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Catherine Ndereba — October, 2010
Catherine Ndereba is a World Class female distance runner from Kenya whose success in the marathon is unmatched among women. She is a former World Record Holder in the marathon and the only woman to win two World Championship Marathon Gold Medals which she accomplished in 2003 and 2007. Catherine twice won Olympic Marathon Silver medals in 2004 and 2008. She is the only woman to win the Boston Marathon four times and twice won the Chicago Marathon. She has run 21 sub-2:30 marathons, 12 sub-2:26s and three sub-2:20s with a personal best of 2:18:47 set when she won her second Chicago Marathon title in 2001 with a then World Record. Catherine’s many half marathon victories include her fastest time of 1:07:54 at The Hague in 2001. She has won numerous road races including the Crim 10-miler six times, Philadelphia Distance Classic half marathon seven times and Beach to Beacon 10k five times. Runner’s World ranked her the #1 Runner of the Year for five years. Twice the Kenyan Sportswoman of the year in 2004 and 2005, Catherine was also named IAAF Female Athlete of the year in 2001. She was awarded the Order of the Golden Warrior decoration by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki in 2005. Her coach is El-Mastafa Nechchadi and manager is Lisa Buster. Catherine lives in Nairobi Kenya, with her husband, Anthony Maina, and daughter, Jane, and trains part of the year in Pennsylvania. She is known for her trademark sunglasses, strong belief in God and the image of her on her knees, arms stretched in prayer, at the end of every race. A documentary on her life, WinCatherine: The Story of Wincatherine Nyambura Ndereba, is currently in production.
GCR:You were forced to withdraw from the Boston Marathon earlier this year due to a tear of your piriformis muscle. How is your health now, were you pleased with your performances at the Beach to Beacon 10k and Crim 10-miler and how is your training progressing for fall racing?
CNOh yes, I am quite pleased as it means a lot for someone to be able do the training and at the age of 38 you don’t have as much pain, but you just have normal tiredness. I did for a time go for it at Joanie’s race but it didn’t matter that I was only in fifth or sixth at Beach to Beacon – it was as good as number one to me. Joan Benoit had spoke with me after I wasn’t able to race the Boston Marathon this year and asked me to come to her Beach to Beacon race no matter what my fitness level so I had to say ‘yes’ to her. I haven’t been able to run any speed work so was just jogging. I didn’t run for a month and a half and then started back with 20 minutes and then 30 minutes and after two or three months built up to running for an hour. Then I got to where I could finally run each and every day. I’m looking from one race to another. Since I ran a 10k, a 7-miler and a 10-mile race I am running the Philadelphia half Marathon. (Note – since this phone interview in mid-September, Catherine’s racing plans changed. Instead of the Philadelphia Half Marathon, she raced a new half-marathon in Alexandria, VA, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half-Marathon, which she won. She also hurt her foot there, stepping on a space between 2 pieces of concrete. She still won, but ithe injury may force cancellation of some race plans.)
GCR:Do you think you will be able to race a marathon in late 2010 or is that timetable too aggressive?
CNI am hoping to do one not to challenge for a certain fast - time but my goal is to get back there and do one.
GCR:Some athletes are defined by one very successful race. You have finished first or second in almost 20 major marathons and have dozens of road race victories to your credit. What does this high level of consistency for over a decade say about your running career?
CNI can’t say anything such as it’s just through my training or what I have been doing but must emphasize it is by the grace of God. It’s not like I’m the only person who has been doing this training. I just believe and I know for sure that he has bestowed this upon me each and every day and each and every year.
GCR:It’s been said that in order to succeed a person needs skill, training, dedication, passion and God. What are your thoughts on this?
CNI agree with that 100%. There is nothing we can do without God in our lives. The Bible tells us that it is through our belief in God that we walk, that we live and that we have our being.
GCR:You won your first World Championships Marathon Gold Medal in 2003 in Paris pulling away from Mizuki Noguchi and Nako Sakomoto at 35 kilometers to win in 2:23.55, a championship record. What stands out as far as your preparedness, the competition and the move you made to win?
