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Grandma's Marathon champion killed in Kenyan violence

Kenyan Wesly Ngetich had the pride of a champion. When he was caught during the closing miles of the 2006 Grandma's Marathon, and failed to repeat as race winner, he said it wouldn't happen again.

Kenyan Wesly Ngetich had the pride of a champion. When he was caught during the closing miles of the 2006 Grandma's Marathon, and failed to repeat as race winner, he said it wouldn't happen again.

Ngetich came back in 2007 to claim a victory by nearly two minutes, becoming one of only five two-time champions in the race's 31 years.

"He was quiet, he was intense, but he also had a great sense of humor,'' said Steve Salowitz of Two Harbors, who housed Ngetich for two of the three years he came to Grandma's Marathon. "What you noticed most, though, was that he was very self-confident. He carried a lot of pride, which was found in his Maasai tribe.''

While with his tribe Monday, Ngetich became involved in the political violence that has swept through Kenya since the disputed re-election of President Mwai Kibaki on Dec. 27.

According to information provided by his manager, Hussein Makke of West Chester, Pa., Ngetich was killed by a shot through the chest with an arrow in his hometown region of Trans Mara, Kenya. Ngetich, 34, was married with three children, ages 8, 6 and 1.

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"I was told that there were five or six others killed at the same time, but other than that I have no details," said Makke, director of Elite Sports Management International, who met with Ngetich during a trip to Kenya in December. "I cannot confirm if Wesly was involved in the fighting or whether he was attacked."

The Maasai tribe supports opposition leader Raila Odinga, said Salowitz, who lived in Africa for 11 years and continues to travel there as a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators. A reported 600 people have died in violence that often has involved animosities among Kenya's many tribes.

Makke had gotten the news from Francis Kamau, the manager of his running camp located about 2½ hours from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Kamau said he spoke to Ngetich's sister-in-law, who said they took Ngetich to the hospital and he passed away there, Makke said.

"Wesly was a true Kenyan, a character who smiled and was always positive. He always wanted to do the best he could," Makke said. "We hope and pray this fighting will come to an end very soon."

The news was taken hard by the Grandma's Marathon staff, which is preparing for the June 21 race and was expecting Ngetich to return as defending champion.

"As a runner, he expressed that he loved the people and the community of Duluth, and I know the people here cheered for him,'' race Executive Director Scott Keenan said. "This news is an amazing shock for us. We're deeply saddened.''

Ngetich won the 2007 Grandma's Marathon in 2 hours, 15 minutes, 55 seconds, and won in 2005 in 2:13:20. He led the 2006 race until the 23-mile mark before being caught by eventual champion Sergei Lukin of Russia and placing sixth.

Ngetich had hoped to run the P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon on Jan. 13 in Tempe, but couldn't get out of Kenya because of the fighting. His personal best was 2:12:10, run while placing second at the 2006 Houston Marathon.

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Salowitz connected with Ngetich in 2005 in Duluth and helped as an interpreter with the race media because he speaks Swahili. Salowitz said Ngetich was grateful for the friendship and to be housed because he was provided some Kenyan meals by Salowitz and his wife, Kim.

Ngetich lived on a 60-acre farm in the southwestern corner of Kenya, close to the Tanzanian border, where he raised corn and beans and had seven cows.

"He said that one of the most enjoyable things for him was that getting back home after a race and being out in a field and looking at his cows,'' Salowitz said.

Makke, a native of Beirut, Lebanon, represents about 35 Kenyan runners, most of whom live and train in Kenya. He said most Kenyan professional track and road race athletes race internationally, but still live most of the year in Kenya.

Another Kenyan runner, Lucas Sang, a 1988 Olympic 400-meter athlete, was reported to have been cut to death Dec. 31 by a gang of young men armed with machetes. He was 45.

Salowitz was in Africa in December on business and said most Kenyans, on both political sides, believed the presidential transition would be peaceful.

KEVIN PATES covers Grandma's Marathon and can be reached at (218) 723-5306 or by e-mail at kpates@duluthnews.com .

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