Kelvin Kiptum — What Might Have Been

Dreams of a sub-2:00 run and Paris Olympic glory for Kelvin Kiptum and coach Gervais Hakizimana perished late on the night of February 11. (SEAN HARTNETT)

T&FN’s Sean Hartnett honors and remembers the marathon World Record holder who on February 11 died far too soon along with his coach Gervais Hakizimana. Sean covered each of Kelvin Kiptum’s three brilliant marathons in person and interviewed the event-transforming new star, now extinguished, after each. Most recently, Sean was on the spot for Kiptum’s 2:00:25 WR in Chicago.

“I READ THE NEWS TODAY, oh boy…” So it was sometime on Super Bowl Sunday that we learned of the tragic passing of reigning marathon World Record holder Kelvin Kiptum and his coach Gervais Hakizimana.

Driving towards his Chepsamo home after an uncharacteristic late night watching the Africa Cup soccer final in Eldoret, Kiptum’s car slid into a culvert along the Elgeyo Marakwet Ravine Road, hitting a tree and instantly killing the remarkable athlete and his coach who teamed up for a short but phenomenal run that redefined marathon training and racing.

Five days after World Athletics ratified his 2:00:35 WR clocking at the Chicago Marathon, and 13 years after the death of reigning Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru, Kenya had another generational superstar taken in the dark of night. The 24-year-old Kiptum leaves behind his wife Asenath Cheruiyot, two children and an inconsolable nation.

The 36-year-old Hakizimana was a Rwandan distance runner who ran a national record 8:39.05 steeple in ’09, yet favored the half-marathon distance over a 10-year career and competed in three World Cross competitions, placing 33rd in ’11. Hakizimana’s lone marathon attempt in the ’16 London race, ended in injury and a DNF, but that failure ensured that Kiptum would be more than prepared to take on the 42K distance.

Kiptum proved more than up to the task and in an all too brief 10-month, 3-race marathon career ran away to a most improbable trifecta:

• a debut record 2:01:53 on December 04, 2022 in Valencia
• a London Marathon course record 2:01:25 on April 23, 2023
• and then the stunning 2:00:35 World Record last October 08 in Chicago.

This 3-race salvo blew up the all-time marathon performance list, landing Kiptum amid the best efforts produced by generational talents Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele. Sisay Lemma of Ethiopia joined the super-elite sub 2:02 club last December when he pared 5 seconds off Kiptum’s Valencia course record.

Kiptum raced three marathons and earned T&FN covers after two of them. The first fronted the May ’23 issue.

Kiptum not only ran fast but he also dominated his competition. His margin of victory increased from 1:07 in his debut to 2:58 in London, besting his Chepkorio neighbor Geoffrey Kamworor, and 3:27 in Chicago. In sum, Kiptum’s 3-race opening act averaged 2:01:18 with a 2:30.6 margin of victory.

Beyond the numbers, Kiptum’s racing legacy and complete mastery of the distance was on full display in each of his marathons as he threw down unprecedented mid-race surges to win negative split races by wide margins, all the while running with such ease that he said, “I had no problems and felt no pain.”

Kiptum was exceedingly light on his feet, both in appearance and in motion. Long and lean at 5-11/143 (1.80/65), Kiptum’s stride revolved around an ever-sturdy core. His arms swum about while his lower body movement from sternum to toes was a blend of power and efficiency.

Wiry, sturdy and smooth, Kiptum sped through one glorious year of racing that was a dozen years in the making, and his legacy has much to do with the training that prepared him for greatness. What separated Kiptum from hundreds of other unknown Kenyan runners — to come out of nowhere to become perhaps the near-perfect marathoner?

Kiptum’s rise from obscurity to an event-transforming World Record holder bore the imprint of both his Rift Valley training environment and a precarious social situation that offered little economic opportunity beyond subsistence farming and herding.

With little to gain from other pursuits, Kiptum also had little to lose if he focused on his one true passion, his training. Kiptum’s mother had an athletic background and with his father’s eventual blessing Kiptum transitioned from schoolboy to athlete-in-training.

