way down and failed to qualify for Sydney. His performance descent continued into 2002, when, at only 26 years old (officially), he abruptly quit. Outside of a few abortive comebacks, he hasn’t been heard from since.
To begin to understand why Daniel Komen achieved so much in such a small span of time and so little afterward, we must go back to his beginnings.
“Daniel comes from rural Kenya, in an area dry of opportunities,” says Toby Tanser, director of Shoe4africa.org, who has known Komen since 1995. “I remember once being in his village and I had to run 45 minutes to reach a telephone.”
In a country where the average annual income is $1,000, Komen’s family, with 13 children, was even poorer than most.
“His parents lived in a hut in a field and his mother sold potatoes by the roadside,” says Gaskill.
Like most young children living in Kenya’s Rift Valley, where the vast majority of the country’s best runners come from, Komen ran for transportation, and he ran a lot—about six miles to school in the morning and six miles back home at the end of the day, with a second round trip often squeezed into noontime.
Komen did not run any formal races until his late teens, and when he did he immediately distinguished himself as an exceptional talent. Since running is almost the only talent that presents poor Kenyans with a legitimate chance to escape their circumstances, Komen seized it.
“I don’t think he saw any limits,” Tanser says. “He knew he had a tough life and knew what he had to do to elevate himself out of that situation.”
In those days, a retired Kenyan miler named Joseph Cheshire worked informally as a talent scout for English agent Kim McDonald in Kenya. After Komen started destroying his young compatriots in training and races, Cheshire contacted McDonald and advised him to bring Komen to Europe.
As things worked out, Komen actually got his first taste of international competition in Canada, at the Brooks Spring Run Off, an eight-kilometer road race. He won and set a world junior record of 22:35.
“All of a sudden we knew we had someone fairly special,” Gaskill says.
That was April. In July Komen doubled in the 5,000 meters and the 10,000m at the World Junior Championships in Lisbon, Portugal, winning both events. The following year should have been Komen’s breakout year, but he came down with malaria and was unable to race much. Even so he managed to set a junior world record of 12:56 for 5,000m, narrowly losing to his Kim McDonald group mate, Moses Kiptanui, who set a world record of 12:55.30.
Several years older and a natural leader, Kiptanui served as a critical role model to Komen as the younger man learned how to be a professional runner. And Komen was wise enough to follow.
“I think at that point Daniel basically just did what Moses did,” says Tom Ratcliffe, an agent who represented Komen’s interests in North America. “He looked to him for guidance.”
By this time Komen had discovered, as many Kenyan runners do, that the more he raced, and the better he performed, the more money he took home, and he began pressing his managers for more payday opportunities.
“When Kenyans come over here they come to make their future wealth,” Gaskell says. “They grab it with every hand they’ve got, and actually put quite a bit of pressure on managers to race more often than sometimes you would like.”
When Komen arrived back at the McDonald group’s training base in Teddington, London, in the summer of 1996, he made it known that he wanted to race as often as possible. It was an Olympic year, and if Komen had qualified for the Kenyan team he would not have been able to race much in Europe, as the Kenyan Athletics Federation threatened to kick McDonald’s Kenyan athletes off its Atlanta Games squad if they raced too much. But Komen finished a non-qualifying fourth in the Olympic trials 5,000m and was therefore free to compete as often as he pleased. Thus began the most incredible streak of racing in the history of track and field.
Komen kicked off his season with a two-mile race in Sweden on July 14, smashing Haile Gebrselassie’s world record with a time of 8:03.54. Less than a month later, on Aug. 10, Komen nearly took down another record, running 7:25.16 for 3,000m in Monaco, a scant 0.05 second shy of Noureddine Morceli’s mark.
Afterward Komen admitted he had not even known what the existing world record time was going into the race. Indeed, according to those who then surrounded him, Komen had little general understanding of records and paces and distances.
“He didn’t really comprehend what he was doing,” Ratcliffe says. “He just ran as hard as he could. There was no barrier there.”
Alongside his hunger to escape poverty, Komen’s innocence as a runner might have been one of the most important psychological ingredients to his success.
“He was an uninhibited runner,” says Ricky Simms, who also helped manage Komen under Kim McDonald. “He had no fear of times or other runners.”
Gaskell recalls an incident that perfectly captures Komen’s mindset toward competition. At a running club appearance in London, Komen was asked how he dealt with pre-race nervousness.
“Daniel did not understand the question,” Gaskell recalls. “It wasn’t that he didn’t understand English. He didn’t understand what it was to be nervous before a race.”
Just four days after his near miss in Monaco, Komen faced Gebrselassie in an unforgettable showdown at 5,000 meters. American Bob Kennedy was in that race and remembers it well.
“The kind of heavyweight battle between those two that was going on was amazing,” he says. “They went back and forth the whole way, killing each other. With about 150 meters to go, Daniel finally broke him. Gebrselassie just shut down.”
