Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rags to riches

Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai wins the 115th running of the Boston Marathon last Monday in Boston, Massachusetts.

Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai wins the 115th running of the Boston Marathon last Monday in Boston, Massachusetts.  

By Jonathan Komen [email protected]

Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai’s script reads like that of most Kenyan world-beating runners - that he overcame hardship to conquer the world.

But the new Boston Marathon champion’s story is not another cliche, and offers a lot of renewed hope to fresh, upcoming athletes.

Born of peasant farmers in Mumberes village of Koibatek District, Mutai’s family could hardly afford sugar, which made him endure sugar-less tea and porridge, a situation that encouraged him to train harder and run faster to earn money from the athletics, just like he had seen many of his neighbours and other great Kenyans do.

It is normal for one to train and get back to tiresome farm duties daily, but it was determination to uplift his “sugar-less” home that slid Mutai into global glory.

The 29-year-old Mutai started running in 1994 while a Standard Four pupil at Tuiyotich Primary School in Nakuru.

As a young boy – and given that he was dreaming of a way to deliver his family from the quagmire of poverty – Mutai had unbridled love for athletics.

He could sneak away from home with his peers, walk to the nearby Mumberes Trading Centre in Timboroa to watch the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games athletics competition, paying what was then a staggering Sh5 fee to follow the Games on a black and white TV set.  

“I could watch and then experiment their (athletes’) running styles. I loved it,” said Mutai. “Unfortunately, I did not perform well at the school competitions.”

The first born in a family of 11 says he used to hear of veterans, including trailblazers Kipchoge Keino and Ben Jipcho, on radio and from his relatives and he kept dreaming of conquering the world too.  

He sat for his Kenya Certificate of Primary Schools Examinations in 1998 and passed well but the abject poverty in his family denied him entry into secondary school.

“We faced school fees hitches. But we had to accept the situation,” said Mutai on arrival in Eldoret last week after running the fastest marathon of all time in Boston last Monday, clocking 2:03.02.

“I remained with the running option only, and my speciality was the long distance.”

Mutai worked as a labourer on his neighbour’s farms, tilling the land to earn a living and get money to buy his training kit and basic needs to the family.

In 1999, he entered into an agreement to weed someone’s farm and get a passport processing fee in return. He woke up early in the mornings for long runs and returned home to prepare for farm duties.

While mixing the two tasks, locals mocked him and even advised him to discontinue running and instead concentrate on the farms as the workload was hectic.

But the highly religious runner set his sights firmly on putting on the national colours and in 2002, he qualified for the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 3,000m steeplechase. But since he never had a birth certificate, his dream to board a plane crash-landed.

In 2004, he picked up a tendon injury that ruled him out for the entire season.

Later, he was fortunate to secure a contract at the Kenya Power and Lighting Company as a general worker in Nakuru.

But after one year, he was laid off, but the misfortune did not stop the determined Mutai.

“I used the little savings I made from KPLC and went to the Kiptenden Athletics Club in Kericho.”

“I met the late coach David Kosgei who took to secondary schools competitions, where I finished eighth in four kilometre race.

“The performance denied me a place in the camp and I made my way back home,” Mutai told Monday Sport.

The soft-spoken and friendly Mutai says he returned home to work on another strategy to explore his athletic prowess.

“I was not disheartened and I went on with training. Within two months, I joined Kapng’entuny Athletics Club (in Eldoret East) where I still train in. And in 2006, I raced at the Mt Kilimanjaro race, finishing in sixth position,” Mutai said as he cuddled his two-year-old daughter Mitchel Jebet.

It was the 2007 Kass Marathon in Eldoret that, finally, opened up an opportunity for Mutai, who is managed by Dutchman Gerard Van de Veen of Volare Sports. He finished second in that race.

“Although the course was quite tough to many runners, I found it easy since I had trained at the hilly areas of Kapng’etuny. It was here that I met my manager Gerard. We agreed on terms and he organised me to race in Monaco in 2008, where I won in 2:12.40.”

He then won the Loopfesstijn Voorthuizen 10km race in The Netherlands, shattering the 28:05 course record before bettered his personal best time to 2:07.50 at the Eindhoven Marathon.

He later signed up for the Seoul International Marathon and, although he did finish the race, he wound up eight in the Daegu Marathon a month later on the course to be used for this year’s IAAF World Championships in Athletics.

Mutai ran one of the fastest marathons in Rotterdam last year, setting a new personal best time of 2:04.55 in a race won by compatriot Patrick Makau. He then bagged a bronze medal at the African Athletics Championships in the 10,000m and raced in the Berlin Marathon finishing second in 2:05.10.

After a fifth place at the World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain, Mutai won last Monday’s Boston Marathon in the fastest time ever recorded for a marathon. “The cross-country sharpened me so well and Boston was quite good for me,” he says.

His wife Beatrice and parents Emmy and Andrew Koech never expected Mutai would not only deliver them from poverty but also steal the global athletics limelight.

For his exploits in Boston, Mutain earned $225,000 (about Sh20 million) in prize money, and undisclosed amounts in endorsements.

“I never imagined that one day he will be under the world’s spotlight.

“It is God’s blessings to him for he respects his parents. It was also a reward for his persevering, loving respectful character and for a man who dedicates love to his family.

“I pray God to guide him to bring more glory to Kenya,” said Beatrice.

Mutai’s mother Emmy Koech says Andrew Koech, the athlete’s father, was equally a proud father.