Kelvin Kiptum (© Mattia Ozbot)
Kelvin Kiptum ran his first marathon on 4 December last year, two days after he turned 23. He managed to fit in two more before his 24th birthday, by which time he was the world record-holder.
At the Prince’s Palace of Monaco on Monday (11), the Kenyan – who became the first man to run a record-eligible marathon in less than 2:01:00 – also became the first recipient of the World Athlete of the Year men's out of stadia award.
His honour came on a night of new categories for the annual awards, with the men’s track World Athlete of the Year award going to USA’s Noah Lyles and Sweden’s Mondo Duplantis – already a double winner of the men’s World Athlete of the Year – gaining the honour for men’s field events.
Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon was women’s track World Athlete of the Year, while the women’s field honour went to Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela and Tigist Assefa of Ethiopia won the women’s out of stadia award.
Kelvin Kiptum with his World Athlete of the Year - Men's Out of Stadia award (© Mattia Ozbot)
For Kiptum, the past year has been one of dramatic and successive accomplishments. That first marathon, in Valencia, saw him become only the third man to break two hours and two minutes as he clocked 2:01:53, the fastest marathon debut time.
Only his 38-year-old compatriot Eliud Kipchoge, whose official world record from that year’s Berlin race stood at 2:01:09, and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, who had recorded 2:01:41, had run faster.
Four months later Kiptum toed the line in rainy conditions at the London Marathon, which he won in 2:01:25, the second fastest time ever behind Kipchoge’s world record.
And on 8 October, Kiptum won the Chicago Marathon in a world record of 2:00:35, taking 34 seconds off Kipchoge’s mark.
But Kiptum wants more. He has already announced that he will run the Rotterdam Marathon in April, when he will seek – at least – to better his world record.
Reviewing his annus mirabilis shortly before the awards ceremony in Monaco, Kiptum reflected first upon his extraordinary debut in Valencia.
“Going for my marathon debut in Valencia, I was prepared. I was ready for any results,” he said. “My target there was to run 2:04 or 2:03, because I was in good shape. I found myself running 2:01.
“I then trained for four months before this year’s London Marathon and then I had a month-and-a-half’s break before preparations began for Chicago.
“I ran 2:01:25 in London and I was very satisfied with that time.”
Asked what made the difference between that time and the world record he produced six months later, he replied: “London is a bit more of a hard course. Chicago is more flat. That’s where I found the extra time.”
Kiptum maintained, stoutly, that he has never laid so much as a foot on a running track. Asked why, he answered with flawless logic: “It was difficult to train in track. I had no track to train on.”
So, naturally, the young Kiptum, a humble herdsman of the family cattle, began to take to the trails and roads where he saw others running.
“I got into road running, half marathon, 10km,” he recalled. “And always I was training with a group of marathon runners. So, I ended up running marathons.”
Asked if he would ever like to run on the track, the answer was immediate: “No.”
On whether he had received any communication from Kipchoge after breaking the world record, Kiptum said he had received a message from the great man – a private message.
“I know Eliud,” Kiptum said. “He is a good athlete. I respect him.”
Kelvin Kiptum reacts after winning the London Marathon (© AFP / Getty Images)
A closer Kenyan role model for Kiptum is Geoffrey Kamworor, seven years his senior, who has won three world half marathon titles as well as taking one world U20 cross country title and two senior versions.
Kamworor comes from the same village as Kiptum in Chepkorio, 30km from Eldoret in the Rift Valley.
“Geoffrey is a friend of mine,” Kiptum said. “We grew up together.
“We were training with Geoffrey the year he won his world junior title in cross country. He was a role model to me.”
In London, Kiptum beat his role model by almost three minutes.
It was in 2013, soon after starting to run with the marathon pack, that a 13-year-old Kiptum decided to test his mettle in the Eldoret Half Marathon. He came 10th. Five years later, he won the event.
In the interim he had linked up with the runner who now coaches him, Gervais Hakizimana, a Rwandan athlete who lived and trained in the area for many years.
“I began training with Gervais when I was still at school, when I was 14,” he said. “He was training alone in my village. That’s why I went to him after school to begin training. And I was able to get to a really good level.
“I was a herdsman yes, for many years. It was my life, as it was for a lot of others. But I had to find time for my running.”
A decade on, he now prepares for Rotterdam where, after acting as a pacemaker during the 2019 race, he had planned to make his marathon debut until an injury frustrated him.
“It will give me time to prepare for the Paris Olympics. After Rotterdam I will go to the Olympics,” he said.
That, it is clear, is a huge target. But, he added diplomatically: “If I am selected for the Olympics, I think you have to go there as a team, to help each other and then see the results.”
His next result, in Rotterdam, will also be one to keep an eye on.
“I have just started my training and I hope to go there and do my best,” he added. “Maybe to beat my time. I think I try each time to push my limit.”
Mike Rowbottom for World Athletics