Kelvin Kiptum broke Eliud Kipchoge’s world record in Chicago, but had concerns about completing the marathon until 2022

When Kelvin Kiptum competed in his first major local competition in 2018, Kenya’s new marathon icon wore borrowed running shoes because he couldn’t afford his own pair.

When he set an impressive world record of two hours and 35 seconds at the Chicago Marathon this month, times actually changed as he wore Nike’s latest “super shoes” – which some say helped him improve his performance accomplish.

As the 23-year-old flies over the toughest courses in the world, the story of his rise in marathon running is as incredible as the progress he is making.

“It’s been a long journey for me in my career,” World Athletics’ governing body’s nominee for the Men’s World Athlete of the Year award told BBC Sport Africa.

“I tried so hard to make this dream come true and set a world record.

“It came true and I’m really happy. My life has changed now.”

Kiptum’s reception upon his return to Kenya testified to his newfound celebrity status. The hero’s welcome began with two days of celebrations from the capital Nairobi to his home in the southwest of the country.

The London Marathon winner, who at times appeared embarrassed by the attention from family, friends, government officials and the media, says he almost canceled his trip to Chicago, one of the world’s leading marathons.

“During the latter stages of my training I was a little ill – I had a groin injury and a bit of malaria,” he explained.

“I felt like I wasn’t able to compete because I hadn’t trained for two to three days, but a week before (the race) I had recovered a little. I knew I had been training well for about four months.”

Coach Gervais Hakizimana – a retired Rwandan runner who had been aiming for the world record with his athlete for months – convinced Kiptum not to quit, telling him to “rest for a few days and get back into training.”

Kiptum has been working with coach Gervais Hakizimana since 2018

The relationship between coach and athlete began in 2018, but the couple first met when the world record holder was much younger.

“I knew him when he was a little boy herding cattle barefoot,” Hakizimana remembers. “It was in 2009, I was training near his father’s farm, he came after me and I chased him away.

“Now I’m grateful to him for his performance.”

The path to remarkable runs

While Kiptum has a world record, two of the other six fastest times ever at the distance and three of three marathon wins, a year ago he had never run a marathon.

The father of two is one of a new generation of Kenyan athletes who started their careers on the road, breaking away from the old tradition of athletes starting on the track before moving on to longer distances.

Kiptum says his unusual choice was simply due to a lack of resources.

“I had no money to travel to training sessions,” he explained.

“My training location is far from a track, so I started training with road runners – and that’s how I got into the marathon.”

According to Hakizimana, Kiptum needed time to get comfortable with the idea of ​​running a marathon, which he initially found to be too strenuous.

“He was a little scared and preferred the shorter half marathon until he finally agreed to a marathon in 2022,” says Hakizimana.

Although he’s a decent half marathon runner, it’s the longer 42 kilometers that have catapulted Kiptum to global recognition thanks to his triumphs in Valencia, London and Chicago, all of which he has achieved since December.

Kenya is home to some of the world’s greatest marathon runners, most notably former world record holder and two-time Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, but Kiptum has qualities that make him special, says athletics commentator Martin Keino.

“The level of fearlessness that Kiptum shows in his race is what is needed to get to the top,” Keino told BBC Sport Africa.

“He almost holds back in the first half of the marathon and then attacks in the second half like no one has ever done – you very rarely see this type of race.”

Kelvin Kiptum’s father, wife and children joined him to receive his government award from the Kenyan Sports Minister

Ignite the dream

Thanks to his approach, Kiptum went from obscurity to world record holder in just five years. This rapid rise is a reward for sticking with his dream even when others didn’t share his vision.

Kiptum’s love of running came from watching his cousin, an athlete who often ran as a pacer for Ethiopian star Haile Gebrselassie, but he had to convince those closest to him that he could make it in athletics .

At first, his father insisted that he go to college instead.

“He wanted me to study to get my electrician diploma, but I said I had to be an athlete – I had that passion,” Kiptum remembers.

“That time was very hard for me because I trained for four years but there was no success and they were disappointed in me. But I kept pushing.”

At some point his father came over and even occasionally helped him get to morning training on time.

After Kiptum’s record victory, his father praised him effusively as an “obedient son who remained true to his upbringing.”

Can Kiptum complete a marathon under two hours?

Olympic champion Kipchoge could compete for Kenya with Kiptum at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris

As he hurtles into the future, there’s one major concern – namely that Kiptum’s blistering speed will lead to injuries.

“He trains a lot and at this rate there is a risk that he will collapse,” his coach Hakizimana recently told news outlets.

“I suggested that he slow down, but he doesn’t want to. So I told him that he would be ready in five years – and that he needed to calm down to compete in athletics.”

However, Kiptum has other ideas and says his world record motivated him to try to become the first man to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon.

In 2019, Kipchoge – widely considered the greatest marathon runner in history – ran under two hours, but his record was not recognized because it was not in open competition.

Kiptum is inspired by his compatriot and hopes to one day compete against him, with such an opportunity possible at the latest at next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.

“Eliud inspires us all,” Kiptum said. “He is our role model for the younger generation.

“If I get the chance to represent my country at the Olympics it will be the first time – so I will focus on a medal. I have an Olympic dream.”

He may have inspired the young protégé, but now Kipchoge could be watching Kiptum claim not only his world record but also his Olympic title.

“As Eliud winds down his career,” said Keino, “we now see the future of marathon racing here in Kenya.”

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