Coachless, shoeless, but not hopeless...Kiptum, the man of the moment

World men's marathon record holder Kelvin Kiptum. [Chicago Marathon]

The world was scrambling for superlatives last Sunday as Kelvin Kiptum stormed to history at the Chicago Marathon.

And two adjectives –bravery and determination –describe the athlete’s drive to excel in marathons.

Kiptum’s struggle inspires and warms the hearts of budding athletes.

At 23, Kiptum has the world at his feet thanks to his historic run at the 45th Chicago Marathon on Sunday where he set a new record of 2:00.35 –shaving 34 seconds off Eliud Kipchoge’s world record of 2:01.09.

In all his endeavours, Kiptum seemed to have considered Briton author Charles Caleb Colton’s counsel: “The purest ore is produced from the hottest furnace, and the brightest thunderbolt is the one elicited from the darkest storm.”

Not bad for a humble man who grew up in Chepsamo village in Elgeyo Marakwet. He simply borrowed the ‘impossible is possible’ from American author John Mason.

Born of a peasant farmer near Kaptagat Forest, Kiptum realised his long distance running talent while herding their family’s cattle in the forest. He could compete with his peers along the forest trails. Interestingly, he does part of his training in the same forest at the moment.

Kiptum added to the list of Kenyan men’s world marathon record breakers from Keiyo South. They include Wilson Kipsang (from Muskut village near the defunct Fluorspar Company) and Dennis Kimetto (from Kapkitong village). The two broke world marathon records in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Kiptum is an uncle to Geoffrey Kamworor, a track, road and cross-country star who broke the world half marathon record in 2019. The record was later lowered by Kibiwott Kandie and is currently held by Jacob Kiplimo of Uganda.

It was until 2018 when Eliud Kipchoge, who comes from Nandi County, broke the world record and then lowered it again last year in Berlin.

But Kiptum’s rise to marathon stardom was not all rosy; it’s full of surprises.

In 2018, he had a fair share of fame –after winning the Family Bank Eldoret Half Marathon. By then, he was just a teenager and without a coach.

At the Family Bank Eldoret 21km contest, Kiptum appeared a rookie who showed no respect for the top guns that included miler Mathew Kisorio.

Chicago marathon World record holder Kelvin Kiptum received at Iten town,Elgeyo Marakwet County on October 11,2023 [Christopher Kipsang,standard]

A year later, he pulled another surprise when he outshone a rich field to win the half marathon race during the 2019 edition of Kass Marathon.

He blew away former Tilburg 10 Miles runner-up Noah Kipkemboi and reigning Münster Marathon champion Charles Yosei in the Kass marathon.

After the Kass showpiece, Kiptum disappeared from the athletics radar only to emerge last December at the Valencia Marathon, where he won in a sizzling 2:01.51 –a then fifth fastest time in history.

“Many people thought he was just a one-hit wonder athlete after he won the Family Bank and Kass Half Marathon. He also took part in a race in Kapsabet. I lived with him and we were brought up in a humble family and we only worked hard helping our peasant parents to produce food,” said Andrew Mutai, who is Kiptum's cousin.

“Kiptum is a quiet man. He is disciplined and follows instructions quite well. Growing up with him, he strictly follows instructions, but never makes big promises.”

Mutai describes Kiptum as a quiet and disciplined athlete who discovered his career on his own and trained himself for years before shooting to fame in last year’s Valencia Marathon.

Mutai said Kiptum could not proceed to high school after completing his primary education at Chepsamo Primary School a decade ago.

“The family was poor and Kiptum chose to enroll in Chepkorio Polytechnic as an artisan. Later, I discovered he was running. He talks less and does not like to be in the limelight,” Mutai said.

He’s your typical Kenyan athlete who endured sugarless tea and porridge while walking long distances barefoot to school.

He joined Chepkorio Vocational Training Centre and trained as an artisan electrician but did not practice after choosing to focus on athletics.

“Kiptum had started doing electrical wiring under the apprenticeship of a professional after completing his training at Chepkorio Polytechnic but he later quit to focus on athletics,” said Mutai.

Villagers gathered in Chepsamo on Sunday after the historic race in Chicago to celebrate Kiptum's heroics.

Mutai said Kiptum’s family was joined by Elgeyo Marakwet sports executive Purity Koima and local ward representative Mathew Kimutai Cheruiyot during the celebrations.

“Kiptum suffered from tonsillitis two weeks before the Chicago Marathon and had indicated that he would not take part in the race. We persuaded him to compete. I took him to the airport as he flew to Chicago last week and as usual, he spoke less. He said he could not promise to break a world record in Chicago, but he would try,” the cousin added.

Athletics Kenya Keiyo South chairman Michael Kiplagat, who is also Kiptum’s neighbour in Chepsamo said; “Kiptum trained for years without a coach. He struggled with life at our local trading centre – Small Town. We are happy that the world record is back to Keiyo South.”

Barnaba Korir, the Athletics Kenya executive member, said: “This man has actualised Eliud Kipchoge’s mantra: No human is limited by smashing the world record. It has ignited hope among young athletes that all is possible with persistence and belief. As he celebrates this extraordinary feat, he must focus on the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.”

Six Kenyan athletes have broken the men’s world marathon records before. Paul Tergat set the ball rolling in 2003. His world record was broken in 2007 by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.

World men's marathon record holder Kelvin Kiptum. [Chicago Marathon]

Patrick Makau battled Haile Gebrselassie, the world record holder from Ethiopia in 2011. Makau dropped his more experienced rival after the halfway point and went on to finish in a world record time of 2:03:38.

On 29 September 2013, Wilson Kipsang won the Berlin Marathon and set a world record of 2:03:23, 15 seconds faster than the previous record by Patrick Makau.

On 28 September 2014, Dennis Kimetto broke the world record at the Berlin Marathon with 2:02:57 and became the first man to run under 2:03.

But on September 16, 2018, Eliud Kipchoge won the Berlin Marathon in a time of 2:01:39, breaking the previous world record by 1 minute and 18 seconds (2:02:57 set by fellow countryman Dennis Kimetto at the Berlin Marathon in 2014).

From 2003 onwards, all previous six world records in the men’s marathon were set at the Berlin marathon.

Kipchoge lowered the record to 2:01.09 in Berlin Marathon last year.

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