Sean McKeon, Sammy Wanjiru, Martin Lel, and the author at the 2010 Rock 'n' Roll New Orleans Marathon and Half Marathon expo.

Very few runners have ever achieved so much so young.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Recently my colleague Mario Fraioli and I began to compile a list of the 100 greatest runners in history, from the mile to the marathon. Our standard is “lifetime achievement in context”, so it’s not a list of the runners with, say, the 10 fastest times at each of the roughly 10 standard race distances between 1500 meters and 26.2 miles. (In which case the list would consist entirely of male runners competing within the past 25 years.) Rather, it is a list of the runners who have won the most big races and run fastest relative to those against whom they have competed, whether a century ago today.

Sammy Wanjiru, who died yesterday at age 24, is on this list.

Mario and I haven’t yet reached the point of ranking our top 100. We’re just completing the process of deciding who’s in and who’s out. I don’t know yet exactly where Wanjiru will end up, but I am certain that the number of runners among our top 100 who accomplished more than Wanjiru did by age 24 is very small. Four major marathon victories (the 2008 Olympic Marathon, 2009 London Marathon, and 2009 and 2010 Chicago Marathons), a world junior record for 10,000 meters (26:41.75), and a world record for the half marathon (58:33, since eclipsed) is more than some of the runners among our top 100 achieved in careers that lasted 10 years longer.

For comparison’s sake, consider Paula Radcliffe, who may wind up among our top 10, on the strength of her two marathon world records (including her “untouchable” 2:15:25), three World Cross Country Championships titles (including a junior title, plus four other world cross medals), six major marathon victories, and World Championships 10,000m silver medal. Of these accomplishments, Radcliffe had achieved none except for her junior title in cross-country by the age at which Wanjiru’s life was cut short. That’s not to take anything away from Radcliffe, of course, but to underscore how rare it is to achieve so much in running so early.

As much as I hate to say it, Wanjiru’s premature demise surprises me less than any other major runner’s untimely death would have. His fatal fall strikes me not as a random accident that came to him with shocking unexpectedness but, sadly, as the almost foreseeable endpoint of the course he seemed to have been on in his life. The same quality that made Wanjiru great may have foreordained his early passing: an almost out of control energy, a way of attacking life and its challenges.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sammy Wanjiru last year, and I was struck by just that quality. He seemed powerless to contain the storm of energy inside him as he bounced around the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans race expo, signing autographs, answering interviewers’ questions, and posing for photographs, all with an uninterrupted smile on his face.

When, several months later, Wanjiru was arrested in Kenya for attacking his wife and a maid with an AK-47 rifle, I was reminded of something I’d read about Kurt Cobain back in 1991. I was living in Scotland at the time, and Cobain’s newly ascendant rock band, Nirvana, was touring the UK. I was a bit out of the loop during my college junior year abroad and knew nothing about the band when I read a review of one of the group’s shows. The English reviewer was impressed, but darkly so. Cobain seemed such a dangerous fireball that the reviewer had a hard time seeing him living to see his 30th birthday. Of course, he was right: Cobain took his own life at 27.

Wanjiru was a comet, in his work and his life, much like Cobain. I will never forget watching a 21-year-old Wanjiru run the 2008 Olympic Marathon, taking off at 4:48 per mile from the gun in 85-degree heat, and pressing this reckless pace unrelentingly until all of the best marathon runners in the world besides him exploded. I remember clearly what I said aloud to those I was watching with, over and over, until I was forced to eat my words: “He’s committing suicide.”