The 116th Boston Marathon stands as one the warmest in the event’s illustrious history. Dire warnings were posted on the BAA website offering entrants the opportunity to by-pass the expected broiler without having to re-qualify for 2013 (Boston is the only major marathon that requires entrants to qualify by age-graded time standards).
With temperatures soaring to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit on the road surface, two-time L.A. Marathon champion and 2011 Chicago runner up Wesley Korir bided his time, watching as fellow countryman Matthew Kisorio (recently suspended for a steroid doping violation) Levy Matebo and defending champion Geoffrey Mutai opened up a sizable lead through the mid-section miles of the historic route. Mutai was running in his first hot weather marathon, and discovering it was not his cup of tea. At 18 miles he pulled off by the side of the road, felled by the sweltering conditions. At 21 miles atop Heartbreak Hill Matebo broke free of Kisorio. Wesley Korir was in sixth place more than a minute behind.
“I had to be careful,” Wesley told me the following day at the annual day-after press conference at the Copley Plaza Hotel, “because with crowds I really get motivated. So I had to stay in the moment and be smart. I kept telling myself, “be smart. Be smart.”
Gradually, like a long-line fisherman, Korir reeled in the fading leaders, finally passing Matebo on Beacon Street before entering Kenmore Square with one mile to go.
“When I passed him I knew he was struggling,” Wesley recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve got this’. Then all of a sudden I began cramping up really bad, and I had to slow down, because I knew if I continued pushing I wouldn’t finish the race.”
Nobody was immune to the conditions that April day. But this is where Wesley Korir began to separate himself from the everyday champions of the sport. In his moment of crisis, with victory at history’s oldest marathon at stake, he stopped thinking like an athlete.
“As I was running, I knew my family was first, and my running was second. I didn’t want to do anything crazy to hurt myself, because I know my family depends on me. I know they love me, and want to see me back home safe.”
Another kilometer down the course as the route dipped below Mass Ave at the Tommy Leonard Bridge adjacent to the old Eliot Lounge, Wesley was able to get away from Matebo. But…
“I won the race not because of my ability to run, but because of my ability to process things. I thank God for bringing me to America to go to college. I won because of my intelligence rather than my physical abilities. I had to be conservative. I had to take care of my body. I didn’t want to end up in the hospital, and maybe ruin my life forever. But things like this you only get with education. You don’t only think of winning. You think of the big picture of your life.”
It is this quality of perspective, of prioritizing, of seeing beyond the moment to the larger picture that has led Wesley Korir into the hearts of marathon fans world-wide, and made him an easy rooting favorite – along with American Dathan Ritzenhein – for Sunday’s marathon in Chicago.
“I’m still growing as a marathoner,” Wesley says. “I couldn’t believe I won the Boston Marathon. It’s nice to win L.A., but to win the Boston Marathon is like winning the Olympics and the World Championships all of them together.”
Squatting on his haunches having just crossed the finish line on Boylston Street, Korir’s expression was one of wonder and disbelief.
“I asked the volunteer ten times to pinch me. Did I really just win the Boston Marathon?”
Yes, Wesley, you did, following in the footsteps of many fellow Kenyans. But maybe none more so than the original Kenyan champion at Boston, Ibrahim Hussein (1988, 1991-`92). I say this because you, like Hussein, came into your pro running career as a college graduate, having taken a biology degree at the University of Louisville in 2008.
A generation ago college was the path almost all Kenyan runners took to the U.S. Men like Ibrahim Hussein, Mike Musyoki, Henry Rono, and Joe Nzau arrived on scholarship. But as the 1990s dawned, money in the sport opened, then grew. Slowly, then decidedly, young Kenyan runners and greedy agents began to eschew long-term goals, and instead struck early and often. Without any standards to hit, or obligations required to earn professional status, Kenyan athletes flooded the American road circuit, hitting as many races as possible, even at the expense of their own best interests.
“I was talking to the Athletics Kenya chairman (Isaiah Kiplagat), who was here (Boston),” explained Wesley. “I told him, ‘we need to encourage athletes in Kenya to go to school’. You don’t have a lifetime to run (competitively), but you do have a lifetime to use knowledge. I think most runners who are struggling financially in Kenya, who cannot do something with their life, struggle because they don’t have that knowledge. And that’s when people take advantage of them.”
Sudden fame and instant riches can become their own curse, as evidenced by the tragic death of 2008 Olympic Marathon (and 2X Chicago) champion Sammy Wanjiru last May.
“He was a very good friend of mine,” said Korir. “The reason I won Boston is because in Chicago when I ran with Sammy he told me, “Wesley, you run like a champion. And I tell you the truth, you will be a champion one day’. That motivated me to work so hard, and I wanted to win Chicago last year for him. I didn’t (he finished second to Moses Mosop). But when I came to Boston I told coach (Ron Mann, University of Louisville), ‘I have unfinished business’.
“Sammy was a great guy. But why was he unable to manage his life? Why did these things happen to him? Because he didn’t get an education. That’s why other people were leading his life, not him. And that’s what my education gives me, the understanding to know what comes first.”
Wesley points to Sally Kipyego, nine-time NCAA champion out of Texas Tech who has a nursing degree as well as a silver medal from the 2011 World Championships at 10,000-meters, as his female role-model counterpart.
“Sally and I are perfect examples of what needs to be done in Kenya. First you need to go to school. You can still run after that. I don’t think all I’ve done in the four years that I have been a professional runner I would have done if I went pro immediately.”
Then Wesley brought general theory back into everyday practice.
“I have a young brother (John Kipkosgei). He is 13 years old, and very fast. Last year (2011) he was about to make the Kenyan Junior team, but I told him and my mom, ‘no running until he finishes school’. He has the talent. There’s no doubt about that. But get an education first. I even told his teachers, ‘no running. Let him do the exercises, but no competitive running until he finishes school’.”
These days Wesley, wife Tarah, and their two-year-old daughter McKayLa (named by combining Tarah’s maiden name with LA, site of Wesley’s first two marathon wins) split their time between homes in Kentucky, where he and wife Tara met, her parent’s home in Kitchener, Ontario, and Kenya.
Wesley is one of nine siblings who hail from Biribiriet, a small village in the Central Highlands of western Kenya where life offers no guarantees. One of his other brothers died several years ago of a poisonous snake-bite when there was no medical clinic near enough to save him.
Today, Wesley’s Kenyan Kids Foundation supports youngsters in their educational goals, while a new medical clinic in his home village, built with the support of friend Ryan Hall’s STEPS Foundation and set up by the University of Louisville Medical School, has brought something approaching hope, if not a guarantee, to Biribiriet. At the same time it has elevated Korir beyond the valued, but narrow, scope of world-class distance runner, and shown him the road ahead beyond his competitive years.
As he told Phil Hersh: ”When you would help the children, you would see their families smile. I told my wife, ”This is what I want to do the rest of my life, to make people smile.’ ”
I have often said that every sport must be fortunate in the people who become their champions. Sport, after all, is a meritocracy. But if there is anyone in the 40,000+ field for the Chicago Marathon who would no more with the 2012 title than Wesley Korir, I really don’t know who that might be.
Like the other great running writers of his era, men like the late Joe Concannon of the Boston Globe and Neil Amdur, former sports editor of the New York Times, Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune is a master of the long-form profile, once a staple in the newspaper business. With a gemologist’s eye for detail these writers have a way of weaving a tapestry in words that captures something beyond the facts to reveal the essential nature of their subjects. Hersh The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersch penned an in-depth profile this week on Kenya’s Wesley Korir as a lead-in to Sunday’s 2012 Chicago Marathon.