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Boston Marathon king and his new race to win and convert your souls

NAIROBI
By Mercy Orengo | June 1st 2019
Former Boston marathon winner Cosmas Ndeti at his Christ Deliverance and Destiny Chapel in Kitengela. He was the first Kenyan to be banned for doping, but rose to jog with the Clintons. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

As Cosmas Ndeti lunged forward to the finishing tape at the Boston Marathon in 1993 to pull off one of the biggest shockers in athletics, the announcers were dumbfounded.

“He came from nowhere, he just came steamrolling from nowhere,” they yelled in utter disbelief about a man who had just turned the tables on the favourites.

The favourites - Kim J Young and Luc as Swaatbooi -- had on their own been neck-to-neck for seven to eight miles before Ndeti surged past them. Ibrahim Hussein, the defending champion, had pulled out at the 18th mile while Benson Masya was nowhere in sight.

“He had the advantage of running in obscurity, no pressure on him, he was the last of the Kenyans anyone thought might win this, and is the last time he ever gonna handle a race with nobody knowing he is there,” the commentator added. 

Twenty six years later, Ndeti has never forgotten the indescribable feeling that welled inside him that day. In the ensuing disbelief, he missed the protocol.

“I did not know how to behave after winning. Two men grabbed me and put a ribbon around my neck. They were calling me champion, but they could not pronounce my name well,” he says.

Back home, his wife Jane Kitavi was watching his crowning from a neighbour’s television. Their house, a single room in Machakos had nothing of value. They had never imagined that Ndeti, a village boy with no professional trainer, would one day upset the world.

Shortly after his win, he got an invite from former US President Bill Clinton. As was tradition in the White House -- before terrorism forced the presidential security to limit access -- winners of major marathons would visit the Clintons for a jogging session.

Ndeti was among four winners who were invited from various races. The only African in the group.

“The night before meeting Clinton, I did not sleep. When he finally showed up in casual attire, my feet were trembling,” he says.

It would not be the last meeting with Clinton. In 1994, he not only retained his Boston Marathon title, he set a course record that stood for 12 years. He knocked off the previous record holder Rob De Castellar from Australia by beating his speed by 36 seconds.

By the time Ndeti was meeting Clinton for the third time after his 1995 win, he held the title of being the only African to ever win the Boston Marathon three times consecutively. This time, he was allowed to ride with Clinton on their way to the park.

Ndeti with former US President Bill Clinton. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Household name

He remembers Clinton cracking jokes with him, and at some point having his arms around him. “I look back at how things happened in my life and it feels like a dream,” he says, staring at a photo where Clinton is holding his hand and smiling endearingly at him.

Now a preacher, Ndeti says there are things he rarely talks about – like how he was once a household name, epitomising all the glory that comes with being a champion.

Walking with God, he says, means leaving behind all the trappings of fame; even if that fame cast you into global press, like it did for him.

“At that time, I was racing in my physical body. Now I am racing spiritually. You do not want your congregation to think you are obsessed with earthly things,” says Ndeti, who is a preacher at Christ Deliverance and Destiny Chapel.

The walls of his office are lined with photos that tell of the different worlds he has lived. Posters of Bible verses are interspersed with images of his hands stretched out as he crosses the finishing line, his competitors trailing behind.

His entry into athletics was a lucky happenstance. He admits that he was a lazy boy who loved his sleep a little too much. His older brothers would wake him up for school when it was almost assembly time. Corporal punishment was legal and teachers were not gentle.

Ndeti says the thought of lashes would send him bolting uphill to the school. Teachers soon discovered his speed and he was put in charge of buying bread for them over break time at a shop four kilometers away.

“Teachers would praise my speed. Soon, the whole school knew me as the boy who ran,” he says.

By the time he was getting to high school, he knew he was talented. His uncle who was a trainer encouraged him to keep on. In Third Form, he got into the junior category of the Kenya National Cross Country. He qualified to represent Kenya in New Zealand and won a silver medal. From there, his life as a professional athlete took off. In between, he got into trouble. He was the first Kenyan in history to be banned for doping in 1988 when traces of ephedrine, a stimulant, was found in his blood.

“I had fallen sick and was given medication for a cold. I did not know the ingredients,” he says of the taint that almost ruined his career.

He entered fame without fanfare, and slid away in similar manner. Looking back, his biggest regret is not taking athletics seriously. He says he treated it as a hobby and wishes he would have hired a professional trainer.

As he advanced in age, he found himself lurking behind new entrants. The writing was on the wall. Before his final race in 2003, he says, God appeared to him in a dream and showed him a vision of himself standing before a mass of people.

With a Bible, remnants of what he had acquired during his racing days, and faith, he set up a temporary structure in Kitengela. Every Sunday, he gets about 400 believers, some of whom are clueless of how their pastor once shook the sporting world.

He says life has taught him to embrace the fragility of fame and vanity of wealth. The greatest lesson, he says, is that when God wants to use you, He yanks you wherever you are.

He claims that one day as he was practicing, God whispered that he should change the course and focus on the race to heaven.

“Who am I to say No?” he says, absentmindedly caressing his Bible.

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