Daniel Wanjiru and the sacrifices of a marathon champion

Daniel Wanjiru is hoping for a repeat of his 2017 performance, when he won the London Marathon. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

To run at Daniel Wanjiru's speed seems unfathomable, a demand of supernatural talent gifted to a rare few in the upper echelon of distance running.

This is a guy who clocks 4:47-minute miles for a marathon, which equates to a finishing time of 2 hours, 5 minutes and 21 seconds. He proved it when he won the Amsterdam Marathon in 2016.

And for the next three years, he's pressured 130 miles a week on his willowy 5-foot-9, 128-pound frame. That could easily burn someone out. But Wanjiru isn't one to retire from the resolve needed to inch to the top at one of the greatest sporting competitions in the world. He's on the cusp of a dream that could become reality when he lines the start of the London Marathon Sunday.

A handful of the world's most legendary runners of this generation will be next to him for what could be the most sensational race of 2019, including marathon world record-holder and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge, multi-Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah and former marathon world record-holder Wilson Kipsang.

"They should not underestimate me," Wanjiru says of the pool of running royalty he's up against. "If they do..." his voice trails off. "I have to win. I don't fear anybody."

The self-assurance Wanjiru speaks with could seem like a front. He's all business though. While headlines for the past few months have highlighted the stars of the men's elite field, Wanjiru has been left off the radar, as if his 2017 London Marathon victory was nothing more than a fluke. He'd entered the race as the new kid on the block, the sixth fastest on the start list.

"It was a surprise to me, too," Wanjiru says of his win. "Because it was my first major marathon, and I was competing with big names, like [Kenenisa] Bekele and [Abel] Kirui and other guys. I was not under pressure. My confidence was there, telling my body that I could do it."

That's a line he's coached himself with since he was a child. Like on days when there was no food in the small hut he lived in with his grandmother and mother in the village of Gitongui-ini. He'd work for his only meal of the day by shoveling manure and fetching water for cows on whatever farm he had the energy to run to.

"It didn't matter what the work was," Wanjiru says, recalling the rough memories. "If I didn't work, I'd suffer. Life was like that -- tough."

It was an equation he relied on too often so as to fill his stomach with a hot bowl of ugali, an African porridge made of cornmeal -- just enough sustenance to support his six-mile runs to and from school.

Wanjiru says his mother and grandmother had no one to count on for financial help. He's still sensitive about their collective struggles when he remembers how his mother would often leave him behind to "go out looking for money," he says. Sometimes that was by selling bananas. Other times she'd work on a farm. But whatever she could do to help support her only child was often below bare minimum. And her son wouldn't eat for a day. There were times, Wanjiru says, he'd be out of school due to his family's insufficient funds to pay for his education.

You are a product of your decisions and circumstances, he believes. He thinks about this and how much life has shifted from that little boy sitting alone in his mud hut with an empty stomach to the man he's matured into, one whose uncompromising disposition has helped steer his career to a place that's wishful thinking to most others. When Wanjiru's feet swiftly tap the cocoa-colored dirt roads around training base Embu, Kenya, his mind replays his transformation.

"I need a lot of concentration. That's why I'm here," Wanjiru says of Kigari Athletic Camp, where he lives six days a week, separated from his wife, Sarah, and two children.

Sundays are reserved for driving 21 miles to Kagio to have dinner with his daughter, Sherlyn, 11, and his 3½-year-old son, Fidel Thomas. It's temporary relief before his monkish grind resets the following morning before sunrise back in Embu.

What Wanjiru is running after is far greater than the sum of every day since last December, when he started his London Marathon preparation. When his Garmin watch buzzes at 5 a.m., it's as though he's magnetically drawn onto the road. Twice daily training sessions. The absence of his children's warm affection. The path to becoming a champion is never without sacrifice.

