So He Runs
Abel Kirui is much more than an Olympic athlete.
By Claude Richli
It’s the final day of the London Olympics. One hundred five runners from almost 70 countries are battling it out in one of the most prestigious competitions of the games: the marathon. Just a few minutes before reaching the finish line, Stephen Kiprotich from Uganda surges from behind to pass the leader of the race, the Kenyan reigning marathon world champion, and snatches the gold. The Kenyan takes silver, 26 seconds behind.
But as the Kenyan passes the finish line, something unusual happens: While the crowd is cheering and hundreds of millions of television spectators from around the world are watching, the Kenyan drapes himself with his national flag, drops to his knees, joins his hands, and bows his head. The man is giving thanks. Evidently he is a Christian.
In fact, he is not just a Christian—he is a Seventh-day Adventist. Meet Abel Kirui, twice a world champion in the marathon (Berlin, Germany 2009; Daegu, Korea, 2011), and a member of the Namgoi Seventh-day Adventist Church in western Kenya. Sports commentators describe him as having an explosive energy; those who know him privately as being a very sociable individual.
A Disciplined Man
Indeed, when I meet the man at his home near Kapsabet, on the high plateau of western Kenya, he comes bounding out as if mounted on springs, a bundle of energy, ready for his morning run. He quickly slips on his running shoes, and we pile into the car that will bring us to his starting point. He talks as fast as he runs: of his career goals, of his projects, of his family, of his faith, of his great responsibilities toward God, family, and country. When he is not talking, he hums and sings, “We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.”
“Next year is going to be a great year: a half marathon in Spain in February, then London in April,” Kirui says. “This is going to be the greatest marathon race ever: Kiprotich is going to be there; Wilson Kipsang is going to be there; and, of course, Abel Kirui. And I must win. Then, it’s going to be the world championships in Moscow, and I want to become the first marathon runner in history to win three world championships.”
FAMILY PORTRAIT: Abel withhis mother, Romana Jeptum Koech and grandmother, Jemaiyo Koech.This is a tall order, but he works hard to reach it. He spends four months of intensive training before each major race. Marathon runners run only two or three major races a year, but during Kirui’s time of preparation that’s all he does. He runs 21 kilometers (13 miles) in the morning, 15 kilometers (nine miles) in the afternoon, goes to bed very early, gets up very early, and spends the first hour with the Lord. He eats balanced meals, avoids fatty food, and lives by the motto: “Chances are opportunities that favor those who are prepared to take them.”
“Running is a discipline, just like the Bible says,” he adds. But when asked if it was a big disappointment to not win the gold, he says, “No, I’m very happy with the silver, too. I thank God for it.” To emphasize how he doesn’t like to leave anything to chance, he demonstrates how he ties his running shoes. “I do one, two, three knots, so that if a knot comes undone during a race, I can continue to run without losing my shoes or wasting time tying my laces again!”
A Fast Runner
Now Kirui jumps out of the car, punches the button on his wrist chronometer, and starts to run. He is not the only one to run in Kapsabet and its surroundings this morning. The sun has barely risen, and the air is still thick with dew, but here and there, pounding the unequal pavement or the dirt surface of the country roads, dozens of would-be long-distance champions are working at building their endurance and speed. After a couple kilometers Kirui catches up to another runner in an orange windbreaker. Startled, the man in orange increases his speed to keep up with him.
Their strides are elegant, powerful, and incredibly fast. Their feet barely touch the ground. Their swinging arms seem to pull them forward. Every now and then a smile breaks on Kirui’s face, and his index finger rises out of his clenched fist, pointing upward. A half kilometer later the man in orange drops behind, unable to keep up. Kirui waves goodbye with a grin and keeps running.
Finally he stops and checks his chronometer. He is very happy: he has just covered 5.6 kilometers (3.5 miles) in 17 minutes. That’s an average speed just a half kilometer per hour slower than the average world record speed in the marathon. Not bad for a routine training run on an uneven surface. I ask, “Would you still be running at that speed if you continued for an hour?”
He laughs. “But of course!”
