STAR-BULLETIN / DECEMBER 1995
Marathoner Benson Masya, from Kenya, poses for a photo with Diamond Head in the background. A three-time Honolulu Marathon winner, Masya died in 2003.
Lifestyle and illness felled Honolulu Marathon winner
Kenyan Benson Masya will be inducted in the hall of fame
Even the greatest marathoners in the world can't run from epidemic disease.
Zane Branson can't prove it and he doesn't want to come right out and say it. But if he was not completely convinced his friend Benson Masya died from the AIDS virus, he would not even imply it.
The 34th Annual Honolulu Marathon
Start: Sunday, 5 a.m., at intersection of Ala Moana Boulevard and Queen Street; ends at Kapiolani Park.
Participants: About 29,000 runners are expected.
Prize money: $40,000 each for winners in men's and women's division, and an extra $10,000 for breaking course record; $150,000 total purse.
Dominant nation: The Kenyans have won the men's division 16 times since 1985. Women from former Soviet republics have won nine of the last 10.
Course records: Jimmy Muindi, Kenya, 2:11.12; Lyubov Morgunova, Russia, 2:27.33
Economic impact: $100 million in visitor spending and $4.4 million in tax revenue.
"I don't know how you can avoid saying that," Branson said in a phone interview Thursday. "It was always unofficial. He never was tested. There's no medical record. But overwhelming speculation is that's what it is. To skip over that is not appropriate."
Masya was a Kenyan distance-running great who died in 2003 at 33 -- an age when many runners are still peaking. He won the Honolulu Marathon in 1991, 1992 and 1994 and will be inducted into the race's hall of fame Thursday night at the Oahu Country Club.
In Kenya, great distance runners are treated like rock stars. They are national heroes and celebrities, and they are among the few people who have disposable income in a country where the per capita income is around $360 U.S.
Masya is remembered fondly in Honolulu, where he left positive impressions.
"Benson was a huge talent and the No. 1 road racer in the world at one time when he ran here," Honolulu Marathon President Jim Barahal said. "It was a big thing for us that he would run here. It showed the world we could attract a top runner again (after another three-time winner, Ibrahim Hussein)."
Masya liked to spend his money on having a good time, said Branson, who was Masya's agent.
"Benson had a careless lifestyle and likely it contributed to his death," Branson said. "Benson was a loving, caring guy. But he always thought he was invincible. Money? He'll just win another race next week and get more."
Masya was a postal worker and boxer before he got serious about competitive running. His racing style has been described as "muscular," and in 1994 he won his third Honolulu Marathon despite trailing the leaders by as many as 45 seconds before taking the lead at the 19th mile.
During this time, Masya liked to party -- not a unique trait for a Kenyan running star.
STAR-BULLETIN / NOVEMBER 1995
Josiah Thungwane and Honolulu Marathon hall of fame nominee Benson Masya put their soles into the race.
Paul Kipkoech (10K world champion in 1987) and Richard Chelimo (10K Olympic silver medalist in 1992) both also died after long, unexplained illnesses.
"On the track and road circuit, all three runners had well-deserved reputations as party animals, guys who liked a good time and enjoyed a drink," wrote Steven Downes for an article in Scotland on Sunday in 2003 after Masya's death. "All three, though, ended their days as sad, skeletal figures, suffering from some form of mystery, debilitating illness. ... Never mentioned explicitly, but widely suspected, is that all three champion runners perished, along with 1.5 million other Kenyans, as the result of HIV infection."
Branson said Masya ran "his last great race" at the Portsmouth 10 Mile in 1996.
"Two weeks later after that, he was a jogger. Benson's body had just given up," Branson said. "I think the drinking led to that. He started drinking in the States when he was racing well. He was introverted with a hard exterior, but he was warm inside. Benson was generous and when he was drunk, people took advantage of that."
Masya died nearly penniless. Branson and Honolulu Marathon champions Cosmos Ndeti and Jimmy Muindi provide financial help to Masya's widow, Joan, and their three sons.
"Certainly coming from Kenya, the great runners win staggering amounts of money relative to their economy," Barahal said. "But they're still vulnerable to the same forces as other people in Kenya, such as AIDS. Lifestyle issues have unfortunately been a problem for several great Kenyan runners."
Branson holds drug-awareness conferences for athletes. He wants to get the word out that even world-class competitors are vulnerable to HIV and AIDS.
"My personal position is that I was a friend of Benson and I work for HIV prevention in Kenya and Serbia," Branson said. "The more people know about it, the sooner Kenya can get out of it.
"There's no shame."