THE WILD CARD of the U.S. distance scene? That would be Paul Chelimo. He’s unpredictable on the track: witness his blistering 57-second opening at last year’s USATF 5000, his brutal pace for half the race, then a switch to slowish sit-and-kick tactics for the second half of what turned out to be a runner-up performance.
Chelimo can also be unpredictable—as well as funny—off the track. He had plenty of people going this spring with his social media demonstration of how to use a bathtub as a treadmill.
Then there’s his April training account via Twitter: “I drank liquid bleach and went for a tempo run, now I’m seated somewhere on the trail breathing fire… KABOMMMM!!!”
In jest? Of course. Much of the time that’s how the 29-year-old Chelimo operates. But he’s dead serious about where he’s going in this sport. It shows in his oft-repeated mantra: “Go hard or suffer the rest of your life.”
He tells us, “I’m not a perfectionist, but I like being close to perfection in everything I try to do. If I feel like I’m tying up in a workout or in a race, if I don’t go hard, then I’m definitely going to suffer. If I don’t go hard at the Olympics next year, it’s going to be tough for the sponsors to believe in me.”
Still, he has to laugh often, he says, because “I have funny things going on.” He describes one workout that happened the day after he raced at one of Winston-Salem’s Camel City events:
“I went for a long run and it was pouring rain that day, it was crazy. Luckily, I can swim, you know? I ran from the hotel because I missed the shuttle. I was running to where we usually begin our long runs. I got to like, mile 2, and I figured out, ‘Wow, there’s a reason why this year they said they were going with a shuttle.’ It turns out that where we used to cross the water, there was a lot of water, and nothing like a bridge.
“I couldn’t even jump; over the years we used to just jump over the water. And I was like, ‘Man, I’m not going to miss a long run today.’ Because if I decided to go back, that would mean I’m not going to do the long run. And by the side I saw a tree that fell across the water. And I figured I can just jump on this tree and cross. Trust me, it wasn’t a good idea.
“The next thing I saw was just red—it was dirty water. I fell in the water. My whole body. It’s a good thing I can swim. It was like 10-feet deep. I had headphones on and long-run gear and I was drowned, I was drained. I just crossed through and kept going. I met the guys and they were like, ‘How did you get here? Why are you sweating like this?’ I told them what happened and they started laughing at me. They were like, ‘Man, you’re crazy!’ When I am running, there’s a lot of stories happening.”
Chelimo always has been an interesting story himself. He came to the U.S. from Kenya 10 years ago as a recruit for NAIA school Shorter in Arkansas. After winning several national titles, he transferred to UNC Greensboro, where he was twice a runner-up in the NCAA 5000.
In ’14 he entered the Army’s World Class Athletic Program where he found an accelerated path to U.S. citizenship and started to emerge as world class. Two years later his 3rd in the Trials 5000 led to his impressive silver medal performance in Rio, with a then-PR 13:03.90. He landed on the podium again at the London Worlds with his bronze. In ’18, he ran his lifetime best 12:57.55, a mark that makes him the No. 4 American ever.
Last season, however, he didn’t run as well as he had hoped. No longer in the Army, he was competing for Nike but still working with WCAP coach Scott Simmons.
“It was a different thing,” he says, noting that the biggest change came when his wife, Brenda, gave birth to their daughter, Arianna, at the end of ’18. “She has to eat, she has to dress well, she has to get some nice stories, she has to go to school. I had to step up and properly care for my daughter.”
Arianna makes her appearance in the interview, running to her father but tumbling en route and erupting in tears. “She fell down, but she’s OK,” assures Chelimo. “When she sees me, every time she wants all the attention.” He adds, “But definitely, I was able to pick up fitness as the season went by.”
That led him to Doha, where everything went perfectly in the 5000 final, until it didn’t. “I really don’t know what happened to me,” he explains. “When we got to 400 to go, I felt like, ‘Yeah, I think I’ve got the gold this time.’ And just after that, at 300 to go, my legs started tying up; 200 to go I’m in 3rd place and I can’t even move anymore. I mean, [normally] no one can match me in the last 200m.”
Instead, he struggled to 7th in 13:04.60, more than 3 seconds away from a podium spot. “It told me I have an issue with strength,” he says. “If it gets to the point where my legs just give up, it’s time to do it a different way.” So he and Simmons revamped his training to focus on that deficit.
With almost no races this season—2 XC meets in January, 2 indoor affairs in February—Chelimo got frustrated at first, tweeting in May, “Someone find me a race before I lose my mind.” He included a photo of plants growing in his spikes.
“It got to a point.” He acknowledges the frustration, but says he got past it: “I just made up my mind. It doesn’t do any good stressing about racing. The only thing is to stay positive. When you panic, bad things happen. When I stay consistent, that’s the best thing. And trust me, I never, never go to the starting line unless I am really ready to run a race.”
His only “competition” of 2020 after winning the USATF Indoor 3000 was, yes, a triathlon of sorts, where he and his training partners battled in the long jump, shot and discus. For the record, he probably won’t be lured away from the distances after hitting PRs of 13-9½ (4.20) for the long jump, 23-8¾ (7.23) for the shot and 55-9¼ (17.00) for the discus. (Continued below)
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I had a chance to try out these events. I have always had lots of respect for Triple Jumpers,Long Jumpers and Shot Putters but now I respect them even more.Whoever jumps or throws the farthest wins the competition PERIOD!!! . . . I’m humbled🙏🏾 . . Go Hard or Suffer for the Rest of your Life! 📸 credit @seanface007 #nike #xendurance #sidekick #artiken #triplejump #longjump #shotput
He explains that the impromptu field event competition followed a 20M (32K) long run at 9500ft (2895m) of altitude. “I’m a very competitive guy. It was good for me mentally. At first I thought it was going to be easy. When you’re on the runway, you think you’re going to jump really far, but then once you’re in the air, you start worrying about getting injured and breaking your leg.”
He says that if ’21 goes according to plan, he hopes to hit the Olympic 10K standard of 27:28.00 in the early season and tackle both of the long track races at the OT: “I’ll definitely double. The 5K comes first, which is perfect for me, because the 10K is not my main goal.”
“At this point, I’m trying to move up in distance,” he says. “A few years down the line, I might be dropping into marathons, that is my big goal. I mean, in 2028 in LA, I’m going to be in the marathon hopefully.”
Chelimo sums up his career ambition by saying that for him, medals mean much more than records. “I feel like I was built for championship races. I have a tough mentality. It wouldn’t do me any good to break the American Record and not medal at the Olympics. My big goal is I want to peak really well for the Olympic Games. I don’t want to get distracted.
“I want to be smart and I want to be patient.”