The last time Samuel Kamau Wanjiru was received by thousands of his admirers and supporters at Nyahururu Stadium, he was all smiles, and Kenya’s first gold medal in the marathon race at the Olympic Games dangled from his neck.
And on Saturday, thousands were at the stadium when the hearse bearing his remains went on a lap before stopping at the dais.
It was here that Wanjiru honed his explosive talent.
On top of the casket was a blue Kenya Police flag, a peaked cap and a belt he perhaps rarely donned in his other life as a corporal.
In Beijing, the world was stunned by the 21-year-old who weathered the heat and pollution to beat a star-studded field with so much ease it looked improbable.
At the end, as he kissed the tartan track and made the sign of the cross while on his knees; he announced to the world his reign, and gave a hint of what lay ahead.
That he was talented and headed for greater things was not in doubt, with London Marathon organiser David Bedford describing him yesterday as “the best marathon runner we have seen”.
“I know (Martin) Lel might argue with that but for a man to win the Olympics, London, Chicago and take the World Marathon Majors at 24 is a great thing,” said Mr Bedford.
Tsegay Kebede, one of those that were in awe of him, tried three finishing moves on him at the Chicago Marathon, secure with the knowledge that he was 70 per cent fit and could not catch up.
But catch up he did and frustrated Kebede with a sprint in the final 800 metres that left the Ethiopian wondering just who the man he had tried to outmanoeuvre was.
“The body is coming,” Wanjiru said at the end, admitting that he almost gave up when Kebede pulled the finishing moves on him.
His coaches told the Sunday Nation that Wanjiru used the unique style of running christened Fartlek, an unstructured form of “speed running” where the athlete varies the speed as he wishes rather than set a regular tempo.
Athletics legend Kipchoge Keino, who also heads the National Olympics Committee, said the athletics fraternity was banking on Wanjiru to successfully defend his title at next year’s games in London.
At his prime
Athletics Kenya secretary general David Okeyo said: “Who leaves home at the age of 15 and expects to excel in a foreign land? Wanjiru was at his prime and we were sure he would defend the Olympics title next year.”
In a message delivered on his behalf by local MP Ndiritu Muriithi, President Kibaki said Wanjiru “inspired hope to Kenyan youth and his death is a great loss to the nation”.
As they spoke, Wanjiru’s last born, one-year-old Simon Njoroge, played at his mother Terezah Njeri’s knee, while his sister, Anna Wanjiru, watched the goings-on. (IN PICTURES: Samuel Wanjiru's burial)
Conspicuously absent was Hannah Wanjiru, the athlete’s mother, who brought the athlete up single-handedly and encouraged him to nurture his talent.
The acrimonious relationship between Hannah and Ms Njeri deteriorated rapidly in the wake of the athlete’s death at his home mid last month.
It played out in the media, with Hannah accusing Ms Njeri of killing her son and then moving to the courts, where she successfully stopped the burial.
She failed in her last attempt to do so on Friday, with Justice Anyara Emukule ruling there would be no reason to stop the funeral.
Hannah had vowed to stop the burial by any means possible but her brother John Mwihia told the Sunday Nation the family had agreed to allow Ms Njeri to bury her husband but they would not attend the funeral.
In her tribute to her husband read on her behalf, Ms Njeri acknowledged that their relationship was rocky and hinted at the infidelities that were its central cause.
“I am learning through your mistakes that to be great you have to be weak at times. You too were a human being. I can’t say that there were no tears, no heartbreaks, no betrayals and no wrong,” said Ms Njeri.
“All I know is that you loved me,” she said of the man she described as “a husband, a love, a friend, a confidant.”
Later, crowds braved a heavy downpour as a mournful tune was played on the bugle and 21 blanks were fired in the air by his graveside in his honour.
Blanks are also fired at the start of a race and it was perhaps a fitting end to the short but fast life of the marathon icon known in Nyahururu as much for his generosity as his flashy lifestyle.
There were three truckloads of security officers — one from the General Service Unit, another from the anti-riot police and another from the National Youth Service — all involved in crowd control.
Shops were closed when the cortege came to Nyahururu, with waving crowds lining the town’s street as the convoy made its way to Heshima Village in Ol Jororok, where the remains of the champion were laid to rest.