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April 16, 2012
The Mercurial Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru
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April 16, 2012

To Run In Kenya, To Run In The World

The Mercurial Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru

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Most years Sammy's relatives scraped together enough money for his school fees. He was a quiet boy—he could spend hours playing with a toy car fashioned from metal wire—but he made friends in school through running. By fourth grade he was entering cross-country races. He would ask his relatives to pray for him, and he believed it worked because he kept winning. He won the 3,000 meters at the district championships on the gravel track in the Nyahururu stadium. But the last of the money dried up, and Sammy never finished middle school.

Thanks to a connection between a local coach and a Japanese scout, though, the Nyahururu area had become a pipeline for runners of the Kikuyu ethnicity, which Sammy was, to get scholarships to Japanese high schools and help the schools compete in hugely popular Japanese road relay races called ekiden. When a coach asked Sammy if he was interested in attending school in Japan, he answered that he had no idea where Japan was but that he was ready to go. And so, in 2002, he skipped straight to Sendai Ikuei Gakuen High School, in northeastern Japan. He helped the school set an ekiden record, and he would repeat, over and over, the Japanese word gaman, which roughly translates as patient perseverance.

After Wanjiru graduated in March '05, he stayed in Japan to race ekiden for Toyota Kyushu's corporate team, and immediately began a pattern that would last the rest of his life: parting with money as quickly as he earned it. He wanted his mother home when he went to visit, so he sent part of his first paycheck to Hannah, who says through a translator that she used it to buy a plot of land for her mother.

By all accounts Wanjiru was beloved among his teammates for his humility, and he led a stable life in team housing. But Kenyans who have run for corporate teams in Japan say that they never felt entirely integrated into Japanese society, and most return home. "Because of the different culture," says Johnson Muiruri, a runner who trained with Wanjiru in Japan and became his close friend, "[a Kenyan man] cannot get a girlfriend there unless maybe you stay 20 years."

It was on a trip home in the summer of '05 that Wanjiru met Terezah Njeri. In Kenya a woman who lives with a man or bears his child may be considered his wife. By that standard Njeri became Wanjiru's wife in September '05, when she moved into a house he had paid for. It was the same month that he first broke the world half-marathon record, for which he reportedly earned $100,000.

Hannah Wanjiru and Njeri disliked each other from the start. Over the next two years Sammy built the two women spacious houses inside fortress-like compounds within 150 yards of each other on a dirt road in Nyahururu. But each woman looked askance at anything Sammy bought the other. Each felt that the other wanted to control his money. According to Sammy's friends, relatives and business associates, they were both right.

None of Sammy's expenditures went unscrutinized by his wife or his mother. Not the $25,000 he donated to a children's home in Nyahururu after he broke the world half-marathon record for the third time, in March '07. Not the beauty parlor he financed for Njeri, which went bust. According to Wanjiru's coaches, his mother would even complain when he was home and they used his cars to get him and his training partners to and from workouts. When Wanjiru was in Japan, he often called his uncle John Kamau and asked him to mediate disputes between his mother and wife. "The differences were all about money," Kamau says. "It was not about anything else."

In early 2008, Wanjiru returned home from Japan to stay. Later that year, after his dramatic Olympic victory, he began commanding high appearance fees whenever he ran. The money deepened the rift between his mother and his wife. All the while, Wanjiru was busily spending it or giving it away. He enjoyed the trappings of wealth. He commissioned a local artist to paint a giant, gaudy wildlife mural on one of the walls surrounding his house. And the boy who could lose hours playing with a toy car made from scrap was now a man who paid cash for a fleet of Toyota's best—Land Cruiser, Mark X, RAV4—that depreciated rapidly on the crater-pocked Kenyan roads.

He also never refused people who needed money. After a workout Wanjiru would buy 25 runners lunch, and he paid for a Nissan for use by athletes who had no other way to travel to races. One runner named Ken Kasmili says Wanjiru began paying his son's school fees so that Kasmili could work fewer hours and focus on training.

Wanjiru was an economy unto himself. And almost everything he bought—cars, land, houses—was wildly overpriced. When he was in Nyahururu he frequented the pubs. His friends point out almost every large bar in town as "one of his favorite places," and locals would text one another when they spotted him out drinking, sending the alert that it was a good time to sell. Suddenly Wanjiru, at the bar, would be buying $900 plots of land for $3,000.

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