Chasing third Olympic gold: for Kipchoge, the road starts in Kenya's Rift Valley

Olympic marathon champion, Eliud Kipchoge (3rd R) runs with his training group during a fartlek (speed work) session in Kaptagat on May 4, 2024.[AFP]

Dawn has not yet broken over the highlands of Kenya's Rift Valley when marathon great Eliud Kipchoge crosses through the gate of his training camp.

It's barely 6:00 am.

Three months before the Olympic marathon on August 10 in Paris -- where he hopes to make history with a third gold medal -- he is preparing to start the weekly "long run".

Wearing a cap and gloves to protect himself from the drizzle and the cool morning air, the 39-year-old sets off at the front of the pack.

Joining him are other residents of the renowned Kaptagat training camp including Kenyan middle-distance star Faith Kipyegon but also local runners who come in the hope of being talent-spotted.

On the programme that day: 30 kilometres (18 miles) pounding the local roads.

The athletes have abandoned the red dirt tracks that crisscross the surrounding forest, made muddy by the torrential rains which have been pelting Kenya for more than a month.

"Nature says no. And now it's speaking very loud," smiles Kipchoge's longtime coach Patrick Sang.

Over the kilometres, the pack stretches out and splits apart.

Only the car carrying their coaches, Sang and 2008 Olympic 3,000m steeplechase champion Brimin Kipruto, protects the runners from the trucks and matatus (minibus taxis) which zoom past on the hilly course.

In the lead group, Kipchoge eats up kilometres at a steady pace. He will go on to complete the distance, with six other runners, in one hour 40 minutes.

'Crucial games'

"Everything is going well. I'm feeling good. But I think the next months will be more interesting," Kipchoge tells AFP in an interview after the road session.

The former double world record holder is in the last stages of preparation which will lead him towards the goal of a lifetime -- becoming the first person to win Olympic marathon gold three times in a row.

Currently he is one of only three marathon runners to have two Olympic titles (2016, 2021), alongside Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila (1960, 1964) and Waldemar Cierpinski of Germany (1976, 1980).

“The Olympic Games is crucial for me," Kipchoge says.

For him, Olympic titles are "bigger than the major marathons", the six races on the circuit where he has won 11 times since 2014 (five in Berlin, four in London, one each in Tokyo and Chicago).

His ambition remains intact despite two recent poor performances, in Boston in 2023 when he came in sixth and in Tokyo in March where he only finished 10th -- arousing criticism and doubt about his future.

"I'm old enough to handle any setback. I know sport is not about performing every day," he counters, saying he believed his low place in Tokyo was down to "fatigue".

Kipchoge has already checked out the hilly route in Paris, a course said to be unfavourable for him.

"I prepare specifically on the hills and downhills but generally, I want to be fit enough."

'Mind already in Paris'

To reach his peak performance, Kipchoge sticks to an abstemious life and trains hard.

"Eliud is very consistent... but the way he is really focusing on Paris, it's something else," says Victor Chumo, a member of the team that helped him beat the mythical two-hour barrier in 2019, running 1:59:40 during an unsanctioned race in Vienna.

"He is more aggressive than in previous years. The way he trains, the way he rests, he is reporting to the camp earlier than before... That shows he is going for something special."

"His mind is already in Paris," adds Daniel Mateiko, a young Kenyan hopeful in long-distance running who trains alongside him in Kaptagat.

Kipchoge's preparation is also punctuated by anti-doping controls, which the Kenyan athletics federation has reinforced under pressure from international authorities.

"This year, it has been more frequent," he says, with a test for performance-enhancing drugs now every week compared to once or twice a month previously.

"There's a lot of improvement, they have been doing a great job," he says of the drug testing. "But consistency should be there."

The countdown is on towards what could well be his last Olympics, but Kipchoge doesn't want to talk about it: "I'm taking one step at a time."

But his return to the French capital is rich with symbolism. It was there that in 2003, at the age of 18, he won his first international crown: becoming 5,000m world champion ahead of two legends, Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia.

"Paris is where my life started in athletics 20 years ago."

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