Tergat, Paul

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Paul Tergat


Professional distance runner

Kenyan Paul Tergat ranks among the world's greatest long distance runners. He has won five World Cross-Country Championships, two Olympic Silver Medals in the 10,000-meter race, and most notably, he holds the world record in the marathon. When Tergat crossed the finish line first at the Berlin Marathon in 2003 in a time of 2:04:55, he had shaved almost 43 seconds off the world record. Tergat's world-record-making performance made him a world-wide celebrity, but Tergat refused to rest on his laurels or become idle in the face of such success. Instead, he remained focused on continuing to improve his racing and used his celebrity to lift up his native country and help to raise funds and awareness for charities dear to his heart.

Paul Tergat was born on June 17, 1969, into a polygamous family that would eventually include 17 children. Tergat's mother, Esther Kipkuna Tergat, was one of his father's three wives. Paul Tergat grew up in the drought and famine plagued Rift Valley of Kenya in the small town of Baringo. "For most kids in Baringo," Tergat wrote in an opinion in the Christian Science Monitor, "life was an uphill struggle, where the lack of food meant you couldn't get a head start in life. Children usually spent their early years helping their families earn a living. At best, only one child in the family went to school, but even then, hunger always hovered nearby." Tergat knew the struggle of hunger well, despite the relative security of his father's government job.

The desperate circumstances of Tergat's youth were mitigated by the United Nations World Food Program starting in the late 1970s. When Tergat turned eight years old, the WFP began providing a free lunch for children at his school. Tergat remembered to the Christian Science Monitor that the guaranteed daily lunch lifted "a heavy burden" and he and his friends "could concentrate on our lessons." Tergat completed his education and was drafted into the Kenyan Air Force in 1990.

It was in the Air Force that Tergat first exercised his "deep passion" for running, as he told the Chicago Tribune, basketball being the sport he had gravitated toward as a youth. Much has been made about the running prowess of the Kenyan tribe from which Tergat can trace his roots. Tergat has the distinct slight, yet very tall frame, efficient lungs, and amazing endurance of the Kalenjin tribe, among whose tribesman include "more than half of the world's top ten road racers," according to Backpacker. Despite the advantages of his genetic make-up, Tergat came in 25th in his first race in 1991, and recalled "his lungs burning so badly he thought he was smelling blood," according to the Chicago Tribune. He did not lose heart, however. In the Air Force Tergat trained with world class runners. Training and eating with them motivated Tergat. He determined that even though he lost his first races miserably, "there was no difference between me and those who were beating me," as he told the Chicago Tribune. He soon proved himself right.

By 1992 Tergat won his first Kenyan cross-country championship. His win garnered the attention of Italian trainer Gabriele Rosa, who began working with Tergat in Italy, Switzerland, and Kenya. The training efforts transformed Tergat into a world class runner.

Tergat first came to international attention in cross-country racing at the 12 kilometer distance. Entering his first world cross-country championship event in 1993, Tergat quickly figured out how to race to win. He rose from 10th place in 1993 to 4th place the following year, and between 1995 and 1999 Tergat became the first man to win five consecutive International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Cross-country Championships. His Air Force training buddy John Ngugi had been the first man to win the championship fives times in the preceding decade, winning four times between 1986 and 1989, and again in 1992.

As Tergat's international star rose among cross-country athletes, he raced track distances as well. He concentrated mainly on the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races, training with determination and focus. His work paid off in 1997 when he broke the world record in the 10,000 meter race in Brussels. Following this victory Tergat told the Chicago Tribune that "I believed my career was not going to be complete without a world record." But that record did not become the apex of Tergat's career. (Haile Gebrselassie also bested Tergat's 10,000 meter record 13 days after he made it in 1997.) He took two silver medals in the 10,000 meter race in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics and at the World Championships in Athletics in 1997 and 1999. But after losing all four of these significant races to Gebreselassie—by as little as nine-hundredths of a second in 2000—Tergat turned his attention to longer races.

He had for some time competed in longer, half marathon distances. In Milan, Italy, in 1995 he became the second man in history to run a half marathon in under an hour. Tergat became the world record holder of the half-marathon distance in 1998, with a time of 59 minutes 17 seconds, and by 2001 had Tergat run more sub-60 minute half marathons than any other runner. (His half-marathon record was eclipsed in 2005 by Kenyan Samuel Wanjiru, and again by his long-time running rival Gebrselassie, who clocked a 58 minute, 55 second record in 2006.)

