In November 2008, about 6,000 people gathered at the downtown Piazza Castello for the start of what would be a historic Milan Marathon. Among them was a flashy 30-year-old bearded Kenyan, Duncan Kibet - easily noticeable thanks to his jewellery - who would not strike you as the globe-trotting elite athlete, the sort that continues to shred distance running records every other week.
But after he crossed the finish line two hours, seven minutes and 53 seconds later, he drew the attention of scores of Milanese journalists, including track and field gurus from the city’s La Gazzetta dello Sport, the world’s oldest sports daily newspaper with a history of over 100 years.
Kibet had shattered the Milan race’s course record and with an entry of 5,875 people, 149 more than the previous year’s race, it was the biggest ever race in this Italian city.
As you would expect, other Kenyans - Elias Kemboi and Leonard Mucheru - gobbled up the rest of the podium places. And last weekend, the bearded man was at it again, this time shattering the Rotterdam Marathon record in an amazing winning time of 2:04.26 to become the second fastest marathon runner in the world behind Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie.
Second-placed Kenyan James Kwambai was also credited with a 2:04:27 time after losing out to Kibet in a scintillating sprint finish, giving further headaches to Athletics Kenya selectors for this year’s World Championships in Berlin.
His looks aside, Kibet’s post-race celebration was also unique. He lay spread-eagled on the tarmac in sheer delight, a far cry from the nonchalant warm-down associated with the otherwise colourless Kenyan runners.
Five men and as many women will be named next month for the Berlin championships, Peter Angwenyi, AK’s publicity man, confirmed on Thursday.
“We are waiting for the completion of the big city marathons in Boston (April 20) and London (April 26) to make the selection,” Angwenyi said.
Kibet’s win also saw him take the Kenya national record away from Paul Tergat that previously stood at 2:04.55, then a world record set by the indefatigable lieutenant in the Kenya Air Force at the 2003 Berlin Marathon. Gebrselassie has since improved Tergat’s record three times, running 2:04.53 (Berlin Marathon, 2007), 2:04.26 (Dubai Marathon, 2007) and the current world record time of 2:03.59 (Berlin Marathon, 2008).
That makes Kibet’s (and Kwambai’s) winning time last weekend the third-fastest of all time. “The results from Rotterdam are super,” AK secretary David Okeyo said on Thursday before catching his flight to Kisumu for the Easter holidays. “They are a perfect Easter present.”
The Eldoret-based Kibet could easily pass for a hip-hop artist, a rarity among Kenya’s overly reserved athletes, with his flashy dress code and no-holds-barred demeanour making him a sports marketer’s dream. “Jamaican” and “Rasta” are some of Kibet’s nicknames among his peers.
The 30-year-old already had five marathons in his legs before Rotterdam. He finished second in the 2008 Vienna Marathon (2:08.33) before winning in Milan and also finished fifth in the 2004 La Rochelle Marathon (2:19:52). He was second in Caen, France, in 2004 (2:20:13) and eighth in the Principality of Monaco in 2002 (2:28:37).
He runs under the Rosa Associati stable managed by Italian Federico Rosa, son of the silver-haired Gabriele who is associated with great Kenyan runners including Tergat and Moses Tanui, the first man to run the half marathon under one hour.
The Italians have over 200 world class athletes under their watch including Olympic marathon champion Samuel Wanjiru, London Marathon title holder Martin Lel and world 800 metres champions Janeth Jepkosgei and Alfred Kirwa Yego.
Last Sunday’s Rotterdam race goes down in history as one of the fastest marathons ever with Kenyans sweeping the boards again. Fourth-placed debutant, Patrick Makau Musyoki (2:06.14), was the fastest fourth place finisher ever with the third finisher, Abel Kirui, clocking an impressive 2:05:04.
“At around 35 kilometres I had to close a little gap,” Kibet told the International Association of Athletics Federations after his stunning burst of speed in the last few kilometres.