Irene Cheptai leading the senior women's race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017 (© Jiro Mochizuki)
Arriving in the Ugandan capital with a team where world and Olympic medallists figured prominently, that Kenya would dominate the women’s senior race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017 wasn’t an especially major surprise.
But two aspects of their dominant performance were: that the powerful squad would produce the first top-six sweep in the history of the championships and that it would be led by Irene Cheptai, relatively speaking, a newcomer to the front lines of Kenya’s international ranks.
While certainly not off the radar, the 25-year-old still arrived very much in the shadows of her teammates on a team that included defending world cross-country champion Agnes Tirop, world steeplechase champion Hyvin Kiyeng, African cross-country and 10,000m champion Alice Aprot Nawowuna, and Faith Kipyegon, the Olympic 1500m champion.
After her convincing run on Sunday, her name can now be added to that list.
“I felt very strong but I was not expecting to win,” Cheptai said, casting a wide smile as she recalled the race. “I was hoping to be in the top three but I thank God that I won.”
Despite her lack of international accolades, she was hardly an afterthought on the squad and did come armed with World Cross Country Championships experience.
The junior runner-up in 2008, she was 10th in the senior race in 2013 and seventh two year later. Last week she came to Uganda with the strongest momentum among the podium aspirants after winning each of her three cross-country competitions of the season – including the notoriously difficult national championship one month ago. Confidence was certainly building and it showed on the Kololo Ceremonial Grounds course on Sunday.
“I was very confident and am very thankful that I managed to win here,” she said. The shift to a longer distance for the women’s race played into her hands as well.
A 5000m and 10,000m runner on the track, Cheptai says she prefers the longer distance. “I prefer the 10,000m to run longer and farther than the 5000m. That one is over too quickly.”
That preference showed too, as she bided her time before breaking away from the field in the final kilometre en route to a 31:57 run, a strong performance given the difficulty of the undulating course and Kampala’s hot and muggy equatorial conditions.
Behind, her teammates followed, a sea of red running towards history. The moment wasn’t lost on Cheptai.
“This was wonderful! Finishing one to six was amazing. We cooperated well and we helped each other. We communicated and tried to push, took turns pushing. Then together as a group we just ran on.”
Originally from the western Kenyan city of Kapenguria not far from the border with Uganda, Cheptai began running at 15 as a primary school student, before gradually rising through the country’s crowded ranks. Her first international appearance came at the 2007 World Youth Championships in Ostrava, where she finished seventh in the 3000m. She claims career bests of 14:43.42 and 31:15.28 on the track, both set last year, and was a 5000m finalist at the World Championships in 2015 where she also finished seventh.
Among her idols is Vivian Cheruiyot, the five-time world champion on the track and in cross country and reigning Olympic 5000m champion.
“I always looked up to her when I was younger and started running, and said for many years that I want to be like Vivian Cheruiyot.”
In 2011, Cheruiyot won the 5000m/10,000m double at the World Championships in Daegu, a feat prefaced by a victory at the World Cross Country Championships five months earlier.
In her mission to emulate her idol, Cheptai is off to a good start in 2017.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF