Fourth in last year’s long race at the Brussels World Cross Country Championships, 5000m World champion Eliud Kipchoge was pin-pointed as the one who could finally beat Kenenisa Bekele. Although he made the show for most of this year’s long race in St-Etienne/St-Galmier, Kipchoge had to be content with a fifth place; a result which doesn’t make justice to the talent of this amazing 20-year-old Kenyan. Jurg Wirz visited Kipchoge in his rural home.
In the space of two seasons Eliud Kipchoge won a World Championships 5000m gold medal, an Olympic 5000m bronze and set a 5000m World Junior record. Seen as the ‘next big thing’ by his Kenyan compatriots, the 20-year-old had the guts to attack the invincible Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele on his cross country turf at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in St-Etienne/St-Galmier but could not resist Bekele’s invincible kick at the bell.
Paying for his early race efforts, Kipchoge who wanted to help Kenya reclaim the team title which eluded them last year, dramatically faded and even lost out on an individual medal. As a team Kenya was second for the second year running and again disappointed.
Still Kipchoge remains one of Kenya’s most promising youngsters and apart from his junior cross country win in 2003 all his international successes came on the track. One of the most awaited races at this summer’s World Championships in Helsinki will be the 5000m second re-match between Kipchoge, Bekele and Olympic champion Hicham El Guerrouj (provided they will line-up) and now, Kipchoge may have an even stronger will to defend his title!
To learn more about Kipchoge I travelled from Eldoret, the capital city of running, where more former and current world class athletes live than anywhere else in the world. We had to drive towards Kapsabet, passing the Eldoret International Airport, a modern but completely oversized construction where not even one passenger plane arrives from abroad.
About 30 kilometres after leaving Eldoret, Kipchoge was directing me away from the tarmac on a dirt road. Now we had to close the windows because of the clouds of dust, provoked by every passing car. After 20 or 30 minutes we finally reached his home: Kapsisiywa, a small village with just a handful of houses in the heart of the Nandi District.
This is where he grew up with two older brothers and two older sisters brought up in poverty by his mother, a nursery teacher until 1998, who had to educate her children without the help of a husband.
“I never knew my father,” Kipchoge says. “I don’t remember seeing him. He died when I was very young.”
Kids ran out of their houses to have a look at the visitor. Later Kipchoge told me that I was the first white man to come to his home. We were welcomed by his relatives and finally sat inside the house he built for his mother after winning the World title in Paris. Within minutes the sitting room was packed with approximately 15 people, some relatives and a few neighbours, who all got a share of the modest meal made of rice and beans.
When we are finally on our own, Kipchoge starts telling me about his life, about his running career and how he became the number one long distance cross country and track runner in Kenya. You know the theory: they are so good because they were always running to school? Maybe it sounds more like a cliché but in Eliud Kipchoge’s case it was the reality.
He recalls: “When I was in Primary School I used to run every day four times about five or six kilometres to and from school. I was always running. You know, the time is limited, so if you don’t run you don’t have enough time.”
It is as simple as that. What a great endurance basis you get by running between 20 and 24 kilometres five times a week at such a tender age. What a difference to the European or American way of life where most of the kids take a bus or are driven to school by their parents.
Kipchoge had his first taste of competition when he joined Secondary School. Looking back to that time he says: “Three times a week we had to run in the afternoon after classes. I was a little bit better than the others, but I didn’t think about it too much. It was not that important to me.”
During the last two years of his Secondary School education Kipchoge was more concerned with his final exams. After finishing school at the end of 1999 he was employed to collect milk from the villagers and sell it in Kapsabet which is about a 20-kilometre cycle from his home area. He carried up to 75 litres of milk at once. He was paid 1 Kenyan Shilling per litre, so for one of his heaviest trips he earned 75 Shillings, equivalent to one US dollar!
After carrying milk for about five months he finally made enough money to buy training shoes and sports clothes. In June 2000, he started training.
Yet, as he still didn’t have a coach, he trained on his own, sometimes alongside some of his friends, sometimes alone, but regularly every morning. In January 2001 he took part in the District Cross Country Championships and finished third in the junior’s category.
However at the Provincial Championships he was only 21st. “That’s because I didn’t train properly,” he says.
On the track he couldn’t make it to the National Championships in Nairobi as he was third at the Provincial Championships at 5000m and only the first two were selected to compete at the Nationals. Again he had to go back home and start training properly.
But things dramatically changed on 21 September 2001, when he decided to take part in a 10km race organized by Elijah Lagat in Kapsabet.
