Joshua Cheptegei at the Tokyo Olympics (© Getty Images)
Just a few miles away from the site of his world 10,000m record three years prior, Joshua Cheptegei stumbled towards the finish line of the Valencia Marathon.
On the track, the Olympic 5000m gold medallist and three-time world 10,000m champion is renowned for his unbeatable finishing strength. But in what was his debut over the marathon distance, with each foot somehow supporting a tired body on the brink, the Ugandan had to be content with 37th place in the Spanish city, clocking 2:08:59.
Cheptegei wasn’t too disappointed or surprised, though. Supported by race organiser Marc Roig, Cheptegei hobbled to the elite finishers’ tent immediately after the race, beaming from ear to ear.
A few days before, Cheptegei had prophetically warned: "The marathon has no respect for people.”
Not even Olympic champions, it would seem.
Fans have grown used to Cheptegei finding his rhythm in a leading pack, so it was no surprise to see him there at halfway. Going through 13.1 miles in 1:00:36 wasn’t part of the plan – not that there necessarily was one.
When asked in the build-up to the race what he wanted from his debut, Cheptegei simply said: “I want to learn.”
Joshua Cheptegei at the Valencia Marathon (© NN Running Team)
Collapsing over the line with a rueful smile, Cheptegei made it clear that his objective had been achieved.
He knew that his preparation for the event had been far from perfect. It started with pulling out of the Wanda Diamond League final due to a reaction to wearing spikes in defending his world 10,000m crown in Budapest. Once he did return, the weeks that followed saw his usual runs around the rolling hills of Kapchorwa deemed too dangerous due to constant deluges.
Cheptegei never ran more than 160km a week – which, by the standards of most current marathon specialists, was a light schedule.
Yet in Valencia, he still chose to go with the pace. Many would expect little else from a world 5000m and 10,000m record holder consistently pushing the margins of the possible.
For many fans, their first clear memory of Cheptegei at a senior level was his performance at the 2017 World Cross Country Championships on home soil in Kampala.
That day, the 2016 Olympic 10,000m sixth-place finisher ripped the senior race apart, striding away through the middle section and building a huge lead into the final kilometre.
The Ugandan fans chasing him in bursts around the course almost went as far as to hand over the red, yellow and black flag.
Joshua Cheptegei in the senior men's race at the World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017 (© Jiro Mochizuki)
As the commentators proclaimed his title, Cheptegei had pushed himself to the limit, a smooth stride rolling to a wayward struggle.
Defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor – a former mentor to Cheptegei during his time in Kenya in 2015 – silenced the crowds, passing the struggling Ugandan in a fleeting second and going on to win. Cheptegei eventually finished 30th.
“Joshua had a great belief and a great determination in running,” Kamworor commented on his Ugandan rival. “Whenever you talk with him, you could see in his mind that he had great aspirations in life.
“He's even becoming one of my mentors.”
Cheptegei won the senior title at his next attempt in Aarhus in 2019, the year of the first of three consecutive world 10,000m titles. An Olympic silver in Tokyo in that event accompanied 5000m gold.
Risks taken, lessons learnt all in a bid to break new ground. It's core to Cheptegei’s philosophy as a runner and ultimately role model to those that follow him around the world but perhaps most importantly back home in Uganda.
It’s also followed him since his first days as a professional.
While training with Kamworor, Eliud Kipchoge and the rest in Kaptagat, barely aged 20, the 2014 world U20 10,000m champion made a difficult but bold decision.
“I told my management that I wanted to go back home and build a running culture, and to inspire the young generation here in Uganda.”
Joshua Cheptegei leads the 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23 (© Getty Images)
As a young athlete – and although it happened 24 years before Cheptegei was born – Cheptegei was made aware of the fact that John Akii-Bua earned Uganda's first Olympic athletics medal when taking 400m hurdles gold in Munich in 1972.
It’s clear that Cheptegei now feels a sense of responsibility when it comes to developing the sport in his country, in much the same way Akii-Bua did more than 50 years ago.
“It’s a privilege to have had great guys like him open the way for us, especially in a difficult time where the country was unstable,” says Cheptegei.
Akii-Bua was forced to live out a large part of his life outside Uganda, moving to Kenya towards the final days of the Idi Amin dictatorship.
Likewise, Uganda’s next Olympic gold medallist, Stephen Kiprotich, trained for much of his career in their eastern neighbour.
The then 15-year-old Cheptegei admits taking a break from kicking a football around the schoolyard to watch Kiprotich win Olympic marathon gold in 2012, that being the moment he made his own plans for global success.
“I was like, ‘right it’s in my heart. I want to become a champion, a national hero like him’.”
Cheptegei has developed those ambitions. For better or worse, he aims to deliberately show the next generation they need not leave home. No altitude camps elsewhere, high tech facilities or trips to some winter sun.
“I have always trained in Uganda, always and always," he reiterates.
Joshua Cheptegei on a training run (© NN Running Team)
Despite the world records, Olympic gold and world championship titles, Cheptegei still feels that to prove that emphatically, one achievement remains left to tick off.
It's all about the number 10.
“2024, it’ll be 10 years running internationally,” he says. “10 years at a high level.
“I'm still in love with the 10,000m, the special distance. I still want to go to Paris and win.”
Only Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie have won more world 10,000m titles than Cheptegei. Both won two Olympic golds in the event.
Cheptegei will head to the French capital hungry to find his first, motivated in the knowledge that in doing so he'll send a message to that young Ugandan watching, hoping to follow in his path.
George Mallett for World Athletics