A kid with a dream: Caroline Rotich’s journey to Boston glory
“Oh my God, I won.”
That was the first thought in the mind of Caroline Rotich yesterday morning, right after she steamed through the finish line of the Boston Marathon to take her first ever victory in a Marathon Major, an achievement which was the climax of a journey that started 16 years ago, when a young, dreaming 14-year-old from Nyahururu, Kenya boarded a flight to Japan.
Ever since yesterday’s race – in which Rotich kicked away from Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba to win in 2:24:55, her life has changed. This morning, though, it was back to normal – well, about as normal as life can be when the eyes of the sporting world are watching and you’re somehow being presented with an oversized cheque for a $150,000.
“I woke up like someone else today,” she said. “I was just the normal me, and I want to get out there and train hard again.”
It was a statement that summed up just how grounded an athlete Rotich is, even at the time when her career has so swiftly and suddenly taken off. Rotich is not your typical Kenyan champion – if indeed it’s possible to narrow a nation of multiple athletic greats, all with different backgrounds and stories, down to a single prototype.
Inspired by Super Sammy
A native of Nyahururu-a Rift Valley town about 100 miles from Nairobi-Rotich left her life and her family-three brothers, two sisters-behind at the age of 14 to attend high school in Sendai, Japan. It was the same scholarship path taken by the most famous athlete to come out of Nyahururu – the late, great, 2008 Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru.
Wanjiru, who died in mysterious circumstances at his home in 2011, was at Sendai for two years while Rotich was there and years later, when Rotich was struggling to make her way as a professional athlete, it was Wanjiru who was often there for her with helpful advice.
“He was an inspiration,” says Rotich. “He advised me how to start racing, and when I dropped out of a marathon he was the one telling me to go back, to keep going.”
Rotich’s breakthrough performance came at the 2011 Boston Marathon-where she finished fourth in 2:24:26-just four weeks before Wanjiru met his untimely end. At that stage, Rotich was training in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she has lived for the past eight years and trains alongside three other professional female athletes under the guidance of coach Ryan Bolton.
Though she already had wins at the Prague and Las Vegas Marathons to her name, Rotich had never before made the podium at a Marathon Major. That is, of course, until yesterday, when she suddenly went all the way to the top step. That’s a sudden rise, and indeed Rotich’s win took many by surprise. Except, that is, Rotich herself.
“Actually we had known the training was going well so it was not much of a surprise,” she said, “but we never knew what was going to happen in the race.”
Her training had gone perfectly on the build-up – she logged between 100 and 120 miles a week, with a regular long run of 20-24 miles and also hit the gym two or three times a week to work on her strength.
The race, though, didn’t entirely go to plan. Rotich missed her designated energy drinks at both the 20K and 25K stations. At the first, she didn’t get to her bottle in time to pick it up, and at the second it was taken by one of her competitors, who quickly discarded it when she realised it wasn’t hers. Rotich just swigged some water at the next available station and carried on untroubled, continuing to follow the leaders and stay out of the wind, which the athletes were running into for much of the race.
Leaving it all out there
When Mare Dibaba surged to the front at the 35K mark, only Rotich and Buzunesh Deba could match her, and by the time they approached the final turn-600 metres from the finish-it was down to a head-to-head duel between Rotich and Dibaba. Coming into the turn, Rotich surged to the front, then panicked when she suddenly saw how long was still left to run.
“I didn’t see the finish tape,” said Rotich. “It seemed far away, so I said I’ll wait, thinking I will hold back. Once I saw [the finish tape], 50 metres from the end, I said ‘okay, I have to do it right now.'”
Rotich duly unleashed a furious kick to race away from Dibaba, never once letting up on the run to the line. “I haven’t watched it yet. I have to sit down and look at it, but I feel like I gave everything,” she said. “I wanted to finish and give everything I could.”
One of the first to congratulate her with a hug was coach Bolton, who continues to guide Rotich from his base in Santa Fe, an unusual training base, perhaps, for one of East Africa’s brightest marathon talents. “A lot of people in Kenya don’t believe you can train there,” says Rotich, “but I have been patient and shown you can train in the US, and win too.”
Eventually, Rotich hopes to become an American citizen – she spends eight to nine months a year in Sante Fe, which she has done for the last eight years – though for now, dreams of representing Kenya in next year’s Olympic Games are still foremost in her mind. “I’m still a [Kenyan] citizen so if I can get a chance to represent them, I would be happy to do that. If I qualify for Rio, I will race.”
The Olympics, though, are still 16 months away, so this morning, it was time to enjoy basking in the feeling of waking up as Boston Marathon champion.
From Nyahururu to Sendai, Santa Fe to Boston, it’s been quite the journey for Rotich. With this achievement under her belt, a new life beckons once more.