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Records fall in mysterious patterns. Sometimes one seemingly insurmountable mark surrenders again and again in a short burst of time. In 1954, only six weeks after Roger Bannister proved it was possible to run a mile in less than four minutes, John Landy bettered Bannister's mark by a second. So much for the impossible. Landy just needed some brave soul to show him the way.
Last week it was the 10,000-meter record that was under siege. The fireworks began in Stockholm on July 5, when tiny Richard Chelimo of Kenya nipped Arturo Barrios's four-year-old world record in the 10,000. Chelimo clocked 27:07.91. a record he could call his own for just five nights until, at the Bislett Games in Oslo, his countryman Yobes Ondieki moved the event into a magical new realm.
Ondieki is 32, the husband and coach of 1992 New York City Marathon winner Lisa Ondieki. While she is known for being a bit temperamental, he is a model of stability. "He's a very focused, very intelligent guy," says Ray Flynn, a former 3:49 miler who is Yobes's agent. "He knows exactly what he wants to accomplish."
After winning the 5,000 meters at the 1991 world championships in Tokyo, Ondieki was the favorite for that event at the '92 Olympics, but he developed sciatica shortly before the Games. Disappointed by his fifth-place finish in Barcelona, he looked for a new challenge. In February he set his sights on running a fast 10,000 in Oslo. So what if he had not run a 10,000 since 1983? Forty-nine world records had been set on Bislett's quaint six-lane track, and Ondieki had always run well there.
From the start of the 10,000, Ondieki looked the model of economy as he followed rabbit John Doherty through 3,000 meters in 8:02. "That's the pace people run for the 5,000," said an incredulous Jim Spivey. a U.S. miler who was watching. Meet announcer Jo Nesse began whipping the crowd of 17,900 into a frenzy, calling out Ondieki's progress against Chelimo's pace. As Ondieki passed, the Oslo faithful saluted by forming a delirious wave that swept around and around the stadium.
Doherty, who was supposed to run the first 5,000 meters in 13:25, dropped out at 4,000. Thus Ondieki's larger ambition—to break 27 minutes—might have been in jeopardy but for his pesky countryman, world cross-country champion William Sigei, a virtual newcomer to the 10,000. Sigei passed 5,000 in 13:28, five seconds ahead of Chelimo's pace. "He wasn't pacing," said Flynn afterward. "He was racing."
Ondieki finally pulled clear of Sigei with nine laps left. "You ask yourself. How far can I go?" Ondieki would say later. "You simulate in training, but when the real thing comes, you don't know how far you can go." Ondieki ran the final 400 in 61 seconds, finishing in 26:58.38. The valiant Sigei, a 10,000 novice no more, came in second, more than 18 seconds back-Surely 27 minutes is the last major barrier we will see broken in the 10,000.
Ondieki will not predict what will happen to him next. A recluse, he might skip the Kenyan championships on July 29 and the world championships in Stuttgart next month. "Let me enjoy this moment before I worry about that," said Ondieki after the race.
It does not seem too much to ask. This brave soul had shown the way.