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Kelvin Kiptum: Eternal marathon star

Kelvin Kiptum on his way to victory at the 2023 London Marathon. Photo: AFP

Kenyan runner Kelvin Kiptum, who died aged 24 in a car crash on Sunday, blazed to athletics stardom when he seized the marathon world record in Chicago last October.

Born in the Rift Valley, the heartland of Kenyan distance running, Kiptum was barely a teenager when he began following elite athletes training in the high-altitude region. 

He burst onto the marathon scene in 2022 with a stunning debut in the 26.2-mile (42.195-km) distance in Valencia where he clocked 2hr 01min 53sec. 

World Athletics called it the “fastest debut marathon in history”.

Less than a year later and racing only his third marathon, Kiptum shattered the world record in Chicago, becoming the first man to run under two hours and one minute in a record-eligible race.

After flying through the course, the 23-year-old began waving and blowing kisses at spectators before crossing the finish line.

“A world record was not in my mind today,” he said afterwards. “I knew one day one time I’d be a world-record holder.”

His time of 2:00:35 shaved 34 seconds off fellow Kenyan star Eliud Kipchoge’s previous record.

The two compatriots were anticipated to run together for the first time this summer at the Paris 2024 Olympics. 

Known for maintaining a gruelling training schedule that sometimes surpassed 300 kilometres (190 miles) a week, Kiptum had only recently announced he was hoping to smash the mythic two-hour mark in Rotterdam in April. 

“Kiptum was one of the most exciting new prospects to emerge in road running in recent years,” World Athletics said in a statement after his death.

‘Run, eat and sleep’

Seemingly destined for superstardom, Kiptum—a married father of two—trained near his home village in Chepkorio.

Initially self-taught, he was later coached by Rwandan athlete Gervais Hakizimana, who also died in Sunday night’s crash. 

Hakizimana met a young Kiptum while doing training sessions near his home. 

“He was small but would follow us, barefoot, after tending the goats and sheep. That was in 2013, he hadn’t really started running yet,” Hakizimana told AFP in October.

At just 13 years old, Kiptum entered his first half marathon in Eldoret in 2013, placing 10th. Five years later he won the race. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Hakizimana and Kiptum kept busy with a rigorous routine.  

“I stayed there for a year and I trained him,” Hakizimana said. “We trained in the forest. I’d run with him. We started a marathon programme in 2021.”

Kiptum trained so obsessively that his coach began to fear he would cut his career short. 

“He’s in his best years but at some point I’m afraid he’ll get injured,” Hakizimana told AFP after Kiptum broke the world record.

“I told him that in five years he’d be done, that he needs to calm down to last in athletics.”

While preparing for the London marathon, Hakizimana revealed that Kiptum had spent three weeks logging more than 300 kilometres a week.

“There’s no weekly rest. We rest when he gets tired. If he doesn’t show signs of fatigue or pain for a month, we continue.

“All he does is run, eat, sleep.”

Hakizimana called Kiptum a good communicator “who listens a lot”.

At the end of the Chicago race last year, the coach and runner embraced at the finish line, all their miles logged paying off as they made history. 

•          ‘Extraordinary sportsman’ –

But Kiptum’s rapid rise to fame ended in sudden tragedy on Sunday night.

He was at the wheel driving from Kaptagat to Eldoret around 11 pm (2000 GMT) when his car veered off the road and hit a tree, killing him and Hakizimana on the spot, according to police. 

A female passenger was hospitalised with serious injuries. 

Kenyan President William Ruto said Kiptum was “an extraordinary sportsman” who left a mark on the world.

“Arguably one of the world’s finest sportsmen who broke barriers to secure a marathon record,” he said on X, describing Kiptum as “our future”.

Faith Kipyegon, world athlete of the year for women’s track, posted a poignant reaction on X of three crying emojis.

His rival Kipchoge said he was “deeply saddened” by Kiptum’s “tragic passing”.

“An athlete who had a whole life ahead of him to achieve incredible greatness,” the marathon legend said on X.

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