She surprised the athletics world by making a podium finish on her full marathon debut. Although she finished third in the New York City Marathon, one of the Big Five races that count towards the World Marathon Majors series last November, Mary Jepkosgei Keitany did just about enough for the world to notice her.
Keitany now wants to go one better. She will line up against the world best, including world half-marathon record holder Lorna Kiplagat and world half-marathon title holder Florence Kiplagat, at the London Marathon in April.
During the New York City race last year, Keittany, the 25km world record holder, battled Boston Marathon winners Salina Kosgei (2009) and Teyba Erkesso (2010) of Ethiopia.
Among the great marathoners who have previously made their debutes on the streets of New York include past winners Grete Waitz (1978), Tecla Loroupe (1994), Deen Kastor (2001), Marla Runyan (2002), Kara Goucher and Kim Smith (2008) as well as American Shalane Flanagan.
Keitany started running while in Standard Four in 1996 at Kanjulul Primary School before moving to Kisok Primary School in Koibatek.
She seemed to be destined for great things when she set the 25km world record of 1:19:53 at the Big 25 road race in Berlin last May.
Having maintained a winning streak since winning the Lille half-marathon in France in October 2007, Keitany will certainly be the woman to beat in the London race.
Top marathon runners
“I knew New York was going to be competitive. But I felt I was mature enough for a tough course like New York. That’s why we decided to train along these hilly terrain,” said Keitany, who does her long runs along the Sergoit hills in Keiyo North.
She trains alongside her husband, Charles Koech, also a half-marathon runner.
She says training with him earned her the required strength to overcome the strong challenge in the American race.
“He takes me through the long runs in a fast but fine pace. I believe the New York race organisers considered my best times in half marathon and 25km record. But London may not be as easy as New York,” said Keitany, who completed Form Four at Nairobi’s Hidden Talent Academy in 2005.
Although her 21km world title set the ball rolling, the New York City Marathon certainly put Keitany on the same wavelength with the top guns of marathon running, and she will be out to cement her reputation in London.
She bagged a silver medal at the World Half Marathon Championships in Udine, Italy, in 2007, losing it out to Kenyan-turned-Dutch woman, Lorna Kiplagat, before romping to victory at the IAAF World Half Marathon in Birmingham, England, 2009.
The shy runner lives near Iten town with her husband.
Keitany pays a glowing tribute to road race queens Catherine Ndereba, Susan Chepkemei and Tegla Loroupe. With her rise in stature, she certainly will emulate her great role models. She plans to use the London race to prepare for her assault on the course during the 2012 London Olympic Games.
“People were always praising people like Ndereba and Chepkemei and I need to fit into their big shoes,” she said.
Keitany, 28, was born in Kisok village in Koibatek. Although she had a burgeoning career in athletics, Keitany participated in school competitions for fun, reaching district level at 5000m while in Standard Seven.
Her running talent bulged out in 2002 when she joined Nairobi’s Hidden Talent Academy for her secondary school education, specialising in 1,500 and 5,000m. She posted brilliant shows all along to the nationals for three years running in 5,000m and had turned out a star to beat at the national secondary schools competitions.
After identifying her potential upon completing Form Four, Keitany went to Iten for a full-time training.
“I had realised that I had a talent. Most people had even told me and I needed somewhere I could develop and improve it. And I found Iten an ideal area as most of my challengers in the school competitions trained here,” said Keitany, who trains under Italian track and field manager, Gianni Demadona.
A few months later, she raced at the Chepkoilel cross-country and comfortably won it, impressing her agent, and days later she was on her first international outing, winning the San Silvestre Olivais 10km race in Lisbon, clocking an impressive 33:06.
The achievement motivated her and she won her third half marathon, clinching Lille Half Marathon in France in 1:08:43.
She then she returned home and, when she was picked to the Kenyan team to World Half Marathon Championship in Udine, Italy, she stepped up training with her husband at their residence in Iten.
Keitany says before she boarded the flight to the Italian city of Udine, she longed for a win or at least a podium-finish, “as it would lay a red carpet to my dream to run in major marathons in future.”
Indeed, after bagging a silver and posting a 1:06.4 career-best behind record holder and neighbour in Iten Lorna Kiplagat, Keitany has lived up to the hot-billing.
Took maternity leave
She did not, however, improve further as she took a break to attend to maternal matters when she gave birth to her son, Jared Kipchumba. And despite the break, Keitany posted brilliant shows and was ranked the top woman in half marathon running.
She sounded her return in 2009 with a 10km race in Bangalore, where she finished second in a personal best time of 32:09 before proceeding to Lille Métropole Half Marathon where she strolled to victory in 1:07:00, posting the 2009 Half Marathon all-time best. She was then selected to Kenya’s team to World Half Marathon in Birmingham, England, in 2009, where she bagged the title.
Her 1:07:00 time makes her one of the favourites in the English city, especially after withdrawals of three-time champions, Britain’s Paula Radcliffe and Lornah Kiplagat, the Kenyan born Dutch runner who had won the three previous editions.And while she competes in the London race, Keitany banks on her pre-race philosophy.
“I’m going there to perform my best although I will face stiff challenge from the world’s top marathoners. But I am ready to fend them off,” she said at her base in Iten.