At 38 years old, Mark Kiptoo is still something of a newcomer to athletics.
He first donned a pair of running spikes just 10 years ago, but soon after his first race, he was posted to Burundi on a peace-keeping mission as part of his duties as a corporal in the Kenyan Air Force. Running had to take a back seat.
When he returned to Kenya in 2006, he joined the Armed Forces training team and quickly began to show promise. In 2007, his first full season as an athlete, he finished third at the Kenyan Cross Country Championships, second in the 5000m at the Kenyan Championships, and took gold and silver at the World Military Games.
Standing on the podium at those events made Kiptoo realise the potential he had. “I could see that I was improving step by step and I told myself that if I continued in the same vein, then I will reach my goal,” said Kiptoo.
One of his career goals was achieved in 2008 when he represented Kenya at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Although he was disappointed to finish 14th, he improved to seventh place at the next edition of the championships 12 months later, just seven seconds from a medal.
His best years on the track were still to come and in 2010 he set a 5000m PB and world age-34 best of 12:53.46 when winning at the Diamond League meeting in Stockholm. The following year, he improved to 26:54.64 over 10,000m and then in 2012 he took gold in the 5000m at the African Championships.
But ultimately Kiptoo knew that, like many of the great track runners, he would be destined for the roads.
With a number of podium finishes under his belt over 10km and the half marathon, Kiptoo made a memorable marathon debut in Frankfurt last year, where he finished second in 2:06:16, just one second behind winner Vincent Kipruto, some 11 years his junior.
After missing victory by such a tiny margin, Kiptoo vowed there and then that he would return to Frankfurt in 2014.
He stood by his word.
Earlier this month, Kiptoo triumphed in the German city in 2:06:49, the fastest ever time by a 38-year-old, taking 23 seconds off the mark set by Carlos Lopes in 1985. The time would have been faster, he says, had his racing schedule been a bit different.
“Prior to running in Frankfurt, I competed at the Great Scottish Run and it was a bad move,” Kiptoo told local reporters. “That was just three weeks before the race and it left me worn out. That is why I couldn't run under 2:05.”
Regardless, Kiptoo is now encouraged about his future prospects over the distance. This was just his third race over 26.2 miles; apart from his two appearances in Frankfurt, he ran the Paris Marathon earlier this year, but finished a distant ninth in 2:13:59 having picked up a tendon injury after 30km.
Now back to full fitness, Kiptoo hopes that his performance in Frankfurt will have impressed the selectors ahead of next year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
“It has been a good test for me,” said Kiptoo. “I have just shifted to the marathon and am still sure I can get a medal in Beijing. I’m inspired to return to the international arena and try to lower my time and win more marathons.
“Selection for the national team is based on the coaches and merit. I have done my part and now have two podium finishes from my three marathons.”
If he fulfils his career-long goal of winning a global medal, Kiptoo – who will turn 39 years old just two months before Beijing – will become the oldest man to win a medal in the marathon in the history of the IAAF World Championships.
For the immediate future, Kiptoo will temporarily return to racing on grass and mud and will compete at the Kenyan Armed Forces Cross Country Championships in Nairobi on January 16.
“I have no idea what to expect in switching from marathon to cross country,” said Kiptoo. “But a soldier is always prepared. And if I am selected for the World Cross in China, I will be available.”
If he doesn’t make it to Guiyang for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Kiptoo hopes to get another bite at the cherry when China hosts the IAAF World Championships later in the year.
“When I began running, I got motivated,” said Kiptoo. “I felt that I had to keep on running and I wish that one day I will be able to win a medal for Kenya. Because once you start something, it’s always good to see that you accomplish it.”
Even if it means waiting until you are almost 40 years old.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF