IN HONOLULU, HAWAII
When he steps onto the starting line of the Honolulu Marathon in the scenic Hawaiian State capital on Sunday, Titus Ekiru will be making yet another major step towards greatness.
With Eliud Kipchoge and Geoffrey Kamworor having hogged the limelight with distance running records in recent weeks, Ekiru is hot on their heels.
But his story is quite different from that of Kipchoge and Kamworor, who both honed their skills on the global track and in cross country running before hitting the gold-paved roads.
A late bloomer, Ekiru, 27, went straight to the roads to literally run away from financial challenges in his family that saw him fail to go past primary school at Kosirai, Nandi County.
He had just done a few local 5,000 metres races in Nandi where he grew up after his family relocated from their home in Lodwar, Turkana County.
“I’d started running in school, but when life took a turn for the worse, I stopped schooling and looked for casual jobs to help make ends meet. I didn’t manage to finish my primary school education,” Kenya’s next big thing in marathon running narrates in an interview at the scenic Outrigger Reef on the Beach Hotel on Friday.
“But when my sister made a breakthrough in running, travelling abroad for races, I was encouraged to take up athletics more seriously, and that’s how I started training in 2009,” he narrates.
Urged on by his sister Margaret Akai - who won, among others, the 2012 Shanghai (two hours, 24 minutes and 17 seconds) and 2013 Daegu (2:23:28) marathons - Ekiru has since won four big marathons, in the process setting four course records on his travels in both full and half marathons.
Focused on making a living from athletics, Ekiru joined the Rosa Associati camp in Kaptagat at the end of 2013.
“But then I got injured. But this didn’t discourage me at all, as when I looked back at our poor family set-up, I gathered determination to make the breakthrough.”
His father, Nangiro Longole Kameto, was a casual labourer who struggled to feed his wife Mary and seven children – three boys and four girls.
“My dad focused on at least helping my elder sister (Margaret) complete her education, and when she started running, I was motivated to soldier on.
“I said since I was running as a child, athletics is something that I can make a living from, and that’s how I started focusing seriously in running.”
His first trip abroad was in 2014 to Milan where he picked up an injury.
“I spent 2014 to 2016 treating the injury while in camp after which I decided to dive straight into the full marathon.”
Ekiru’s reasoning was that rather than waste time trying out different distances, it was prudent to dive right in and focus on the 42 kilometres to earn a decent living and help his family.
His first marathon was in Casablanca, Morocco, running 2:15:43 for second place in 2016, a time he improved by exactly eight minutes in winning the Seville Marathon the following year.
Also in 2017, Ekiru made his Honolulu Marathon debut, finishing fourth (2:12:19).
“After Seville, I was actually scheduled to run in Milan, but while in Milan, I picked up a fracture while jogging so I didn’t race.
“I was treated at the camp back home and after recovering I ran in last year’s San Diego Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon, winning in 61:02.”
In August last year, Ekiru won the Mexico City Marathon (2:10:38) before pacing Britain’s Mo Farah to victory at the Chicago Marathon in October.
And then he travelled to the middle of the Pacific Ocean again in December, winning the Honolulu Marathon in 2:09:01, threatening compatriot Lawrence Cherono’s course record of 2:08:27 set in 2017.
This season has been a fantastic one for Ekiru, who ran personal best times in both the half and full marathons.
He started off with brilliant pacemaking duties for the Lake Biwa Marathon in March where Morocco’s Salah-Eddine Bounasr won in 2:07:52.
The following month, he returned to Milan, winning the Milan Marathon in 2:04:46, his personal best over the distance and a course record.
Then in August, he won Kenya gold in the half marathon (61:42) at the African Games in Rabat before clocking a PB over the 21-kilometre distance (61:42) in October at the Lisbon Half Marathon.
He defends his Honolulu Marathon title Sunday with four course records under his belt – one in the half marathon in Lisbon and three in the marathon in Mexico, Seville and Milan.
Having come close to a fifth CR in Honolulu last year, despite the extremely windy conditions, Ekiru - who loves to attack from the front with his fluid, long and elegant strides – could most likely challenge Cherono’s mark today, given the experience he has gained over the last 12 months.
“I picked Honolulu because I told my manager I didn’t want to get into a very fast race at this point of my career,” the calculated Ekiru explains.
“I wanted a race that I can win in 2:08 or 2:09 so that I keep my reserves for the future.”
He will, finally, graduate to the rich World Marathon Majors circuit next year, the Tokyo Marathon on March 1 in his cross hairs.
Then he will hope for selection to Kenya’s team to the Tokyo Olympics, where the marathon races will actually be run in Sapporo City in the island of Hokkaido.
A calculated plan indeed for the meticulous man who even attempted eking out a career in football, turning out as a no-nonsense central defender for amateur club Kosirai FC in Nandi County as he juggled between sports and odd jobs to put bread on family’s table.
“If, by the will of God, I get selected for the Olympics, then it would be my next big race after the Tokyo Marathon,” he anticipates.
In fact, he was hopeful of a place in Kenya’s team to the World Championships in Doha last October but was overlooked by selectors.
But if there’s anyone who has the possibility of running Kipchoge close, then it’s Ekiru.
“I actually prepared a lot in anticipation of the Doha championships, but they told me to go for the African Games wait.
“After I won the African Games title, I went back into training for Doha, but when I wasn’t selected, then I shifted my plans to this race in Honolulu.”
On Tokyo’s course next March, Ekiru will be looking to improve his PB and keep knocking on selectors’ doors.
With a fledgling career slowly rising to a crescendo, Ekiru, who dropped out of primary school due to poverty has managed to turn things around, and his wife Daisy Cherotich, also a runner, and one-year-old son Rian Kiptum, now celebrate decent lives.
Ekiru currently trains under coach Lawrence Saina in Kapsabet at the Stanley Biwott camp, his training partners including Biwott himself, a former champion at the Paris and New York marathons.
Others in the group include two-time Tokyo winner Dickson Chumba, Rotterdam course record holder Marius Kipserem and Reuben Kipyego, the pacemaker who famously won Friday’s Abu Dhabi Marathon.
Ekiru has enormous respect for Kipchoge, and, just like the world record holder, maintains discipline is important in a running career, urging athletes to resist the temptation of using banned performance-enhancing substances.
So what would happen should he be selected to the Olympic team?
“I know mzee (Kipchoge) will be there, but it all’s God’s plan. Eliud is experienced and we are just coming up,” he sums it up in typically modest fashion.
But he has already joined the league of 1988 Olympic 800 metres champion Paul Ereng, 2010 Commonwealth Games marathon gold medallist John Kelai and Wilson Erupe, who has clocked six sub-2:09 times in the marathon, as one of Turkana’s finest sporting exports.
Most certainly, an Olympic gold will see him head and shoulders above the rest and make him Turkana’s most successful athlete.
But he has the small matter of Eliud Kipchoge to deal with. Anyway, Sunday’s Honolulu Marathon is in immediate focus.
And with the weather predicted to be better than last year, I see another course record added onto the 27-year-old’s CV when the race starts off along the Ala Moana Boulevard, snaking through Waikiki, Diamond Head, Kahala onto the finish at Kapiolani Park.
The race starts at 5am, local time, which will be 6pm Kenyan time as the Honolulu clock is a massive 13 hours behind Nairobi time.