Leonard Korir Ready to Face Stephen Sambu Again at NYC Healthy Kidney 10K
By Sabrina Yohannes
Leonard Korir won a sprint battle over his training partner Stephen Sambu at the New York City Half marathon in March, and the two Kenyans race again in NYC on Saturday, at the Healthy Kidney 10K.
Korir’s victory in March was a shock to many, but not to one man who knows the two athletes well: their coach, James Li.
Sambu, who came in as the more decorated athlete, led for much of the race, and even appeared to have the upper hand in the final sprint, until Korir pipped him on the finish line. “It was unbelievable,” said Sambu. “I didn’t know it was that close. Then when I was trying to cross the line, he was just crossing the line.”
“We know Leonard is a very good kicker,” Li, who had been watching the race in New York with others, including Sambu’s manager Karen Locke, said in an interview afterwards. “Even during the race, I told Karen, who is his agent: If it’s going to be down to the last 200m — then you can’t leave it to that. I’m just happy for Leonard, and of course, both of them are doing very well.”
Li suspected the race may end as it did when the men remained together for so long. “I knew that could happen,” he said. “We’ve talked about it. The key is for Stephen to run and push the pace, and for Leonard to try to hang on. And then he did.”
Li added that though Korir had displayed the potential for such a victory, he hadn’t succeeded previously. “This is the first time he’s been able to do it with this kind of race and this kind of pace,” said Li. “He’s been training really well. We knew that. We knew that even before the season started.”
“Since I was in college, I used to like to kick, especially towards the end, and I tried it with Stephen Sambu,” said Korir, who ran 1:01:06 to Sambu’s 1:01:07. “I just gave it all I got, and I found myself on the finish line.”
Korir said in an interview on Thursday, two days ahead of the May 30 Healthy Kidney, that his Half victory was a morale-booster.
“It gives me confidence,” he said. “Now, I can race anybody. Also, it gave me motivation to train more hard, so I’d be ready for Saturday.”
Korir has been based for about a year in Tucson, Arizona with Li and his athletes, including former double world champion Bernard Lagat of the U.S.
“We’ve been training well with Sambu, and sometimes with Bernard Lagat,” said Korir, who was the 2012 Healthy Kidney runner-up. “I’m ready for the race on Saturday.”
Sambu is the defending champion of the UAE Healthy Kidney, which he ran in 27:39 last year. The 2015 race also features reigning and former NYC marathon champions Wilson Kipsang and Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya, as well as the BAA 5K champion Ben True and Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, both of the U.S. Korir welcomes the star-studded field.
“It’s good, because if the race is with those strong guys, there will be a good possibility of running faster, so I’m hoping to run under 28 minutes, run 27-something,” said the 2014 All-America City 10K champion Korir, whose road personal best for the distance is 28:09 from a fourth-place finish in Boston in June, which was his last 10K.
His most recent race was a disappointing eighth-place finish at the April Cherry Blossom 10-miler in Washington DC, where he said he felt he hadn’t recovered adequately from the NYC half marathon. The winner of that 10-miler was Sambu, who is a formidable target for Korir to challenge on Saturday.
Sambu has run faster over 10,000m on the track and on the road. In fact, Korir’s PBs both came in races where he finished behind Sambu, who also clocked a PB at the time. Sambu won the 2014 Boston BAA 10K in a 27:25 personal record.
Korir’s 10,000m track PB is the 27:29.40 he ran in 2011 in Palo Alto, CA while a student at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. Ahead of him in that race was the then-student of the University of Arizona Sambu, who has since dipped below 27 minutes, running 26:54.61 at the 2014 Pre Classic in Eugene (where Korir ran 28:01.85).
Over 20K, both men clocked identical 58-minute PBs as they ran in tandem at the United Airlines NYC Half in March. Korir set a new half marathon PB at the finish, but his training partner had previously run a faster time, 1:00:41, in Boston in 2013.
Sambu has continued to have major successes, defeating the recent world marathon record-holder Kipsang and Lagat, among others, over 10K in Great Britain on May 10.
“Sambu ran 27:30 in Manchester a few weeks ago, so he’s very strong, but you never know: Sometimes you might run well; sometimes you don’t run well,” said Korir, who is looking to run his best race Saturday, driven rather than intimidated by those on the Central Park start line.
Winning in NYC was a treat for him in March, as he spent his first years in the U.S. just north of the city.
“When I was in Iona, I used to go to the City on weekends,” said the former two-time collegiate track champion Korir, who used to ride the Metro-North Railroad line from Westchester County to Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. “The train takes like 30 minutes.”
On Saturday, he’ll be looking to cover the distance from the start to the finish of the Healthy Kidney 10K in a few minutes less than it takes Metro-North to travel from New Rochelle to New York City. Unlike the commuter line, Sambu will be racing former world record-holders and defending champions along the way, but he hopes he can prevail in the Big Apple again.