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Together they run into record books

AFP, Athens

When Kenyan Henry Wanyoike, blind since he was 21, comes thundering down the track for the final sprint of a 10,000 meter race, he is tethered body and soul to his seeing-eye shadow-runner Joseph Kibunja Gachui.

No other relationship in sports is like that of runner and guide.

"Everything we do, we do together," says James.

The prowess of this particular pair of joined-at-the-wrist athletes, both 30, was on display at the Athens Paralympics on Sunday, where Wanyoike axed nearly a minute off his own world record in the 10,000 metre run, clocking 31 minutes and 37.25 seconds.

The Paralympics, which run until September 28, is the world's premier event for disabled elite athletes, and covers 19 sports including athletics.

The silver medallist on Sunday straggled across the finish line almost two minutes later, a typical lag time when Wanyoike is in the race.

For a sighted runner, the absence of someone nipping at one's heels removes a critical incentive that can push a top athlete toward a new record.

Wanyoike may consistently leaves the field behind, but he does not have this problem.

"Sometimes Joseph cheats me," he says, breaking into a radiant grin.

"He says 'Watch out! There is someone right behind you, pick up your pace,' but in reality no one is there."

Both men, friends since childhood and running mates since 2000, laugh, almost as one.

Indeed, Henry and James -- they insist on the informality -- are so finely tuned to each other, on the track and off, that meeting with them is a strange experience, almost like talking to two halves of the same person.

Self-effacing and subdued, James is the yin to Henry's yang: ebullient, charismatic and very sure of his abilities. James is taller, almost frail, while Henry is leanly muscular, bristling with power. He is wearing a T-shirt bearing his own likeness and the legend "I am a friend of Henry" above his website: www.

Their intertwined life stories go back to the central Kenyan village, Kikuyu, where both were born.

Before he was a teenager, Henry was already being groomed to join an elite corps of athletes in a country that has probably produced more world-class middle-distance runners over the last twenty years than any country on earth. He excelled at the 5,000 and 10,000-metre distances, and the sky seemed the limit.

In 1995, he had a mild stroke. He seemed to be recovering nicely, but then disaster struck.

"I went to bed a normal person, the following day I found myself in darkness."

Henry's despair was total. The thought of never being able to run again was already unbearable, but it was worse than that.

"I thought my life had come to an end."

Years passed before he was entered in a small pilot programme in 1999 at a nearby hospital that, by chance, had one of the best centers for the visually impaired in East Africa. Henry remembers the day when he mentioned to a doctor that he had once been a good runner.

"The doctor said I could still run if I wanted to," Henry recalls, excitement creeping into his voice.

"I did not believe him. I made him read an article out loud," explaining how it works.

A blind runner is connected to a guide by a tether, which the guide uses to subtly indicate -- without breaking stride -- when to turn, accelerate or avoid an obstacle, whether on the track or on the road, as in a marathon.

Once Henry got the used to working with guides, he quickly established himself as a world class non-sighted runner, earning a spot on the national squad for the 5000 meter race at the Sydney Paralym-pics in 2000.

He became so good, in fact, that he ran into another problem.

"In Sydney, I dragged my guide for the last 50 metres," Henry recalls. Despite the handicap of a guide that couldn't keep up, he not only won the gold but set a Paralympic record too.

And this is where James comes back into the picture.

It might seem next to impossible that a young man with no athletic experience could bring himself up to near international levels by sheer willpower, and that he would do so not to launch his own career as a runner but to help a friend. But that is exactly what James did.

James does not seem perturbed by the thought of what he might have accomplished if he had decided to pursue his own career as a runner, but he admits that he had to make a choice. "I realized I could not do both," he says.

After Henry's -- or perhaps one should say Henry's and James' -- stunning victory in the 10,000-metre event at Athens, they have their collective sights set on the 5,000 metres race on Friday.

Before Henry went blind, he dreamed of great achievements on the track.  

|Starting side|




Bengt Pflughaupt tells the unbelievable history of Henry Wanyoike - to reread in the Biographie "Henry Wanyoike. My long run in the light "

Link: Herder Verlag

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