A Moment With ELIUD KIPCHOGE World’s Greatest Marathoner
Thirty-five-year-old marathoner Eliud Kipchoge has dominated the marathon circuit since 2013. In September 2018, he proved he was the world’s greatest marathoner when he shattered the marathon world record in Berlin, Germany. He speaks to ESTHER AKELLO on his favourite races, the coveted ‘world’s greatest’ title and family.
You grew up in Nandi county. What kind of childhood did you have?
Eliud: I grew up in a humble, single parent home as the last-born of four children. My mum was a widow. I never met my father. He passed on before I was born and it’s not something I discussed with my mum growing up.
Which memories stand out for you about your childhood?
Eliud: (Laughing) Looking after our cows. But in addition to that, my mum ensured that we grew up understanding that working hard and being genuine were the most important things in life. She was a disciplinarian so sometimes she’d use the stick to correct us; in addition to modelling the values she was teaching us.
What prompted you to start running and even go professional?
Eliud: We used to run a lot during games time in school and I’d usually beat all the other kids. When I turned 18, I decided to go professional. It just so happened that one of the men I admired greatly, Patrick Sang, an Olympics and IAAF World Championships silver medalist, was also my neighbour. I wanted to be like him. I approached him and told him of my decision. He immediately gave me a training plan and two weeks later, bought me my first training kit. He’s been my coach ever since. On a lighter note, I also wanted to board a plane and just travel.
You’ve worked with Sang for 17 years now. What kind of relationship do you have?
Eliud: I’d say it’s all rounded. He’s my mentor, my sports, business and life coach. We talk a lot, about everything and anything in life. I look up to a lot of great sportsmen and women but my coach remains the one I singlehandedly look up to the most and I still consider myself his student. Learning never stops.
Was there ever an alternative career to professional running?
Eliud: I’d be a farm manager somewhere, but life happened. Life in the village is about looking after your land and livestock. My family was also very supportive of my decision. Once I told them, they excused me from strenuous farm chores so I could train.
According to some articles by The Guardian, it’s stated that fellow athletes at your training facility in Eldoret refer you to as the ‘boss man’. Care to explain?
Eliud: I’m not aware that I’ve been nicknamed as such. Even so, I don’t think I’d be comfortable with being referred to as a boss. I’d prefer, if a title is really necessary, to be more of a leader.
Do you remember your first win and how it felt?
Eliud: My first win was a 10km race in Kapsabet. Later on I ran and won a cross-country race. I was 19. It was amazing.
Which remains your best race so far?
Eliud: When I won the track and field gold medal in the Paris IAAF World Championships in 2003. It was my first big race and it felt like the beginning of life for me as far as marathons go. Also, the attempt to run a marathon in under two hours in the Nike Breaking2 project in Italy in 2017 is my favourite. Many saw it as the unthinkable race but I attempted it. My time was two hours and twenty-five seconds. Being that close to running under two hours just taught me that if one sets their priorities right and concentrate, then one can achieve them. I carry that attitude to every run I participate in.
You broke the marathon world record in September 2018 in Berlin, Germany and being the most decorated marathoner ever, earned the title ‘greatest marathoner.’ How does that feel?
Eliud: I always want to win and enjoy all my races but I never imagined that I’d have that title. It feels good. It’s a big realisation that I’ve left a mark in this world and the impact it has had especially on young people. Breaking the record from 2:02:57 to 2:01:39 was great but if there’s anything I learnt from the Breaking2 project, it’s that I can still break my current record and I hope to do so before hanging up my boots. Nothing is impossible.
Is the title overwhelming?
Eliud: Not really. Not when you realise that it’s more about the performance than the individual or personality. The performance comes first. I’m trying not to let it go to my head that ‘I’m the best.’ I still remain Eliud Kipchoge, a sportsman who wants to leave a legacy. I’m just a normal human being. It is humbling that people find it fit to fete me especially after being named UN Person of the Year 2018 and AIMS (Association of International Marathons and Distance Races) Best Male Marathoner 2018.
So what does it take to become the world’s greatest long distance runner yet?
Eliud: It takes a lot but I can summarise it as simply, seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months of training. That’s what it takes, time in planning and preparing. Your mental attitude is also paramount. Sports is a mutual interest game and requires teamwork. My team comprises of my family, my coach, my management, my running mates, sponsors and so many others.
How rigorous is your training?
Eliud: A normal day for me starts at six in the morning when I go for my one-hour 20-minute run. I then relax or have a massage if any part of my body is feeling particularly strained. My next jog is in the evening where I run for one hour. As for my diet, I eat just about everything. Ugali, stew and sour milk is my favourite meal.