CNI didn’t know exactly how far there was to go when I moved into the lead, but I just moved and was able to move away from the other women at that point and to get that win. It had been my long time dream and my career hope that God would help me and give me that win. I had waited during my career for ten years and that year God gave me the chance to represent my country. I asked my Federation to put me on the team and none of them believed in me. Nobody believed I was a potential medalist. I had tried to qualify for the World X-C Championship team from 1994 to 1999 but always got dropped from the team at the end. So I thank God for that moment and that race.
GCR:At the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki Paula Radcliffe held a 16 second lead after 30 kilometers and slowly added four or five seconds to her lead each kilometer until the finish where she won by slightly over a minute. Was that one of those days where you were strong, but she was just a bit stronger?
CNYou know that each and every athlete is different from one another. Sometimes one may feel strong when the other isn’t. Paula has much speed and I didn’t know what type of training she had been doing. All I know is that she was much stronger than me on that day.
GCR:You came back in the 2007 World Championships to win Gold again in the marathon in temperatures approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit. How tough were the last few kilometers as you pulled away to beat China’s Zhou Chunxiu by eight seconds and Japan’s Reiko Tosa by 18 seconds?
CNThat race was tough, but strangely I had a dream a month before the race and in the dream I had a double gold medal. I couldn’t understand the dream, so I asked God before the race, ‘You make me understand during this race.’ So no matter how hard or tough that race was with the heat and strong competition, I knew the Lord was in me and he was the one competing in me.
GCR:At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, you battled extreme heat and an injury fighting back from over a minute behind to claim the Silver Medal only 12 seconds behind Mizuki Noguchi, of Japan. In hindsight, were you a bit too conservative and could you possibly have struck Gold if you had stayed closer to the lead?
CNI knew I had the ability to win the Gold, but I was nervous since I was injured two months before the competition. I ran a very conservative race. I wanted to make sure I got a medal for my country no matter the color.
GCR:Constantina Romescu of Romania moved early at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and had a gap of a minute at 30k that held through 40k. You were able to close in the final two kilometers to 22 seconds, but missed that elusive Olympic Gold medal. Is this another instance where maybe you let one get away?
CNIt was a different race because it was so hot and my back was tight. I couldn’t run with the main group as I had to listen to my body. I took it easy in the early miles. Because I wasn’t with the group I couldn’t tell who was ahead or where they were. I passed a lot of runners as the race progressed and my back felt better. But I had no idea that the Romanian runner was so far ahead. When I caught the leading pack I thought it was everyone and didn’t realize any one runner was ahead. It was at around 41 kilometers that I saw the Romanian girl as she was waving her hands and entering the stadium.
GCR:You weren’t selected to represent Kenya at the 2009 World Championships and were unable to defend your World title. What are your thoughts on this?
CNIt wasn’t a matter of not being chosen. I wasn’t ready for it because I had a problem with my hamstring so I told the federation I wasn’t ready to race. They asked me and I had to tell them ‘No.’
GCR:You won four times at the Boston Marathon, the most ever by any woman, but how was your first effort in 1999 when you finished in sixth place as far as getting used to the marathon distance and the hills between miles 17 and 21?
CNIt was very tough but on the other hand it was good that I ran through such a very hard course. I knew nothing about the marathon and had not trained enough for the race. I didn’t yet have a respect for the distance.
GCR:You won your first Boston Marathon in 2000 after dueling with Ethiopia’s Fatuma Roba for 25 miles before you pulled away. Did the experience of having raced the course the previous year help you and were you confident in your ability to pull away from Roba?
CNI had the experience and knew what to expect. I knew that the marathon is easier when you don’t run at other runners’ speed but when you listen to your body and that is how I race.
GCR:You defended your Boston Marathon title in 2001 and uncharacteristically blew away the field to win by nearly three minutes. What was your strategy, how did the race develop and were you able to enjoy the crowds more than usual since you held such a commanding lead during the final miles?
CNThat was a bit different for me, but like I said, when my body feels good I know it is time to go. So that is what happened that year, no one went with me and it was a bigger lead than usual.
GCR:Your countrywoman, Margaret Okayo and you both broke the Boston Marathon course record in 2002 with Okayo edging you 2:20:43 to 2:21:12. What were the critical points that day that meant the difference in winning and coming in second?
CNShe stayed behind me and I did all of the work. Then she passed me with about five kilometers to go and then the last few miles were hard and she was able to keep the lead.
