Michael Kipkorir Kipyego cuts a unique image in the athletics world.
Coming from Marakwet, the home of world’s 3,000m steeplechase runners, the 28-year-old Kipyego overcame a nagging knee injury to rise to global athletics fame.
Against the norm, there was no fanfare when he landed at Eldoret International Airport last Tuesday from Japan where he won the 2012 Tokyo Marathon.
At hand to welcome her back home were his wife Judith Kipyego and their two children, Roy Kipchumba and Jasmine Jemutai, some family members and a group from his church. Also present were Kenya’s Helena Loshanyang’ Kirop and Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich, who also competed in the race in Japan.
Kipyego won the sixth Tokyo Marathon in two hours, seven minutes and 37 seconds, beating Ethiopia’s former world marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie (2:08:17) to fourth, prompting analysts to predict the end of his reign in athletics.
No fanfare at homecoming
Athletics stars who land at Eldoret are usually received by family members, friends and elite runners with a guard of mursik (sour milk) and are wrappped with Sinendet, an ornamental plant only used to adorn Kalenjin heroes. But there was no fanfare as his wife Judith give him a bouquet of flowers.
“The presentation means a lot to me….especially to our marriage,” Kipyego, the immediate elder sibling of world 10,000m silver medalist Sally Kipyego and marathoner Christopher Kipyego, told Monday Sport in Eldoret.
The alumnus of St Patrick’s High School-Iten said: “The win is okay but my family members still want me to do better, especially after competing for the national team. Once I accomplish the task, which is my dream, you’ll see them all here celebrating.”
The win was not bad for a boy who took up 3,000m steeplechase running later in his career. Like his US-based sister Sally, he started running as a pupil at Kaptiony Primary in Marakwet West. Born in Kemeloi Village, Kipyego ran long distances to school and back on the hilly terrain of Marakwet.
Although he had an ambition to practise medicine after schooling, he trailed his brother Christopher, a marathoner, in the long runs. As a Class Six pupil, he met his neighbour, US-based athlete Haroun Kirui, during training. Kirui was then a student at St Patrick’s High School-Iten.
“Haroun was greatly impressed with my performance and he informed Bro Colm O’ Connell (then at St Patrick’s High School) about me. I was then invited for the holiday training programme in Iten,” he said.
The training helped him showcase his potential in athletics. And while in Class Eight, he made the cut for the inaugural IAAF World Youth Championships in 1999 in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Then, Kipyego lined up in 3,000m before later switching to the 3,000m steeplechase.
After he missed out on the Keiyo District Secondary School team for provincial competitions, Kipyego gave steeplechase a try, with good results.
“I was disappointed when I finished third in a race where the top two in the district went to the provincials. I entered the 3,000m steeplechase and finished second to Brimin Kipruto,” he said.
The change set the stage for track rivalry between Kipyego and his rural home runners – world and Olympic 3,000m steeplechase stars Ezekiel Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto. It put him among steeplechase greats from Marakwet, among them his role model, three-time world champion Moses Kiptanui. Kipruto was then a student at the nearby Kipsoen Secondary with world marathon champion Edna Kiplagat. He missed out of the team to the 2000 World Junior Athletics Championships in Chile.
A fierce rivalry played out a year later when Kipyego finished second to Ezekiel Kemboi at Africa Junior Athletics Championships in Bambous, Mauritius, in 2001.
“I felt good competing these two athletes. I was already a fan of Kiptanui and (2000 Sydney Olympics champion) Reuben Kosgei. It really encouraged me,” said Kipyego. He finished 12th at the IAAF World Cross-country Championships in 2002 before winning the World Junior 3,000m final in Kingston, Jamaica.
Kipyego staged a grand homecoming, which his peers at St Patrick’s High School-Iten would not wish to forget: He gave each student a loaf of bread.
He then graduated to senior ranks the next season, finishing fourth at the national trials. And while he wore the underdog tag, he placed fourth at the four-kilometre World Cross Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, behind Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, Kenyans John Kibowen and Benjamin Limo.
Alongside Kemboi and Kipruto, he made the steeplechase team to 2003 World Championships in Athletics, but tumbled in the heats and was eliminated in the first stage. He suffered a tendon injury the following year and used the lay-off to marry.
He trains under Dutch track and field agent Mitchel Boetin. Kipyego, who had the steeplechase as his only track race, quit the track at the 2010 Doha Athletics Super Grand Prix and made his marathon debut at last year’s Eindhoven Marathon, finishing sixth in 2:11:03.