What you need to know:
- Interestingly, Ndereba owes her record-breaking feat to journalist Tony Levis who tipped her that she was well inside the world record towards the end of the race
- She arrived in Beijing as world champion and favourite but it’s Romanian Constantina Dita who bagged gold in 2:26:44
- Having fallen short of delivering the Olympic gold, Ndereba insists Kenya stands a big chance of breaking that jinx at the Tokyo Summer Games this year
Midway through the 2015 Nagano Marathon in Japan, Catherine Ndereba couldn’t feel her legs. What was meant to be a comeback after two years on the sidelines, turned out to be an exit route.
The pain on her right ankle was unbearable. She had been treated for torn ligaments since 2012 but the injury kept recurring. She then decided to rest for two years to recover, and Nagano was the perfect place to bounce back.
“This race was meant to be my comeback since I had taken time to recover and trained well. I decided to run (in Nagano) because we bonded so well with the Japanese during my racing career,” Ndereba told Nation Sport.
However, the chilly conditions in the streets of Nagano on that Sunday morning aggravated the injury and at the 30 kilometre mark she felt like dropping out.
“My body normally responds well in hot conditions so when we got to 30km, the pain became so intense. I was so tempted to stop but I decided to keep going just to finish the race,” said Ndereba, who was 42 at the time and at the sunset of her stellar career in marathon running.
She was determined to finish and she did, only that her time of two hours, 50 minutes, 52 seconds placed her seventh, a whole daylight behind race winner Beatrice Jepkemboi of Kenya who clocked 2:34:02. But it didn’t matter!
Retired at 42
As she crossed the finishing line, Ndereba was certain about two things; she would need a lot of rest to recover from the nagging injury and there was no better way to rest than retiring.
“It was my prayer that when the time of my exit comes, God would give me a sign. The Bible normally says that even foxes know their time of going home but the Lord’s people normally miss their time,” offered Ndereba with the assurance of a street preacher.
“All through I believed my running is like a mission and whenever God sends you for a mission, you can only be there for a certain time. When your work is done there, God takes you to somewhere else where he needs your service,” added Ndereba who was appointed sports coordinator at Kenya Prisons on October 26 the same year.
Her glittering career was as fulfilling as it was frustrating in the two decades where she managed to run on all surfaces – track, cross country and on the road. It’s a career that took her from the remote village of Gatung’ang’a in Nyeri County, Central Kenya to big cities in the USA where she made her name winning four Boston Marathon titles and two in Chicago that featured a world record time in 2001.
In winning the 2001 Chicago Marathon in 2:18:47, Ndereba shaved 59 seconds off the previous world record held by Japan’s Naoko Takahashi following her victory in Berlin just seven days earlier. It was a moment of reckoning for Ndereba who only made her marathon debut in April 1999 in Boston after years of frustration in track and cross country.
“For many years I had tried to make the cross country team but as much as I could get into the top six, I wasn’t good enough for the federation to select me to Team Kenya. In 1999, I felt like I had enough of being dropped out of the team and that’s why I hurriedly decided to run in Boston Marathon,” recalls Ndereba who had been taken on a route trip of Boston by her friend Fred Tesla the previous year.
“When Tesla saw me there, he was like ‘Catherine, what a great decision’. Everybody was waiting to see how I could do the full marathon because I was really good at 5km, 10km and the half marathon. I don’t know why people thought I’d make a good marathoner but probably it was because of my running style,” said Ndereba, who finished sixth in 1999 Boston Marathon in 2:28:27.
Her return to Boston the next year saw her emerge champion in 2:27:53 but again she was snubbed by the federation for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
“When I went back to Boston, I really wanted to be in the podium because in 1999, I didn’t know what to expect. I can say proudly I ran without a plan. The federation had promised me a place in the team if I won Boston but they chose somebody else. Nobody could see the potential in me, they still felt I was not good enough,” she says with a tinge of disappointment.
World marathon record
Gutted, she signed up for Chicago Marathon in October where she not only set a new course record but improved her personal best time by six minutes and 20 seconds winning in 2:21:33.
“Now that I was not going to run in the Olympics, I decided to run in Chicago because I kept on hearing people say it’s a flat course, it’s as flat as a pancake. Apart from winning the race I improved my time by more than five minutes and I felt like I own the world,” says a beaming Ndereba who not only defender her Boston and Chicago titles the next year but set a new world record.
“When I went to Chicago (in 2001) I was really looking for it (the world record). My first goal was just to break the course record of Chicago Marathon because there was a gift which was a Volkswagen Jetta. I said if I’m ever going to miss something else, I’m not going to miss the Volkswagen Jetta,” recalled Ndereba of the race held just a few weeks after the infamous 911 bombing as a beacon of hope for Americans.
Interestingly, Ndereba owes her record-breaking feat to journalist Tony Levis who tipped her that she was well inside the world record towards the end of the race.
“As I was running I didn’t even concentrate much on the world record. I was just concentrating on the time I was doing per mile. At some point with two miles to go, one of the media people Tony Levis who used to know us (from our camp) shouted to me that one of our fellow athletes (Benson Kimondiu) had won the men’s race,” said Ndereba who used to run under ‘Promotion in Motion International’ stable managed by Lisa Buster.
“He then shouted to me ‘Catherine, it’s like you are running 4:56 a mile’ and I was like really? I was hoping to do like five minutes in my last two miles. He was shouting about the world record but I couldn’t make the connection that I was in world record pace,” revealed Ndereba whose record lasted for a year before Paula Radcliffe glided to victory in 2:17:18 in Chicago in 2002.
