He’s been called Marathon Man, but we prefer his other nickname ‘The Gentleman’. Paul Tergat is a once-in-a-lifetime runner, and the first athlete in history to complete a full marathon in under 125 minutes. Since then a number of athletes have crossed that mark, but like any superhero, Tergat’s legend is intact thanks to his origin story.
Born in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Tergat grew up in abject poverty and was one of 17 children in his family. Many accounts of his childhood talk about him going to bed hungry and making a three-mile trek to school the next day on an empty stomach. In 1977, an eight-year-old Tergat was one of the children helped by the World Food Programme in Kenya. The WFP mid-day meals gave him the energy to run from school and back to it the next day. Years later, Tergat became the face of the very program that helped him, as the WFP Ambassador Against Hunger.
Before becoming a professional runner, Tergat was a basketball player and only realized he could be a runner after finishing school. Like many people who start running late, Tergat did not like to run at first. He would go to the length of avoiding it in school. ‘I come from an area where there had never been an international runner, and so I had no idol. When I joined the military at 18 this changed. I met people that I admired a lot and that was an exciting moment for me,’ he’s quoted as saying in an interview.
The Cross Country Championships win in 1992 catapulted his running career. He went on to achieve a record five IAAF World Cross Country titles from 1995 onwards, the World Championships in 1997 and 1999, and two Olympic silver medals in 10,000 metre runs. Both times he was beaten by Haile Gebrselassie, an Ethiopian champion athletic runner, and Tergat’s greatest contemporary rival.
That was not the only time that Gebrselassie stole Tergat’s thunder. But Tergat hit back in 1997 by breaking Gebrselassie’s 10,000m world record with a time 26:27.85 minutes. The record was broken again by the Ethiopian the following season, but Tergat’s time remains a Kenyan record.Between 1993 and 2000, he won a total of 13 World Cross Country Championships.
Before he crossed the finish line under the 2:05 mark at the Berlin Marathon in 2003, he took a wrong turn near the end of the race, and damaged his foot very badly. If not for that Tergat’s mark could still have remained a world record.
Having become the WFP Ambassador Against Hunger in 2004, Tergat said he wanted to give back to the programme that helped set him down the road to success, and gave him the boost that young runners need to build their endurance. “School children around the world must have the opportunity to pursue their dreams,” he’d said at the time.
Tergat set up the Paul Tergat Foundation in 2005, which works towards helping underprivileged Kenyan sportspeople. In addition to providing training and infrastructure for budding athletes, the foundation helps in health care, food and water supply, and economic empowerment of Kenyans.