To this illustrious running career, Tergat soon added marathon racing. At the time of his marathon debut in London in 2001, Tergat remarked to David Powell of the London Times that "The marathon is the only challenge left for me." In his marathon debut, Tergat finished in second place, 64 seconds behind the winner, and came away from the race convinced that "the marathon is the career for me now," as he told BBC Sport. The following year he came in second again at London's Marathon. His second place time of 2:05:48 seconds was a new Kenyan record and only a tenth of a second behind Moroccan-born Khalid Khannouchi's new world record. After the race, Tergat predicted that the world record would drop below two hours and four minutes "in the not-too-distant future," according to the Daily Nation on the Web. "I can't foretell who will run it," Tergat added.

Tergat himself took the first steps toward his prediction. On September 28, 2003, in Berlin, Germany, Tergat became the first man to run a marathon in less than two hours five minutes. His speed was 43 seconds faster than the previous world record for the distance. "At last!," Tergat said to New York Times writer Jere Longman. "I knew deep in my head that one day I would get this world record, and today everything fell into place," Tergat said upon winning, according to Michelle Kaufman of the Miami Herald.

Tergat continued racing marathons, but none quite so fast. Injury kept him from running in some and his hope of winning an Olympic gold medal in the marathon eluded him in 2004, as he finished that race in tenth place. That year Tergat announced would be his last representing Kenya at the Olympics, but that he would continue racing for a while longer. In the New York City Marathon in 2005, Tergat showed that he still had a fierce will to win. In a desperate final sprint, Tergat beat South Africa's Hendrick Ramaala by a third-of-a-second, marking the narrowest victory in the history of the New York City Marathon. The day after his victory, Tergat told New York Times writer Frank Litsky that the race had been "a painful experience," adding that even though "I love my sport. I will probably run three more years. I've been doing this long enough, and there are so many more things interesting in life."

At a Glance …

Born June 17, 1969, in Baringo, Kenya; married Monica; children: Ronald, Harriet, and Gloria. Military service: Kenyan Air Force, sergeant.

Career: Distance runner, 1992–.

Awards: Olympic Silver Medal, 1996, for 10,000 meter race; IAAF World Cross-Country Championships, first place, 1995–99; Olympic Silver Medal, 2000, for 10,000 meter race.

Addresses: Office—c/o World Food Programme, UN Gigiri Compound, Nairobi, Kenya.

Tergat had long been pursuing his other interests so that he was well prepared when his racing career would come to an end. He had started an import-export business in Kenya, opened a hotel in Kabarnet, and co-founded the quarterly Kenyan magazine entitled Athlete. He donated his own money or helped to raise funds to promote sports in Kenya. In 2004 Tergat became an Ambassador Against Hunger for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). With funding for the food program threatened, Tergat hoped his status as a world-class athlete who had personally benefited from the WFP would help to raise awareness and funding. Tergat grasped that his legacy would be much more than as a setter of multiple world records. Those records would be bested. Tergat's true legacy would be his ability to inspire others to strive for their own goals and to help those in need reach for theirs as well.



Wirz, Jurg, Paul Tergat: Running to the Limit, His Life and His Training Secrets, Meyer & Meyer Fachverlag und Buchhandel GmbH, 2005.


Africa News Service, January 22, 2004; October 8, 2004.

Backpacker, April 2005, p. 44.

Christian Science Monitor, November 23, 2005, p. 9.

Miami Herald, October 4, 2003.

New York Times, March 27, 2000, p. D5; November 7, 2005, p. A1; November 8, 2005, p. D2.

Sports Illustrated, November 14, 2005, p. 24.


"Biography: Paul Tergat," IAAF International Association of Athletics Federations, http://www.iaaf.org/athletes/athlete%3D9745/ (November 16, 2006).

"A Closer Look at Paul Tergat Running to the Limit, "RunOhio, www.runohio.com/news/07-06Book_review.html (November 16, 2006).

"Tulu: Dedication Was the Key," BBC Sport, http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/in_depth/2001/london_marathon/1291286.stm (November 16, 2006).

"Marathon Runner Paul Tergat Joins WFP Race to Beat Hunger," World Food Programme, www.wfp.org/English/?ModuleID=137&Key=843 (November 16, 2006).