Radcliffe improved her time to 2:15:25 in the 2003 London Marathon, a record that stood for 16 years before Brigid Kosgei smashed it in 2019 when she won Chicago Marathon in 2:14:04. Ndereba believes that the record can still be lowered.
“I didn’t get shocked, in fact I was very happy to see a fellow Kenyan has gotten us back the record. It can go lower…I pray so hard that God will help our people not to be cheaters. They just stick in truth and work hard because it’s achievable,” asserted Ndereba.
“I believe that records are there to be broken and that is sports. When (Paul) Tergat ran the first sub 2:05 marathon in 2003, I remember telling male athletes in our camp that in less than ten years to come, men will run (the marathon) under two hours and they couldn’t believe it. I’m glad (Eliud) Kipchoge did it and proved it’s possible. If there are no records that are being broken, sports could be very tasteless. But when you see people break records it tells you that there is a lot of growth.”
Beijing Olympic Games
At her peak, Ndereba not only ruled the city marathons but also championship races. While she became world champion twice (2003 and 2007), the Olympic gold proved elusive. She settled for silver in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 but it's the latter that remains etched in her mind to date. She arrived in Beijing as world champion and favourite but it’s Romanian Constantina Dita who bagged gold in 2:26:44, becoming the oldest Olympic marathon champion in history at 38.
“It was quite a surprise because I was going for gold but I don’t have any regrets at all because after four years I was able to maintain my shape and to win another silver. My second silver is just like gold, it’s only the colour that differentiates them,” calmly explains the 2004 and 2005 Kenyan sportswoman of the year.
“I didn’t see her (Dita) and I could not even imagine she was ahead because that was the only race in my entire career that she got to beat me,” she lets out a hearty laugh. “Not 5km, not 10km, none…that was the first and last race that she beat me.”
Ndereba had a slow start to the race and hit the halfway mark in 26th place. By 30km mark, Dita had already built a lead of nearly one minute and there was no stopping her from there.
“When I started I didn’t feel so well…I was having a tight back. Whenever I could feel something I could take my time before making a move. By the time I was trying to make a move it was past the half marathon (21km). I caught up with the leading group at around 30km or 35km.
“At 37km, the cabin broke and then we were left like a group of seven. When I run, I used to hum a praise and worship song as a way of encouraging myself or keep meditating on a certain verse from the Bible to give me motivation,” reveals Ndereba.
Speaking in tongues
On this Sunday, Ndereba meditated on Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.
“As I could say it many times, I found myself singing: ‘I can do all things, I can do all things, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’,” she sings along in a sweet melody reminiscent of a Presbyterian choir where she fellowships.
“As I was doing that, I got to a point and I felt like the race was getting tough. I kept on asking God to give me strength to overcome because I was struggling with my hamstring which was getting a muscle pull. At the back of mind, I knew the medals were only three and we were seven in the group so I kept on asking God to show me which one was mine.
“He didn’t show me the silver but my prayer was answered. When I emerged from the crowd, that’s when I saw this lady (Dita) coming from the other direction. When we were heading towards South, she was heading to the North. I asked God, ‘Now that this race didn’t have a man who could this person be? Now that gold is gone, give me strength to get to the podium’. My great aim was just to get to the podium,” said Ndereba who was closely followed by two Chinese athletes Zhou Chunxiu and Zhu Xiaolin heading to the homestretch.
As they got to the stadium, a fully packed Bird’s Nest erupted cheering home favourite Chunxiu in the sprint finish. Ndereba had to dig deep to secure silver in a time of 2:27.06, just a second ahead of Zhou.
“As I was praying I got to a point where I prayed with a language I could not understand what I was saying. Much later, I came to realise that God blessed me with the tongues. I got the tongues when I was running the marathon in Beijing that’s why this race is so special. Even if I didn’t get the gold, I got the best that I could like to have in this world,” said Ndereba who was born in a Catholic family but now attends church at Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Nairobi West.
“Even when I finished my race, that lap of honour I kept on praying in tongues. As the stadium was full of people, I was asking God that He may draw them to His kingdom.”
Having fallen short of delivering the Olympic gold, Ndereba insists Kenya stands a big chance of breaking that jinx at the Tokyo Summer Games this year. World marathon record holder Kosgei, world champion Ruth Chepng’etich, world half marathon champion Peres Jepchirchir and legendary Vivian Cheruiyot will represent Kenya in the Olympics marathon that will be held in Sapporo.
“I believe there is a lot of possibility for the gold to come to Kenya because first of all we have to believe in our team, secondly we have to encourage them and also give them the right tips because city marathon is totally different from a big championship marathon. Whenever everybody is out there they go for the best which is the three medals at stake,” opined the mother of one, Jane Wairimu – a Forensic and Medical Science graduate.
Now retired, Ndereba – an assistant commissioner in charge of 12 sports disciplines at Kenya Prisons Service – spends her time mentoring young athletes. Her long list of mentees has athletes who have already conquered the world notably 2016 Paris Marathon champion Visiline Jepkesho, 2018 world junior 3,000 metres steeplechase champion Celliphine Chespol and Rio 2016 Olympics 800 metres bronze medallist Margaret Nyairera.
On the evidence of her products at Prisons, Ndereba wants to give back to athletics in a big way even when she finally leaves her work station where she has been since 1995.
“When I retire (from Kenya Prisons), my dream is to have a sports academy whereby I will manage young talents from maybe age 10 to high school. I have already acquired land in Ngong, what is remaining now is putting up the structures,” said Ndereba who turns 49 on July 21.
If only apples don't fall far from the tree, Ndereba might just give us another gem – perhaps even greater than “Catherine the great”.