Aiding his development was the perfect high-altitude training environment surrounding his Chepsamo home and primary school (elevation 8800ft/2680m) in the village of Chepkorio, and just 2 kilometers from the western rim of the Rift Valley escarpment created 30-million years ago when a continent-shaping eruption dropped the valley floor.

This area around the Kaptagat Forest was uplifted a thousand feet in the blast, with subsequent erosion leaving a landscape of rolling hills bisected by a network of steep ravines. A Google Earth tour of roads between Chepsamo and Kiptum’s training base in Chepkorio a few kilometers to the south reveals elevation changes of 100–150ft every kilometer, and virtually no flat stretches longer than a couple hundred meters. The forest trails to the north are even hillier.

The Chepkorio area features many small farm plots with the red clay volcanic soils producing nutritious vegetables and other staples that fueled Kiptum’s efforts, while also providing a soft surface for an athlete with a penchant for pounding out endless kilometers.

Kiptum’s first running dream was simply to be like the athletes that took to the hilly roads and forest trails for training every morning. As a schoolboy he followed the athletes, running barefoot for as long as he could keep up, with dreams of being part of a group or even stepping out internationally like a cousin who once paced for Haile Gebrselassie.

Too poor to enter races or even afford shoes, Kiptum was afforded the luxury of a long, sustained period of base training to start his career. He ran just for the love of bounding up and down the hills, either alone or following any training group that he could latch onto.

Day by day, Kiptum’s fitness progressed with every quad-burning hill climb adding running-specific core strength and leverage to his sturdy frame while also fine-tuning his cardiovascular engine at 8000–9000 feet.

Kiptum competed in a few local races, finishing 10th and 12th in the ’13 and ’14 editions of the Eldoret Half Marathon. Then in ’18 he was “discovered” as he won the race in 62:02, looking uber-fit in red Nike racing kit and super-shoes.

Signing with manager Marc Corstjens of the Golazo agency headed up by Bob Verbeeck, a past European and NCAA Indoor champion, Kiptum began competing internationally and ran 59:54 in his first professional race, finishing 5th in Lisbon.

Kiptum also reunited with Hakizimana who found it difficult to train in his native land, and divided time between France and Kenya. Gervais had mentored Kiptum off and on since they first met while the Rwandan prepped for the ’07 World Cross in Mombasa. In ’18 Hakizimana took on a more proper coaching role, turning the precocious youth into a prodigious trainer and a competitive racer.

The historic World Record in Chicago put Kiptum on the cover of our November ’23 edition.

Kiptum fared well on the European road circuit clocking 7 sub-61 half-marathons, while logging some 28-minute 10Ks and helping out with pacing for the ’19 Rotterdam Marathon and Mo Farah’s 1-houe WR in ’20.

With each experience, Kiptum grew more comfortable on the roads, yet he won but one race since his breakout half marathon in Eldoret.

Kiptum’s talent was hard to miss and word of the relentless and rather talkative trainer spread amongst the athletes that took to the forest each morning. Valencia’s Kenya-based recruiter Marc Roig brought Kiptum twice to the Spanish city for its half-marathon where he ran a PR 58:42 in ’20, earning an open invitation for the marathon.

COVID got in the way of a ’21 debut but provided for a long transition to marathon training for both Kiptum and Hakizimana. The coach was locked down in Kenya by the pandemic and the duo began working on the dream of becoming a top marathoner.

While many top runners have been motivated by Olympic glory, financial success or the thrill of competition, it is a special athlete that is fully motivated by training. Such it was for Kiptum who rose each and every day in anticipation of developing the power and strength to defy gravity and float up and down the undulating forest trails.

Talking about his training at the Chicago Marathon brought a quick smile to Kiptum’s face as he exclaimed, “My favorite training is the up-down of the forest, but I like all the training, the timed distance on the roads or tarmac, and now some track sessions like 15 times a kilometer.”

Kiptum’s career also benefited from the emergence of super-shoes, both in racing — where the forward lean of his stride responded well to the extra bounce — and in training where the extra cushioning softened impact and aided recovery. Who better to test the benefits of the shoes in training than an athlete who consistently pushed his volume over 300km (186M) weekly?

