By Paul Gains
A year ago Ruth Wanjiru turned up to the Ottawa Marathon in fine form with victory and the winner’s purse of $20,000 USD on her mind. But midway through the race she tripped and fell to the pavement injuring her knee. She struggled home a disappointed third.
The 31-year-old Kenyan returns to this IAAF Silver Label race May 26th ready to battle with a world-class field and to capture the title she believes should have been hers in 2012. She puts the catastrophe down as a valuable learning experience and just another of the struggles she has overcome in her journey through international sport.
“I learned that next time I will have to be mindful of the other competitors who are behind me and ahead of me in case they entangle me like last time,” says Wanjiru. “The (Ottawa) course is good and I like it. I will use only one strategy - to be in good condition and to know my competitors well.”
Her personal best of 2:27:38 was set at the Osaka marathon four years ago while she was living in Japan and she would like nothing more than to win in a faster time. The Ottawa course record of 2:27:41 (2009) belongs to Morocco’s Asmae Leghazoui and a bonus of $10,000 USD is on offer for the person to break it.
To that end, she has been piling in the miles at high altitude. By her count she has been doing upwards of 140 kilometres a week near her home in Nyahururu in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The area lies at 2,300m above sea level. Most significant is her Saturday ritual of running for more than two and a half hours along the dusty roads.
Wanjiru is coached by “Master” Francis Kamau, who guided many of the top Kenyan marathoners, including the late Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru (no relation to Ruth). Much of her training is done with Kamau’s training group, which includes Commonwealth 10,000m champion Lucy Kabuu (who has run 2:19:34 for the marathon), Daniel Njenga (2:06:16 marathoner) and Martin Mathathi, a former world championship 10,000m bronze medalist.
As a young girl she and her four brothers and four sisters enjoyed the fruits of their parents industrious nature. Their mother is a small-scale farmer while their father worked in public transport.
“My father is the one who really encouraged me to become a runner since he loves sports and especially races,” she reveals. “He used to accompany me during my training when I was young even before I turned 16 years of age.
“It was very difficult for a young girl to take up running since running was regarded as a ‘male thing.’
“Many people used to discourage me when I started training saying that I can’t make it since I am a girl and young. They taunted me. Some teachers, on the other hand, said that I should concentrate on my studies. Others said that I am too young to take up a running career.”
The exploits of local runners, such as two time Olympic marathon medalist Eric Wainaina and Catherine Ndereba, a four time Boston marathon champion and Olympic silver medalist, served as further encouragement, however. She pushed on.
Over the years, several Kenyan runners have attended Sendai Ikuei High School located two hours north of Tokyo, among them Sammy Wanjiru, Eric Wainaina and Daniel Njenga, and ‘Master’ suggested Ruth experience life in Japan too. There she learned to speak Japanese fluently and most impressively, write in Hiragana. She eventually signed professional contracts with the Japanese corporate Hitachi running team lasting seven years.
“My residency in Japan was very beneficial to me in terms of my career development,” she says. “Kenya’s athletic association used to call me to represent Kenya internationally, for example in the 2009 Yokohama Ekiden.”
“All those athletes that I looked up to as I grew up were living in Japan. So all along I yearned to one day go to Japan to study and to run. So I went there for school and to develop my running career.”
Wanjiru has truly seen the world and experienced much in her lengthy running career. The mother of a soon to be three year old daughter, Catherine, she is grateful for the loving support of her husband Charles Wachira as she prepares for Ottawa.
Although she won’t race ahead of the marathon, she has plans to test her fitness during one of her workouts in the coming weeks. Suffice it to say she will be ready when she lines up in the Canadian capital and whether that means a course record or a personal record that remains to be seen. The prospects are exciting.