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Saturday, November 8, 2003 
PETER NJENGA  / NAIROBI MARATHON

When the city stood still 

The first Nairobi marathon was a great success
Runners set off during the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon on Sunday. Philip Kirui won the men's title in a time of 2 hours, 15 minutes and 40 seconds.
Photo by Robert Gicheru

Kenyans were born to run. One prominent Nairobi resident attempted the Standard Chartered Marathon last Sunday after a night of merry-making and conquered the 42km course in six hours.

He celebrated his achievement at his local pub after the race and reported to work on Monday.

His biggest quarrel with the organisers of the marathon is that there is no record to show that he completed the course. Nobody timed him, or declared his final position.

He has, however, vowed to be back next year.

The field next year will be well well over 10,000, up from the 4,800 who took part in the inaugural edition.

The Nairobi Marathon was a spectacular success. The young and old, including legislator Danson Mungatana, braved the chill and shower to compete in the full marathon, the 10km road race and 2.5km family fun run.

The top runners totalled 100. Their presence spiced up competition and the eventual winner, Philip Kirui, who earned Sh500,000, also earned a ticket to one of the big summer races – London, Boston or Rotterdam. 

However, the top runners are not the essence of a marathon. A city marathon is a carnival that brings out the determined, cheered on by millions. 

The New York City Marathon, held a few hours after the Nairobi Marathon, saw 34,703 athletes take to the streets, passing through the five boroughs of the city. The last finisher was Eliza Moloka, 49 who completed the course in 9 hours 43 minutes. She was number 34,703.

The oldest man, 92-year-old Fauja Singh of Britain, clocked 7 hours 34 minutes, the same time as his grand daughter Avtar Singh Tinma, 53. The oldest woman, Vivian Lowery, 79, posted 7:42.

The New York race had 152 runners in the first race. This year there were 60,000 applicants, 26,000 were turned away.

Inquiries on the Nairobi race from the Netherlands and Sweden were encouraging. With some people running away from the cold weather in Europe, many fun runners will attempt the Nairobi race next year.

Top runners could also be interested, not because of the prize money, which compares poorly against New York where Margaret Okayo won Sh7.8 million for finishing first in the women's race plus Sh4.6 for breaking the course record.

They could attempt the race simply because of Nairobi's high altitude. The city, at 1,670 metres above sea level, is the second marathon recognised by the IAAF held that is held at high elevation after the one in Mexico.

Kirui clocked 2 hours 15 minutes 40 seconds, but without an altitude best marathon time, it will be hard to rank him at sea level. 

His time is 10 minutes behind Paul Tergat's world marathon record of 2:04.55. Tergat set the record at sea level Berlin on September 28.

If Nairobi is to attain international standards, a few flaws must be corrected. There was not enough water for runners. Some good samaritans provided water dispensers outside their houses along James Gichuru road.

When people have been on the road for more than one hour, there is usually need to answer a call of nature, and many runners stopped by the roadside, too tired to care about their privacy. The organisers should have provided mobile washrooms along the route. 

Big city marathon races are one big carnival. In places like Turin, church goers skip mass to cheer on the runners with choirs and drums, if the course is next to their churches.

Cyclists also follow the leading runners to provide security and relay progress of the race through two-way radio system. In Nairobi, one cyclist decided to keep Kirui company without permission. He could have been up to no good.

Comedian Walter Mongare also tried his antics as Kirui was only 6km from the finish by trying to race him. Despite meet director John Velzian telling police officers to remove Mongare from the course, they turned a blind eye.

This is unacceptable in an international marathon run under strict IAAF rules.

Some motorists defied traffic police directives to keep off. They misbehaved along Ngong and Mombasa roads. Such action, Velzian said, could jeopardise the future and reputation of the marathon in presence of independent observers.

Will the race ever attract big names like former world record holder Khalid Khannounchi?

Opinion is divided. First, money is the motivating factor. Alice Chelagat, a former winner of Milan marathon won Sh500,000. In New York on the same day, Margaret Okayo won Sh12 million. But New York draws a substantial amount of money from entry fee, which at Sh2,300 per person fetches Sh78 million. Much more is derived from television rights sales and title sponsors. In Nairobi, participants paid Sh200, which amounted to less than Sh1 million.

Standard Chartered Bank invested Sh27 million and an extra 6 million was raised from co-sponsors in cash and in kind. Sh2.5 million went towards charity. Prize money in Chicago alone is 38 million.

But with an expected increment in prize money next year some athletes would prefer running in Nairobi instead of some events where prize money is about Sh1 million.

The Nairobi marathon would be more lucrative for locals who must pay federal taxes, agents commissions, meet cost of their tickets and meet ground expenses if they compete abroad.

While Kirui is not expected to pay taxes. Okayo surrendered 60 percent of her earnings to the federal government (45 percent) and agent (15 percent) plus meeting the cost of the air ticket and accommodation if she extended her stay beyond days paid for by the meeting director. She had also stayed abroad to condition herself.

In the end her millions ended up being lose change.

Spare a thought for Great Lake Marathon in Kisumu. It is here Delilah Asiago clinched her first local marathon victory last year. It is also a breeding ground for future champions.

Scheduled on December 6, meeting director Peter Angwenyi is struggling to make ends meet. He has only Sh50,000 from a local sponsor.

Yet in terms of potential, Kisumu Marathon, held at a lower altitude compared to Nairobi (1,670 metres above the sea level), could attract more foreign athletes who would boost the profile of the race.

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