RACE PACE: Kirui (left) is a familiar figure who trains regularly in the area around his home.Kirui started running as a child. Not wanting to be late to school, he would run: two kilometers in the morning, two kilometers at noon to come home, and the same in the afternoon. By age 12 he could run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) nonstop, and he entered his first competitions for which the prizes were a bunch of bananas, some roasted meat, or juicy sugarcane.
He Runs for God
While in high school Kirui started exhibiting another outstanding gift: spiritual leadership. He was put in charge of leading out in devotions and worship. As a result, his classmates quickly began calling him Pastor Kirui. He tells about one night around midnight toward the end of high school when he asked God to help him run “so I can be a witness.” Describing his ambition, he quotes Psalm 35:18: “I will give You thanks in the great assembly; I will praise You among many people.”
“The Psalms have been my inspiration,” he says. “Every race is an opportunity. What I tell God is ‘Wherever You place me, I will share You.’ So every time I finish a race I say, ‘Thank You, God.’ ”
He says he learned to depend on God early in life. He credits his mother as being his biggest spiritual influence. She encouraged him to attend church on Sabbath mornings. “My older brother would bring me to church, and my mother’s kindness won me to the church.” Today his habit of early-morning prayer is an inheritance from her. “I remember she would wake up in the wee hours to pray that we would choose whom we are going to serve in life,” he says. “Now every morning I get up very early to pray and ask God to give me strength to run.”
At the end of high school Kirui entered a race organized by the police administration. The prize was a job in the police ranks. He won, and has been a police officer ever since. After his performance at the Olympics, he was promoted to the rank of chief inspector. In 2005 he started winning races in Kenya and won his first 10,000 meters in Poland, setting the course record in Gdan´sk, a record that stands to this day.
THE RUNNING LIFE: In addition to twice a day workouts, Kirui supports education in his local village and uses racing as a stage to witness for Christ.
That commitment and training brought the humble village boy far from his modest home. In 2006 he was chosen to be the pacemaker for his role model, Haile Gebrselassie, one of the greatest long-distance runners of all time, during the Berlin Marathon. Gebrselassie won; Kirui finished ninth. That was his breakthrough on the big stage. In 2008 he won silver at the same event. In 2009 he became world champion in Berlin. He also won the Vienna Marathon in 2008, setting a new course record. His personal best time in the event is 2:06:51.
Two minutes after his training run and in spite of the thin air (we are at almost 2,200 meters [7,200 feet]), his breathing is normal again. He quickly gulps a bottle of water.
As we enter the family compound, his mother, grandmother, brother, and a couple cousins greet us. They hug him affectionately and run ahead to show us the ponds he has installed to raise fish to help supplement their diet and their income. As we sit down for a warm drink, he says, “I run for God, for my family, for my nation. It’s a big responsibility. If I win $50,000 in prize money, it completely changes my life. It makes me realize that now I can support 20 people.”
But Abel wants more than to support his family. He wants to contribute to his church and to society. His pastor confirmed in a telephone interview that when the church was in the process of a construction project, Kirui was generous with his support. Meanwhile he has also financed a school in Eldoret, the regional center, offering an education to students pre-K to 8. There are 85 students currently enrolled. He has a building project underway for a dormitory to add 224 students in the short term. He is making plans to accommodate up to 1,000 children within five years. “I want to produce doctors, scientists, businesspeople, and sportsmen,” he says.
He dreams of one day sponsoring a cancer treatment center at the hospital of the University of Eastern Africa Baraton. “An epidemic of cancer is sweeping Africa, and I want to do something about that. Each race I win brings me closer to the goal of supporting these projects,” he says. “I began my life with the Word of God, and I would like to end my life with the Word of God. So I work carefully not to disappoint people, both in terms of running and in terms of character and what I contribute. Money is to work for you, to help fulfill your cause. It is a means to improve things. If it is an idol, what have you got?”
That afternoon he would be on his way to the national training camp for top athletes in Iten. He will spend the next two months there, training hard morning and afternoon. But every Friday night he will be home to spend the Sabbath with his wife and two young children, because as he says, “They don’t have spiritual roots yet.”
Claude Richli is associate publisher of Adventist World. This article was written with contributions from Tor Tjeransen, photographer, and the Adventist News Network.