By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
(09-Oct) -- Stephen Sambu has found a perfect niche racing on the roads. While a number of post-collegiate athletes are struggling in their first year or two outside of the NCAA system, Sambu has succeeded from the get-go, establishing himself as a consistent road racer on the American circuit. At Sunday's B.A.A. Half-Marathon, the 25-year-old will try and capture the B.A.A. Distance Medley title, a hefty $100,000 prize that plays right into Sambu's new found passion.
"I love, love, love road racing. 5-K, 10-K, half-marathon, I love it," Sambu told Race Results Weekly in a phone interview from his training base in Tucson, Ariz. on Wednesday.
Entering Sunday's race, Sambu has a 26-second lead on Allan Kiprono in the B.A.A. Distance Medley, a three race series that awards $100,000 to one man and one woman with the lowest cumulative time from the B.A.A. 5-K (April), B.A.A. 10-K (June), and B.A.A. Half-Marathon.
Upon graduating from the University of Arizona where he was a six-time All-American, Sambu stuck with coach James Li and chose to focus solely on road racing, abandoning the track. The decision has paid off immensely.
Since transitioning into the professional ranks, Sambu has made waves on the pavement. In the opening stages of his 2013 campaign he has finished seventh at the NYC Half (1:01:34, a personal best), fourth at the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile (46:59 PB), and fifth at the B.A.A. 5-K (13:47).
But as the spring turned into summer, Sambu really began to heat up. On May 10 he placed third at the Healthy Kidney 10-K in New York City (28:02 PB), then won the B.A.A. 10-K on June 23, defeating April's Boston Marathon champion in Lelisa Desisa.
Though his success was a bit surprising at first, Sambu said that it all relates back to consistent training with great athletes. Often training alongside road racing ace Abdi Abdirahman and sometimes with Olympian Bernard Lagat, Sambu has reaped the benefits of those around him.
"Training is going very well," he said in an upbeat and excited tone. "It has been really good. I did not have any injuries and that's the most important thing. But training is really good because I've been training with really good guys like Abdi and Bernard. We are training and working hard and it's a good feeling."
With help from Abdirahman, Lagat, and Coach Li, the transition to professional running became seamless. Sambu increased his mileage little by little, and everything fell into place.
"What I did is I increased my mileage a little bit. I increased just a little bit," he said emphasizing that it was gradual, little by little. "When I was in college I was at 70 miles, but then I went to 80 and 90 and now I am at 100, 90 to 100. I think the most important thing was that I didn't jump [too quickly]."
As Sambu left the NCAA track and cross country competition behind, he developed a love for being on the roads. Running up and down hills, plus the support from spectators, captured his heart.
Such was the case in Boston, when Sambu battled Desisa in the B.A.A. 10-K.
"Boston was really really good. I felt great," he said, recounting the race. "The thing with Boston, they don't know you but they cheer you. They shout your name and you don't even know them. They love running and they support running... You are feeling so tired and somebody shouts your name on the side of the road, and you gain energy. You get power [laughs]. I enjoy that. I love that."
This weekend, Sambu hopes the adrenaline and adoration from fans carries him to victory. With the 26-second cushion on Kiprono --last year's B.A.A. Half Marathon winner and B.A.A. Distance Medley champion-- Sambu knows he must bring his "A" game in order to take home the Distance Medley's $100,000 prize, the largest non-marathon award in road racing.
"I am confident because of the training I have been doing," he said. "I know my competitors. I feel ready."
In addition to Kiprono --who he has raced many times this summer-- Sambu will be up against fellow Kenyans Daniel Salel and Lani Rutto, third and fourth in the standings. Ethiopians Desisa and Gebre Gebremariam are not part of the Distance Medley series, though are racing.
"I know they are really tough and training hard," Said Sambu. "It is going to be a tough, tough run. But I trust my training and that's giving me confidence right now... I'm ready and I feel good."
Interestingly enough, Sambu wasn't aware of the $100,000 prize entering either of the Distance Medley's first two races; his agent Karen Locke purposely didn't tell him. Now he is fully aware of what's at stake.
"I didn't know," he said with a hearty laugh. "It was a surprise and I was like 'OK! Now I'm going to work to really win this.'"
And if he wins the grand prize?
"If I get that, I think my life would change a little bit. Not a lot but a little bit," he said. "I would help my family at home [in Eldoret, Kenya]."