Komen’s winning time of 12:45.09 fell less than a second short of Gebrselassie’s world record. (Kennedy finished eighth and set a new American record in 12:58.12.)
Komen waited all of two days to race again, lowering his 1,500 personal best to 3:34.17 in Cologne, Germany. Less than a week after that, he took another shot at the 3,000m world record, barely missing it again with a 7:25.87 clocking in Brussels.
By late August Komen seemed to be paying the price for his hectic racing schedule. On Aug. 30 he managed a13:02 for the 5,000m in Berlin. Instead of reading the handwriting on the wall and taking a break, Komen went straight from the track to the airport and flew to Rieti, Italy, where he ran what still stands as one of the finest races ever run.
Despite Komen’s fatigue, McDonald set up the race as a world record attempt at 3,000m, with two pacemakers, John Kosgei and David Kipsang. When Kipsang led Komen through 800 meters in 1:57.0, television commentators Tim Hutchings and Steve Cram burst out laughing. It was suicide. But they weren’t laughing anymore when Kosgei, who took over as lead pacer when Kipsang dropped out, brought Komen through the mile in 3:54.7 before dropping out himself. Incredibly, Komen held the impossible pace alone all the way to the line, crossing it at 7:20.67 to lop a mindboggling 4.5 seconds off Morceli’s record.
Komen’s mark still stands. In fact, no one has even come close to it despite numerous attempts from the likes of 1,500m and mile world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj and 5,000m and 10,000m world record holder Kenenisa Bekele. Only two athletes have ever run 3,000m faster outdoors than Komen later ran the distance indoors (7:24.90).
“I would rate it as one of the toughest records on the books,” says BBC sport statistician Mark Butler.
How did Komen celebrate his feat? By continuing to race. On Sept. 7 he won a 5,000m in Milan, clocking 12:52.38.
“I don’t know how many times he raced in 1996,” Gaskell says, “but it was a lot. In two or three of those races the weather was atrocious and he was still running 50, 70, 80 meters ahead of the rest of the field. He was just an unbelievable machine.”
The end of the outdoor track season forced Komen to take a break, but he continued to race at every opportunity, and at the same jaw-dropping level, for another year and a half. According to routine, after a few months at home in Kenya, Komen would return to Europe to compete in indoor track and cross country events in January and February, then head to Australia to train and race outdoors, and finally settle down in London—where he bought a house and brought his wife, Joyce, who earned an MBA at the London School of Economics—as his base for the summer track season.
If Komen’s 1996 summer track campaign was magnificent, his 1997 encore was utterly without parallel. In July he travelled to Hechtel, Belgium, to make a bid to reclaim his two-mile world record, which Gebrselassie had lowered to 8:01.10 in May. In a press conference the day before the race, Komen was typically laconic and inscrutable. Only one question got an answer of more than a few words.
“What are your tactics for the record attempt?” a reporter asked.
“A soldier does not discuss his tactics before he goes to battle,” Komen said. Truth was, he had no tactics. Never did. (Months later, when McDonald gave Komen a plan of split times for an indoor 3,000m world record attempt, Komen rejected it. “Just tell me faster or slower as [I go],” he said.)
The next evening Komen ran the first mile of the two-mile race in 3:59.4 That’s exactly the time Roger Bannister posted when he ran history’s first sub-four-minute mile in 1954. And then Komen did it again, running a second 3:59.4 mile to set a new world record of 7:58.61 and become the first human to run back-to-back sub-four miles. He remains the only sub-eight-minute two-miler today.
The milestone, symbolic of how far human performance had progressed in the second half of the 20th century, elicited surprisingly little fanfare. In fact, the only media attention devoted to the breakthrough in this country concerned the lack of media attention.
Los Angeles Times writer Mike Penner penned a piece under the headline, “Lack of Fanfare Over Daniel Komen Breaking Eight-Minute Barrier in Two-Mile Run Does Nothing to Diminish Kenyan’s Remarkable Achievement.”
In August, Komen won the World Championships 5,000m, lowered his 1,500m time to 3:29.46 and his mile time to 3:46.48, and stole another world record from Gebrselassie, running 12:39.74 for 5,000 meters in difficult conditions in Brussels. Somehow he managed to keep the momentum going through the winter of 1998, when he set indoor world records for 3,000m (7:24.90—a mark known as the “Mt. Everest” of athletics) and 5,000 meters, ran another 7:58 two-mile, in Australia, and claimed a silver medal in the World Cross Country Championships short-course race.
Then the slide began—almost imperceptibly at first. The first warning signs were reports from Kenya that Komen was neglecting his fall training in favor of partying and spending his money.
“They had a system in Kenya, when they went home in October through the winter, where guys like Moses Kiptanui would look after some of the younger guys and their training,” Kennedy says. But Kiptanui could not force anyone to do anything, and he lost his influence over an increasingly rebellious Komen.
