The stretch of road where Kelvin Kiptum lost his life on Sunday night is one he’d have driven countless times in recent years, thus now marking a spot in Kenyan sporting history so cruelly layered in tragedy it’s difficult to know where to begin. Such is the widespread shock and profound sense of loss which greeted the news of his death, it’s clear Kiptum had already transcended the sport of marathon running. Part of that sense of loss, as unbearable as it must be for his wife and two young children, is not just because of what Kiptum had already achieved, but what he was possibly about to achieve, starting with April’s Rotterdam Marathon. That was to be only his fourth ever race over the classic distance, after his startling arrival in the space of 10 short months as the most exciting prospect in the long history of marathon running. Whatever was left of his extraordinary potential will now never be realised. Kiptum only turned 24 in December, presumably still some distance off his running prime, considering less than a year after making his marathon debut, he ran faster than any man in history, taking over half a minute off the world record with his astonishing winning time of 2:00:35 in the Chicago Marathon last October. In running the first sub 2:01, Kiptum bettered by 34 seconds the 2:01:09 set by fellow Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge in Berlin, in September 2022, running ever closer to breaking the two-hour barrier in a legitimate race. His sudden death also ends that teasing possibility of going head-to-head with Kipchoge in Paris later this summer, where Kipchoge is looking to become the first athlete in history to win three successive Olympic marathon titles. Kiptum appeared the athlete most capable of stopping him. What is certain is that same stretch of road, between Eldoret and Kaptagat in Kenya’s Rift Valley region, not far from his place of birth in Chepkorio, is poorly marked and notoriously dangerous in parts, particularly after dark. The section where Kiptum lost control of the small Toyota Premio he was driving is made worse by ditches either side of the road. The accident is as tragic too for the family of his coach Gervais Hakizimana, also killed in a passenger seat alongside Kiptum. The car was reportedly thrown 60m from the ditch after colliding with a tree; a third passenger Sharon Chepkurui Kosgei escaped with minor injury and was later released from hospital. Hakizimana, the 36-year-old from Rwanda, was formerly a semi-elite distance runner of his own, setting a national record in the 3,000m steeplechase, and once clocking a 62:43 half marathon. After Kiptum’s Chicago win, Hakizimana shared some details of Kiptum’s quite startling volume of training, including the revelation he ran three weeks of more than 300km (or 186 miles) before his London victory last spring. Kiptum’s popularity in Kenya was also soaring, where despite the spate of doping positives in recent years, they still revere their distance runners, particularly in the marathon. In ways Kiptum’s sudden death has sad echoes too of Sammy Wanjiru who, at age 21, became the first Kenyan to win the Olympic marathon in Beijing in 2008. Following that however Wanjiru’s life started to unravel and he died after falling from the roof of his house following a domestic dispute in May 2011, also aged 24. Chicago back in October was only Kiptum’s third marathon start, after he won Valencia in December 2022 in 2:01:52 (the fastest debut in history), before also winning London last April in 2:01:25 (the then second fastest ever after Kipchoge’s 2:01:09). “Get ready for the show!” Kitptum declared in Chicago beforehand, and he was right about that. Making the most of ideal running conditions, his splits throughout the 26.2-mile race were shocking and awesome in equal measure, the opening 10km clocked in 28:42, already four seconds inside world record pace. He passed the halfway mark in 60:48, the race pacemakers already dropped, before his increasingly aggressive front-running saw him run through 30-35km in 13:51, having also run a startling 4:18 for mile 22. By then he was over three minutes clear, essentially sprinting for the finish line – covering the last 400 metres in 63 seconds – to secure his world record mark. Greeted by long-time race director Carey Pinkowski, Kiptum appeared remarkably fresh after that effort too. “While he will be celebrated for his record-breaking performances, I will remember him as an incredible talent and as an even more magnificent person,” Pinkowski said on Monday. “The sport of marathon running has suffered a tragic loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.” Kiptum was reportedly running half marathons at age 13, inspired by the more senior runners who trained around Eldoret, and with that pursued road running without ever considering the track. Tragically too, he didn’t yet get to pocket his world record bonus, given that time was only ratified last week. “An incredible athlete leaving an incredible legacy, we will miss him dearly,” said World Athletics president Seb Coe. That is the sense too even from those who didn’t even get a chance to see him run.
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