No secret formula for the winning edge?
Eliud: I have no secret. The truth is, I love sports and I treat myself as a professional sportsman. I want to leave a mark in this world. I’ve also been very lucky, as I’ve never had a major injury. And that boils down to preparation. A lot of injuries are as a result of rushing; trying to push one’s body to a certain level and yet the body isn’t ready. Athletes should run professionally and create build-ups at the appropriate time.
How do you avoid the pressure to over exert yourself?
Eliud: I always have a plan and strictly stick to it; from the time I get an invite to an international marathon, to when I’m doing my own trainings, to build-ups to work outs.
Why do you think Kenyan athletes are opening themselves up to doping yet Kenya’s track record in sports has always been stellar?
Eliud: I think the idea of having a lot of money is tempting. Athletes need to realise money cannot be harvested and if you want to do so, you need to plant the seeds by working hard. Money can’t carry you everywhere. As a sportsman, the impact of doping is worse than whatever financial gain you can have. Respect everybody’s performance, properties and financial level. Live a simple life.
Rumour has it you still record all your workouts in your notebooks?
Eliud: I do; immediately I finish my training, everyday. I started 16 years ago meaning I have 16 notebooks. I do that for the simple reason that I enjoy doing so. I also hope to be able to share my experiences in future and tell people what it took for me to reach where I am. I don’t peruse through all of them although if I wanted to know what I did differently in a particular year, it’s easy for me to trace my strategy.
You have won 11 out of your 12 marathon races. Do you consider that one race you didn’t win to be a blight in an otherwise stellar record?
Eliud: It was the 2003 Berlin marathon and it was my second marathon. I don’t really consider it to be a blight because I didn’t have much of a record then. The fact that I was a silver medalist in my second marathon and the winner, Wilson Kipsang, broke the world record felt really good to me. I knew I could do better.
You split your time between your family home and your training facility in Eldoret. How does that work?
Eliud: The training facility is a boarding facility but one can check in and out if they wanted. One is also free to check in and out in the morning and evenings provided it doesn’t affect your concentration. Personally, I leave the facility on Friday afternoon and get back on Sunday evening. Weekends are reserved for my family.
How do you split time between training, being brand ambassador for various brands and family time?
Eliud: I occasionally have world tours for the brands I endorse and they are very intense. The tours comprise of meeting high profile sports players and managers, influencers and fans. However, the one thing I’m intentional about is going on tour with my wife Grace Sugut. It helps her to understand what my professional life comprises of and it’s also a chance for her to see the world.
Who has been the most interesting person or group of people you’ve met in your tours so far?
Eliud: In 2017, I met Kevin Hart, the only comedian to have sold over one million tickets for a show in America. I met him when he came for the Nike Breaking event. He said the race had inspired him to run marathons and to date he still does.
How has marriage and parenting been for you?
Eliud: Grace is a good wife. I don’t know what secret women have but they are amazing. She’s all rounded, supportive and encouraging in all my highs and lows. We’ve been together for 12 years. Being a dad is amazing as well. My eldest daughter Lynne is 12, Gordon is seven and Griffin is five. To know that you’re working for the betterment of the next generation is the ignition key to waking you up every morning. I’m more of a disciplinarian kind of dad. I try to teach them to live an honest life and to tell the truth. If you live a lie, you can’t survive.
Do your children want to follow in your footsteps?
Eliud: Yes! All three of them want to and I’m happy about that. They’re still young and like to run around but sometimes in the afternoon they run one or two kilometers. I just like to watch them run. No pressure.
How do you want to be remembered and if you get a chance to do something over again, what would it be?
Eliud: They say two things make a human being. The problems you caused and the problems you solved. I want to be remembered for the problems I solved in sports. I also want to be remembered for the morals I upheld and above all, doing unique things in sports that the next generation will admire and learn from. If I ever get a chance to do something ever again, it would have to be a professional athlete. This has been a rewarding life for me, one that has taken me places.
What do you think is the one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Eliud: Being meticulous with my training data for 16 years and that my favourite song is Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger (What doesn’t kill you). It’s very motivating. I also sensitise the public about HIV&AIDS through the American Embassy, raise awareness on Rhino and Elephant conservation through the Lewa Conservancy and I am an ambassador with ISUZU Kenya and my sponsor Nike. I also like to unwind by spending time with my family and going to the farm.
What is the one thing you perceive to come naturally to other people but you really struggle with?
Eliud: (Laughing) Dealing with lateness. I find it to be such a struggle waiting for people who are not on time.