He is the joint second fastest marathon runner of all time and yet one of the most unsung heroes of Kenyan distance running.
He finished second in last year’s Berlin Marathon where Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie - the world’s fastest marathon runner - set his new world record (two hours, three minutes and 59 seconds) and settled for another runners-up place at this year’s Rotterdam Marathon in an impressive 2:04.27, the second fastest marathon run of all time.
Victory in the Dutch port city was credited to another Kenyan, Duncan Kibet, although the pair shared exactly the same finishing time.
And James Kipsang Kwambai is not done yet.
Kwambai, who dropped out of school at Standard Seven while studying at the Kondabilet Primary School in Marakwet East District, is the man to watch in Sunday’s New York City Marathon.
The 26-year-old returns to New York barely two years after his dreams for a podium finish in his ‘Big Five’ debut went up in smoke when he finished fifth.
However, he landed on the podium on his maiden appearance at one of the majors in Berlin last year where he finished second (2:05.36) behind Gebrselassie.
The father of two says he is well prepared to win Sunday’s race in the Big Apple.
“In Berlin, I trailed Haile Gebrselassie for 36 kilometres and the Ethiopian finally broke the world record. At the 2007 Boston Marathon, where I was pre-race favourite, I held onto Robert “Mwafrika Cheruiyot” until the final water stop near the 25 miles where I slowed to pick a bottle of water and Cheruiyot squeezed the chance to win.
“And in Rotterdam, Duncan Kibet outsmarted me at the finish line when I relaxed to raise arms in celebration. But I must be cautious in New York,” says Kwambai, a seventh born in a family of nine, in hindsight.
Unlike other marathoners who graduate into road running from the track, Kwambai is not your typical runner.
Ernest Kwambai, their first born and a primary school teacher, forced him to take up running when he discontinued schooling.
“He beat me up and ordered me to choose one: I either get back to school or start training and since I knew I could not perform well in class, I decided to run although I was interested in farming,” says the diminutive and soft spoken Kwambai who trains in Eldoret together with four-time Boston Marathon winner Robert Cheruiyot, Kibet and former marathon and Chicago champ Martin Lel.
Kwambai trains under the Rosa Associati stable that is managed by Italian Federico Rosa, son of the silver-haired Gabrielle who is associated with great Kenyan runners like Paul Tergat and Moses Tanui.
Kwambai, Lel and Cheruiyot – who train in Eldoret and Italy - are all under Italian coach Claudio Berardelli.
And, interestingly, the trio will line up against each other at the Big Apple.
Kwambai relishes the prospects. “I finished fifth in my last race there (New York) despite rebounding from a hamstring injury. I had not learned the New York course and had not competed with most marathon world beaters.
“Last year, I had not studied Cheruiyot as we had not trained together. But we have trained together since and I have picked up some of his running skills,” says Kwambai
Kwambai says he gave last year’s Berlin World Championships a wide berth as he had no time to recover ahead of New York Marathon, where he had been drafted.
Now healthy and in top form, he is ready to challenge the world’s marathon kings Cheruiyot and Lel.
“The other time I was still young and now I am experienced. I want to realize my dream by posting better performance in New York,” he says.