2003 – Paul Tergat

Source: Sean Hartnett (link under References)

28-Sep-2003 – Berlin Marathon – 2:04:55 – Nike Air Zoom Katana II x Air Ghost Racer prototype
Date of birth: 17-Jun-1969
Nationality: Kenyan
World Record Duration: 4 years, 2 days

The athlete:                
As with many athletes on this list, Paul Tergat started his career running shorter distances. He was hardly short of success, winning the World Athletics Cross Country Championships five times in a row between 1995 and 1999, among other accolades along the way. Tergat was without question one the most talented middle-distance runners of his generation, one of the highlights the fierce rivalry with Haile Gebrselassie. The two had fought for gold in the 10,000 metres in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, Tergat coming second both times. He also established himself as one of the best ever over the half- marathon distance.

Between 1995-2002 he won no less than eleven such events, including two World Championships and the half-marathon world record of 59:17 in 1998 at the Stramilano International Half Marathon. He would go faster again in 2000, where he ran 59:06 at the Lisbon Half Marathon. The latter is considered by World Athletics to have been set on an aided course i.e too steep. For an explanation of how the Boston Marathon course fell afoul of these rules, you can read my article here. In any case, Tergat’s benchmark performance from 1998 stood unbeaten for over seven years.

There was a sense of inevitability that Tergat would turn his attention to the marathon distance. Debuting in 2001, he would place second in his first three events, setting himself up as someone to watch just as he had in middle-distance events. The 2003 Berlin Marathon would be Tergat’s sixth marathon entry. As the race progressed, Tergat’s biggest competition would become Sammy Korir. Korir was another accomplished runner who already had seven marathon victories under his belt. He was actually participating in the marathon as a pacer, but shot into the lead with Tergat on his heels. At 21 and a half miles he tried to unsuccessfully drop Tergat, the two men neck and neck with six tenths of a mile remaining.

Tergat snatched the lead, but almost lost the race when he took a slower line approaching the Brandenburg Gate near the finish. Korir closed in, but Tergat recovered and when he crossed the finish line, it was the first time someone had run the marathon at a pace of under 3 minutes per kilometre. Korir was only one second behind him, an incredible effort and his personal best. Tergat suffered for his efforts, his foot being so badly abraded that he felt like the sole of his shoe had fallen off.

It would not be his last sprint effort to win a marathon, with Tergat putting in a legendary performance to beat defending champion Hendrick Ramaala to win the 2005 New York City Marathon in a sprint finish by barely more than three tenths of a second. Olympic gold would however elude Tergat. While he made the start of the race in 2004, and was with the leaders at the 35 kilometre mark, leg cramps would end his chances of winning. He would unfortunately not get another shot at gold, failing to make selection for the 2008 Olympics by the narrowest of margins.

Tergat would not slow down after his retirement from athletics. He has worked with both World Athletics, the Kenyan National Olympics Committee, and the United Nations. Tergat even formed his own charity, as well as sitting on the boards of several educational establishments across Kenya.

The shoes:                   

Although there are articles that claim that Tergat wore the Fila Racer K1, photos from the 2003 Berlin Marathon clearly show he is wearing Nikes. Tergat had however worn Filas from his marathon debut until 2002 when he was wearing the Racer K1. It was Korir who was wearing the Filas at the Berlin Marathon in 2003, although in a different colourway. The Fila Racer is a fascinating shoe in itself; it was one of the first racing shoes to feature carbon-fibre plates to improve performance, well over a decade before the Nike Zoom VaporFly.

Tergat, as part of the hugely successful Discovery Kenya program sponsored by Fila, had worn their products during the earlier stages of his career. On his feet the day of his second half-marathon world record in 2000 were a particularly significant pair of shoes, that he had started wearing year before. They were the Fila Racer, the second version of the carbon-kevlar plated racing flat concept that Fila pioneered and first introduced in 1996. That shoe was called the Silva Racer, named after Mexican distance running legend Germán Silva. You can read more about the history of how Fila developed the technology through my article which has been published by Marathon Handbook.

This entry is slightly unusual in that these were prototypes made specifically for Tergat. The upper is from the Air Zoom Katana II, with the midsole and outsole unit of the Air Ghost Racer. The pictures we have show the blue and white colourway he wore at the 2003 Berlin Marathon. What confirms it for me is the pair he wore at the 2005 New York City Marathon. Featuring a bolder red and green colourway, they clearly show the mashup between the two runners.

As for the shoes, the 1999 Air Ghost Racer was designed as a serious option for budget conscious runners. It still featured full length Phylon cushioning, with a rear Zoom Air unit. The midsole was also notable for the stability shank, which would be helpful approaching the end of the marathon distance when running form would begin fading. As for the Air Zoom Katana II, it was actually quite similar in concept to the Air Ghost Racer. Although finding specific information is tricky, the original Air Zoom Katana featured full length Phylon cushioning and just like the Air Ghost Racer had a rear Zoom Air unit.

It was part of Nike’s Bowerman Series, started in 2000 and named after the company’s co-founder Bill Bowerman. The Bowerman Series was about making more singularly focussed running shoes, and included experimental models like the Mayfly marathon racer from 2003. Weighing only 135 grams and using Phylon foam with expanded air pockets, it was designed to last 100 kilometres, hence the name.

As for the shoes Tergat wore, he liked the midsole of the Air Ghost Racer so much that he insisted Nike combine it with the upper of the Air Zoom Katana II. The red and green pair were picked as tribute to Tergat’s home country of Kenya. The Air Ghost Racer was retroed in 2019, in the original neon yellow and white colourway as well as several others. The Air Zoom Katana II is still within the vaults, and Nike hasn’t brought back the hybrid that Tergat wore. The only pair I’ve found of the unique prototype Tergat wore is available through Nike boutique Culture PDX, and befitting such history are not cheap.