When he prepared for his first major race in 2018, Kenya’s new marathon sensation, Kelvin Kiptum, did so in borrowed running shoes because he couldn’t afford his own pair.
In this month’s Chicago marathon, where he set an astonishing world record of two hours and 35 seconds, times were changing compared to when he had been running recently in Nike’s ‘super-shoes’ lineup – some say these helped him achieve his success.
As the 23-year-old shines in one of the world’s toughest races, his journey in marathon running is as remarkable as the strides he makes on the track.
“It has been a long journey for me in my career,” the World Male Athlete of the Year nominee, as proposed by World Athletics, told BBC Sport Africa.
“I’ve been trying very hard to pursue this dream of holding the world record.
“It has truly happened, and I am very happy. My life has changed now.”
Kiptum’s reception upon his return to Kenya underscored his newfound celebrity status. His hero’s welcome spanned two days, moving from the capital city, Nairobi, to his home in the southwestern part of the country.
The London Marathon champion, who at one point seemed 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.
“In the final stages of my training, I was a bit sick – nursing a thigh injury and mild malaria,” he explained.
“I felt like I couldn’t compete because I was out of training for two to three days, but a week before (the race) I had recovered a bit. I knew I had trained well for almost four months.”
Coach Gervais Hakizimana – a retired Rwandan athlete who had spent several months targeting the world record with his athlete – persuaded Kiptum not to withdraw, telling him to “rest for a few days and return to training.”
Kiptum has been working with coach Gervais Hakizimana since 2018 Kiptum has been working with coach Gervais Hakizimana since 2018 Image: BBC Their coach-athlete relationship started in 2018, but the two first met when the world record holder was much younger.
“I knew him when he was a little boy, herding cattle barefoot,” Hakizimana recalled. “It was in 2009; I was training near his father’s farm; he came to kick me, and I chased him away.
“Now, I thank him for his success.”
The Road to Amazing Races
The Road to an Incredible Race Kiptum may have one world record, two of the six fastest times ever run at the distance, and three wins out of three marathons, but just a year ago, he had never even run a marathon.
The father of two is among Kenya’s new crop of athletes who started their lives abroad, departing from the country’s traditional culture of athletes starting with shorter races before moving to longer distances.
His choice was unconventional and driven primarily by a lack of resources.
“I didn’t have money to travel to attend meetings,” he explained.
“My training ground is far from the track, so I started training with street runners – that’s how I got into marathon running.”
According to Hakizimana, Kiptum needed time to warm up to the idea of running marathons, which he initially thought might be too challenging.
“He was afraid, and he preferred short half-marathons until 2022 when he finally agreed to participate in a marathon,” says Hakizimana.
Good half-marathon performances, however, lead to the 42-kilometer distance, and Kiptum’s victories in Valencia, London, and Chicago since December have made him known internationally.
Kenya is home to some of the world’s greatest marathon runners, with former world record holder and two-time Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge being the most prominent among them. Still, Kiptum possesses qualities that set him apart, says athletics analyst Martin Keino.
“The fearlessness that Kiptum displays in his races is what is needed to reach the top,” Keino told BBC Sport Africa.
“He holds back in the first half of the marathon and then attacks in the second period as if no one has ever done – such a running style is rare to see.”
Fueling Dreams From obscurity, Kiptum has risen to hold the world record in just five years, with his acclimation to higher altitudes being the reward for pursuing his dream even when others did not share his vision.
Kiptum’s passion for running stemmed from watching his cousin, an athlete who often ran as a pacemaker for Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie, but he had to convince those closer to home that he could succeed in athletics.
Initially, his father insisted he attend college instead.
“He wanted me to study to pursue my diploma in electrical engineering, but I kept saying that I needed to be an athlete – I had that passion,” Kiptum recalled.
“That period was very tough for me because I trained for four years, but there were no achievements, and they were discouraged with me. But I kept pushing.”
Eventually, his father came around, often helping him get to morning practice on time.
After his record-breaking win, his father praised him sternly as “a obedient son who remained faithful to his upbringing.”
The Big Question Remains: Can Kiptum claim the sub-two-hour marathon?
As he races into the future, there’s one big thing – Kiptum’s speed may lead to injuries.
“He trains a lot, and at this rate, he is at risk of breaking down,” his coach Hakizimana recently told the media.
“I suggested he reduce his pace, but he doesn’t want to. So, I told him that in five years, he will be done – and that he needs to calm down to sustain a long career.”
However, Kiptum has different plans, stating that his world record has motivated him to attempt to become the first man to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon.
In 2019, Kipchoge – who is considered the greatest marathon runner in history – ran under two hours, but his record was not recognized because it was not in an open competition.
Kiptum drew inspiration from his compatriot and hopes to compete against him one day, with such an opportunity possible at next year’s Olympics in Paris, if not sooner.
“Eliud encourages all of us,” Kiptum said. “For the younger generation, he is our role model.
“If I get a chance to represent my country at the Olympics, it will be my first time – so I will be focusing on winning a medal. I dream of the Olympics.”
He may inspire those young ones, but now Kipchoge might be watching Kiptum not only break his world record but also snatch his Olympic crown.
“As Eliud finishes his career,” Keino said, “we are now seeing the future of marathon running here in Kenya.”