Summoning the Spirit of John Ngugi

Ngugi

It won’t matter unless he [Kamworor] decides to fulfill his destiny as the second coming of John Ngugi. If he won’t gap Farah, nobody ever will.” – LetsRun poster, responding to the news that Geoffrey Kamworor ran 13:13 in his semi-final heat, and 13:14 in the final of the 5000m at the Kenyan Championships

Mo Farah has owned the 5k and the 10k for the past three years. His ability to close fast off almost any pace brought him double Olympic gold in 2012 and double World Championship gold in 2013, not to mention a record of utter dominance on the track over the past few years. Many challengers have appeared during that time, but no one seems to have figured out how to beat the Brit.

Early in 2015 another challenger appeared. After he won the World XC Championships with an other-worldly sprint finish, Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworor was held up as the man who had the combination of endurance and closing speed to take down Farah. In a much-anticipated meeting in the 10000m at the Prefontaine Classic in May, Kamworor and fellow Kenyan Paul Tanui let Farah do all the work of late-race pacesetting, but Farah out-kicked them anyway, with Tanui taking second, and Kamworor third.

Soon, we hope, we’ll see them clash again in Beijing for the 2015 World Championships. However, as the LetsRun post suggests, Kamworor’s incredible fitness might not matter unless he decides to summon the spirit of John Ngugi and abandon the sit-and-kick tactics of modern championship racing. So who was John Ngugi and why should we invoke his spirit so many years after he won gold in the 5000m at the Seoul Olympics?

I was fortunate to see John Ngugi in the last great race of his career, the senior race at the 1992 World Cross Country Championships, which was held at Franklin Park in Boston. Ngugi was one of a kind. I never saw a runner before or since with such a long and loose stride, appearing effortless even as his great steps gobbled up great expanses of ground. That day in March the course at Franklin Park was covered with snow, but Ngugi, seemingly unaffected by the difficult conditions, surged away from the best runners in the world shortly before five kilometers. I watched in awe as he ran 4:40-mile pace uphill through ankle-deep snow and made it look like an easy jog. He won that race, earning his fifth World XC Championship.

So indelible is the memory of that race in Boston that to this day, when I find myself in the midst of a particularly hard race or workout, I search for inspiration by picturing that beautiful stride.

That cross country race in Boston was the last major international race for Ngugi. In 1993, he received a four-year ban for refusing to take an out-of-competition drug test. He fought the ban, and his defenders pointed to his limited educational background and the fact that no one had ever explained the drug testing protocol to him. He spent a great deal of money on the case, but it didn’t matter. In his early 30’s and having lost fitness, he was finished as a world-class runner.

In addition to his five world cross titles, Ngugi is remembered for the tactics he used in a pair of races on the track that were so audacious, that they almost defy reason.

The first race was the final of the 1988 Olympic 5000 in Seoul. In that race, Ngugi ran in last through the first two laps, passing 800m in about 2:14, and about two seconds behind the leader. At that point, going into the curve and running in lane 2, Ngugi went from last to first in the space of 100 meters. Hitting the straight, he continued sprinting, provoking a brief response from the pack as he burst into the lead. But when it became clear that he wasn’t slowing down, the pack let him go. He flashed past the finish line, having run the previous 200 meters in about 27 seconds. Not content with what was now a 10-meter gap, Ngugi went even harder, and in another half lap he had left the other runners far behind. Although the announcers were shocked that his 400m split was under 60 seconds, they were only considering the leader-to-leader split. In fact, Ngugi ran his third 400m in 57 seconds, and then followed that with a another lap in 61 seconds. At a time when world-record pace for 5000m was 62 seconds per lap, Ngugi had run a 1:58 800m — in the Olympic final!

If you have fifteen minutes, the race is well worth watching in its entirety, and a great example of why it’s criminal to put commercial breaks in the middle of a 5000m.

Notable also is the heart-breaking finish for Domingos Castro, who left the safety of the pack to try to run down Ngugi, only to be overtaken just steps before the finish line. One feels a little less sympathy for Castor when told that he openly taunted Ngugi before the race.

The second example of Ngugi’s ability to shape a race with his unorthodox tactics was the 5000m final in the 1990 Commonwealth Games. In that race, Ngugi is tripped and goes down, falling 35m behind the leaders. He then catches them and surges past, opening a lead of 40m. Seemingly about to repeat his 1988 victory, he is run down at the line by Australia’s Andrew Lloyd and loses gold by a mere 0.08.

Part 1 –
Part 2 –

Wouldn’t it be incredible to watch a fit Geoffrey Kamworor throw in a sub-2:00 in the middle of the IAAF World Championships 5000m final and see how Farah handled it? Cold logic tells us that racing that way is a high-risk proposition, and far from the most efficient way to get from the start to the finish. But the spirit of John Ngugi urges us to remember that the race is not always to the most efficient runner; sometimes it is to the risk-taker who sprints away from the best runners in the world and dares them to follow.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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