Moments after taking the silver medal over 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, Joshua Cheptegei smiled in the mixed zone and asked the assembled media: “you remember what happened in Kampala?”
As if we could ever forget.
Back in March, the Ugandan 20-year-old hit the highest point imaginable for an athlete, leading a global championship on home turf, having built an almost unassailable advantage in the men’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Kampala. With one lap to run, Cheptegei had a 12-second advantage over Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworor, with bedlam breaking out in the packed stands as Ugandans heralded their champion-in-waiting. Even with one kilometre to run, he was slowing but still held a seven-second lead.
But then it all went wrong, fatigue taking a vice-like grip of the youngster’s body, his stride eventually shortening to a drunken stutter over the final half mile. He crossed the line delirious and dejected in 30th place, having lost almost two minutes to his rivals in the final kilometre.
The days after were no easier.
“It took me some weeks to get over,” says Cheptegei. “When I met people they felt sorry for me, but when they asked me I would feel bad because they made me remember what happened. I had to just stay at home, not go around because I didn’t want to meet people. My wife was there, my family, my manager, and they were encouraging me, saying: ‘you can make it.’”
In athletics, the role of mental strength is often underplayed relative to other sports, the challenge of running fast often reduced to a straightforward physical task, but it is anything but. At times the mind can cripple the body, and as one progresses to the highest level, eventually those without the strongest resolve are filtered out.
Back in 2014, when he first laid eyes on Cheptegei at the World University Cross Country in Entebbe, Uganda, Dutch manager Jurrie van der Velden knew he had a rare talent on his hands.
“He’s a smart guy, went to university for two years and you can feel it with everything he does,” says Van der Velden. “He picks things up really quick.”
Keen to test him at the top level, he brought Cheptegei to race Geoffrey Kamworor at the TCS World 10K in Bangalore in May that year and the teenager came home second. “We realised then he was special,” says Van der Velden.
Later that year Cheptegei took gold over 10,000m at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, USA, but his ascent to the top of his sport at senior level would take time.
In 2015 he moved to Kaptagat, Kenya, to train with the best, running daily with Kamworor and greats like Eliud Kipchoge under the guidance of coach Patrick Sang. But while his running went from strength to strength, he missed his family and his home too much to ever truly stick it out.
Later that year he returned to Uganda, with his manager working to build a group around him under the guidance of Dutch coach Addy Ruiter, who will outline on Monday morning at the IAAF Coaches' Conference how he developed Cheptegei into a global star.
Heading to Kampala back in March, both Ruiter and Cheptegei felt confident that he would deliver gold for Uganda, but then the wheels came off in spectacular fashion, Cheptegei's body shutting down in hot and humid conditions.
In London, there were no such problems – it was a cool, breezy night in the Olympic Stadium – and though the 60,000 fans who packed the stands expected victory to be virtually handed to Mo Farah, Cheptegei had other ideas.
He blasted through the first lap in 61 seconds, the adrenaline flooding his system. “I thought I was going 65,” said Cheptegei, who admits he had no fear of a similar blow-up. “I wasn’t worried it would happen because Kampala was so hot and humid. The conditions today were favourable so I could go hard.”
The Ugandan trio, together with the Kenyans, unleashed a stop-start series of surges over the laps that followed, trying their best to break Farah in his final 10,000m on the track. It was no use, the 34-year-old Briton seizing command with two laps to run and holding everyone off to take gold in 26:49.51.
Charging down the outside, however, was Cheptegei, the young Ugandan giving Farah the fight of his life down the home straight, but in the end it was silver – a sweet silver – for the 20-year-old.
“Now I feel happy because I have a medal at senior,” he said. “Kampala wasn’t my day. Today is my day.”
It capped a rollercoaster journey over the last four months, one which included the birth of his son just five weeks ago. Indeed at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris, Cheptegei underperformed and finished fourth, having barely slept in the week before as he tended to his newborn baby.
But over the weeks that followed things settled down and Cheptegei put in some of the best training of his life. “You see what three weeks of good training and rest can do,” said Van der Velden.
“If,” he adds, “you’re super talented.”
With silver in the bag, Cheptegei will return to Uganda a national hero, one whose fear of now going out in public will be not to avoid sympathy but perphaps to curtail an overwhelming flood of support. He is based in Kapchorwa, at an altitude of 2,600m, and there’s no place he’d rather be.
“If I do the training from home I inspire the young ones,” he says. “If they see the medal they try to do the same. More people are coming up in Uganda and in the next decade it will be a powerhouse for long distance.”
But before he headed off into the London night, one final question for Cheptegei: given the impending departure of Mo Farah from the track, does he now feel primed for a take-over of the event the Briton has ruled for so long?
“Yeah,” he says with a smile. “Absolutely.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF