Caleb Ndiku wins World Indoor, Sopot, March 2014,
photo by PhotoRun.net
Caleb Ndiku is just a bit different. He’s not your average distance runner, not your average Kenyan, and he certainly doesn’t run anything like an average athlete. Tonight, in Marrakech, Ndiku rounded out a superb year by beating some of the world’s best middle distance runners in the Continental Cup 3,000m, and did it with what he likes to call his own personal swag.
It was a race he controlled, a race he stamped his authority on with four laps remaining when he swept to the front and from there, any time someone approached his shoulder, he simply opened up that long stride and cast all challengers aside with the confidence of a man who knew he simply couldn’t be beaten. He came home in 7:52.64, half a second ahead of Europe’s Hayle Ibrahimov, with Team Americas’ Bernard Lagat in third.
“I was using my brains for those last few laps,” said Ndiku. “I knew I would be the stronger.” Indeed, it’s been the case so often for Ndiku this year. Back at the World Indoors in March, he proved strongest over 3,000m in a loaded field. He was strongest too at the Commonwealth Games in July, and again at the African Championships in August. He also finished the season as Diamond Race winner in the 5,000m.
Quite a year, then, for the 21-year-old who has made a habit of dying his hair a different colour for each Championship race. This time, it was sand-coloured to match his African kit. And why does he he do it? Simple: “that’s my swag,” he says. “It is my secret… my swag. It’s not common to everyone. Always I’m crazy, funny. I like being free. It’s my lifestyle, and being funny makes a lot of fans.
“A lot of guys following me love it, and it motivates me. I’m happy so by the time I get in the race, I’m so motivated to win.”
Caleb Ndiku, Zurich Weltklasse, August 2014,
photo by PhotoRun.net
Ndiku has been doing a lot of winning this year, and all of it at the tender age of 21. A whole 18 years his elder, meanwhile, Bernard Lagat is finally starting to get used to the feeling of losing. “I’m at a point where I have to accept it,” said Lagat. “These guys are young, strong; they can kick [the last lap] in 51 seconds, while I can max out at 53 or 54, but they are motivating me to see if I can challenge them. I know they are still thinking about me in the race.”
Next up for Lagat will be a 5k race in Philadelphia next weekend, and then he’ll take a six-week break, during which he will sit down with his coach James Li, his wife, and his agent, and put in place a plan for next year.
“You’ll see me next year for sure. I’ll start indoors. I enjoy it as much as ever. It’s so much fun. I’m so happy with what I’ve done this year. This is big for me, running with these young guys. To finish third today, I have no complaints.”
Though Lagat may be slowly coming to terms with the fact that he’ll never return to his former level – as astonishingly high as that was – for Ndiku, the world is now his oyster after a year in which he showed himself to be the dominant runner in the middle distances. The question now, of course, is whether he can remain at the top when Farah makes a full-time return to the track next year.
“I’m looking forward to racing him next year,” said Ndiku. “The presence of Mo Farah does not mean that I could not win. I’m accepting a lot of challenges when I go to face Mo Farah, as well as he’s expecting a lot from me. Farah is a good role model; he showed you don’t need to live in Africa to win. He’s a good friend of mine, a good challenger, so we have to challenge each other and see who comes out on top.”
Looking ahead to 2015, the clash between Ndiku and Farah over 5,000m, which we were denied at this year’s Commonwealth Games, is the head-to-head which whets the appetite perhaps more than any other.
For once, it seems as if we have a challenger to Farah who possesses not just the vicious finishing speed to match the Briton, but also the confidence and astute racing brain that could finally see Farah’s utter domination on the track come to an end.
It’s been a hell of a year for Ndiku, and what’s so promising, so exciting about him is that it seems he may only be just getting started.