Kibiwott Kandie wins the Valencia Half Marathon (© Getty Images)
For a man whose fame and fortune has been defined by how quickly he can run between two very specific points on the map, Kibiwott Kandie was somewhat vague about the distance between his home and that of his famous near-neighbour Paul Tergat.
“Let’s just say between 10 and 15 kilometres apart,” mused Kandie after reducing the world half marathon record* to 57:32 in Valencia on Sunday (6).
Nevertheless, Kandie was clear and precise about the influence Tergat has had on him, the pair both hailing from Baringo county in the west of Kenya.
After all, Tergat was the first official world record-holder over the half marathon distance that Kandie conquered by the Mediterranean, running 59:17 in Milan back in April 1998 when Kandie was not even two years old.
Even in a country like Kenya which has produced a plethora of superlative runners over the past 55 years since Kip Keino set the country’s first world record, Tergat has a special place in the pantheon of athletics greats with further world records over 10,000m and the marathon to his name as well as his memorable five consecutive world cross-country titles.
“Yes, I know Paul Tergat very well and, when I was young, I used to hear everyone saying, ‘Paul Tergat, world records’,” said Kandie. “This has stayed in my mind.
“He became a kind of role model and I used to think ‘When I grow up I would like be like him, I would like to run like him, I would like to do the things he has done.’ He still inspires me, he’s still a role model for me. The work that I am doing (in training) is because of him. I feel I can’t let him down because one time when I met him, he said to me: ‘You can follow me, you can follow in my footsteps’.”
Revenge a dish served fast
The words of Tergat were still echoing in Kandie’s ears as he embarked on the journey back to Kenya after finishing second at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland seven weeks ago.
He had to settle for second there to Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo in that race, losing out by five seconds to bring his 2020 four-race unbeaten streak to an end and he had been unable to achieve his ambition of emulating his hero, who took back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000.
Kibiwott Kandie in action at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 (AFP / Getty Images)
“You could say this race (in Valencia) was revenge. After the world championships, I went home, and I have been focusing on this race ever since.
“I was very motivated for this race after losing at the World Half Marathon. At that race, I pushed a lot but Kiplimo won so I said to myself ‘In Valencia, I have to beat Kiplimo and break the world record’.”
“I knew I was able to run alone for the last four or five kilometres but we got to three kilometres here (in Valencia, with Kiplimo his last remaining rival and still on his shoulder) and that’s where I started to move on.
“I thought: ‘I am not going to make the same mistake as I did at the World Half Marathon Championships and push too late’. I knew we could get the world record and I really wanted the world record, not just make the pace for Kiplimo (to break the world record).”
Hitting the heights
Another factor in Kandie’s victory in Valencia, according to the runner himself, was also changing his training environment from the Ngong Hills near Nairobi to the Kenyan running mecca of Iten in the interim after Gdynia.
“I just sat down, worked out what my problem was (in Gdynia). Iten is at a higher altitude than Ngong and I adapted very well there, and I trained very hard with no injury problems.”
In little more than a year, Kandie has gone from being an unknown to entering the annals of athletics history with his world record.
Unlike many top-level Kenyan runners, Kandie passed under the radar during his teenage years and only started appearing in local road race results in Kenya at the start of 2017 when he was already 20. However, according to the runner, he started running when he was 16, just before finishing secondary school and joining the Kenyan Army a year later. “But it was only in 2019 that I started training seriously, and putting in the hard work, and then I got invited to run in some races abroad,” he added.
Kandie’s breakthrough performance was in August 2019 when he won the Lille Half Marathon in 59:31 and backed that up less than two months later with an impressive third place, finishing just two seconds in arrears of his time on French soil, in the always-competitive and high quality Delhi Half Marathon.
Kibiwott Kandie wins the Corrida Internacional de São Silvestre in Sao Paulo (AFP / Getty Images)
His feats in these two races led to Kandie elevating his ambitions radically.
“At the start of this year, I started to think about having a record. I didn’t know whether it was going to be the half marathon or maybe 10km, but I said to myself ‘I have to break a record this year’. I started well, I was running well at cross country (he won the hotly contested Kenyan cross-country title in February) but then the epidemic destroyed everything, all my racing plans.”
Back on track
“But I never gave up; I carried on training knowing that one day there would finally be a race. I stayed in good shape and in Prague I ran a personal best (58:38 on 5 September).
“But really, I have been working for 10 months for this record (since he won the RAK Half Marathon in what was then a personal best 58:58),” he added.
Kibiwott Kandie in action at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 (Getty Images)
Kandie was inevitably asked about his plans for the future but he was quick to dismiss any notions that he would do another marathon in the near future, not least because he had one unhappy outing at the Kuching Marathon in Malaysia last year – prior to his races in Lille and Delhi – when he finished third in 2:22:48, clearly not a true reflection of his talent.
Like his role model Tergat, and obviously having found his niche at distances shorter than the marathon, Kandie first intends to seek other avenues for glory before considering the possibility of another journey over the classic distance of 26.2 miles.
“I will try to qualify for the Olympics at 10,000m,” said Kandie, who has never run internationally on the track and whose modest personal best over 25 laps stands at a hand-timed 28:45.7 set last year in Nairobi.
In the wake of his world record in Valencia, his next outing – regardless of the surface or distance – will certainly bring in big crowds, subject to the world returning to something akin to what was once thought of as normality.
Phil Minshull for World Athletics
*Subject to the usual ratification procedures