Spikes29 May 2019

Young Lion


George Manangoi in training (© Lennx Mpokeh)

by George Manangoi

It started with a gift, a present from my manager Jukka Harkonen after the World U20 Championships last year.

My older brother, Elijah, is nicknamed The Lion, so Jukka brought me a t-shirt with two words written on it: Young Lion. As a Maasai, I know the significance: it’s a title reserved for the king of the jungle or, in our sport, the king of the track.

It signifies strength, courage, the warrior spirit – all the things I needed last summer during what was, by far, the most difficult few weeks of my life.

In June, just a couple of weeks before the World U20 Championships, my older sister Bena passed away.

She had been unwell for a few months, and we got the news shortly before the trials for the African Championships.

At that point running was the last thing on my mind.

She had been my everything – my support, my fan. She called me each and every day, and I remember how she’d always give the phone to her kids so I could talk with them too.

It was a tough time for all of our family. For a week I couldn’t think about training, never mind racing. The biggest event of my season was coming up, but I thought it was better to cancel, to opt out of the World U20 Championships in Tampere. 

But since I’m a Christian and I know about the bible, I know everything has its own time – sorrow and happiness.

I talked a lot to Elijah and my father, Nelson, and they helped me to understand what God did to the family. Over time they changed my outlook, and before Bena's funeral I began running again.

Elijah reminded me how important the championship was in Tampere, that this was God’s plan, and so I accepted it and again started to focus on the race.

But then I got sick.

George Manangoi in training

When I travelled to Finland last July I had a bad fever, thinking again that I had no option but to withdraw.

I remembered the saying: in this world challenges are there but it is on you to trust God and no harm will come your way. So I got on my knees and I talked to God, hoping he could remove the negativity from my mind.

Before the 1500m heats, I was 50/50 on whether to line up at all and even as I took to the track I wasn’t sure if I had any chance of qualifying. But I did, and after that I knew the final was anybody’s race.

I could see how strong the field was: there was Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway, Samuel Tefera of Ethiopia, and Justus Soget, my Kenyan teammate.

But before the final I went back and watched all the heats, trying to figure out the best tactics for the final. In that sense I had the perfect advisor: my brother.

Elijah has been the one who has guided my whole career, teaching me the lessons I need to know to succeed.

In school I was mostly a footballer – a goalkeeper for about five years – but in athletics my first events were the triple jump and high jump. As part of our school routine we had to run up too 15km per day, and that gave me a good base for when I began to train with Elijah in 2016.

Everything was so disciplined. I soon learned there is a thing called pain in training, but the big thing Elijah always taught me was to never complain about it. Another thing: there are no shortcuts, and no way will you ever succeed through shortcuts.

George Manangoi in training

I followed everything he told me and, when it came to the World U18 Championships in Nairobi in 2017, I did exactly what he said for the 1500m final: don’t go out fast, make sure I’m in the top four after the first two laps, then make my move with 200m to go.

He would tell me again and again how strong my kick was and, because of that, I believed in myself. It worked: I won gold.

But in Tampere, repeating that feat would be a lot harder.

I knew my rivals had better personal bests, but championship finals are very different to Diamond Leagues. The early pace was slow, but with 200 metres to run I was flat out, running for the medals with Tefera, Soget and Ingebrigtsen.

At that point, I thought silver was as good as I would get but then, with 120 metres to go, I changed my mind. I let my final kick go, and it was enough to take me to gold – against the odds.

For many years, Elijah had told me that if I trained with him, I would become a champion. He was right.

But I know, too, that I have a long way to go to reach his level.

My personal best is 3:34; he has run 3:28. But my goal this year is to close the gap, to put myself in a position to join him on the Olympic team for Tokyo 2020.

That's the dream.

Right now my brother is the lion and I’m just the young lion. But I’m coming up. I can’t be the young lion forever.

Photography: Lennx Mpokeh