Wanjiru, Death, the Demons
"You must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star."
-- F. Nietzsche
"Looking back now, I think I had a lot on my mind and was pretty nervous, but as soon as I started I forgot about it all. The only thing I thought was, 'Who cares, let's go!' I'm not the type of guy who runs behind someone else. I was going to run up front no matter what the pace was."
--Wanjiru on his Olympic record gold medal run in Beijing, fall, 2008 (from Japan Running News)
The running community has been shocked by the death of Sammy Wanjiru. You can read about Wanjiru's accomplishments in this Letsrun obituary; it calls him the greatest marathon ever to live. He was 24 years old, just about to enter his running prime.
The details of his death are still emerging, but Wanjiru had been hanging out with a tough crowd and had recently been arrested and not charged for a domestic disturbance. He was a troubled soul, and his death is sad.
Our sport has an intimate relationship with death. The first marathoner was dead on arrival. When a race goes badly, we say bluntly that we died, and everyone knows exactly what we mean. As early as junior high, I used to describe the best race to myself as one in which I died just as I crossed the line. I would "kill myself" in speed workouts, sometimes take off in races on purpose at a "suicidal" pace. The language of running is the language of death. To run my best, it intuitively seemed to me that the first fear that I needed to overcome was the fear of death.
A friend of mine recently told me that he began rock climbing as a teenager because it was the only thing that seemed real to him. The decisions he made mattered; they literally determined the difference between life and death. Was Wanjiru's brilliance as a runner bound up with a darker death wish? Is this the face of competitive determination and the haunted face of a man seeking death?
|Wanjiru during his transcendent Chicago run.|
The sad thing is that we will never know. The other greatest marathoner ever, Haile Gebrselassie, runs with what appears to be total joy. Outside of running, he is cheerful, bright, and optimistic. His greatness is light and carefree.
We always try to make sense of tragedies. Some have offered the theory that it was the fame that did Sammy in. I'm not sure that I agree. My guess is that Sammy lived with demons that neither running nor fame could touch. Perhaps it was his battle against those demons, his fight against the chaos within that gave him his tough, bold, and intense spirit as a racer. It's a hypothesis, and the truth is we will never know what motivated Sammy; he probably didn't know either.
I suppose I like this way of making sense of Sammy's death because it makes the dark part of existence inseparable from its most thrilling heights. That's the way it's been for me--running towards death has been the same as living as hard as I could.
Maybe the impulse to romanticize death and the demons is wrong-headed and a way of redeeming the unredeemable--Sammy's drunkenness, his violence, and his womanizing. Perhaps if these were not elements of Wanjiru's character, he would still have been great and would still be with us.
The answers to these question will likely be known to no one. But there is one general truth that Sammy's life shows us: human greatness is not incompatible with human frailty.
All races have the same finish line. Sammy got there first.