THE MARATHON CHAMPION
GWIJI WA MBIO ZA NYIKA
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THE MARATHON CHAMPION

Komen was walking to school on a Monday when he saw the lady. She was in a small navy blue Passat. What attracted his attention was the way she drove the vehicle.

She drove slowly and looked as if she was a learner, that is, a late learner in driving as such.

The lady looked about forty five years old. Impulsively, Komen made a sign of the tortoise to her. The lady saw the sign and made a slaughtering sign at Komen.

By the time Komen got to school, he had forgotten about the lady. This was because he was late and he knew the master on duty would cane him.

Komen’s home was about ten kilometers from his school. But the teachers were not concerned about the distance.

Each pupil had to be within the compound at exactly seven regardless of the distance one had to cover.

After the thrashing by the master on duty, Komen rushed to class Seven Central which was his class. By then the teacher of Mathematics had already started the lesson.

Mr. Muniafu, the Mathematics teacher, also took the chance to cane the boy for being late for his morning remedial.

But since Komen was a vibrant and cheerful boy, he did not allow the caning to make him sad. By the mid morning breaks, he had forgotten both the caning and the Passat lady.

On Tuesday he was late again and he saw the Passat lady again. And he made the tortoise sign again and the lady made the throat cutting sign at him.

He smiled as he rushed to school. He knew that at least he had met someone who shared a private joke with him. This happened every day up to Saturday.

Saturday was also a school day. The only difference was that it was only class seven and eight that went.

At the same time, being a weekend, the teachers allowed them to reach school at exactly eight. Komen did not know that this Saturday was going to be a life changing day to him.

He left home at around six thirty. As usual he jogged. At the usual point and travelling in the opposite direction was the Passat lady.

While Komen was travelling downhill she was moving uphill. As usual he made the sign of the tortoise.

But this time instead of the lady making a slaughtering sign, she stopped suddenly and allowed the vehicle to move backwards in free gear.

Then she parked the car and suddenly jumped out with the car keys in her left hand. All this happened in what seemed a millisecond to Komen.

When she crossed the road to his side of the road, Komen realized that she was coming after him. He started running and to his surprise the lady started running after him.

Komen felt a sudden fear in his stomach. He was also surprised to realize that she had relatively long strides.

The lady was not very tall but her legs were long. She was very light complexioned and her hair was very long.

It was easy to notice that she was in perfect shape for a woman of around forty five.

It was the toughest race that Komen had ever faced in his life.Komen ran as fast as he could but the lady easily kept a constant distance behind him.

There was no soul in sight. Ahead of him was a small incline and he hoped she would fall behind him when they started going up the hill.

After all she was about fifty and a woman as such.

He eventually reached the hill and he glanced back to see if the lady was losing it. To his surprise, he realized that she had gained on him.

By now Komen’s breath was coming out in short gasps. His chest was full partly due to fear and partly due to the strain of running very fast. He was also sweating heavily.

But since he was not sure of the lady’s intention, he tried to increase speed and at least get to a place where there were some human beings.

But the faster Komen ran, the faster the lady came after him.

He had hoped that there would be some soul at the river where most of the women fetched water but as he came over the hill, he saw to his dismay that there was no soul at the river.

The river was halfway between home and school. As he went over the bridge he realized he had to run all the way to school.

This was because there was going to be nobody on the road up to the school. He knew that road very well.

He felt that he had been running for ages. His mouth was dry and he was almost fainting. His chest was now like an overheated vehicle engine.

He could see the gate of the school about a half a kilometer away from where he was.

As he made the last effort to sprint, the lady sprinted past him and to his surprise she did not even try to grab him.

He just stopped and knelt on the ground: he wanted to regain his breath. He saw the lady run up to the gate of the school and then she started running back towards him.

“How are you Champion?” It was the tall lady looking at him.

She pronounced Champion the way a white person would have pronounced his name.

"I am Komen not Champion,” he gasped.

He did not feel any fear at all since he was by now very close to the school.

“We covered the ten kilometers in thirty minutes. That is as fast as the world marathon champion. So you are a champion.”The lady said.

Komen was curious.

"Are you one of them?” He asked looking at her.

“I was one of them twelve years ago. I am now retired but I participate in local races. We will be having the Karbarnet Half Marathon on Saturday next week.

The prize is two hundred thousand. Can you give it a shot?”

“No thanks. I will be in school.”

“It is okay. Run to school before you are late.” With that she was gone.

He watched her as she went down the road. She was not running very fast but she kept the same pace all the time.

He instinctively learnt the first rule of the champions: maintain the pace or increase the pace but do not by any chance reduce your pace.

He was surprised to realize that it was only ten past seven when he entered the school. Other pupils turned to look at him.

It was then that he realized that he was sweating heavily.The Monday after the race with the Passat lady, Komen arrived at school at exactly seven thirty.

