Feature09 Aug 2023

Kipyegon and Sang – an athlete and coach view of a world record spree, years in the making


Multiple world record-breaker Faith Kipyegon (© Vincent Riemersma / NN Running)

For three years Faith Kipyegon had been ready to break the world 1500m record, says her coach Patrick Sang. 

That a week later she would then take down the 5000m mark too, well that wasn't in the plan. The Kenyan star has since added the mile record for good measure – taking it to 4:07.64 – and she believes that the four-minute barrier will one day be broken.

Since 2019, Kipyegon's journey has been guided by 1992 Olympic steeplechase silver medallist Sang and his assistants at the Global Sports Camp in Kaptagat in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Every session meticulously planned, splits on the track exact, led by her pacemaker of 13 years, Bernard Soi. Everything else done with uncompromising purpose. 

Faith Kipyegon with her pacemaker Bernard Soi and Jackline Chepkoech

Faith Kipyegon with her pacemaker Bernard Soi and Jackline Chepkoech (© Vincent Riemersma / NN Running)

When the 2016 Olympic and 2017 world 1500m champion first came to Kaptagat, however, Sang gave her much simpler goals. 

A new mother, Kipyegon’s body had changed to carry her daughter, Alyn, born in June 2018. Months spent enjoying the magic of early motherhood had given way to life back at the elite end of world athletics and Kipyegon needed to gradually get back to race shape. 

Monday to Saturday spent away from home in the uncomplicated surroundings of the camp, less than 48 hours a week with Alyn, a daughter developing week-on-week. 

Kipyegon admits those early months were not easy, but she credits a support group that gave her no option: her husband Timothy Kitum, the 800m bronze medallist in London in 2012, and her nanny Sarah, a special lady in the eyes of the two-time Olympic champion.

"If my team believes in me,” she says, “I have to believe in myself.”

Coach Patrick Sang

Coach Patrick Sang (© Vincent Riemersma / NN Running)

It is with knowledge of the scale of that challenge that Kipyegon's only relative blemish on her record in recent years remains one of her proudest moments: her 1500m runner-up finish at the 2019 World Championships.

Sitting in the camp's idyllic garden, Kipyegon reflects: “I couldn't imagine I would come back from maternity leave and win the silver medal in Doha.”

It was one step in a heartfelt mission to show women that motherhood should not put a limit on their ambition. “I hope to motivate them to know that everything is possible in life,” she says. “I want to show them the way.”

Faith Kipyegon at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha

Faith Kipyegon at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha (© Getty Images)

Kipyegon's career since that successful return has reached even greater heights, with a successful defence of her Olympic 1500m title in Tokyo and reclaiming of the world title in Oregon. Then came those fast 1500m times – the Keringet native had threatened the world record before, falling narrowly short of Genzebe Dibaba's 3.50.07 with 3.50.37 in Monaco.

That came just after the World Championships in Oregon in 2022 – a newly crowned world champion in the form of her life just weeks on from a competition around which she'd planned her whole season. 

Though Sang says: “From 2021 is when we felt this is the time she should go for something.”

That she achieved it so early in 2023 – at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Florence – took the pair by surprise. 

Sang usually uses the season's beginnings as what he calls fine-tuning, the opportunity to make adjustments leading into the championship months. His athlete's record-breaking run on 2 June came before he was allowed that opportunity, Kipyegon herself admitting that she never expected to run the record so early in the season. 

Coach Patrick Sang

Coach Patrick Sang (© Vincent Riemersma / NN Running)

Sang considers Kipyegon's 3:49.11 performance as one of his greatest surprises in a more than 20-year coaching career. 

After crossing the finish line, Kipyegon had another shock – the unified support of her supposed rivals, who all came to hug her in unison after a lap of honour. 

“This is the way to go for real sportsmanship in our sports,” she says. “To see them waiting for me, that melts my heart.”

Faith Kipyegon celebrates her world record with the 1500m field in Florence

Faith Kipyegon celebrates her world record with the 1500m field in Florence (© Chiara Montesano / Diamond League)

Empowered, Kipyegon stayed at the Global Sports Communication headquarters in Nijmegen in the Netherlands during the few days between her two world records in June. She only announced that she would run in Paris after her 1500m triumph.

It took some persuasion from Kipyegon. “It had been many years since I had run a 5000m,” she explains. “So I said: ‘Please, let me try! Let me try in Paris, knowing that in future I am going that route of 5000m, 10,000m and marathon’.”

Her team duly obliged. 

Kipyegon's endurance base was identified by Sang as one of her few areas for improvement back in 2019, as she already possessed – in his view – great natural speed, determination and a strong mindset. 

The pair relentlessly tackled that session after session and in the footsteps of Eliud Kipchoge, Geoffrey Kamworor, Selly Chepyego and the rest of her world-class training group. 

Faith Kipyegon on the long run

Faith Kipyegon on the long run (© Vincent Riemersma / NN Running)

With 30km long runs at altitude in the rolling hills of the Rift Valley escarpment, Kipyegon is perhaps different to your typical 1500m runner, yet attempting a 5000m world record in only a second race at the distance in eight years was a tall order, even for her.

Among her opposition at the Diamond League meeting in Paris was world record-holder Letesenbet Gidey, who clocked her 14:06.62 global mark in 2020, but Kipyegon saw the race as only offering opportunity.

“I didn't have any pressure,” she says. “I was just going there to enjoy the pace, to enjoy the laps – 12 and a half laps – so I was just going there to lower my personal best and see what was possible at the finish line.

“I had a personal best time of 14:31 and I told my manager if I run a time of 14:20, I will be happy.”

But after 14:05.20 of running, Kipyegon crossed the finish line, having gone toe-to-toe with Gidey for all but the final moments. The world 1500m record-holder strode away over the last half lap and ran the final 400m in an improbable 60 seconds. 

Athletics writers began to run out of superlatives.

They were tested once more 43 days later.

In Monaco on 21 July, Kipyegon annihilated the world mile record by almost five seconds in a customary fearless gun to tape assault on the best in history. The first woman ever to break 4:12, Kipyegon’s 4:07.64 broke the four next barriers, too. Leaping closer to the four-minute mark, she believes that milestone will also be possible, one day.

“Absolutely, one day one athlete will go under four,” she said in a recent interview with the world's media ahead of the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23, where Kipyegon plans to contest the 1500m and 5000m. “I see it happening, either the next generation or our generation.”

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A post shared by Faith Kipyegon (@faithkipyegon)

Three world records in 50 days, four years in the making.

But more importantly perhaps, for Kipyegon – recognition from her daughter.

In an audience with the President of Kenya and many others to celebrate her first two world records, Kipyegon of course drew much attention. 

A now five-year-old Alyn was suitably impressed.

“Mommy," she said, "people like you!”

George Mallett for World Athletics

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