After a hard day’s speed work training at the Embu Municipal Stadium on a hot Tuesday afternoon under vocal head coach Julius Kirwa, Florence Kiplagat gingerly makes her way to the Kenyan cross country team’s bus and eases into the seat next to Moses Mosop.
Mosop is Kenya’s 12-kilometre national cross country champion and it’s no coincidence that Kiplagat – the senior women’s title holder - goes for the seat next to the 2007 senior men’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships silver medallist.
They are married and both will be travelling to Amman with the unique mission of being Kenya’s first husband-and-wife gold medallists at the World Cross Country Championships.
Uncomfortable when asked about their relationship, the 22-year-old Kiplagat brightens up when prodded on her fledgling career that has taken everyone, including herself, by surprise.
It started off as a singular mission to study in the United States.
“I was looking for a scholarship to travel to the US for studies,” Kiplagat recalls with nostalgia.
“I was then studying at Sirgoech Secondary School in Iten and I was looking to get the scholarship to an American university after my Form Four studies in 2005.
“My father encouraged me to run saying it would be easier to get a track scholarship and that’s how I started running.”
The scholarship was hard to come by for Kiplagat - then largely an 800 metres runner - but all was not lost for this talented athlete.
World junior medals makes up for lost scholarship
She made the Kenya team to the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing where she settled for silver in her new speciality, the 5000 metres.
“I was happy and said to myself that I may not have secured the scholarship, but at least I have discovered that I have the talent and I was determined to go for it.”
Kiplagat tasted global competition at the highest level again in 2007 when she made the Kenyan team to the 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa.
But running before a noisy home crowd, the Kenyan challenge failed to take off the ground on the Mombasa Golf Club course.
Well, not exactly, as Kenya-born Dutchwoman Lornah Kiplagat cruised to victory in 26 minutes and 23 seconds with the Ethiopian trio of Tirunesh Dibaba, Meselech Melkamu and Gelete Burka in tow.
The Dutchwoman’s namesake led the Kenyan team home in fifth place with Pamela Chepchumba, Prisca Jepleting and Vivian Cheruiyot occupying the sixth to eighth slots.
Maternity does not take the toll
After the Mombasa show, Kiplagat competed in a few track races in Europe and then she went into the “off-season” which, in Kenyan athletics parlance, means she took time off to have a baby.
And a baby girl it was, born to Kiplagat and Mosop, and named Asha Chelagat, the couple’s first-born.
With Kiplagat and Mosop away from their Iten home for the mandatory month-long Kenyan cross country team’s camp in Embu on the slopes of Mount Kenya, baby Chelagat is left with Kiplagat’s step-sister Vigoty Chebet.
“It’s always difficult for a mother and father to leave their one-year-old baby alone – I’m really grateful to my sister for taking care of Asha as we prepare to represent the country in Amman,” Kiplagat says.
Again, and just like her very much reserved husband Mosop, she prefers not to be drawn too much into discussions about family.
Training with husband pays off
But adamantly I ask her, just how does Mosop help in her running career, and she, finally, lightens up and opens up to the interview.
“He (Moses Mosop) helps me in the long runs. Usually I have a 45-minute head start and Moses and the other men follow. Sometimes the intervals are down to 15-minute head starts for me,” she says.
“No woman in Kenya can pace me the way Moses and the men do and when they pace me, usually I run faster and it does a lot of good to my training programme.”
Before joining the Kenyan team’s camp in Embu, Kiplagat’s punishing individual training included an hour’s easy morning run on Mondays with a 40-minute easy session in the afternoon; one hour and 10 minutes in the morning and 50 minutes in the afternoon on Wednesdays and Fridays and a one-and-a-half-hours long run on Thursday.
Sunday mornings were reserved for a 50-minute hill work session with Tuesdays and Saturdays set aside for 40 minutes easy runs in the mornings and afternoons, interspersed with intervals training.
Kiplagat’s 2009 cross country season took off to an easy and gradual start.
Success on European circuit
The last born in a family of three children ran in the Tuskys Cross Country in Eldoret last December, finishing second, before travelling to Spain for cross country races winning both.
At the 66th Cross Internacional Juan Muguerza in Elgoibar, Kiplagat floored a strong team that included former Kenya champion Grace Momanyi to win the 6.624km race in 21:39.
She also won the IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in Seville.
The Spanish sojourn held her in good stead as Kiplagat returned home determined to make the Kenyan team to the 37th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Amman.
She simply obliterated the opposition at February’s Kenyan trials for the Amman championship at Nairobi’s Ngong Racecourse, winning in a brilliant sprint finish that earned her one of the four automatic tickets to the Kenya team.
“The competition at the Ngong trials was fair although I did not face that much of a challenge,” she says, nonchalantly.
“If you are confident with yourself and you have the will, willing comes easily,” she adds, philosophically.
But for Kiplagat, victory at Ngong was more than just about confidence. She had the extra motivation to perform as just three days before the selection meet, she had buried her brother.
“I said to myself I must do well in my athletics career so that I can be able to take care of my late brother’s two children – that gave me the motivation to succeed at the trials and also to go for the podium in Amman.”
Running – a family tradition
Kiplagat comes from a running family with her uncle, William Kiplagat, a 2:06 marathoner who is in the field for next month’s Rotterdam Marathon.
This weekend’s championships in Amman give her an opportunity to cement her place in Kenyan history as only the second Kenyan woman to have won the seniors’ gold medal at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships after Hellen Chepngeno struck gold way back in 1994.
“I have worked on maintaining my shape for Amman, gradually reducing my long runs and concentrating on speed work and my body feels OK.
“We have been working on team tactics and we know how we will play around with the opposition in Amman.”
Besides Kiplagat, other members of Kenya’s eight-kilometre senior women’s team are former junior champion (Fukuoka 2006) Pauline Korikwiang, Innes Chenonge, Linet Chepkurui, Anne Karindi and Linet Masai, the junior champion at the 2007 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa.
With a personal best of 15:32.34 in the 5000 metres, Kiplagat is Kenya’s strongest bet for a gold medal in the senior women’s race in Amman.
And with the huge cash incentives in store, she will have the extra motivation to become Kenya’s only second women’s senior winner since Chepng’eno’s 1994 feat and, most importantly, she will be going for glory to help raise her late sibling’s two children.
Kenya’s head coach Kirwa - in his fifth straight year as national coach - has already said this year’s Kenyan senior women’s team is the most competitive and remains confident of bringing that elusive individual senior women’s gold medal that Kiplagat stands a great chance of winning for Kenya.
Kiplagat says she will dedicate her gold medal to her step-sister, Vigoty Chebet, who is taking care of one-year-old baby Asha in the absence of her running parents.
Elias Makori for the IAAF