NEW YORK -- When Kenya's Samuel Wanjiru won his debut marathon in Fukuoka in 2007 and took Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008, he was accompanied along much of the course by Ethiopia's Deriba Merga, and the two gutsy runners became friends.
When Wanjiru, 24, fell to an untimely death at his home in Nyahururu, Kenya, the 2009 Boston marathon champion Merga was in San Francisco, where he had just run Sunday's Bay to Breakers 12K, placing second.
"I was shocked to my core when I heard the news," said Merga on Monday evening in New York, where he stopped on his way back from California. "This is a very tragic thing that has befallen him."
The Ottawa 10K course record-holder Merga, who returns to that event May 28, said he heard from people at Sunday's 12K in San Francisco of Wanjiru's passing.
"We've run together many times and we are very close as friends," said Merga, who was Wanjiru's runner-up in the 2007 Fukuoka race in a then-personal best 2:06:50 to the Kenyan's 2:06:39, both finishing below the previous course record. "We were together until one kilometer remained. For 41km, we ran together, and after that he beat me."
In April 2008 both men ran new personal bests at the London marathon, where Merga took 6th in 2:06:38 behind Wanjiru's 2:05:24 second place.
"We were very close at that time," said Merga, who was also in the 2010 Chicago marathon Wanjiru won for the second time, but which the Ethiopian dropped out of due to a leg injury. "More recently, after the Olympics, we haven't run together much and we didn't have much time in Chicago, where I left right away, but in the past, whenever we met, we hung out and talked. He's a good guy."
In the 2008 Olympic marathon, Merga was in the lead with Wanjiru and then in third position behind Morocco's Jaouad Gharib as the race neared its end. The Ethiopian was overtaken by his teammate Tsegaye Kebede inside the Bird's Nest stadium and finished just outside the medals in 2:10:21, while the podium was topped by Wanjiru in an Olympic record 2:06:32, clocked against not only a championship field but Beijing's heat.
"He's truly an admirable athlete," said Merga. "The whole world is witness to that."
"I feel great sadness in my heart," added the 2009 Houston champion Merga. "The whole world over, there is not one person who saw him run, who wasn't entertained by his talent, and enthralled by his races. So it's not only me, but the whole world that will have been saddened by this fate."