Three years ago today Patrick Makau set a marathon world record of 2:03:38. Since then, the record’s been broken and he has struggled to find back his form. The man whose surname means ‘fighter’ in his native tongue, and whose favourite movie character is Rambo, tells SPIKES that his race is far from over.
After Patrick Makau sliced 21 seconds from Haile Gebrselassie’s world marathon record in Berlin, the Kenyan quite rightly hailed 25 September 2011 as “the greatest day in his running life”.
His astonishing surge around 27km – his 5km split from 25–30km was a staggering 25 seconds quicker than when Geb broke the previous world record on the same course – proved instrumental in ensuring history was made.
Aged just 26 at the time, Makau was hailed the future of the marathon. Few at that point anticipated his performance in Berlin would represent the definitive race of his career, yet some three years on, it still remains his stand out moment.
Makau on top of the world after setting a new world record in Berlin in 2011
Many now wonder what the future holds for the marathon warrior.
The 2012 season proved an utter frustration. He failed to finish the London Marathon because of a hamstring injury, and was then omitted from the Kenyan team for the Olympics. He ended the year on a high note to win the Frankfurt Marathon in 2:06:08, but had struggled to find his best.
If 2012 was disappointing, 2013 proved even worse. He finished 14th in the London Marathon – more than ten minutes outside his world record mark – after an untimely illness badly hampered his challenge.
Since that grim slog in the English capital, Makau had been plagued by a knee injury which led to an enforced 16-month absence from competition.
“I did not run a step for eight months,” says Makau, 29. “It was a normal sport injury. This period is something which is very hard to explain. It was not easy watching my friends train. It was hard and it gave me a lot of time to think.”
"It was not easy watching my friends train"
He finally returned to competition in August this year, placing fourth in 27:57 at the Beach to Beacon 10km in Maine. It was a small step on the road to full recovery and he declared himself “happy” with the performance.
Bigger challenges await. Next month he competes in the Valencia Half-Marathon (19 October) before returning to competition in his first marathon for 20 months in Fukuoka on 7th December.
In reality, a return to his former peaks will be not be easy. Last September in Berlin – scene of the past five men’s world marathon records – Wilson Kipsang took 15 seconds from Makau’s mark.
You'd be foolish to write him off. This is an athlete who lives up to his Kambu surname Makau, which means ‘a fighter’ – given to him because he survived while other kids were dying.
One of five boys and one sister raised on a subsistence farm in Machakos county (a dry and impoverished area in central Kenya), he often survived on just one meal a day of either ugali or maize and beans.
Despite this most basic existence, he still ran the 14km round trip to and from school each day – which provided the foundation for his future road running success.
Running was his only route out of poverty, and he took up the sport aged 16 while at high school.
Makau and his training group in Ngong, Kenya
“I quickly came to realise running is the only way I can see a world beyond Kenya to help my family,” he explains. “Since 2001 my spirit for running has grown day by day. I thank God that I am an international athlete. It has helped me believe, and helped the life of my family.”
Within two years he was competing at a national secondary schools level, where his ability caught the attention of fellow Machakos-born athletes Patrick Ivuti (2007 Chicago Marathon winner) and Jimmy Muindi (six-time former Honolulu Marathon champion).
The pair proved an inspiration for the young, talented, but raw Makau.
“They advised me on how to run well. They gave me a training programme and even helped me a little financially,” he says. “They supported me and saw a very big talent in me.”
By the mid-noughties Makau had moved to live and train in the English city of Coventry for a period, and had his international breakthrough in 2007 when winning the silver medal at the world half-marathon championships in Udine, Italy.
He repeated this achievement the following year in Brazil, and on his marathon debut in Rotterdam in 2009 ran 2:06:14 to place fourth. A little over two years later he was world record holder.
Since his marathon success he has invested wisely in a number of business ventures dealing in coffee, maize, beans and bananas. He has also enjoyed the personal joy of children after his wife gave birth to Christie, now aged six, and twins boys – aged two – Laban and Labet.
Makau has also developed a passion for coaching and regularly guides a group of emerging young athletes aged 17–25 in the city of Nairobi.
Yet track and field remains his staple diet, and still aged the right side of 30, he believes he can still make a mark in the ultra-competitive world of marathon running.
At the 2013 London Marathon Makau was hampered by illness and finished 14th
There is little doubt the past three years have taken a mental toll on the self-coached athlete, but his belief remains strong. Running on average 18–22km a day, Makau is preparing for his half-marathon and marathon assaults later in the year with his usual diligence.
“It is now just a matter of asserting my mind for the half-marathon in Valencia,” adds Makau, who describes his killer session of 15x1km repeats. “I hope it will be good for me and help me mentally. I’m building my running spirit slowly.”
But what about the world record mark now owned by his compatriot Wilson Kipsang? Does he believe reclaiming the record is an achievable goal?
“I know what to do, how to train and how to focus,” he says. “The world record... it is only a matter of time to build the confidence. I keep thinking one day I will take it back.”