“That relationship changed,” Ratcliffe says. “Daniel decided he could make his own way.”
Before long Komen’s British managers lost control of their star athlete as well.
“Daniel, after the first year of success, was much more single-minded, and rebelled a bit against others’ advice,” Gaskell says. “He knew best.”
One day Komen casually told one of Tom Ratcliffe’s assistants, “I don’t have to train as hard anymore. I’m already here.” As if the hard work required to become the best runner in the world was like a one-and-done vaccination.
“His sheer talent was a few levels above even the best Kenyan I’d trained with previously,” says Kennedy, who remembers Komen often toying with the other athletes, including fellow world champions, in their group.
On one occasion they ran a brutal session consisting of time trials of 1,600, 1,200, 800, and 400 meters. Komen ran most of each time trial in the second lane, almost tauntingly keeping his struggling teammates company until he shot ahead to crush everyone at the end.
On another occasion, Komen created a rain hat out of a Nike shoe bag while warming up before a drizzly track session. Everyone laughed, assuming he would take the silly thing off when they got down to business, but he wore it through the whole workout.
As gifted as he was, however, Komen could not in fact get away with mailing in his training.
“I think he became a little overconfident, maybe even arrogant,” Gaskell says. “He just found it too easy. He thought he could walk on water—that he could do great performances without having to flog himself in training.”
By 1998, Komen was the Kenyan equivalent of an American billionaire, and with that kind of money to fall back on he just couldn’t bring himself to suffer as he once had.
“Moses Kiptanui really loved to run, loved to compete,” says Ratcliffe. “He wanted to be a great athlete. And he had a long career because of that. But I don’t know if Daniel ever had that. He enjoyed winning, he enjoyed the fame, and he enjoyed the financial success, but he didn’t love what he was doing.”
Komen fell into a tragicomic cycle of taking time off, getting fat, suddenly appearing at a training camp full of big talk, shaking off the rust and getting his managers excited, and then disappearing.
“I think he always saw himself as starting where he left off,” Ratcliffe says. “Not to say he couldn’t have come all the way back, but he would have had to work very hard. It’s a day-in and day-out slog. And if you don’t really love that, if you don’t love the pursuit of excellence, you’re not going to be successful.”
Desperate to salvage his career, Komen’s managers put him in the hands of Dieter Hogen in the hope that the German coach could reinvent Komen as a road racer. And Komen did manage to reach a few finish lines in the mid-2000s. He scored a third-place finish, for example, in the Crazy 8’s 8K in 2003.
Kevin Beck witnessed that experience and wrote a present-tense account of his experience for Running Times: “The author takes the opportunity to take Komen aside and acknowledge lamely that he named his Labrador retriever after the owner of what seems the most incredible of all men’s track distance records, a 7:20.67 3,000m. Komen smiles and appears understandably unmoved. It is a worthwhile moment.”
Four years later, Dell Todd, a runner living in Grand Rapids, Mich., showed up at a low-key local 5K one Saturday and was astonished to see Daniel Komen there.
“Komen was the starter,” Todd says. “He actually fired the gun. We all started running. Maybe a quarter-mile down the road he flashed by in his warm-up pants. He had fired the gun and then raced, which is kind of unusual. After being the official starter he was the official winner too. As I recall nobody was close to him. He won by a minute.”
Partners Worldwide, a Christian charity that had hired Komen as a spokesperson for a clean water project in Kenya, brought Komen to that event. After the race, Todd spoke to the world record holder.
“It turned out we were both gunning for a fall marathon,” Todd says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I am going to look for this. It’s going to be epic.’ Here I am talking to Daniel Komen in the spring, and in the fall I’m going to see him in Berlin or Chicago mixing it up in front. But I never did hear anything. There was nothing after that. Which was kind of disappointing.”
Almost four years later, nothing has changed. During a recent visit to Kenya, Tober Tanser listened politely as Komen excitedly told him that he was going to run the New York City Marathon this coming November. Asked if Komen was doing much running at the time, Tanser replied, “Not much. He needs to lose 5 kg [11 pounds], in my opinion.”
It is natural to interpret Daniel Komen’s story as a sad tale of wasted potential—of what might have been. Unless you’re Daniel Komen.
“I’d say we’re imposing that on him,” says Bob Kennedy. “Certainly if he was an American or Western athlete you’d say his story was tragic, but he may have done something for his life back in Kenya that he never otherwise would have had the opportunity to do, and that may be more than okay with him.”
Indeed he did. Despite profligate spending at the height of his career, Komen is still a rich man by Kenyan standards. He now serves as chairman of the Keiyo North Rift Athletics Association, and as co-director of a private school with his wife, Joyce. And he remains a hero in his home country, feted everywhere he goes.
“I don’t know that he has any regrets about never going to the Olympics, or anything else,” Ratcliffe says. “I think he’s happy enough.”
This piece was originally featured in the March 2011 issue of Competitor Magazine.