This is the third column in a series on Paris 2024 by Mike Rowbottom. Mike sent me a note today and noted that he wanted to write about Kelvin Kiptum, and his terrible tragedy. 

News of Kelvin Kiptum’s death in a car accident near Eldoret on Sunday night has travelled across the world running like a chillwave.

 

Further waves have followed after the account given by Kiptum’s father of an earlier visit to his home by four anonymous men searching for his son. And the subsequent arrest of three people as part of an ongoing investigation…

 

What was set to be another annus mirabilis for the 24-year-old Kenyan who lowered the world record to 2hr 00min 35sec in Chicago last October has become something awfully different.

 

Would he have succeeded in his target of lowering the world record again, and perhaps even becoming the first runner to better two hours in a recognised marathon when he ran in Rotterdam in April?

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

 

He had gone on record as saying he was capable of beating his Chicago time if all went well, adding: “And in that case, I will get close to the two-hour barrier, so why not aim to break it?”

 

And having broken the world record held by his illustrious fellow countryman Eliud Kipchoge, would he have gone on to succeed him as Olympic champion in Paris?

 

Such was Kiptum’s level of performance in winning his first three marathons – in Valencia on December 4, 2022, when he recorded the fastest ever debut time of 2:01:53, in London last year, when he set a course record of 2:01:53, and then Chicago – that the sport was energised by the possibility that he could achieve such lofty ambitions.

 

Now, we will never know.

Kelvin Kitum, TCS London Marathon
London, England, United Kingdom
April 23, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

Less than two months before the car which Kiptum was driving crashed on the Kaptagat-to-Eldoret highway, killing him and the man who had coached him since he was 14, Gervais Hakizimana, he had spoken quietly and with a trace of humour in Monaco on the day before the Athlete of the Year awards.

 

He made his progress on the roads seem simple and inevitable as he explained how, as a humble herdsman of the family cattle In Chepsamo village in Chepkorio, 30km from Eldoret in the Rift Valley, he had begun to take to the trails and roads where he saw others, notably the Rwandan-born Hakizimana, running, many of them with bare feet.

 

“I began training with Gervais when I was still at school when I was 14,” he said. “He was training alone in my village. That’s why I went to him after school to begin training. And I was able to get to an excellent level.

Kelvin Kitum, TCS London Marathon
London, England, United Kingdom
April 23, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

“I was a herdsman, yes, for many years. It was my life, as it was for a lot of others. But I had to find time for my running.

 

“It was difficult to train in track,” he added. “I had no track to train on.

 

“I got into road running, half marathon, 10km.  And always, I was training with a group of marathon runners. So, I ended up running marathons.”

 

Asked if he would like to run on the track, he responded with a gentle smile: “No.”

 

“No spikes? You’ve never had spikes?”

 

“No.”

 

“Never? Never run on a track, ever?”

 

He confirmed patiently that this was indeed the case. Running, for him, had always been about trails, hills – and roads.

Kelvin Kiptum flies through the streets of Chicago, photo by Kevin Morris

In talking about his ambitions, Kiptum echoed the open-ended comments made in recent years by Kipchoge, who turned 39 on November 5.

 

“I’m not afraid of setting these goals,” Kiptum announced. “There’s no limit to human energy.”

 

It is a measure of what this young father-of-two achieved in his short career that plans are now being laid in his native country to give him a State Funeral.

 

Meanwhile, Athletics Kenya has posted on X to say it will cancel African Games trials set for February 16 and 17 at the Nyayo National Stadium “in honour of the late marathon world record holder Kelvin Kiptum.”

Kelvin Kiptum, new WR holder; Sifan Hassan, new ER record holder, photo by Kevin Morris

Travelling back from Monaco, I shared a mini-bus to Nice Airport with Kiptum and his manager. As he wheeled his suitcase into the Terminal, I wondered how many people milling around the entrance had realised what an extraordinary talent was making his way past.

 

Before we parted company, I asked him where he was headed next. He said Nairobi.

 

I wished him good luck. And saw, again and for the last time, that gentle smile.

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