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The conference room at the Chicago Hilton was noisy as reporters scrambled yesterday to chat up the elite athletes running Sunday’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Most of the athletes looked nervous, unsure of what to say about their chances in what is America’s second-largest marathon, part of the Abbott World Marathon Majors. They were definitely feeling the pressure.
But sitting quietly and looking calm was Kenya’s Stephen Sambu, who will make his debut at the 42.195 kilometer distance here. Sambu, 28, a former NCAA star for the University of Arizona, will move out of his comfort zone of the 5-K to the half-marathon, the distance range over which he has recorded 18 road racing victories and 30 podium finishes since becoming a professional in the fall of 2012. He saw stepping up to the marathon now as a natural progression of his career. The time was right, he said.
“I decided because I’ve done a lot of half-marathons, like New York,” said Sambu who won the NYC Half last March, finished second in 2015, third in 2014 and seventh in 2013. “I did New York, I don’t know, four or five times. I was like, this is enough. I just need to try the full one.”
Executive Race Director Carey Pinkowski recruited Sambu back in the spring, making him the first top athlete he announced for the race. In the midst of doping crisis in Kenya, Pinkowski saw Sambu as both a trustworthy and talented athlete.
“The Bank of America Chicago Marathon has a long tradition of featuring the world’s best athletes making their marathon debuts right here,” Pinkowski said in a statement at the time. “To have Stephen Sambu, a person with deep integrity on top of being a talented athlete, add his name to that legacy is truly exciting. He’s one of the most highly rated athletes on the road today who isn’t afraid to go to the well and put in the work. He loves the energy of racing in our city.”
Chicago has a history of fast debuts by Kenyan athletes, including a 2:05:50 by Evans Rutto in 2003 and a 2:06:54 by Ondoro Osoro in 1998. Both marks were world debut records at the time.
Sambu cut back his racing schedule this year so that he could first try for the Kenyan Olympic team at 5000m (he ended up tenth in their Olympic Trials last June), and then be ready for Chicago. He only ran one summer road race, the New Balance Falmouth Road Race last August, which he won easily by a 25-second margin over USA Olympian Leonard Korir. He has stayed home in Arizona grinding out the miles under his longtime coach, James Li. The training was challenging, he said, leaving his legs more tired than ever before.
“You know, when I did 40K I got massages because my legs were killing me everywhere,” Sambu explained, shaking his head. “I didn’t have like injury, or anything. My legs were, like, dead from long runs.”
Along the way, he got advice from training partner Abdi Abdirahman, a four-time Olympian and 2:08:56 marathoner who set his personal best in Chicago ten years ago. Abdirahman counseled him to not overdo his long runs and, above all, be restrained during the race.
“Abdi told me about racing. He told me, ‘Be careful, don’t go crazy,'” Sambu said. He added: “You know, I’m just going to be very careful not to go crazy. “This is a very long race. So, my plan is to go at a comfortable pace maybe, almost, five minutes (per mile) at the beginning, or maybe 4:55, 4:50. That’s my goal.”
Pinkowski abandoned pacemakers last year to try to foster better head-to-head competition. That will make this year’s race doubly difficult for Sambu who will have to focus on controlling his pace and not getting caught up in any early breaks which are too quick. However, prize money only goes 5-deep here ($100,000-75,000-50,000-20,000-20,000) so Sambu doesn’t want to get too far behind, especially if Chicago’s notorious winds kick up.
“I’m worried that, like, it might be so windy,” Sambu said. He added: “The weather is going to be my worry, but I hope it’s going to be good.”
If he’s successful here on Sunday, Sambu said that he’ll focus on the marathon going forward. It’s no secret that the marathon is the most lucrative distance in road running, but it is also the least forgiving and most competitive. Sambu isn’t worried about that now.
“I’ll be a marathoner, yes,” Sambu said with a nervous laugh. “That’s going to be my thing.”