GCR:At the 2004 Boston Marathon the elite women started ahead of the men’s’ field for the first time. How did this affect your race and how much resistance did Ethiopian Elfenesh Alemu offer before you left her 16 seconds behind for your third victory in Boston? Did the unusual 90 degree temperatures play much of a factor when combined with the hills?
CNI liked the separate start because we weren’t crowded. Sometimes there are guys who like to run with the lead women and they keep on stepping on our heels. I remember the year I first won at Boston there was a Japanese guy who kept stepping where I was stepping It was upsetting me and I had to tell him, ‘Don’t step on me again!’ At one point I almost hit him with my water bottle. So the separate start was good. The heat made it much tougher to win from Alemu as I started cramping and by the time I crossed the finish line I couldn’t walk. My daughter was there and saw me taken by wheel chair to the recovery room. At some point she asked me, ‘Mom, who is going to be pushing the wheelchair for you? Will daddy do it?’ She thought I wouldn’t be able to walk again and it made me cry like a baby. I couldn’t imagine that such a young daughter would have the idea that her mom would be like this forever. When people asked her how she felt that her mom had won, she wasn’t happy – she just looked worried. It was horrible as she was very young – only about five years old.
GCR:Alemu tried to bury you early the next year at Boston, but her 90 second lead at the half marathon had evaporated by 38k and you successfully defended your title. Was there a point when you were unsure if you could catch Alemu and when did you feel your chances of winning were strong?
CNI was feeling good that day so I had the confidence that if I ran my way I would be able to get to her with no problem. I started getting closer after the hills and was able to pass her and take the lead.
GCR:At your first Chicago Marathon in 2000 you joined Ingrid Kristiansen as the only women to win at Boston and Chicago in the same year. How important was this distinction? How much resistance did your compatriot Lornah Kiplagat show when you moved into the lead at 23 miles before winning in 2:21:33 by over a minute?
CNIt was great – in fact in Chicago it meant a lot because my Federation had dropped me from the Olympic team thinking I wasn’t fast enough even though I had won the Boston Marathon in the spring. They didn’t think I was able to get a medal. They took someone else who had a faster time on a faster course in Japan. When I went to Chicago I wanted to improve my best time so I could prove to my Federation that I was fast enough to be included on the team the next time. Winning was a goal, but passing Lornah and then getting a fast time was also important. I felt strong the final three miles on Lakeshore Drive along Lake Michigan.
GCR:The next year at Chicago, you not only defended your title, but broke the World record in becoming the first woman to break 2:19 with a 2:18:47 time. Was it in your race plan to take a shot at the World Record or did things just fall into place as the race was underway?
CNThat was my dream that came true that day. I remember meeting Joanie Benoit before that race. Back when I was in high school my coach had told me about a lady from the United States who did a fantastic job one month after surgery at the 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon, then she got a Gold Medal in Los Angeles and her name is Joanie Benoit. So when I met her in 1996 I thought, ‘So this is the person my coach always talks about – Wow!’ Since then Joanie became my inspiration and whenever I saw her we got together and we chatted. That year in Chicago she said, ‘Catherine, you know what? If there is anyone who can break my time here it is you. It isn’t like I am putting pressure on you – but you can do it.’ I was close as the year before I had missed the Chicago Marathon course record by only 12 seconds. Since I had improved my time on the course in Boston that year by over five minutes I thought, ‘What was 12 seconds?’ I thought that, God willing, I could break the curse record. I owe all gratitude to God because he is the one who made me do it. He gave me the strength. I had never dreamed of the World Record and could never imagine that one day I would be called the World Record holder.
GCR:You raced strong at the New York City Marathon with two second place finishes in 1999 and 2003. Did you just run into Margaret Okayo on her best day ever in 2003 as the two of you ran the fastest two times at that time on the NYC Marathon course?
CNShe was a little faster than me, but it was only two months after I won at the World Championships and I wasn’t totally recovered. Most of my New York City Marathon races are shortly after a major championship marathon. I usually have a three month build up for a marathon so it is short one month. This makes it harder to be in my top form at New York.
