Half Marathon is full of Kenyan contenders
Only a few weeks after winning the NCAA Division 1 5,000-meter championship in Des Moines (13:29.30) to wrap up a sterling college career as a 14-time All-American, Sam Chelanga made his professional debut in the Boston Athletic Association’s inaugural 10K race June 26. He finished fourth, trailing only the same trio of runners who crossed the line 1-2-3 in this year’s Boston Marathon.
Today, Chelanga, who holds the NCAA record for the 10,000 meters, will make his second debut in Boston, joining 7,000 runners for the 8:30 a.m. start of the BAA’s 11th Half Marathon.
The 26-year-old Kenya native, a June graduate of Liberty University, must get past two former BAA Half Marathon champions and fellow Kenyans to earn the victory: John Korir, 35, who won last year’s race in 1 hour 2 minutes 21 seconds, outkicking Alan Kiprono in the last 120 meters to win by a shoelace, and Samuel Ndereba, 34, who won in 2006 in 1:03:03 and finished second in 2007, matching Korir’s 1:02:21.
Also in the field are 33-year-old Kenyan veteran Gilbert Okari, course record-holder at the Falmouth Road Race and Beach to Beacon 10K, and the top American, California native Fernando Cabada, 29, who ran 1:02:32 at the Duluth Half Marathon in June.
Defending champion Caroline Rotich of Kenya, whose 1:10:52 last year set the event record by 34 seconds, highlights the women’s field, which includes Jane Kibii, another Kenyan, and American Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, a Kenyan-born runner who ran for Harding University.
Cherobon-Bawcom is fairly sprinting into Boston on the heels of victories in the US 20K and 10-mile championships within the last month, and she has finished first or second in eight of the 10 races she has run this year.
Chelanga’s inexperience at the half-marathon distance - and his unabashed love for Boston - offer intriguing possibilities.
“It’s one of those cities where positive things happen,’’ said Chelanga.
Chelanga’s home in Kenya is a village of 70 people living in small huts. But he basks in the glow of the Citgo sign in busy Kenmore Square. From the time his older brother Joshua, a world-class marathoner, gave him a John Hancock-labeled race towel from the 2001 event, Chelanga has been enchanted with Boston.
Running, not so much. In high school, he chose to play Ping-Pong for his required sport because running, he said, “hurt.’’ Even the influence of Joshua, who was third at Boston in 2001, and won the 2007 Rotterdam Marathon, couldn’t get him moving.
A year and a half of working on his brother’s farm proved stronger motivation, and Chelanga began training with his brother’s group, which included former world marathon record-holder Paul Tergat. He also trained with four-time Boston winner Robert Cheruiyot.
Chelanga later wrote, “One day, after a hard hill run, [Cheruiyot] pulled me aside and told me that I, too, could win in Boston someday. From that moment, I began to dream of Boston and the Boston Marathon. I dream of running down Boylston representing the country that has given me so much. Each day, I am one step closer.’’
Chelanga was an uncomfortable freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson in 2006 when he ran in the IC4As at Boston College. That’s where he met Josh McDougal, and the two struck up a friendship when Chelanga asked for help running his first big college event. McDougal told him to “just sit behind me, and we’ll be fine.’’
“I was so happy, I ran 13:46, the fastest 5K I had ever run in my life, and that was in Boston,’’ Chelanga said.
McDougal persuaded Chelanga to transfer to Liberty, and when Chelanga was not granted a waiver by FDU, he spent his year on the competitive sideline pushing McDougal. That collaboration resulted in McDougal’s victory in the national cross-country championship.
“I’ll always remember that epic season,’’ said Chelanga. “I red-shirted but then something good happened.’’
After that, Chelanga’s running career took off.