He was sweating but he was on time to avoid the thrashing. He had taken forty minutes to run the ten kilometer distance from his home to school.

On Tuesday, he arrived at seven twenty five. Afterwards, he was at school at either seven thirty or seven twenty five. He never received strokes of the cane again for being late.

ALL THIS HAPPENED when he was in primary school. He did his class eight exams the following year and succeeded to join Iten High.

That was the place where he realized that being a champion was very important.

The first thing he noticed about the school was that students were allowed to go for cross country practically every school day.

That was because the trainer of athletes in the school was also the Principal.The Principal was a very tall Nandi man called Mr. Koech Arap Samoei.

Mr. Arap Samoei was very strict when it came to athletics. He had an athletics schedule for the School in his office.

On Mondays at five thirty in the morning every student in the school participated in the morning cross country race.

The track they had to follow was over small hills all the way to Tengecha Market and then through a freezing forest back to the school compound.

Besides the forest and the hilly terrain, there were two streams which the students had to ford. At five the stream waters were practically frosty.

The streams were responsible for the damaged sports shoes. The total distance was about twenty two kilometers.

Many of the students did not have sports shoes but that was no excuse. Everybody had to run on Monday morning at five thirty.

On Tuesday, the roadwork, as the students referred to it, was optional. Only serious athletes went for the Tuesday roadwork. It was also in the morning at five thirty.

The gate men only allowed the boys out of the gate at that time. On Wednesday, cross-country was compulsory. But this race was in the evening at around four after classes.

While the Monday race was held in the morning when it was still very cold, the Wednesday race took place when the sun was still very hot.

On Sunday, nobody was allowed out of school.

The worst mistake a boy could make at Iten High was to miss the cross-country race. It was punishable by a suspension from the school and later on uprooting of a stump.

And there were very many stumps in the school.The school had ten fields and all the fields had tracks for athletes.

The school owned a total of about three hundred acres of land. The principal of the school wanted to make sixteen standard fields for the school for the sports activities.

KOMEN DID NOT HAVE any problem adjusting to the school routine. He liked the races and he was soon going for the roadwork every day.

He wanted to compete with Tenai, the best athlete in the school, for the school championships.Everyone knew that there was no one as fast as Tenai in the school.

Tenai himself was a tall thin boy of about eighteen. He was very dark complexioned. He was not very talkative. In fact the only thing that Tenai could contribute on was cross country.

At this time Tenai was in form three.Tenai went for road work every day and for the last two years nobody had beat him.

He always covered the twenty two kilometers in about fifty six minutes. Everybody else covered the distance within one hour or one hour and some minutes.

Komen started copying Tenai the very first time he went for road work. He noticed that Tenai never started very fast.

But as he ran, Tenai would keep on increasing the pace until the last one kilometer. Then he would practically sprint the last stretch of one kilometer.

During the second term of the year, the Iten High Half Marathon Championship was held. The top contenders of the race were of course Tenai- the reigning Iten High Champion- and Kiplimo.

No one paid any attention to Komen.The race was to start at seven thirty that morning. Before the race the principal gave his speech.

“Good morning champions. This is very important gentlemen. Remember this could be your life career and it can make you a millionaire.

Some of us have worked for over twenty years and we have never seen one million shillings. But look at our champions: look at Kipchoge, look at Paul Tergat, and look at Tecla Lorupe.

They are all millionaires because they used their God given talents. Gentlemen, I for one did not know that I could be a millionaire through athletics. My father only emphasized on academic achievement.

Of course I worked hard and I am still working hard today. If I were to be taken back to my school days today, I would run.

And that is why I give you this chance to change your destiny by running. Run my boys, run.

The prize for today is school fees for the next year for the champion and a cash prize of twelve thousand shillings pocket money to be spread over the next year.

With that I declare the Iten High Championships open. Thank you.”

None of the students paid attention to the school fees payment. All wanted the twelve thousand shillings pocket money.

That was a fortune to boys who were usually given a maximum of about five hundred shillings per term. Komen started slowly but made sure that he kept pace with Tenai and Kiplimo.

He was not worried at all about the other boys. To him they were just pacemakers. All of them would be panting after a half a kilometer.

Kiplimo was a little bit ahead of Tenai. But he kept glancing behind him as he ran. Komen was just directly behind Tenai and he did everything that Tenai did.

Every time Tenai increased pace Komen would do the same.Soon all the other boys had fallen behind Komen, Tenai and Kiplimo.

By the time they reached the halfway mark of the race, the three were about two kilometers ahead of all the other boys.

It was an interesting trio, two tall boys and one relatively short boy running up and down the hills.

When they were about six kilometers to the finishing line, Komen decided to go for it.

He increased pace and went quickly past Tenai. Tenai was amused to see the small boy sprinting past him. He knew he would overtake him on the last hill before the finishing line.

But Kiplimo was determined to maintain the lead. When Komen came sprinting Kiplimo also increased his pace.