GCR:In addition to your marathon racing success, you have at least a dozen and a half victories at the half marathon distance with a best time of 1:07:54 at The Hague in 2001. How do you approach this distance differently compared to when you are racing twice as far? Are there any of your half marathon victories that stand out as to your competitors or race strategy?
CNI like both distances. The half marathon is nice because it isn’t as fast as a 10k and isn’t as long as a marathon so it has its own uniqueness. The race at The Hague was a great race for me as I ran fast and broke a time barrier for me. I was running for much of the race with a Kenyan runner, Caroline Kwambai. I knew for sure that she has a lot of speed in her legs, we raced fast and it took much effort to come in ahead of her that day.
GCR:From the mid-1990s through 1999 you had increasing success at distances from 3,000 meters through 15 kilometers and finally the half marathon. Describe the decision making process that led to your stepping up to the marathon.
CNI stepped up to the marathon out of disappointment. I always tried to qualify for the Kenyan team for the World Cross Country Championships and never made the team. I did this for five years. In 1999 I had won almost every meet in Kenya, but still wasn’t selected for the team so that was the last time I tried. I wanted to represent my country. Since I hadn’t made the cross country team, I changed my focus to the marathon distance.
GCR:How exciting was it to represent Kenya internationally for the first time at a women's relay race in Seoul in 1995?
CNIn early 1995 I was dropped from the cross country team even though I was running very well. At the time I didn’t even have a passport. It was good to compete on the relay, but I wanted to make the cross country team for the World Championships.
GCR:What is your typical training volume in miles or kilometers when you are in a marathon building phase? How long are your long runs, how many do you do leading up to a marathon and at what pace?
CNIt is between 95 and 110 miles each week. My long runs are between 18 and 22 miles – I might do about five long runs. I do them all at an easy pace.
GCR:What are some of your favorite sessions on the road or track to build stamina and speed?
CNI like to do repeat quarter miles on the track – I usually do between 16 and 20 of them. I don’t do repeat miles on the track.
GCR:Do you incorporate much running of hill repetitions and barefoot running into your training regimen?
CNWhen I was growing up I used to run in bare feet, but I don’t use barefoot running in my training now. Sometimes I do hill repeats in my training before a marathon like Boston that has hills on the course. But when I am in Kenya I don’t have to do repeats because everything is hilly on my distance runs.
GCR:How important is your faith and belief in God to give you the will to persevere, keep you humble in victory and gracious in defeat?
CNWhenever I win or am successful I know that God always give me the ability to do my best. In my victories he is the favorite child of the most high and whatever praise I get is all for his glory. He has given me his blood. In the book of Isaiah, Chapter 40, Verse 31 it says, ‘But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary; they will walk and not be faint.’ I know that there is no way the Lord will leave me weary or there is no way I will faint because the Lord who is in me is the one who renews my strength each and every time.
GCR:Who are some of your favorite competitors and racing adversaries due to their toughness?
CNI have respect for each and every runner. I enjoy racing everyone. With my competitors it helps me to become better. There is no way you can be number one unless there are a number two and number three.
GCR:Behind every great runner is a coach who helps to set goals and a training plan, evaluates and motivates. What are the key things you have learned from Coach El-Mastafa Nechchadi and any other coaches who have developed you as a runner and racer?
CNWhat I have learned from my coach is to listen to my body and to be calm. I have learned to run with my own strategy and not to go crazy. It has helped me to be calm when I am racing and make my moves.
GCR:You were named the Kenyan Sportswoman of the year in 2004 and 2005. How meaningful is this and could you have dreamed it when you began running?
CNI never could have dreamed anything like that. I don’t know how they follow all of the athletes and make their decisions. I have been out of the country when there was the ceremony so my husband goes to it and receives my award for me.
GCR:You come from a large family of ten children. What was the atmosphere like when you started running as a teenager, got more and more successful and became one of the trailblazers in women’s’ running in your country when previously it was mainly the Kenyan men who raced well at the World Class level?
CNI started running when I was 14 years old. When I was growing up running wasn’t such a big deal. Whenever I could I would run around. I did some competing when I was in fifth grade. The boys and girls ran together and none of my classmates could beat me. I even beat all of the boys. This is when I learned that I could run fast.
