One would have expected world half marathon record holder Joyciline Jepkosgei to make her marathon debut at one of the majors.
Directors of the Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago or New York – the six races that make up the Abbot World Marathon Majors series – would have most certainly gleefully bent over backwards to have the Kenya Defence Forces star on their start list.
Instead, Jepkosgei has opted to run her first full marathon in Hawaii on December 9.
Nation Sport has exclusively learnt that the 24-year-old star will be among the elites at the 46th Honolulu Marathon, a race not as big as the six majors or other big city races like the Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt or Rotterdam marathons.
But it’s the fourth largest marathon in USA after the New York, Chicago and Boston races.
Organisers of the Honolulu Marathon, which enjoys a rich tradition and a long list of Kenyan winners, are besides themselves with the joy of hosting the fastest woman over 21 kilometres as she attacks double the distance for the first time.
Keen observers in Iten have noted Jepkosgei’s change of routine in training, and speculation was rife that she was preparing for a major marathon.
They were right, but none of them could hazard a guess that the Honolulu Marathon was in her crosshairs.
“The Honolulu Marathon is a good test to see how one can run in hot conditions,” race president and chief executive officer Jim Barahal told Nation Sport exclusively in New York.
“We are excited about having Joyciline, a world record holder, in our race. She will have a great experience and learn a lot.
“It’s a race that has developed a lot of champions and we have had a lot of success with Kenyans who help put us on the map. We will continue with that philosophy.”
“We want Kenyan athletes not only because of how fast they run, but also because they are warm, hospitable, polite and treat everyone with respect. They are easy to work with,” adds the man behind the success of the race for over four decades now.
Late bloomer Jepkosgei has been training in Iten, coached by her husband Nicholas Koech, and says her choice of Honolulu was to ease pressure amid huge expectations from her as she tackles 42 kilometres for the first time.
“I chose Honolulu because it’s not a big race,” the 24-year-old told Nation Sport on Friday.
“There was an option of Valencia, but, after speaking with my coach, his advice was that I start small and graduate into the big marathons, and also so that I’m not discouraged.
Despite being the world half marathon record holder, Jepkosgei doesn’t feel she’s under any pressure as she debuts.
“I’m under no pressure. But the fact is that I don’t know the marathon well while the other athletes have the times and experience on how to run the marathon.
“I just want to finish and feel the pain of the marathon. I’m told the conditions in Honolulu will be warm, which is good.”
Jepkosgei has been training specifically for Hawaii for the last two months and she will hope to celebrate her 25th birthday – which falls on the eve of the Honolulu Marathon – with victory on the scenic course in one of the world’s most popular touristic destinations.
Starting slow and finishing big has been Jepkosgei’s mantra, right from her primary school days at Kapsato in Mosop, Nandi County.
“I made it to the zonal championships in class five, ran in the districts in class six, provincials in class seven and then the nationals in class eight,” she recalled, then specializing in the 5,000 metres on the track.
“I was always improving.”
Cheptil Secondary School, Kenya’s multiple national girls’ volleyball champions, was Jepkosgei’s next stop in 2006 where she focused on the 3,000 and 5,000 metres races.
“I wasn’t really inspired in my high school athletics days as at Cheptil, there was a lot of focus on volleyball.”
After completing high school in 2009, she didn’t really think of taking up athletics professionally, instead venturing into business.
“In 2010, the year after I completed high school, I really didn’t have any direction. Cheptil is near my home and there was so much focus on volleyball in the area and no-one seemed interested in athletics.
“There was no athletics training camp and no running groups, and so I lost interest and started some business instead to hustle.”
It was only after her then boyfriend and now husband-coach Koech, who had spotted her potential in school, encouraged her to take up competitive running that she gave it a serious thought.
Happily married, they have a six-year-old son, Brandon Kiprotich.
“My husband was those days from a neighbouring school and he saw me run in the zonal and district competitions. He asked me why I had stopped running and encouraged me to train and enter local races in 2011.”
Jepkosgei then mixed track and road competitions, and was somewhat discouraged by always finishing just outside the cash bracket.
“Both track and road races were quite competitive. They gave awards to the top three on the track and top 10 on the road, and I always finished just outside that.
“On the track I would finish fourth or fifth, while on the road, I used to get position 11 or 12 and that would discourage me.
“At the (10km race) at the Kass Marathon for instance, I once finished 12th and then finished 11th at the Iten 10k road race.
“But my husband kept encouraging me and I finally got into the money bracket in Kericho and also finished fourth in the half marathon at the 2015 Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon. I then finished second in the First Lady’s Half Marathon.”
These performances caught the eye of Czech athletes management team Ikaika Sports, who contracted her in early 2016 to be part of the RunCzech Racing team and the Adidas Athlete Development Programme.
The RunCzech Racing team was tailored by Carlo Capalbo, who is also the founder of the RunCzech Running League, along with the late Zane Branson.
“I was a very young athlete who didn’t even know how to run, with no manager and no training facilities,” Jepkosgei said in an interview last year after shattering the world half marathon record.
“But RunCzech Racing Team and my management (Ikaika Sports) have supported me a lot, to help me get to where I am now. To set world records is not down to me alone, but the result of teamwork”.
Making her international debut in the 2016 Mattoni Karlovy Vary Half Marathon, one of the RunCzech events, she exceeded expectations with her winning margin of one minute, 48 seconds, setting an event record with a personal best of 1:09:07.
“It was my first time to travel to Europe,” said Jepkosgei then.
“The people in the Czech Republic were very nice and friendly, so I needed to run well,” she added.
She continued to race through the summer of 2016 and made the Kenyan team for the African Championships in Durban and earned a bronze medal in the 10,000 metres, losing only to two compatriots, but improving her personal best to 31:28.28.
Returning to the Czech Republic in September, Jepkosgei had her first experience of running at world record pace without intending to do so, when pushed by Violah Jepchumba during the 2016 Birell Prague Grand Prix.
Jepchumba won the 10-kilometre race in 30:24 missing the world record by only three seconds, while Jepkosgei finished second with a personal best of 31:08.
The beginning of last year’s season was highlighted for Jepkosgei by a podium place in the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in the United Arab Emirates.
Another compatriot, Peres Jepchirchir, improved the world record by three seconds, but Jepkosgei managed to stay close behind up to 15km, and finished strongly for third place, improving her personal best by almost three minutes to 1:06:08.
Less than three months later she was a world record holder, becoming the first woman in history to break the 65-minute barrier.
Enroute to clocking the new world half marathon record and setting a new mark of 1:04:52, beating Jepchirchir’s previous record by some 14 seconds, Jepkosgei also broke three other world records.
She first shattered Briton Paula Radcliffe’s 14-year-old, 10-kilometre world record by covering the distance in 30:04, improving on Radcliffe’s 30:21, and then strangled compatriot Florence Kiplagat’s 15km world record of 46:15, registering a blistering new mark of 45:37.
This was before crossing the 20km mark in 1:01:25 and eclipsing the previous world record (1:01:40) stamped by Jepchirchir on the way to winning at Ras Al Khaimah.
Jepkosgei wasn’t done yet as, paced by Ezekiel Kemboi, she improved on her own world record by one second at the Valencia Half Marathon which she won in 1:04:51.
With this background, a lot will be expected of her at next month’s Honolulu Marathon, but she’s taking it one step at a time.
(With additional reporting by RunCzech).