- By Basillioh Rukanga
- BBC News, Nairobi
Kenyan athlete Kelvin Kiptum was on the cusp of greatness before his life was cut short in a road accident.
The 24-year-old, who six years ago could not afford a pair of shoes to take part in his first major competitive race, had recently been considered one of the best marathon runners the world has ever seen.
Given that before 2022 he had never run the full distance, his rapid rise to the top of the sport has left many breathless.
The soft-spoken, hard-working and fearless runner appeared to shy away from his newfound fame after breaking compatriot Eliud Kipchoge’s world record in Chicago last October.
“Caught” is perhaps too polite a word. The father of two snatched the record from Kipchoge’s hands, bettering his record time by more than half a minute, completing the 42.2km (26.2 miles) in two hours and 35 seconds.
His rapid rise to fame and feelings of loss of potential – marathon runners tend to get better with age – left many people in Kenya in shock.
Kiptum himself declared after his triumph in Chicago that his career was only “just beginning.”
And he was aiming for a sub-two-hour time at the Rotterdam Marathon in April – a benchmark, never before achieved in an open race, which would have assured him a place in the history books.
“It may seem ambitious, but I’m not afraid to set these kinds of goals. There is no limit to human energy,” he said last November, referring to the Kipchoge’s “no human is limited” philosophy.
He was “a very humble, down-to-earth guy who doesn’t talk a lot, but when he runs, he runs like a machine,” former athlete Wesley Korir, who was with Kiptum in Chicago when he broke the world record. BBC Africa Focus programme.
Kiptum was born and raised in a village 37 km from Eldoret town in the Rift Valley region.
It is a region that has produced some of the greatest distance runners in the world. But there is nothing inevitable about success, which requires a level of courage and dedication that few people can imagine.
Kiptum grew up on a farm, where he helped care for his family’s livestock, but knew from a young age that he wanted to become an athlete.
His interest in running came from watching his cousin, a runner who often worked as a pacemaker for Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie.
His father, however, was not very enthusiastic about this career choice.
“He wanted me to study for an electrician’s degree, but I said I had to be an athlete. I had that passion,” Kiptum recalled in a BBC interview last year.
“That period was very hard for me because I trained for four years, but I didn’t have success and they were disappointed in me. But I kept pushing.”
Eventually his father came around, even occasionally helping him get to early morning practice on time.
After Kiptum’s record-breaking performance, his father praised him effusively as an “obedient son who stayed true to his upbringing.”
But there was another person who played a crucial role in his achievements: his Rwandan coach Gervais Hakizimana.
He was traveling in the car Kiptum was driving on Sunday and was also killed when the vehicle collided with a tree.
It was Hakizimana who convinced his trainee to quit the half-marathon.
According to Hakizimana, Kiptum needed time to get used to the idea of running the full 42.2km, which he initially thought might be too difficult.
“He had some fear and preferred the shorter half marathon until 2022, when he finally agreed to participate in a marathon,” Hakizimana said last year.
The relationship as coach and athlete began in 2018, but the two first met when the world record holder was much younger, back in the village.
“I knew him when he was little, he herded cattle barefoot,” Hakizimana remembers. “It was 2009, I was training near his father’s farm, he would come and kick me and I would chase him.
“Now I am grateful to him for his success.”
Kiptum’s performance in this first full marathon in Valencia in 2022 has forced people to take notice.
He clocked 2:01:53 – the fourth fastest time ever recorded to that point and the fastest marathon debut in history.
What has become his running signature – staying in the lead pack before picking up the pace at around 30km – was already visible.
“The level of fearlessness that Kiptum shows in his running is what is needed to reach the top,” said athletics commentator Martin Keino.
“He almost holds back in the first half of the marathon, then attacks the second half like no one has ever done – this kind of race is very rare to see.”
He then set a course record of 2:01:25 at the London Marathon in April 2023 before breaking the world record in Chicago six months later.
“I feel so happy. A world record was not on my mind today,” he said at the time.
He dreamed of running in less than two hours, which would undoubtedly have consolidated his reputation forever.
As Kipchoge writes, Kiptum “had a lifetime ahead of him to achieve incredible greatness.”
He was the only child of his parents. He leaves behind his parents, his widow, Asenath Rotich, and two children.
Additional reporting by Celestine Karoney
Gn En sports