Yesterday, November 13, 2012, Kimbia Athletics announced the passing of Joseph Kimani of Kenya, a road racer whose light blazed with unequaled brilliance during his comet-like run atop the American road circuit in the mid-1990s. Kimani, age 40, succumbed to pneumonia November 1st at his home in Eldoret, here he was buried this week.
For racers the road is contested territory upon which the battle of wills is played out against the march of time. In the annals of our sport there have been many whose greatest athletic expression have come on the hard surface of the road rather than across country or atop the laned geometry of the track. None more so than Joseph Kimani.
Where to begin?
Tall, trim and impossibly superior, Kimani notched victories, course and world records like a Top Gun pilot notched enemy aircraft. During the 1996 road season alone Kimani set six course records and two world 10K records. His marks at Atlanta’s Peachtree 10k (27:04), Utica’s Boilermaker 15k (42:40) and Cleveland’s Revco 10k (27:20) still stand as atop a plinth in granite, monuments to excellence. His 33:31 win at the 1997 Evansville, Indiana Arts Fest 12k remains tied as the road world record for the distance.
He won by margins, as if the rest of the field had been lost along the way. At the Bolder Boulder 10k in 2000 he created a gap of 57-seconds to second place. He lanced 52-seconds off the already impressive Peachtree Road Race record in `96. When he made a move it was like a V12 purring amidst of a lineup of growling V8s. Nobody was as dominant as the angular Kenyan.
“He has to be considered one of the best road racers of all time,” his agent, Tom Ratcliffe, said in the news release.
Though a fine track athlete (PRs of 13:12, 27:28), he never made a Kenyan Olympic team, or could stay healthy enough for the marathon. Yet on the roads Kimani created a diamond lane all his own. After a back injury held him off the 1996 Kenyan Olympic 10,000m team (he lead the trials for 19 laps till he cramped up and finished 7th), he brought his frustration to the American road circuit. His 27:04 performance on the rolling Peachtree course on July 4th was his Olympic effort in the Olympic city. Consider that Haile Gebreselassie and Paul Tergat assayed 27:07 & 27:08 for the gold and silver later that summer on the Olympic track.
I was fortunate to broadcast a number of his greatest races, including his 27:20 10K world record in Cleveland in 1996 and his 33:31 in Evansville in 1997.
I especially recall the 19th Revco (now Rite-Aid) Cleveland 10K in 1996, Sunday May 5th. I was the analyst for the live WKYC NBC-affiliate broadcast. Jack Staph, the race director, had always wanted a sub-28:00 on his course. Though the layout was flat, the Cleveland course had a couple of hairpin turns and tricky winds at times blowing from Lake Erie through downtown where the race was held.
In 1982 England’s Dave Moorcroft had run 28:09 to win Revco six weeks before his 13:00.41 5000-meter world record in Oslo. In Cleveland ’82 Moorcroft had bested Kenyan Michael Musyoki, arguably the greatest road racer of his era and 1984 Olympic 10,000m bronze medalist. When even those two couldn’t go sub-28 in Cleveland, well, nobody could. Sorry, Jack.
14 years later Kimani not only went sub-28:00, he damn near went sub-27! During the live broadcast, I suggested that the mile markers had been misplaced, because the times didn’t compute.
4. 17:18 (26:48 pace!)
5. 21:48 (the ARRS recognized 8K WR is 22:02 set by Peter Githuka at Crazy 8s 8k in Kingsport, Tenn. 1996)
10k – 27:20
Kimani was on a roll, having set a course record 28:01 at the Sallie Mae 10k the week before in Wash D.C., and another (still standing) 27:31 the week before that at the Vancouver Sun Run 10k. I described his fitness in Cleveland as “tight as the skin on a hot dog”. That Cleveland performance bettered both the loop course world record (27:40) set by Ethiopia’s Addis Abebe in Jakarta, Ethiopia 1994, and also the point-to-point world best (27:22), by America’s Mark Nenow at the 1984 Crescent City Classic in New Orleans.
Then came Peachtree on July 4th where Kimani was all the fireworks anyone needed to see. Sure, the weather was less stultifying than usual, but to lop 52 seconds off an already studly record was mind-boggling. Even this year’s powerhouses at Peachtree, Peter Kirui, Micah Kogo and (drug-busted) Mathew Kisorio going 27:37, 27:39, 27:39 would’ve needed binoculars to see Kimani finishing in Atlanta `96.
Joseph went on to win and set course records at the Utica Boilermaker 15k (42:40), George Sheehan 10k in Asbury Park, N.J., then the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod that August. There, against the 8k record holder Peter Githuka, Joseph romped again, notching another of the major records in the sport. His 31:36 broke Benson Masya‘s 31:52 mark by 16 seconds, and remains the second fastest time in Falmouth history.
As another election arrives for the board of directors for Running USA, the trade industry group that ostensibly has the best interest of the distinctive sport of road racing in mind, perhaps some recognition to a great athlete now sadly missed would be appropriate. Ones like Joseph Kimani do not come around often, and should not pass forgotten.
Our sincerest condolences go out to his family and friends.