On The Run with John Stifler: Marathon runner Kiptum at the height of his powers upon death

Published: 03-01-2024 4:40 PM

The running world barely had time to marvel at how 24-year-old Kelvin Kiptum came within sight of breaking the two-hour barrier in the marathon before what promised to be a thrilling career came to a sudden end last month in a car crash that took Kiptum’s life.

For anyone who missed the story: Kiptum, the latest in the long list of world-class runners from Kenya, won last October’s Chicago Marathon in two hours and 35 seconds. His countryman Eliud Kipchoge had run the marathon distance twice in times faster than that – 2:00:25 in 2017 and 1:59:41 in 2019 – but those were special exhibitions, not regular marathon races, and Kipchoge was helped by a team of pacemakers, a lead vehicle and cyclists who pedaled beside him and handed him fluids.

Kiptum’s time came in a major marathon in what was at least nominally a contest, although, as the young runner said later, by the three-mile mark he thought he could get a world record, and by the 10K mark, he had dropped the rest of the competition, going on to beat the runner-up by nearly three minutes. Chicago was his third marathon victory in 10 months, following a 2:01:52 in Valencia, Spain, in Dec. 2022 and a 2:01:25 in the London Marathon last spring. Those are three of the seven fastest marathons ever run.

Sprinting toward the finish line while smiling and blowing kisses all over Chicago, Kiptum made us all want to find out how much more he could do. He had been a clear favorite to win this year’s Olympic marathon. In his absence, Kipchoge will run without the challenge of the brightest rising star in sight.

Having won it in 2016 and 2021, Kipchoge could become the only person, male or female, to win the Olympic marathon three times, and beating Kiptum would have elevated that accomplishment even further. Reciprocally, beating Kipchoge would have confirmed Kiptum as the world’s best in competitiveness as well as in pure speed.

Two broader themes emerge in this story. One is about the limits of human performance. Before 1954, some people calculated that it might simply not be possible for any human being to run a mile in less than four minutes. Now, 1,755 milers have run sub-4s. Breaking two hours in a regular marathon is a question not of whether, but of when. On some future day when everything might have gone as well for him as it did last October, Kiptum probably would have done it.

The other theme is of the economic and physical challenges of life in countries that have produced many of the greatest athletes in this sport.

For an East African runner, the winner’s purse in a major marathon is enough money to build a nice house. Kiptum was his father’s only child. His possible future winnings would have given the family financial stability in a struggling economy. One consolation for the loss is that Kenya’s president, William Ruto, ensured the swift completion of a house being built for Kiptum’s wife and two children. Further marathon successes – Olympic gold, a win at Boston or New York, speaking appearances – could have sent Kiptum’s children to college, provided care for his parents and further helped his community.

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Weak infrastructure in less-developed countries may be part of the story, too. Kiptum was driving at 11 p.m. on a poor road typical of the region and apparently hit one of Kenya’s numerous potholes. His crash recalls another accident involving a Kenyan marathon star. Three months after winning the 1997 Boston Marathon, Lameck Aguta was driving in Kenya on an unfamiliar road, missed a curve and crashed. Thieves appeared, recognized Laguta as a celebrity, and beat him severely, either in order to rob him or because they were annoyed not to find him carrying the prize money they knew he had won.

Footnote: Kiptum’s birthday is officially listed as December 2, 1999. However, actual birth years (and therefore real ages) have proven notoriously unreliable for Kenyan, Ethiopian and other African runners. According to one source with experience in Kenya, Kiptum was at least 30 years old.

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The 56th annual Ron Hebert Road Race takes place this year on April 6. As modest and as reliable as its late namesake, this is a splendid run for someone who likes hills; also, for someone who wants more than just another 5K. It’s eight miles of Leeds, Haydenville and Florence, starting and finishing at JFK Middle School. Finishers get Sugarloaf socks. Register at https://www.runreg.com/ronhebertrace.

John Stifler has taught writing and economics at UMass and has written extensively for running magazines and newspapers. He  can be reached at jstifler@umass.edu