Winning is important. Beyond making headlines and walking away with potentially a six-figure sum if he places first in London, Wanjiru's truth is that there are two little faces relying on him. He must provide so his children don't endure his same childhood struggles. Or those in his community, for that matter.

"If I win a race," Wanjiru says, "I have to help. If somebody has a problem -- if they get sick, I give them money to go to a medical check-up. Sometimes, I buy food for them or clothes. I have to do something."

The karma of being blessed with talent has motivated him since his first race at age 13. He remembers his birth into competing came during primary school one Wednesday. He was selected to compete in a 5K race at a nearby school two days later. He won. One nibble of victory was all he needed to catapult his drive.

"When you win at that age, you see it's something good for you," Wanjiru says. "It gave me courage. I'd put more pressure on myself to win again. I still do."

Wanjiru asks no questions when coach Julias Nyamu programs his day with 5K repeats under 15 minutes for each one. Or when he needs to teeter the rough, hilly slopes of Mount Kenya for 23 ½ miles, which he's clocked in 2:03. And then, of course, the usual 12-mile morning runs followed by six more miles before sundown. It's all dress rehearsal for the main presentation -- intended to be a 2:03 performance at the London Marathon.

"He's so concentrated," Nyamu says of Wanjiru's ethic. "Under 2:05 I am sure," he projects of Wanjiru's forthcoming attempt. It's a number flirting with London's course record, 2:03:05 set by Kipchoge in 2016.

But never mind Kipchoge. Or Farah. Or Kipsang. Or any of the other elite entrants among the three dozen in the men's field. Ultimately, the race is Wanjiru versus Wanjiru.

"I have to run my own race," Wanjiru says of the self-imposed 2:03 goal, which would be a two-minute personal best.

He's run the London Marathon twice and can comfortably scheme his plan. Speaking from past experiences, he describes the course as not complicated, explaining portions of it as though it replays in his mind like his favorite form of entertainment.

"The first half will be very fast. So if anybody is not in good shape, sorry for him," says Wanjiru. "I know where to attack my competitors. You cannot race anybody before reaching 27 to 30 kilometers. From 38 I have to plan how I will make my move, depending on who is my competitor."

Flashing back to 2017, Wanjiru moved alone at mile 20. Like a predator going in for the kill, "when they are struggling, you don't have to wait," he says, reacting with an air of certainty that only one who has experienced how to handle it knows.

Of course, his 2018 failed attempt to defend his title is a reality he doesn't dismiss. Wanjiru projects considerable improvement from his eighth-place finish last year. The way he's been training, "I'm in good condition for sure, no doubt."

It helped that he finally figured out what had been ailing his body. For months in 2018, he experienced rashes and described a bitter taste in his mouth. "I felt sick. My body looked swollen everywhere. I felt cold," he describes of his suffering. Doctors visits and multiple tests confirmed a food allergy to dairy and pork. Since eliminating both from his diet, he says his health revived. "My body condition now is OK," he adds.

Having gotten back on track and back to work, Wanjiru is always reminding himself of his idol as he continues advancing his abilities. He points to the late Sammy Wanjiru, whom he shares no relation, as evergreen inspiration.

Sammy was widely considered one of the most talented distance runners of his generation before he fatally fell from his balcony in 2011. Before his death at age 24, Sammy won the London Marathon (2009) and the Chicago Marathon twice (2009-2010), respectable accomplishments individually, rare feats collectively.

But what is most sealed in Wanjiru's mind is the moment he watched his fellow Kenyan sprint through Bird's Nest stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. To the sound of cheers in full eruption, Sammy clapped and held his arms high as he broke the blue ribbon of the finish and became the youngest Olympic marathon champion -- and Kenya's first Olympic gold medalist in the marathon. His time, 2:06:32, also reset the Olympic record by nearly three minutes.

"That marathon," Wanjiru says of Sammy's performance. "It encouraged me. I told people that one day I'll represent my country the way Sammy did. I've done it once in London. I'm looking forward to doing it again."