After years of training mostly for the sake of training, it all came together when Kiptum and Hakizimana took to the marathon in ’22. A maturing pupil was more than ready to take on the increased training load — which in turn, advanced his fitness, core strength and confidence as he found out that he was made for the long run.

The once tireless schoolboy had developed into a very formidable and confident athlete. Descending to sea level to race on flat paved roads, Kiptum seemed just giddy with fitness and ready to cut loose at any point. Leveraging his core strength to whip his legs into a frenzy, Kiptum was able to string together flurries of sub 2:50 kilos.

A second-tier half-marathoner by brutal Kenyan standards, Kiptum proved seemingly indefatigable and unbeatable over the full distance as he discovered that two-thirds of the way into a marathon he had ability to shift into his sub-60 half-marathon gear.

Kiptum negative-split all three of his marathons, dashing the second halves in unprecedented fashion, 61:38/60:15 in Valencia, 61:40/59:45 in London, and 60:48/59:47 in his Chicago WR.

The soft-spoken Kiptum developed an undeniable confidence in his ability to finish off a marathon: “In every race I make a move at 30 or 32K.” Kiptum’s preternatural confidence in his closing gear showed even in his debut when he joined Oregon22 world champion Tamirat Tola at the front at 25K and first urged, then pushed a much higher pace.

Kiptum’s 3-race course-record tear shifted to the London and Chicago WMM races, and with each race and training cycle, he emerged stronger, smoother and faster, WR fast. Somehow the unique relationship between Kiptum and his Rwandan coach managed to push the limits of voluminous training and create an unprecedented racer.

Not by design — and certainly not out of necessity given Eliud Kipchoge’s decade long dominance of the event with 2 World Records and 2 Olympic gold medals — Kenya had found its next near-perfect marathoner.

Before the Chicago race, Kiptum had reviewed relevant race maps with their creator, Sean Hartnett, geographer of the marathon.

Athlete and coach celebrated their achievements in Chicago together, as after Kiptum had taken victory stand pictures with a dozen dignitaries he called up Hakizimana. Pictures of the duo made the worldwide media feed, and as they were leaving the stage one final snap captured Kelvin looking upon Gervais with untold appreciation [see top of article].

Heading into the Olympic year Kiptum was living the dream of a WR holder. He was feted at the Palace of Monaco whence he took home WA’s honor as the men’s Out Of Stadia Athlete Of The Year.

In the weeks before his passing, Kiptum announced plans for a record attempt at the Rotterdam Marathon in April and signed a deal with a Chinese watch company, declaring, “I aim to break the 2:00 mark in Rotterdam and pursue gold at the Paris Olympics.”

Kiptum ramped up his training to match these lofty goals and the day before his death took on the famed Fluorspar climb. Starting at the Kenya Fluorspar Mining Company site on the Rift Valley floor, this 23K run climbs the valley’s west rim some 4500ft (1370m) on a switchback dirt road leading to the top of the escarpment at Nyaru.

This type of Rift Valley climb is a traditional component of training and over 20 years ago Paul Tergat took on a similar climb up the eastern rim to Kabarnet noting that such training was the Kenyan way to take the power that made the mountain and use it to develop powerful quads.

Many athletes tackle this climb searching for that power and Edward Cheserek and Caroline Chepkwony were among those along for Kiptum’s workout, as were ’23 Rotterdam women’s winner Eunice Chumba and Timothy Kiplagat, Rotterdam ’23 men’s runner-up by just 3 seconds.

Few if any athletes had ever attacked the hill as aggressively as Kiptum, who was on WR form, pressing a faster and faster pace such that a group of accompanying coaches urged him to ease up.

A day later, we all wish we could have beckoned Kelvin to ease up. While Shakespeare or John Lennon might have been able to conjure up such a tragic last-day-in-a-life ending to this near-fantasy tale, the marathon world led by Eliud Kipchoge was united in shock, sorrow and praise for Kiptum’s special talent. The sport is left grappling with what might have been.

Dreams of a sub-2:00 run and Olympic glory in Paris perished late on the night of February 11 with Kiptum and Hakizimana. A few hours later, thousands of athletes headed out for morning training, and Kenya is once again searching for the perfect marathoner.