Looking back, all the signs were there.
Joyciline Jepkosgei stunned the athletics world last Saturday when winning the Sportisimo Prague Half Marathon in a world record* of 1:04:52, breaking three other world records* along the way. She wasn’t exactly a household name before that race and wasn’t even considered to be the pre-race favourite. But she had strongly hinted at her potential in several of her races over the previous 13 months.
The first glimpse of Jepkosgei's talent came in March last year when she set a half-marathon PB of 1:09:09. The race was held at altitude in Nairobi and she finished just four seconds behind 2013 Amsterdam Marathon champion Valentine Jepkorir.
She followed it with a 1:09:07 PB to win the Karlovy Vary Half Marathon which, on the surface, doesn’t seem overly impressive. But the race was held in unusually high temperatures of about 20C and Jepkosgei still managed to break the course record. The previous record had been set by Mulu Seboka a few months after running a 2:21:56 marathon.
Just six days later, Jepkosgei finished third over 10,000m at the Kenyan Championships, earning a spot on the national team for the following month’s African Championships. Jepkosgei went on to take a bronze medal at that event, smashing her PB with 31:28.28 in what was just the fifth track race of her career.
Returning to the roads, Jepkosgei finished second to compatriot Violah Jepchumba over 10km at the Birell Grand Prix in Prague. Despite suffering from hamstring problems, her PB of 31:08 was enough to end the year in seventh place on the world list for the event. But perhaps what was more significant was her 5km split of 14:56; before that race, only one Kenyan woman in history had ever run faster than that for 5km on the roads.
She followed it with a 1:07:02 victory at the Marseilles-Cassis 20km. Much like her performance in Karlovy Vary, her time for 20km didn’t seem too noteworthy when taken at face value. But the Marseilles-Cassis 20km is a notoriously difficult course and Jepkosgei’s time broke the course record.
She started 2017 with a third-place finish at the Kenya Defence Forces Cross Country Championships, finishing just 12 seconds behind Olympic marathon champion Jemima Sumgong and crossing the line well ahead of 2014 world half-marathon champion Gladys Cherono.
But that was merely a warm-up for the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon three weeks later.
After breaking course records in tough races in 2016, combined with her aggressive front-running style, those close to Jepkosgei knew that she was capable of a fast time in the right race.
Up against the toughest field she has faced to date, Jepkosgei was level with Mary Keitany and Peres Jepchirchir – two of the most accomplished half-marathon runners in history – for the first 15 kilometres. Jepchirchir went on to break the world record in that race with Keitany placing second and Jepkosgei third.
With a time of 1:06:08, Jepkosgei took great encouragement from the fact she had been on world record pace for three quarters of the race, and that she had finished ahead of Sumgong and multiple world and Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba.
She may not have been on many people’s radar before the Prague Half Marathon, but all the signs were there.
Jepkosgei was filled with so much pride when watching her husband Nicholas Koech compete at the 2013 Kenyan Championships, she was inspired to take up running herself.
“He was my neighbour at home and seeing him training in the village and running locally gave me a lot of motivation,” says Jepkosgei, whose son Brandon was born in 2011. “There were not many people running in my village and he was, and still is, an example to me.”
Aged just 19 at the time, Jepkosgei had spent most of her youth running two kilometres to and from school, but had never seriously trained as a runner. Her husband started to coach her and they later moved from Nandi County to set up home in Iten.
It was there where she was discovered by the RunCzech Racing team.
“There was something about the way she ran that caught our eye,” said athlete representative Davor Savija. “As we learned about her training and life and realised how young Joyciline was as a person and as an athlete, we saw there was a lot of room for improvement.”
Jepkosgei now covers between 140 and 150 kilometres in a typical week, spread across about 14 sessions. Most of her runs are done on dirt roads and she trains alongside six or seven other men and one or two other women. Unsurprisingly for a half-marathon specialist, her favourite session is doing long runs of about 20-25 kilometres, while her longest run to date is 30 kilometres.
“We perceived her to be a 66-low half marathoner in the making with a future in the marathon,” added Davor. “We love working with athletes who love to compete and who are not afraid to learn through trial and error.”
The name ‘Jepkosgei’ means ‘born after much anticipation’.
It was quite fitting, then, that a star was born at the Prague Half Marathon after much anticipation following a year’s worth of promising results.
Savija certainly expected something special from Jepkosgei in the Czech capital.
“She was free,” he says. “Free from pressure of any kind, free of fear of underperformance, free of willingness to compete with Violah Jepchumba.”
“The most important thing in my races is that I listen to how my body feels,” says Jepkosgei, who was paced in Prague by training partner Edwin Kiplagat. “I run with my heart and not with the stopwatch. I am also a front runner and I like to go out fast and have some time on my side.”
And that is precisely the approach she adopted in Prague en route to one of the greatest road-running performances in athletics history.
Although she and her team anticipated a fast time, the world records came as a surprise.
“After a few fast kilometres at the start, it was clear that she wasn’t going to let go until her body said no,” said Savija.
“I was a bit surprised to break three other world records along the way, but I was confident in my body and in my running abilities,” added Jepkosgei. “When I look back at my achievement, I see it as the result of togetherness and team work. I feel very happy and blessed.
“I am so thankful to the whole team behind me: my husband and coach, Nicholas Koech; Ikaika Sports, my management; RunCzech Racing team; my physio and massage therapist; and my training partners. My success is their success.”
The bad news for her rivals is that Jepkosgei is only just getting started.
“I was in very good shape for Ras Al Khaimah and Prague and I had good preparation, but this was not my maximum shape,” said Jepkosgei, who will contest the Gifu Seiryu Half Marathon on 23 April. “I feel that I could still improve the world record for the half marathon.
"My ultimate goal is to improve and break my world records in road races before I attack the marathon world record in few years from now.”
Savija is already in discussions for a further assault on the 10km world record in a standalone race for the distance. Jepkosgei’s marathon debut will likely be in a few years’ time, once she has paced a few marathons to get a better feel for the distance.
Jepkosgei also doesn’t rule out returning to the track, provided it doesn’t get in the way of her goals on the roads. “Track is very useful for speed, so I would consider doing some track races,” she says. “But at the same time, doing track and road races may negatively affect my training programme for specific goals I have.”
Her agent, however, is more open to the idea of track races. “She may not be aware of it yet," says Savija, "but once she relaxes on the track in the same way she knows how to relax while racing on roads, she could, of course, be a major factor."
“Joyciline is young; she is looking at a 10-12-year career. I believe she could win medals at the Olympics and World Championships, break several world records and run superb marathon times.
“She is fearless, but not reckless; she is brave, but not arrogant. She has dreams and hopes, as she truly loves the sport and running,” he adds. “We believe this will take her far. And, for her, there is time for everything.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF
*Subject to the usual ratification procedures