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Kelvin Kiptum: the Kenyan runner who redefined what it takes to win marathons

KENYAN athletics has lost Kelvin Kiptum, the marathon world record holder who was destined to be the first person to run the race in under two hours. The runner, aged only 24, died on 10 February in a car accident that also claimed his coach Gervais Hakizimana, 37, from Rwanda.

WYCLIFFE W. NJORORAI SIMIYU, Professor and Chair of Kinesiology and Health Science, Stephen F. Austin State University

The accident occurred near one of the high-altitude athletics training centres that dot the country’s north Rift Valley. The region northwest of Nairobi is home to many Kenyan distance runners, among them world-famous athletes such as former world marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge.

Kelvin Kiptum’s rapid ascent to the peak of marathon running was astounding. He was reportedly unable to afford a pair of shoes to run in his first major competitive race. That was six years ago. By the time of his death, he was widely regarded as one of the best marathon runners the world had ever seen.

His tragic death elicited global shock and praise for an athlete destined to keep alive a tradition of world-leading distance runners from the east African country. And Kenya has lost a son. “Kiptum was our future,” said Kenyan President William Ruto.

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Kiptum’s career was fascinating to watch for a sports scientist like me, with a research focus on Kenyan athletics. His meteoric rise to the pinnacle of distance running highlights what a phenomenal talent the world had. And what he represented – in values and in training.

READ:  Family mourns Kenya's marathon prodigy Kelvin Kiptum

Kiptum was born and raised in an environment where sheer commitment and distance running have transformed other barefoot, livestock-herding kids into international superstars. His fearless running from the front marked him out as a confident and easy athlete who dictated the pace rather than one reacting to other runners’ moves. We are left to wonder what more he had in store, and how far a human being could push the limits of how long it takes to run a marathon.

Iconic performances

Kiptum was one of the most exciting prospects to emerge in road running anywhere in years, having broken the world record in only his third appearance in an elite marathon.

His record of 2 hours 35 seconds, set at last year’s Chicago Marathon, was ratified on 6 February by the international track federation World Athletics. Before setting the world record at the Chicago Marathon, he had won the 2023 London Marathon (2:01:25) and the 2022 Valencia Marathon (2:01:53), which was his debut event in marathon running.

At the time of his death, he was training for the Rotterdam Marathon in April 2024, with excitement building at the prospect of an attempt to break the two-hour barrier in an official race for the first time.

Kiptum was also a top prospect for gold at the 2024 Olympics in Paris in July. There he was likely going to race against Kipchoge as the two athletes had been named in Kenya’s provisional marathon team.

READ:  Kenyans mourn marathon world record holder Kiptum as body returns home

Rise and rise

Kiptum’s path in athletics represents how Kenyan distance running traditions are passed on. His early interest in running was greatly influenced by watching his cousin, a runner who often worked as a pacemaker for legendary Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie. But while Kiptum’s interest was running, his father was of the view that he needed to pursue a more practical vocation as an electrician. Kiptum’s passion for running did not yield success immediately, but he persisted in the effort.

One can speculate that Kiptum’s decision to carry on training without any tangible rewards prepared him perfectly for the marathon. The 42.195 km race demands ultimate endurance ability, both physical and mental.

Initially, Kiptum tried his hand at the half marathon but moved up to the marathon in 2022 after some convincing from his coach, who had met him as a little boy in the village and later nurtured him to be a world marathon record holder.

Many elite marathon runners in Kenya – such as Paul Tergat (the first athlete to run the marathon in under 2 hours 5 minutes), Kipchoge and Moses Tanui – transitioned to the marathon after long careers on the track.

Kiptum launched his marathon running early on and it became his sole focus. What he might have achieved is now perhaps less useful a question than what shaped him.

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By WYCLIFFE W. NJORORAI SIMIYU

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