GCR:You organize a half marathon in her home town of Nyeri named after Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, a freedom fighting hero in Kenya’s struggle for independence. How important is it to you to emphasize your country’s history and to be a role model for young girls, women and all of your country?
CNThe half marathon started out named for the freedom fighter, but now it is just called the Nyeri Half marathon as we don’t want it to be involved with politics. It is something to be a role model for young women and the young girls as they grow up and to encourage them. It is good to show them that as they get older and become a woman that they can still continue with athletics.
GCR:You have a daughter, Jane, who is entering her teenage years. How hard is it to balance motherhood and professional running especially with dividing your time between living and Kenya and portions of the year when you are training in the United States and racing internationally?
CNIt is not easy but through God’s grace I have been able to do it. Many people have to work and to be parents and I am just one person who does what many others do.
GCR:WinCatherine: The Story of Wincatherine Nyambura Ndereba is a feature-length documentary film currently in production and directed by Stefani Weiss. What is the focus of the film and what is the story which you and the movie production team wish to convey?
CNI hope it conveys that even with humble beginnings it shouldn’t stop you from becoming what you can be. If you keep on following your star you will end up reaching your goal.
GCR:Your running career has been a model of consistency and excellence. As you approach 40 years old do you still have goals to represent Kenya at the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Olympics? Do you plan to race as a Masters runner?
CNI am hoping to run at the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Olympics but don’t feel any pressure. If my body holds up I will run when I am 40 and beyond. The only thing that will stop me from running is when my body is no longer able to do it.
GCR:Some runners such as Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit-Samuelson have become ‘Ambassadors of Running’ as they get older. Do you see yourself in this role?
CNI do. Even Joan told me when I came to the Beach to Beacon 10k this year that my placing doesn’t matter, but my presence does. That is how I feel as being in these running communities tells me that I am in the right place.
GCR:Are there any major lessons you have learned during your life from growing up in a small town in Kenya, the discipline of running, huge racing success and having God with you in the good times and bad that you would like to share with my readers?
CNIt doesn’t matter what your background is. It only takes God to become who he wants or what he meant for you to be. It only takes faith and trust in him and then working hard. The Bible says in Proverbs Chapter 16 verse 3, ‘Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.’ So if we commit everything unto the Lord he is the only one who can give us success. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.
 Inside Stuff
NicknamesI don’t have a nickname at home, but here in America they call me ‘Catherine the Great’
Favorite TV showsI watch the Christian Channel and TBN, which is Trinity Broadcasting network and has Christian programs
Favorite musicKenyan Christian Gospel music, praising the Lord, Christian hymns
Favorite booksThe Bible; ‘Think Big’ by Ben Carson
First carA Nissan Sentra
Current carVolkswagen Jetta and Toyota Land Cruiser. I won the Jetta for breaking the course record at the Chicago Marathon
Family, Children and SiblingsHusband Anthony Maina and daughter Jane. My brother, Samuel, and sister, Anastasia, are international runners. My other brother, Cyrus, and sister, Esther, are amateur athletes and marathon runners
PetsI have dogs at home - but not as pets but for security
Favorite breakfastVery simple - tea and a couple pieces of whole wheat bread
Favorite mealMokimo - a traditional Kikuyu dish that is also my husband's favorite. It is made from potatoes, beans, corn and greens mashed together and it is the consistency of mashed potatoes. In fact it looks like green mashed potatoes!
Running heroesNone other than Joan Benoit, Bill Rodgers and Greg Meyer – they are all great people!
Greatest running momentI have two that are the best. In the Chicago marathon in 2001 when I crossed the finish line and I could hear them announcing me as the world record holder. It was something I could never have dreamt. And in 2003 when I won my first World Championship Marathon Gold medal was something to me as I waited ten years to represent my country and I had a Gold medal. Then to hear my national anthem being sung – to be at the top of the world means a lot
Worst running momentWhen I got this injury earlier this year and I was trying to do a workout and had to stop in the middle as it was too painful to continue
Childhood dreamsI wanted to become a teacher in elementary school, middle school or high school
Surprising memoriesWhen I used to compete in high school I was being beaten by my younger sister, Anastasia, in the 10,000 meters. When I was close to finishing high school I worked harder and harder to finally be able to beat her
Favorite places to travelI like the United States and Japan