For millions of years the region around Kenya's Rift Valley has been the site of mass migrations, but they usually involve zebras, gazelles, wildebeests and the predators that track them. So residents of Nyahururu won't soon forget the morning of May 16, 2011, when their agricultural town began to swell with people. They flowed in by the thousands, packed into cars or clinging to the sides of crammed minibuses known as matatus. In the best of times traveling the valley's rutted roads is slow and perilous, but that day, with donkey carts and automobiles pressed as tightly as Tetris pieces, the streets were choked to a standstill. All of those people were coming to see if it was true: Could Sammy Wanjiru really be dead?
And how could you blame them? Wanjiru had brought home the last talisman of distance running that Kenya lacked—an Olympic gold medal in the marathon—and after the 2008 Games the people of Nyahururu had taken him into the town's stadium on top of a truck to rejoice in his superhuman strength.
The pundits at the Beijing Olympics said that the marathon would be slow. The temperatures exceeded 80º. And it was slow—for everyone except Wanjiru. "The athletes in Beijing will be strong with five kilometers left," Wanjiru told one of his coaches, Francis Kamau, before he left for China. "The only way to kill them will be to kill them from the gun. Then when they try to come, they will never come."
That was exactly how he ran the greatest marathon in history. In the sweltering humidity he took off at world-record pace, stringing out the field from the start. The pace was still breakneck when Wanjiru surged at the 10-mile mark. Just four runners hung on, and he tormented them. He glanced at his watch, he later told his countryman Peter Kirui, to unsettle his competitors. When rivals tried to draft behind Wanjiru, he swerved. By the time he entered the Bird's Nest stadium, he had been alone for 15 minutes. He sprinted to the line even though there was no one close, and he finished in 2:06:32, shattering the Olympic record by nearly three minutes.
Less than three years later, sometime after 11 p.m. on May 15, 2011, Wanjiru was found lying on his back on the pavement below a balcony at his walled-in compound, blood oozing from the back of his head. By midnight he was dead. The police hastily issued a statement declaring Wanjiru's death a suicide. They said he had jumped to his death after his wife caught him at home with another woman.
At its highest point, the balcony is 14 feet from the pavement. No one believed the police statement.
Carving a life out of the semi-arid savanna of central Kenya has never been simple—not even for boys who, unlike Sammy Wanjiru, grew up in a household with a father.
In the 1950s, Nyahururu, which sits almost exactly on the equator, nearly 8,000 feet above the Rift Valley floor, was a center of rebellion against British colonial authorities. The region was so dangerous that a LIFE magazine writer described it as a place where "you put the pistol in the soap tray when you take a bath." After Kenya achieved independence in 1963, though, this area of farmland crossed by a tangle of disintegrating roads became relatively peaceful. Since 1990, Nyahururu has doubled in size as farmers flocked there to take over cheap land for crop and flower production with access to burgeoning industries in town such as the Kenya Cooperative Creameries. Yet the city of 30,000 is not so tame that the occasional resident isn't still killed by a hippo or a lion.
Wanjiru grew up outside Nyahururu and did not put on a shoe until he was 14. He ran or walked barefoot over dirt and rocks to get to school or to the grocery store. When water was needed for cooking, he had to trek to the Kwandugiri River.
For a few years after Sammy was born, his mother, Hannah, gardened and sold porridge for money. But she couldn't earn enough, so she left Sammy and his younger brother, Simon, with their grandparents and disappeared for months at a time to earn more.