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During the unprecedented lack of sports due to the 2020 Covid pandemic, the Brussels Diamond League made the decision to attempt breaking the one-hour world record.
Thirteen individuals gathered at the King Baudouin Stadium starting line, but the event was essentially a solo race focused solely on Britain’s four-time Olympic gold medalist, Mo Farah. The others were present to support his efforts.
One of twelve anonymous individuals was a Kenyan whose name was not known. At that stage of his professional life, Kelvin Kiptum had very little experience on the international stage. A year ago, he had briefly been in the lead at the Rotterdam Marathon, but the word “Pace” on his bib exposed his minor role in the overall event.
Similarly to his previous attempt, Kiptum was unable to complete the one-hour run in Brussels. He trailed behind Farah for 18 minutes before ultimately giving up due to the challenging pace. It would have been difficult for any spectator to predict his future success based on this performance.
The untimely passing of a great athlete will forever leave the story of Kiptum unfinished, barely even begun.
His astonishing three-marathon spell during a period of little over 10 months in 2022 and 2023 will surely never be rivalled: recording the fastest debut marathon in history, going even quicker to triumph on the streets of London and then usurping the great Eliud Kipchoge as the marathon world record holder.
At the age of 24, he was a father to two young children and the sports community was just starting to become familiar with him. Sadly, they will never have the chance to fully know him now.
The demanding demands of long-distance running on the road make it necessary for athletes to not approach the sport in the manner that Kiptum did during his short-lived career. There is a specific sequence to adhere to, starting with gradually increasing distances on the track before transitioning to road running, honing one’s skills and finding the path to success. However, Kiptum ignored these steps entirely.
He clarified that it was purely a matter of coincidence. Kiptum was raised in a farming family in Chepkorio, where he was constantly exposed to the elite runners of Kenya’s Rift Valley, the birthplace of numerous distance running legends.
He discovered his natural ability for running while tending to his family’s cattle near Kaptagat Forest, but due to financial constraints, he was unable to make the almost 40-kilometre journey to the nearest track in Eldoret. This was not something he had envisioned for his running career.
Upon his father’s request, he pursued a career as an electrician after completing primary school. However, he spent most of his time focusing on athletics and aspiring to follow the success of his fellow villager, Geoffrey Kamworor. Kamworor, a two-time New York Marathon champion, ended up finishing second to Kiptum at the 2019 London Marathon.
As a young teenager, Kiptum would often join the numerous groups walking on trails and roads near his house.
Gervais Hakizimana, the Rwandan trainer of Kiptum who tragically passed away in the same car accident, remembered their initial encounters: “During our hill climbing workouts in the forest near his house, he was small but still managed to keep up with us, even though he was barefoot and had just finished tending to his goats and sheep.”
At just 13, Kiptum finished 10th in the Eldoret Half Marathon, returning five years later to win the event in the first notable result of his fledgling career.
Kiptum was coachless for a period of time and Hakizimana served as more of a consultant. As the Covid outbreak trapped Hakizimana in Kenya, their bond became stronger and more professional.
Although Kiptum had achieved satisfactory half-marathon times in the past, he was not widely recognized when he participated in his first marathon in Valencia in December 2022. However, in just two hours, one minute, and 53 seconds, everything changed. Kiptum set a new record for the fastest marathon debut and became only the third man in history to finish under 2:02.
After a couple of months, he downplayed the dismal circumstances and won the London Marathon by a margin of nearly three minutes. Although he narrowly missed breaking a world record, he was able to achieve it in his next try.
In October, during a race in Chicago, he broke Kipchoge’s record with a time of 2:00.35, making it a remarkable year in marathon history.
Hakizimana described Kiptum’s commitment to the sport as a constant cycle of “running, eating, and sleeping” every day of the week. Despite his reserved and modest demeanor, Kiptum did not speak publicly often, adding to his enigmatic reputation and preventing many details about his remarkable success from being revealed to the public.
He announced his intention to make history by being the first person to run a marathon in under two hours in Rotterdam in April. This would bring him back to the same streets where he had previously run without being recognized five years ago.
From there, the stage was set for the greatest, most anticipated marathon battle when Kiptum and Kipchoge were due to meet at this summer’s Paris Olympics; the undisputed master and the young upstart who had dethroned him.
After hearing of Kiptum’s passing, Kipchoge honored him as “an athlete with a promising future and potential for incredible achievements.” Although that chance has been taken away, his legacy will endure.