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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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Wanjiru's Italy-based manager, Federico Rosa, heard that the runner was self-destructing in Nyahururu. At the London Marathon in April 2010 Wanjiru was barely past the halfway mark when he dropped out. On the way back to Kenya, Rosa and Claudio Berardelli, a 31-year-old Italian coach who lives in Kenya and trains some of Rosa's athletes, took Wanjiru to Italy to give him a liver toxicity test. It showed that Wanjiru had not yet done permanent damage with his drinking. "But I told Federico to scare him," Berardelli says. "Tell him that there were some signs, but that if he stops [drinking] now things will be O.K. Otherwise he's on the way to losing his career."

In July, Berardelli invited Wanjiru to a training camp in Italy. "He was probably [10 pounds] overweight," the coach says, "and he could not stay with the guys for a 50-minute run." After the camp Berardelli, who lives in Eldoret, 80 miles northwest of Nyahururu, found a place for Wanjiru to stay near him.

In August, with two months to go before he was to defend his Chicago Marathon title, and still in awful shape, Wanjiru switched his training base to Eldoret. He stopped drinking cold turkey, but he was getting dusted by other runners in training. Two weeks before Chicago, Berardelli called Rosa to say that Wanjiru probably would not be able to finish the marathon and that they should withdraw him. But Wanjiru pleaded, " 'Let me try, let me try, let me try,'" Berardelli says.

If there ever has been a marathon performance more stunning than Wanjiru's in Beijing, it was Wanjiru's in Chicago in October 2010. Not in top shape and two months removed from daily binge drinking, he was repeatedly dropped by Ethiopia's Tsegaye Kebede whenever he challenged for the lead. But Wanjiru kept coming. He and Kebede traded the lead five times in the final mile. Wanjiru appeared to settle for second when he started looking behind him to see who was coming. But with a quarter mile to go he sprinted past Kebede, prompting the TV race announcer to blurt, "What balls this guy's got!" He won by 19 seconds.

"Sammy was still going to make money, so why die to win this race?" Berardelli asks. "He had the mentality that you think only of being the first in crossing the line, because you want to say, 'I am the one.' You want to raise up your hands."

Following the Chicago Marathon, Wanjiru returned to Nyahururu. He never raced again.

Back home Wanjiru drank constantly and was always tired—he would doze in the middle of conversations. "He said, 'I want to forget my problems,'" Wacera recalls. "I said, 'They'll still be there when you wake up.'"

On Dec. 29, 2010, Wanjiru was arrested at his house and charged with threatening to kill Njeri during an argument and hitting his security guard with the butt of an AK-47 that he had obtained illegally. Six weeks later, on Valentine's Day 2011, Wanjiru and Njeri had a bizarre romantic reconciliation in front of television cameras, and she asked prosecutors to drop the assault charges. Wanjiru's friends and relatives say Njeri's conditions for dropping the charges were that he sign an affidavit saying she was his official wife and that he leave Wacera. Wanjiru told Wacera that he'd rather go to jail than leave her, but he signed the affidavit, and a copy of Njeri's national identity card issued shortly thereafter shows that his name was added to hers. Wanjiru also moved Njeri to Ngong, a suburb of Nairobi, far from his mother and his other wife. But the charge of illegal gun possession remained, and Wanjiru continued to drink.

Daniel Gatheru, Wanjiru's close friend and training partner, pleaded with Berardelli and Rosa to save Wanjiru from Nyahururu. So Rosa flew in from Italy, and on May 5 he, Berardelli, Francis Kamau, Gatheru and a few others staged an intervention with Wanjiru. They decided he would move in with Berardelli in Eldoret until the gun case was resolved and then leave to train in Oregon with the hope of running the New York City Marathon.

Wanjiru was relieved. He said he would change. He and the others went out to eat together at a resort beside Nyahururu's majestic 243-foot Thomson's Falls. Kamau calls it "the Last Supper."

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