He made a splendid entry into senior ranks and achieved what no other debutant can match – winning the 5,000 metres final at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Paris in 2003.
Although he could not maintain the rhythm as the rival Ethiopians do, superstar Eliud Kipchoge eyes the twelve-lap race silverware once again as he takes his fifth title at the cherry at this month’s World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Kipchoge stands out among Kenya’s high-achieving long distance runners, having bagged medals at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. But his journey to stardom offers refreshing moments in athletics – it simply inspires and warms the hearts of budding athletes.
Kipchoge ran casually in school and could not go beyond zonal competitions.
But after completing Form Four at Kaptel Boys High School in Nandi North, he burnt with desire to make a living from running.
Wanted to emulate neighbour
Incidentally, he didn’t have to look outside his village for inspiration as he wanted to emulate neighbour Patrick Sang, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics steeplechase silver medalist, who still guides him at the Global Sports camp in Kaptagat.
Kipchoge wanted, and still looks up for, academic excellence, and because his family could not afford to pay his college fees, he opted to venture into full-time running.
“I wanted to join a tertiary college and pursue a course in human resource management. But there was no money at home and I just thought that if Patrick Sang made it, I can as well make it,” Kipchoge told Saturday Sport at Eldoret’s Chepkoilel University College after training last Tuesday.
He pays glowing tribute to Sang for the support he received from him.
“He gave training facilities and a training programme. And it is interesting that two years after training, I was a world champion in the seniors.”
His raw talent and unbridled love for athletics all conspired and thus could not hesitate exploring it.
The only athlete and the last born in the family of four started running on local roads at his Kapsisywo village.
Although most athletics fans, and even journalists regard him as laid-back, Kipchoge is outgoing and never hides his zeal to succeed in athletics and academics.
After ripping apart tracks around the world, Kipchoge went back to school to fulfill his academic dream.
Unfortunately, the athletics schedule could not allow him enough time for full-time study, and the academic-hungry Kipchoge instead registered for a human resource and development course at the Halifax College in Eldoret.
“I requested the college for distance learning and simply studied it in my house. I could train, have a rest and study at night,” he said.
While he longs to further his studies, Kipchoge suggests that Moi University’s newly-introduced sports management programme ought to be tailored for correspondence learning to allow active sports personalities enroll.
Bone to pick with his rivals
“It is a good course for us (athletes). But we cannot manage full-time while still actively running,” he said.
In Daegu, the soft-spoken Kipchoge will have a bone to pick with his rivals, among them former neighbour and naturalised American, Bernard Lagat, in the global contest at the South Korean coastal city.
“I want to finish within the medal bracket. It is my dream to improve on the silver medal I won in Osaka. Athletics is a profession and you do not gauge others but instead have yourself as the best of them all.”
“The World Championships is part of my strategy to make my third participation at the Olympic Games next year, which would my best place to graduate into road races,” said Kipchoge, an ardent tennis follower.
He is a fan of world tennis stars and siblings Serena Williams and Venus Williams of United States of America.
“I follow up nearly all their matches. I developed a love for tennis while I was in high school, though I never took part seriously in sports at school,” he said.
The 26-year-old Kipchoge has come a long way. In 2001, he entered local cross-country races and posted brilliant showings as he finished second overall in the jackpot series sponsored by battery firm Eveready, thus pulling the interest of track and field agent, Dutchman Jos Hermens.
Malaria again sidelined him
His fortunes were not up again the following year as he missed out on the overall cross country jackpot but made the junior national team to 2002 World Cross Country Championships in Dublin, where illness saw him finish fifth.
Kipchoge then won the 5,000m national trials for the World Junior Championships but a severe bout of malaria again sidelined him from travelling to Kingston, Jamaica.
He recovered and Hermens - a former track world record holder - entered him in three races in Europe, and this time his body reacted well, winning in Rovereto, Italy (13:14.20), Berlin, Germany (13:13.03 for ninth place) and Cagliari, Italy, where he bagged the 3,000m victory in 7:46.34.
He entered the next season posting impressive times, comfortably winning the explosive national trials and the 2003 World Cross Country Championships’ junior race in a fierce duel with Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop.
And medal winning outings followed for the runner whose parents never attempted athletics.
In 2003, then 19, Kipchoge took the season by storm setting the world junior record over 5,000m before romping to victory at the World Championships.
He beat Algeria’s runner-up Hicham El Guerrouj by four hundredths of a second, with 12:52.79 against 12:52.83.
Father of two
The giant-slaying Kipchoge had multiple 10,000m champion Kenenisa Bekele fade to third place.
But he bowed to them (El Guerrouj and Bekele) at the 2004 Olympic Games 5,000m final to settle for silver.
The father of two – Lynne Jebet and Griffin Kiprono – and husband of Grace Sugut, lined up for his maiden Olympic Games appearance, bagging a bronze medal in his specialty.
Then, followed the World Indoor bronze in 2006 in Moscow before series silver medals came, world championships (2007) and Olympic Games (2008).
Kipchoge’s silver saw him emulate his coach Sang, a silver medallist in the 3,000m steeplechase.
At the 2009 Berlin World Championships, Kipchoge finished fifth but bounced back to the podium at last year’s Commonwealth Games for silver behind Uganda’s Moses Kipsiro in 5,000m and 10,000m.
The next day, he returned to Europe immediately to race in the Belgrade Race Through History in Serbia.
His shoe fell off in the first kilometre, and he had put it back, to cover the lost ground and eventually settled for second place behind Josphat Menjo.
But Kipchoge began this year well with a win at a short race at the Great Edinburgh Cross Country beating Olympic 1,500m champion Asbel Kiprop.
He, however, saw his attempts to retain his title at the Carlsbad 5,000m last April go up in smoke after a close duel to emerge second behind Dejen Gebremeskel.
Kipchoge has four wins at the World Athletics Final tucked to his trophy cabinet, with his 3,000m 7:27.72 mark elevating him to top-10 all-time bests as he stands out the fourth fastest man in 5,000m with a blistering 12:46.53 best time.
Like Geoffrey Mutai, who posted a jaw-dropping world’s fastest 2:03.02 mark at this year’s Boston Marathon, Kipchoge also has a fair share of the records.
At the end of 2006, he ran at the San Silverstre Vallecana New Year’s Eve 10km road race, outrunning trailblazer Zersenary Tadese of Eritrea to win in a sizzling 26.54 minutes.
He had dipped below the world record but could not be ratified as it was assisted by downhill course.
Kipchoge now trains together with Olympic 3,000m steeplechase champion Brimin Kipruto, former world cross-country silver medalist Lucas Rotich, former Africa Junior 1,500m silver medalist Nickson Chepseba and steeplechaser Lydia Rotich.