Kipchoge remembers very well: “I decided to go and participate. And I won the race by far. Patrick Sang was also there. And he gave me a stop watch. This was a big motivation for me. You know, Patrick grew up only about three kilometres from my home. When we came from school we always saw him running on the road. We heard about him on the radio, also when he won the Olympic silver in Barcelona. So I thought to myself: Let me train like this man and maybe succeed in the future and be like him.”
Patrick Sang, the man who inspired young Kipchoge, not only gave him a stop watch but he also went to his house and brought him some training gear and most important a training programme.
From the young kid who couldn’t qualify for the Nationals Kipchoge soon became a highly coveted runner with two of the most important athletes’ representatives having set their sights on him. Patrick Sang’s job as a mediator for Jos Hermens didn’t bear immediate fruits as Elijah Lagat was faster and convinced Kipchoge to sign his first professional contract in December 2001 with Rosa & Associati.
However Sang’s training programme was proving to be very efficient and Kipchoge was rocketed to the top of Kenyan athletics in a very short time. He won four out of five national cross country junior races and also won the highly competitive National Trials for the World Cross Country Championships.
Kipchoge will most certainly never forget his first trip abroad to Dublin where in his first participation at the World Cross Country Championships he managed to finish fifth in the junior race.
“I don’t know how to express and how to describe my first trip on a plane and my first stay in Europe. I can say it was unique and somehow hard. There is such a big gap between Kenya and Europe, such a big difference. When you experience this for the first time it makes you very tired.”
After Dublin, Kipchoge steadily improved and started making its marks in the world of athletics although he had to miss out on the IAAF World Junior Championships in Jamaica because of a bout of Malaria.
He competed in two track races towards the end of the summer European season and managed an impressive 13:13.03 5000m in Berlin.
In October 2002 Eliud Kipchoge joined the Global Sports Management camp at Kaptagat and started training with people like Richard Limo, the 2001 5000m World champion. Again he dominated the national cross country season, won a share of the jackpot, went on to win the national junior title and one month later in Lausanne the World junior cross country title. On the track he collected even more impressive results. On 27 June he broke the 5000m World junior record in Olso in 12:52.61 and finished only 0.35 seconds behind Kenenisa Bekele.
Later that year he took part in his first World Championships in Athletics in Paris Saint-Denis. On the final day the 5000m final pitted the 10,000m champion Bekele against the 1500m champion El Guerrouj. But fortune smiled to the 18-year-old World junior cross country champion. El Guerrouj made a long run for home from 800m out. The 11th lap took 60.19 and at the bell (11:59.27) he was just ahead of Kipchoge, Bekele, Kibowen and Chebii and sped through the next 200m in 26.77, 4m ahead of Kipchoge with Bekele another 2m back, and still led into the finishing straight. A titanic climax struggled with Eliud Kipchoge getting the better of a dip finish, with Bekele only a stride behind. The time of 12:52.79 was the fastest in any global championship, with a final kilometre of 2:24.33. Kipchoge’s last 200m was timed at 26.3, 400m at 53.4, 800m at 1:52.9 and 1600m at 4:02.5!
At 18 Eliud Kipchoge had reached the top.
The following year he ran 13:14.0 at the national trials, the best performance ever on Kenyan soil, and in Rome he broke the stadium record with 12:46.53, the fastest time behind Bekele’s World record (12:37.35) in the year.
He returned home from the Olympics with a bronze medal. A disappointment, some may think. But he thinks it over before saying: “Of course I would have been happier if I had won a better medal. I knew we were three: Bekele, El Guerrouj and myself. All of us had the chance of winning the gold. But I am sure I will still get my chance in 2008. In Beijing I want to become Olympic champion. But frankly, I think a World record would be more important for me. A World record – it is the best achievement an athlete can do, the fastest time ever. I think only a few people can get there. Winning a gold medal depends also on the tactics.”
Kipchoge has a lot of respect for his rivals and especially Bekele who defeated him to win his fourth World Cross Country double. “The only thing I can say is that of course Bekele is an exceptional athlete. But I know Bekele is beatable. I know I can still improve and one day I can beat him. This is my strong believe. Don’t forget 2005 is only my third year at the top.”
On 5 November Eliud Kipchoge will turn 21. He knows he still has a very long athletics career ahead of him but he also knows that one day he will become a business man. So far he doesn’t want to spend any energy thinking about how to invest his money. His only ‘achievements’ are a new house which he built for his mother, a new house for himself in Eldoret - “I want to be at the centre of athletics,” he says - and a pick-up car. Sometimes he drives it himself, even if he doesn’t have a license! “In Kenya things are a little bit different,” he smiles.
“At the moment I need to concentrate fully on my athletics career,” he says. “I just take the small money I need for living and supporting my family. I can still think about investments later. I know I will have a good life when the day comes and I retire.” No doubt about it.
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 1 - 2005