Revisiting Daniel Komen, who forever changed running in the spree that kept on giving (Part 1)

When runners binge on racing as greedily as their fans, some sort of flameout is inevitable. But so is the gift to the sport and its profile

In considering the career of Daniel Kipngetich Komen, a Keiyo tribesman raised in the rural Rift Valley of Kenya and one of a trio of Africans who collectively nudged the men’s track distance events into new territory in the second half of the 1990s, I want to compare him to someone who followed a similar path in another sport: An athlete who captivated fans and rivals alike by shooting to a precocious and unforeseen pinnacle, then slipped away without leaving any solid reason for anyone to believe that his best was really behind him.

Despite the impressive array of mercurial, now-finished athletic careers on offer, it’s hard for me to think of an analogous baseball, football, soccer, basketball or hockey player, although figures comparable to Komen can be found in running itself and other individually oriented sports. In big-league team sports, phenoms who fizzle out before age 25 can usually maintain a spot on a roster somewhere for a few seasons even while visibly underproducing; coasting on youth and established talent for a few years like this works far better in widely followed competitive enterprises like basketball and football, where personalities are as easy to market as performances, than in anything starved of glitz and noise.

Distance running is famously low on both glitz and noise, and also on the forgiveness scale. With few exceptions, when a superstar has reached the end of a great bender, it soon becomes as undeniable and obvious to everyone watching as it does to the athlete bumbling along in unfamiliar second-tier territory. The definitive end of a hot streak often heralds the end of a meaningful career when who knows how many 18-year-old sub-13:00 Addis Ababans and Norwegians are waiting to claim your place in the hierarchy. And the idea of hanging around for what passes for a paycheck in this sport while showing your battered ass to the world rapidly grows discomfiting for all involved. Watching Ryan Hall, among the most likable marathoners both in his prime and in retirement, bumble his way to a series of DNFs and ugly results in the last year or so before he finally announced his competitive exit from the sport was like watching Albert Pujols bat about .250 every year once he left the St. Louis Cardinals, asymptotically approaching both 3,000 career hits and assisted-living accommodations in the Angels clubhouse.

Still, anyone who faults an athlete for continuing to chase the magic long after all of it has wafted far out of sight doesn’t quite get what sports are all about, including the lesson “Suffer a barrage of post-prime indignities so that others don’t have to!”

But at the other end of the longevity spectrum, some athletes—and don’t forget that in running, you can become extremely rich, sometimes in an instant, by the standards of East African economies—would rather give it their all while and only they know they have the chance and feel they must. Komen, from an unusually impecunious background even by the standards of an East African economy, became the apotheosis of a sort of test-pilot model, wherein reaching new heights and claiming the glories and riches of the moment is paramount and the length of the flight almost an afterthought. And anyone who wants to fault this approach should consider how many Daniel Komens the world might miss if everyone with such a supreme gift played the usual patience game. Komen took to the track as if he alone was convinced something like COVID-19 was always just around the corner.

If you knew nothing about Daniel Komen before five minutes ago, you probably already have a feel for his career arc. This is not intended to be a complete biography or even an adequate highlight reel, but rather a demonstration of the flavor one man was able to bring to an already star-studded environment by being the purest and most ambitious 3-to-13-minute running machine nature and nurture had ever combined to produce.

Despite Komen having an effective professional stay at the senior level lasting less than two years, it’s hard to know where to begin with his hagiography. I would start by noting that concepts like running for second place, being pleased with such a result, or even running slightly slower than absolutely necessary appear to have never entered his mind over a giddy period of two years of almost nonstop and at times truly brutal racing.

Komen, who officially turns 45 in May but is at least 137 in track-god years, is one of three runners in history to break all of the following marks without ever being flagged for doping: 3:30 for 1,500 meters, 7:30 for 3,000 meters and 13:00 for 5,000 meters. Names not appearing on that that short list include Haile Gebrselassie, Eliud Kipchoge, Mo Farah, and Kenenisa Bekele. Said Aouita—the first man to break both 13:00 or 7:30, and, in .04-second loss to Steve Cram, the second man under 3:30—became the first member of this trifecta club in 1989, at age 29; Bernard Lagat joined him in 2010 at age 35. At the time Komen achieved the feat in 1997, he was—reportedly; we’re talking about EPO-era Kenyans, remember—21 years old, had broken a world record that stands to this this day, and was less than a week from running the first sub-12:40 5,000 meters ever recorded. And he’d missed a good chunk of 1995, the year preceding the onset of his bender, recuperating from a bout of malaria.

