Kelvin Kiptum: How one man changed the face of the sport in one year

 

Three races, three wins, and three of the seven fastest times ever, including a world record. Short, simple, and gone. In pure athletics terms, if you were to summarize the life of Kenyan marathon star Kelvin Kiptum, who passed away on the 11th of February 2024. It came as a huge shock to the athletics world for many reasons, but primarily for the fact that he was tipped to go under 2 hours for the first time in Rotterdam in April and also snagged the Olympic title in Paris.

The last 100m meters of a marathon race is often time run with every iota of strength left in a human. Not so much for professional athletes. Even they still sometimes grin till the end. But one man in the fall of Chicago in 2023 brought a new dimension to how we see things. A video of his coach, Gervais Hakizimana, jumping as he waited for Kiptum, waving and blowing kisses to the fans as he crossed the line in Chicago. It was a Son- Father/Elder brother scenario. If you were an athletics purist, the moment should be etched in your mind.

Kelvin Kiptum, in his debut became the #3 performer in marathon history for men, with his win in Valencia, photo by Valencia Marathon.

Sadly, the world would not get to see that moment recreated in the subsequent years (at least not from these two) as they both were involved in the motor accident.

Kiptum’s rapid ascent to marathoning stardom occurred amidst a whirlwind of course records and world records in Valencia, London, and Chicago. Despite his remarkable achievements, the running community was still acquainting itself with this serious and reserved athlete. Kiptum, although propelled into the global spotlight by his exceptional times, remained somewhat of an enigma, with his pre-marathon life story still unfolding.

Hailing from Chepsamo, a humble village near Chepkorio in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Kiptum’s upbringing was marked by modesty and perseverance. Born to a cattle farmer, he initially expressed an interest in becoming an electrician before eventually dedicating himself to running. Unlike many athletes who begin their careers on the track, Kiptum chose to immerse himself in road racing from the outset, setting the stage for his extraordinary journey.

Kiptum burst onto the marathon scene with unprecedented speed. It felt like a bolt. Debuting in December 2022 in Valencia, he stunned the world with a 2:01:53 victory, setting the fastest marathon debut ever. Just four months later, Kiptum achieved a historic feat by breaking Eliud Kipchoge’s London Marathon course record, finishing in 2:01:25 with an astonishing 59:45 second half.

Despite facing challenges upon arriving in Chicago last fall, including injury and adverse weather conditions in Kenya, Kiptum remained focused. Still, he exceeded all expectations, smashing Kipchoge’s world record by an impressive 34 seconds, clocking in at 2:00:35 with a remarkable 59:47 second half.

Kiptum’s journey on the international stage began with a notable 5th-place finish at the 2019 Lisbon Half Marathon, where he clocked a time of 59:54. The following year, in 2020, Kiptum achieved a significant personal best of 58:42 at the Valencia Marathon, shortly after his 21st birthday. Despite this impressive feat, he finished 6th in a highly competitive race.

Kelvin KIptum wins 2023 London Marathon in new CR, photo by London Marathon

In 2021, the Kenyan ventured into professional track racing for the first time, competing in a 10,000-meter event in Stockholm and posting a respectable time of 28:27. He followed it up with solid performances in two half marathons, with times of 59:35 in Lens and 59:02 in Valencia. However, these results did not foreshadow the breakout success he would experience in 2022.

Kiptum’s marathon strategy defied convention, opting for patience over early aggression. In his Valencia debut, he trailed pacemakers until the second half, then unleashed unparalleled speed. His splits marked a new standard, including a remarkable 28:05 10k from 30-40k. Kiptum’s 60:15 second half became the fastest in marathon history, setting the stage for his ascent.

The 2023 London Marathon proved Kiptum’s prowess once more. Clocking 61:40-59:45, with an astounding 27:49 10k from 30-40k, he surpassed records again. Despite adverse conditions, including rain, Kiptum’s performance stood out. While others struggled with positive splits, Kiptum maintained his pace, finishing nearly two minutes faster in the second half.

Kelvin Kiptum, photo by Kevin Morris

Despite his monumental achievements, questions linger about Kiptum’s untapped potential. Speculations arise: could he have pushed further in Rotterdam, pacing at 2:00:00? How would he fare in his Olympic debut in Paris? The anticipation mounts, especially regarding a potential showdown with the legendary Kipchoge, who had said Paris would be his last Olympics. Kiptum’s journey remains a captivating narrative in the world of marathoning, with each race bringing new possibilities and records to break.

In the end, Kiptum’s legacy, though tragically cut short, will continue to inspire future generations of athletes. His story encapsulates perseverance and the extent to which one is willing to pursue excellence.

Kelvin Kiptum, Chicago Marathon 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

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