As he ran, Komen recalled the Passat lady and the way she had pursued him.He could also remember the way the lady had increased speed when his lungs were almost bursting.

He knew Kiplimo would not maintain the pace when he realized that Komen was not going to give up.

And sure enough, after about five hundred meters Kiplimo slowed down a little bit and Komen sprinted past him.

By this time Tenai had realized that Komen was not going to reduce his pace and so he was sprinting after him.

But he noticed that even though he was gaining on Kiplimo, the distance between him and Komen was increasing.

Komen increased his pace when he started going up the last hill to the finishing line.

By now he was one and a half kilometers ahead of Tenai who had overtaken Kiplimo.

When he came to the top of the hill, he felt his chest was bursting but he knew that Tenai was still coming after him.

He tried to increase speed again in the homestretch but he could not. This was because he had been running at his maximum speed for over ten minutes.

Ahead of him he could see the crowd of teachers and workers staring at him. Everyone was surprised.

“KOMEN, YOU covered the twenty one kilometers in fifty three minutes. Can you maintain the same if I gave you fifty thousand as a reward?”

It was the principal speaking to him a week later. Komen was going to represent the school in the athletics championships at Nakuru the following week.

The principal wanted him to be the best. This would of course earn the school some prestige.

“I will try to do so sir.” Komen replied respectfully. By now he had tasted the sweetness of being a champion.

From the day that he had won the championships, no one in the school including the school captain said anything to him except praise.

He was excluded from all work starting from washing the dorm on Saturday morning to cleaning the class during the week.

The Nakuru Championships were a walk over to him. He easily won the race in fifty five minutes. The second best boy came some ten minutes after he had arrived.

The only good thing about the race was that he was spotted by Isaiah Kiplagat himself.

And Isaiah told him that he had to take part in the World Half Marathon to be held in Boston USA.

This was a surprise to him. He had not expected to take part in any world athletics activity until when he was of legal age.

“No talent in this world is underage. We are going to organize all the necessary documents for you.

Of course your father will sign on your behalf the legal documents.”Kiplagat told him.

“It is okay sir. I am very grateful for your confidence in me.”Komen said.

KOMEN travelled to Boston with four other athletes to compete in the World Half Marathon.All of them were older than him.

One was Kiptanui, the other was Kemei, then Kandie and Rono. Flying for twenty four hours in a Jumbo was an experience in itself to Komen.

The World Half Marathon that year had a prize of a hundred thousand dollars.That was an equivalent of eight million Kenyan shillings.

The day they were to run was extremely hot, hotter than any sunny day in Kenya. But Komen had taken the precautions as he had been advised.

He drank over three liters of water about an hour before the race.

The good thing about this marathon was that the route they followed was a very well maintained road. There was not even a single pothole on that road.

The people taking part in the marathon were over three hundred. Komen knew that most of them were the pacemakers.

He was not worried in any way when they started sprinting off.After only about one kilometer, about one hundred of them had given up.

At the three kilometer mark, over two hundred were out. At this point Komen changed from his gear one to number two.

When they finished ten kilometers Komen re-adjusted his speed again and was now running a little bit faster than when he started. By now he was the tenth.

Directly ahead of him was his fellow citizen Kandie. Kemei, Kiptanui and Rono loved running as a team.All of them were behind him.

Two other white men dropped out of the race and Komen was now the eighth. A few moments later, the three Kenyans came up to him.

"Try to keep up with us. This race is ours,” Kemei said to him in Swahili.

Komen ran faster in order to keep up with them. But after about one kilometer he felt he should increase the pace.

He knew he was running with them and at the same time not running with them.He had to apply his own basic rules.

As he increased his pace, he overtook everybody else and he was soon leading.

When he sensed that he was about three kilometers from the finishing point, Komen decided to sprint all the way to the finishing line.

His competitors, who had been hoping to catch up with him, gave up.

They did not even try to run after him when they discovered that he was going to sprint all the way to the finishing line.

By the time he came to the finishing line, he was one kilometer ahead of everybody else.

EVERYBODY IN Kenya was excited. It was the first time a high school boy had won the World Half Marathon. And what a boy he was!

He was only fifteen and yet a champion.When he landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, very many Kenyans were there waiting for him.

Cameras were trained on him even before he could alight from the plane.

Amongst those waiting for him were his parents, his principal Mr. Arap Samoei and very many other people. Everybody was dancing and singing his name.

After taking a sip of sour milk, he was led by his parents and a few policemen to the Passat.

And whom did he see in the Passat if not the lady he had seen when going to primary school two years earlier.

“Who are you?” He asked after settling in the back left seat.

"You look surprised Komen. This is your aunt Hilda Chepkemoi. She is also a Marathon Champion.”His father said.

"So you are my auntie? Why didn’t you tell me so?” asked Komen as the Passat moved towards the Nairobi city centre.