Charles Kipsang: Little known marathoner's path of triumph and tragic final

Little-known marathoner Charles Kipkorir Kipsang. [Courtesy]

It is noon and our vehicle meanders its way through the rough terrain of Sabatia Forest in Eldama Ravine. The lush greenery of Metipsoo village greets us.

Two yellow tents, adorned with green stripes, stand out, marking the home of little-known marathoner Charles Kipkorir Kipsang.

The sombre atmosphere envelops a solemn mood. At home, women gather in small groups, engaging in muted conversations, their voices a whisper against the backdrop of sorrow.

Men are busy clearing bushes around the compound to accommodate a steady stream of visitors coming to pay their respects. It was a scene of communal mourning, a village grieving the loss of their son.

Amid the hushed conversations and tearful embraces, stood Isabella Kigen, Charles's widow, cuddling her four-year-old son, Jayden Kiptum.

Her older son, Brimin Kipkoech, clung to her side, his expression reflecting the weight of their shared loss. Isabella's tear-filled eyes conveyed the immense pain she was grappling with. "It's devastating how I learned about his death. I stumbled upon the news on the internet while checking for updates on the race to see how he performed."

"I saw a Facebook post mentioning an athlete's death, and then spotting 'Rest in peace Kipsang,' I was paniced and turned off my phone. I couldn't sleep that night because I was filled with worry and fear. It's not right to post such news on social media when the family hasn't been informed," said Isabella.

Charles died after participating in the 29th edition of the Mount Cameroon Race of Hope at Molkyo Stadium, Cameroon, last Saturday. Despite initially leading the race and showing remarkable strength, the 33-year-old marathoner began to struggle metres from the finish line. After the physical strain, he died, ultimately finishing in 16th place.

The event which attracted 600 participants across Africa, including 19 from Kenya, covered 39km of rugged mountain terrain. While Charles had dominated much of the race, physical distress in the final stretch led to his untimely demise.

Isabella explained how her husband had to sell the remaining maize in their store to raise funds to facilitate his taking part in the race, hoping to win and return home to support their family.

"He had big plans," she said.

"He sold maize for funds to join the race, optimistic about bringing back something substantial. His goal was to broaden his farming endeavours and allocate resources for educating his children and siblings. He trained tirelessly, concentrating his efforts on hill workouts, knowing he'd compete in a mountainous area. He was also confident of victory," she added.

Participating in the Race of Hope was not new to Charles since this marked his fourth consecutive year. Despite encountering challenges in previous years, including narrowly escaping an explosion last year and suffering a muscle pull the year before, Charles was determined to succeed.

"I had advised him against participating this year, given past incidents. But he remained optimistic, believing that this time would be different, and he would emerge victorious. He was convinced that this year's race would be successful without any incidents," Isabella said.

Addressing the local media, Cameroon’s South West region Governor, Bernard Okalia Bilai, said the athlete developed malaise after completing the challenging 39km. He was advised to board an ambulance, but he opted to drink some soda and continued racing.

"When he was called to the dais to receive his award, he collapsed and was subsequently pronounced dead at the local hospital," he said.

Charles was the first participant to reach the summit of the 4,095-metre high mountain, the highest point in Western Africa. Former 2022 winner Nsabinla Elvis was crowned winner of the event with a time of 4 hours, 47 minutes, and 04 seconds. No Kenyan or foreign athlete has secured a podium finish in the event since Chelimo Luka Kipkemboi claimed bronze in 2018.

In his two-roomed wooden abode, an array of gleaming medals and trophies adorn the walls, a testament to the multitude of competitions he had fervently participated in.

As the eldest among ten siblings and a father of two, he was sole provider for the family. His earnings from international competitions not only supported his children but also funded the education of his siblings.

"We relied heavily on him," expressed Elkana Kipsang Chumo, Charles's father, as he reflected on the family's dependence on him. The void left by his sudden absence weighs heavily on him.

"We had high hopes in him due to his success in athletics. He shouldered the family's burdens, even gifting neighbours with tokens from his competitions. He funded my college education, eagerly anticipating my employment to ease our financial strain," said Jepngetich Kipsang, his younger sister. 

"But now the future feels uncertain and bleak," she added.

Some of the trophies and medals that belongs to marathoner Charles Kipsang. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Irene Lagat, Charles' mother, recounted the remarkable journey of her eldest child, who embarked on his running career in 2006 at Standard Eight.

Even as he transitioned to Form One at Kapenguria Boys, his passion for running remained steadfast.

Recognising his potential, a coach advised him to transfer to Kapcherop Boys for better training. After completing his secondary education, he ventured to the Kaptagat Training Camp, a pivotal step that catapulted him into the realm of international competitions, including his inaugural trip to Malaysia.

"His running career has been a cornerstone of our family's livelihood," Irene reflected. "We relied on him for everything, from providing sustenance to ensuring his siblings received an education. He took immense pride in supporting his siblings' education."

His earnings from competitions across Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Qatar not only improved their family's circumstances but also paved the way for his siblings' education.

The family is still grappling with the sudden loss of their son. They express their profound shock and anguish, highlighting their inability to even plan for his burial. Their sole glimmer of hope lies in the prospect of government assistance to repatriate their beloved's remains back to the country.

"Now, I find myself lost, contemplating how we will ever bring his body back home. We lack means completely to undertake such a daunting task. We are utterly reliant on the grace of God and the government, clinging to hope for aid during this harrowing period," lamented Chumo.

Charles' mother said: "We beseech the government for support in securing job opportunities for our educated children. Despite their qualifications, they languish without jobs. One has trained as a secondary school teacher, another as a primary school teacher, and the third as an accountant, yet they remain unemployed."

"This tragic news hits us hard, especially coming just after we laid to rest world record holder Kelvin Kiptum. It's a profound loss for our village, the family, and the athletics fraternity," said Barnabas Kitilit, the Athletics Kenya Baringo branch chairman.

Kitilit said they are waiting for updates on the autopsy from Cameroonian authorities, the logistical challenges of repatriating Charles' body, along with organising burial.

"The family lacks the means to handle this alone. Athletics Kenya is doing its utmost, but we need broader assistance," Kitilit emphasised.

Despite not securing spots in the Kenyan national team from local races, Charles's successes abroad were noteworthy. "Competing in renowned countries such as Russia and Malaysia, Charles earned widespread recognition among race organisers and enthusiasts," he added.

Kitilit also observed that this athletic prowess seemed to be a family trait. "Charles 'younger brother, Kiplagat, is currently honing his skills at my training camp in Sinoni while pursuing his studies at Kapcholoi Secondary School."

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