Childhood hardships fuel Kenyan stars to Tokyo glories

Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge crosses the finish line to win the men's category in the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo, Japan March 6, 2022. via REUTERS

The storyline is always familiar. Childhood challenges often fuel Kenyan athletes’ determination to excel in distance running.

And the script was no different at the Tokyo Marathon yesterday.

Winners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei as well as runner-up Amos Kipruto –who returned to Japan eight months after competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games –share a cocktail of exciting tales: rags to riches.

They simply carried a message of hope to the global stage. Interestingly, Kipchoge and Kipruto are both fathers of three children, while Brigid and Kipruto each has a set of twins.

Kipchoge and Kipruto braved huge odds to complete secondary school education in Nandi County while Brigid dropped out of school while in Form Three for lack of school fees.

After school, Kipchoge started transporting milk to Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) in Kapsabet to earn a living, while Kipruto did menial jobs.

Kipruto comes from Eastview area near Kapsabet, while Kipchoge was born and bred in Kapsisiywo village –some 15km north of Kapsabet town.

The two clashed for the third time at the Tokyo Marathon, having met at the 2018 Berlin Marathon where Kipchoge set the 2:01.39 world record and the Tokyo Olympic Games marathon, where Kipchoge won. But their journey to stardom has not been all rosy.

Kipchoge’s struggles inspire and warms the hearts of budding athletes. He says: “If you don’t believe you can run fast, even in the best shoes, you can’t do it.”

After completing Form Four at Kaptel High School, Kipchoge tried his hand in business.

He started operating a butchery and later opted to buy milk, which he transported to KCC using his mother’s bicycle.  

While transporting almost 150 litres of milk to KCC, Kipchoge’s bicycle broke down at Kimondi area –some five kilometres away.

He decided to run to his friend Daniel and borrow his bicycle. He impressed his peers at that time, who challenged him to try his luck at an athletics competition in Kapsabet that weekend. Kipchoge gave it a shot.

He finished second in the race and made the then Nandi District team that was picked for the provincials in Kitale, where he also finished second and proceeded to the nationals in Mombasa. The rest is history. He’s married to Grace Sugut and have three children.

Kipruto, the world marathon bronze medallist, is not your typical Kenyan athlete.

From childhood, Kipruto nursed lofty dreams: to stage excellent shows in athletics. And it has come to pass.

Kipruto, who put on hold his athletics desires to concentrate on academics, has exhibited hard work and determination.

Brigid Kosgei of Kenya crosses the line to win the women's elite race at the Tokyo Marathon 2021 in Tokyo, Japan, March 6, 2022. REUTERS

The former Rome Marathon winner, still draws inspiration from former world marathon record holder Paul Tergat.

He said he picked his running skills from Tergat and former Olympic marathon champion, the late Sammy Wanjiru.

The 29-year-old athlete said he watches their clips online, especially ahead of major races.

“I love their fighting spirit especially in the final stages of races. They produced unexpected victories. In most cases, I watch their clips to pick some tactical skills,” said Kipruto, runner-up at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

His memorable clip is that of Wanjiru battling Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kabede at the 2010 Chicago Marathon.

“In that clip, Wanjiru was behind at 35km to 40km, but he produced a powerful kick in the last two kilometres.  It clearly shows that while competing in a marathon, you must have courage and stamina to run faster than expected,” he said.

Brigid, who set the women’s mixed race world record of 2:14.04 at the 2019 Chicago Marathon where she erased Paula Radcliffe’s record 2:15.25 set in 2003, has also come a long way.

“When I remember my humble beginnings and the challenges we went through, I feel I cannot get back to that kind of life and it pushes me to do well,” said Brigid who, like  Kipruto, has twins.

When her mother could not raise school fees, Brigid dropped out of school while in Form Three. And she decided to take up athletics.