Spikes30 May 2016

Keep the Faith


Faith Kipyegon wins the 1500m at the IAAF Diamond League in Shanghai (© Getty Images)

If anyone can block Genzebe Dibaba's 1500m title tilt at the Rio Olympics, it's 22-year-old Faith Kipyegon. The Kenyan has lit up this year's Diamond League circuit, recording national records in Shanghai and then Eugene. She says it's only the start.

Growing up the eighth of nine children on a farm in the Kenyan Rift Valley, Faith Kipyegon has running in her blood. Her elder sister and training partner, Beatrice Mutai, is a 10km (32:25) and half-marathon (69:30) specialist, who earlier this year won bronze at the African Cross Country Championships in Cameroon. Her father, Samuel Koech, was also a 400m and 800m runner in his youth.

For her part, Kipyegon was an enthusiastic soccer player until she was introduced to athletics at school aged 14. Her PE teacher asked the class to run a 1km. Having genuinely no clue of her running ability, what happened next came as a pleasant surprise.

“I won that race by 20m,” Kipyegon tells SPIKES. “It is only then I knew I could run fast and be a good athlete.”

Within just two years and running barefoot she finished fourth – only seven seconds shy of the podium – in the junior race at the 2010 World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz (a Mecca of IAAF championships).

With a little more confidence she might have placed even higher.

“It was my first overseas competition and I was just running to follow my fellow Kenyans,” she admits. “It was a surprise for me to finish fourth.”

Later that year she showed her exciting track potential by finishing third in the 1500m at the Kenyan World Junior Championship Trials in Nairobi.

Faith Kipyegon

Kipyegon underlined her age-group status by winning 1500m gold at the 2012 world junior (U20) championships 

If 2010 provided a tasty appetiser for her age group ability, the following year presented a succulent main course. Running barefoot again she unleashed a dazzling sprint finish to strike gold in the junior women's race at the world cross country champs in Spain. Later that year she ran a championship record 4:09:48 to take the women's 1500m crown at the 2011 World Youth Championships in Lille.

“I didn't know I would win,” she says of her triumph in France. “It was my first big international track race.”

Twelve months later at the Barcelona World Junior Championships she was an altogether different athlete. “From competing at the World Youth Championships the previous year, I knew many of the same people were running in Barcelona. I knew I would win.”

Her confidence was not misplaced as she crushed the opposition to win the 1500m by more than two-and-a-half seconds in a new championship record of 4:04.96. Having one month earlier placed third at Kenya’s Olympic Trials – still aged just 18 – she made her Olympic bow at London 2012. She finished seventh in her heat and failed to advance, but Kipyegon was clearly a star in the making.

The progression continued in 2013. She bagged – this time wisely wearing spikes on the frozen and snow covered course – a second successive world junior cross country title in Bydgoszcz. In her opening track race of the season she ran a blistering 3:56.98 for a new Kenyan record and African junior record. Later that year she placed fifth in the 1500m on her world championship debut in Moscow. In 2014 she struck Commonwealth 1500m gold. 

Her rise had been mercurial. Yet no athlete intent on progressing stands still, and in March 2015 she connected with a new coach, 2006 European 800m champion Bram Som. The Dutch middle-distance master – who competes as a rabbit on the Diamond League circuit and also coaches 2013 world youth 1500m champion Robert Biwott – took a look at her training regimen and adopted an “holistic approach”.

“Faith is a physically talented athlete, as everybody can see,” explains Som of Eldoret-based Kipyegon. “But that’s not enough to become a world class athlete. So I took stock of all the different aspects that influence performance; nutrition, exercises, rest, recovery, physiotherapy.

“Importantly she also learned more about the programme, about when to keep it easy and when to push. She tells me how she feels, what the body needs, and I translate into the programme without losing the long term strategy.”

The early signs looked to vindicate the new regime. Last season Kipyegon – incidentally a huge fan of Nigerian movies in her downtime – secured victory at the ultra-competitive Kenyan world championship trials. At the subsequent Beijing World Championships only world record holder Genzebe Dibaba proved stronger in the women's 1500m final as the Kenyan secured a first senior global track medal.

Faith Kipyegon

In the 1500m at the 2015 Bejing World Championships Kipyegon won silver behind world record holder Genzebe Dibaba

Following a first full winter working with Som, Kipyegon, who turned 22 in January, has started her track campaign in stunning fashion. In Shanghai she trimmed 0.16 from her Kenyan record, running 3:56.82 to claim an emphatic win. In her very next race she repeated the trick, sprinting away from Dawit Seyaum and Gudaf Tsegay to claim another win and another Kenyan national record of 3:56.41.

Kipyegon is happy, and so is her coach, who believes there is much more to come.

“I think we are on 70 per cent, so enough space to improve,” Som adds, excitedly.

The aim for the rest of the season is simple. First, Kipyegon wants to navigate through the shark-infested waters of the brutally tough Kenyan Olympic Trials; second, improve on her performance in London.

“I hope to qualify for the Olympics and be in the final,” says Faith, who is a recently adopted supporter of Arsenal FC.

Som, the man who runs like clockwork, refuses to be drawn on how fast Kipyegon could go.

“Time is a result of going into every competition for gold or victory,” he adds. “We focus on winning! Of course, I do know what’s needed to go for gold.”

There is little question Som is hugely impressed by Kipyegon’s talent and attitude. “Faith has great running technique. Strong dedication and unbelievable wide range, from great speed and a great endurance capacity. We like to have a long career, and I won’t be surprised if Faith will end up with a great marathon.”

Whether Faith agrees with Som's sentiments is unclear, but for now she is flying.

“Last year I was running 4:00 [for the 1500m], but now when I run 4:00 it feels so slow.”

World: you have been warned.

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