Edith Masai, the Strain of Being a Favorite, by Pat Butcher


Pat Butcher's insightful commentary on Edith Masai, and her appearance on the Singapore marathon course on Sunday, December 2, 2007, could be a most interesting race. In this article, Butcher speaks on Masai's development from middle distance runner to marathoner....

You could not see a sterner face than the one that Edith Masai wears when she is racing. But in social situations, she is as cheery and amusing, and as voluble as any Kenyan athlete when they are not hammering out the dozens of kilometres that constitute their daily training regime.

It is Saturday lunchtime, and we are sitting in a lounge opposite the famous Raffles Hotel, where the equally celebrated Singapore Sling was invented a century ago. But exotic cocktails are not on the menu today, exotic Kenyans are. Masai is relaxing before running the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon early Sunday morning. “I ran for 45 minutes this morning, that will be enough for today,” she smiles. “I never really count the kilometres when I train. I normally train twice a day, although if I’m tired, once is enough. I run between 90 minutes and two hours in the morning, and about 45 minutes in the evening”.

Kenyan women are beginning to emulate their men both in numbers and in achievement, but Masai is still a rarity, and not just in Kenya. There are not too many women anywhere who have won world athletics titles when well into their thirties. But Masai was already 35 years old when she won the first of her three IAAF short-course World Cross Country titles.

And as recently as August, three months after her 40th birthday, she finished eighth in the IAAF World Championships marathon in Osaka, just two minutes behind the winner, her colleague, Catherine Ndereba. It’s an achievement of which Masai is particularly proud.

“It’s like here. Because of the conditions (hot and humid), the winning time will not be very fast. But if I win, I hope the Kenyan federation will take that into account when choosing the Olympic team. We had five women in Osaka, and I was the slowest. Nobody thought Edith could finish in the top ten. But I was eighth in just over 2.32, only two minutes behind top runners like Catherine and the Chinese woman (Zhou Chunxiu) who won London. And Rita (Jeptoo, another colleague) was only a few seconds in front of me in seventh place”. Masai’s outstanding effort ensured that the Kenyan team successfully defended the World Cup, which was held in tandem with the championships.

Masai has been creating surprises since the turn of the century, when she broke into world class in her early thirties. She had started running at school in Mount Elgon, near the Kenya-Uganda border in 1980, when she was 13 years of age. But after the birth of her son Griffin a decade later, she didn’t run for three years. But she had already opened the door for her return to the sport by joining the Kenya Prison Service in 1990. Like most branches of the military and civil service, the KPS has a strong athletics team, based at Langata, near the capital Nairobi, and their women included Ndereba, Susan Chepkemei and Margaret Okayo, all world class athletes.

“Seeing how well those women were doing encouraged me to return,” says Masai, “and we had a boss, Elisabeth Olaba, who was also our coach. She started as a shot put coach, but took coaching courses for running”. Even with that back-up, it was still took half a dozen years of running 800 and 1500 metres (best times, 2.06/4.22 in 1997) before Masai started to move up in distance, and discover her true talent.

She won the national cross country title in 1999, and started running 3000 metres on the track in around nine minutes. “I met my manager, Dorothee Paulmann in 2000. She was already managing two Kenyan guys, Benjamin Itok and Richard Kimutai. I got permission to go and stay in Germany, in Trier for three months. I was sixth in my first race, a 6k in Kaiserslautern, and second in a 7k in Tubingen. But I was training with those two guys, and they made me run hard. I would run with them, and they said, ‘You cannot stop’. And after one and half months, I was able to stay with them”.

The transformation had begun. “I won a 15k in Belgium, and I received the equivalent of 10,000 Deutsche marks. Then I went to France, and finished second in a 10k to Isabella Ochichi (another top Kenyan). She did 32.27 and me, 32.59. That was the first really good time. I remember”. She smiles broadly at the memory.

Her son, incidentally was being cared for by her mother, Susannah, who had moved to the Kitale area, where Masai’s earnings allowed the two women to buy a ten acre farm. “I planted maize and wheat, and I have seven cows, and my mother has ten sheep. But she takes care of it all. I stay and train at Ngong (near Nairobi), and my son (now 17) is at boarding school. When there is holiday, he comes to see me, or I go back to Kitale”.

While Susannah was tending the farm, Masai was laying the ground for her three consecutive World Cross titles, 2002-4. But she still shudders at her first experience of the event in 2001. “It was sooo cold, the race was supposed to be in Dublin, but there was ‘foot and mouth’ disease in Ireland, so it was moved to Ostende. I was freezing, but I finished third behind (Gete) Wami and (Paula) Radcliffe. I was to meet those women many times in the future”.

She also won medals on the track, notably the Commonwealth 5000 metres silver, behind Radcliffe in 2002, and the world 5000 metres bronze in 2003. She has also run 30.30.26 for 10,000 metres, and fifth place in the World Championships in 2005. That was three months after her marathon debut, a winning one in Hamburg, in 2.27.06. “I treated it like a long training run, and it worked. I was leading again in 2006, up to 39k, then my legs fell off”. She finished fifth that time. But she will concentrate on the marathon for the rest of her career. “Probably two years, no more. I’d like to go to the Olympics, and then I’ll see at the end of 2008, but I’d like to compete through to 2009”.

Unaware that another KPS colleague, Salina Kosgei took three minutes off the Singapore record last year, with a 2.31.55, impressive for the conditions, she lets out of long, “Wowwww!” But she is typically Kenyan when it comes to getting a race forecast. That’s to say, she’d rather have her legs fall off for real than venture an opinion. “When I ran this morning, it was very humid. So I don’t like to say. We’ll see”. Well, it was worth the wait for Edith Masai in the first place. And I’m sure it will be again on Sunday.

For more information, please check: http://www.american-trackandfield.com

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