It would be unfair to say that Komen had only a single unbroken episode of being at or near the acme of his game. In 1995, shortly after the books say Komen turned 19, he dipped under Gebrselassie’s 5,000-meter world record of 12:56.95 by 0.8 seconds. But in the same race, his training partner and early mentor, Moses Kiptanui, went under the mark by even more, leaving Komen with “only” a world junior record. After he returned from illness for the 1996 outdoor season but failed to make the Kenyan Olympic team in late June, he started chasing times.

Everywhere.

Between July 3 and September 7 of that year, a period of less than ten weeks, Komen raced eleven times. Nine of those events were at distances between 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, including a two-mile. Komen won all nine races, setting world records in two and narrowly missing in a third. His average time in his four 3,000-meter “contests” was 7:26.75.

Komen was not unbeatable, not even at the height of his powers. It took the man who for a while would prove the best 5,000- and 10,000-meter runner the world had yet seen to push Komen into second place in his longer signature event, and when Komen and Gebrselassie faced off, Komen always ensured that both of them suffered. He was a Zersenay Tadese type, a relentless frontrunner whose patience never withstood even the slightest relaxation of the leader’s accelerator pedal, but with a catch: He’d be there at the end, too.

On August 14, Gebrselassie and Komen squared off at 5,000 meters at the Weltklasse meet in Zürich. The year before, two months after Kiptanui and Komen ducked under Gebrselassie’s 12:56.15, the Ethiopian, had booted Kiptanui’s mark out of sight with a 12:44.39. In Switzerland, Gebrselassie was coming off Olympic 10,000-meter gold in Atlanta, but had withdrawn from the 5,000 citing the hardness of the track surface (better suited, evidently, for marks like 19.32 in the 200 meters). This race was a much-hyped world-record attempt as well as a classic face-off between ascendant rivals, the ever-beaming and sometimes-surging Ethiopian against the taciturn human jackhammer from Kenya.

Some background: I did not watch this race until three weeks after it happened. For one thing, if you didn’t catch something live on television or record it with a VCR, you certainly weren’t going to find anything more than static images on the mid-1990s Internet. If it aired live, I was somewhere else. For another, at the time, I was in a pretty intensive school program and was usually either running, sleeping, reading or wandering hospital corridors with a programmed look of confident cluelessness. I got most of my elite results by overhearing my occasional training partners or scanning USA Today. Concerning the Weltklasse 5,000, I knew who had won and that Bob Kennedy had become the first American under 13:00, but beyond that was led to believe only that the race needed to be seen to be believed. So when I found out that the meet would be shown on September 6, shortly before my first-ever trip to Colorado, I was elated.

The reason I can pinpoint the date is that September 6, 1996 was when Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive Major League Baseball game, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record. As I sat two feet from the television during the opening laps, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew Ripken’s feat was imminent. I was nevertheless startled and agitated when ESPN cut away from the Weltklasse 5,000 in the last mile to cover a Ripken at-bat. In that moment, and well into the dark night, I despised the affable shortstop—smiling into the cameras, but all dinged up and gray before his time thanks to his steely-eyed idiot’s work ethic, which eventually saw him elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I couldn’t know until years later how ironic it was to have Cal Ripken Jr. be the guy who scuttled my first real look at Daniel Komen in action.

At some much later point, I did get to see the whole race. For the love of all that moves on its own once clicked, you should watch this race, too. It was historically fast; earlier in the year, fans had been wowed by seeing four sub-13:00s in the same competition for the first time, but on this evening, 12:58.99 would only be good for sixth.

What Komen did in the fourth kilometer of this race should really happen more often, and it’s obvious why it doesn’t. He turned on every switch and afterburner in that tiny, spindly mechanism and just leaned and went, while Geb, along for the Thelma and Louise ride, clung on. The announcers, although for the most part indecipherable to me, plainly had no idea what they were really seeing until the 4K split flashed.

Komen gathered himself for about 600 meters in the wake of that 2:29.40 klick—which followed a first 3K already run at 12:49 pace—by running about 32, 32, 32 for each half-lap. Then, Komen pushed through the penultimate 200 meters in about 30 seconds, Geb still adhering to his back-kick. Komen accelerated once more, creating a surreal and unprecedented sight: Geb simply tapping out with 150 meters to go, all but cupping his hand to his mouth and calling out “Uncle!” in Amharic. Komen saw Gebrselassie surrender, but found another gear anyway in what suddenly seemed a cavernously empty home straight. His last 200 meters took him about 28.5 seconds.

Only Komen’s missing Gebrselassie’s world record by 0.70 seconds with a 12:45.09 put a damper on the Kenyan’s night. Meanwhile, Haile Gebrselassie became the first 12:52 guy in history to cross the finish line looking like he’d done Jello shots for much of the race.

(This remembrance will conclude in exactly twenty-four hours.)