The tragic death of Kelvin Kiptum
One of the greatest running talents that ever lived has died age 24 in a car accident in Kenya
I couldn’t quite believe it when I first saw it last night, the news that Kelvin Kiptum had died, age 24, in a car crash in Kenya. Surely not?
If you’re wondering who he is, you may remember I was getting very excited after he smashed the marathon world record in Chicago last year. The great Eliud Kipchoge, the zen master of marathon running, had spent years honing his talent, learning the event, fine tuning every aspect of his life to set that world record. And then this kid comes along like some street brawler with his punchy, powerful running style, and with a big swaggering grin just destroys Kipchoge’s mark. Without even really trying, or so it seemed.
I called him the man from another planet. A paradigm shift. The closest comparison I could think of was Usain Bolt coming along and making every other sprinter that had ever lived look ordinary.
The tragedy of Kiptum’s death is that he was just getting started. When Sammy Wanjiru, that other most precocious of Kenyan talents, died tragically at 24, he had already won the Olympics and was on a downward spiral, losing fitness and focus. But Kiptum was purring, prowling, getting ready to fully take off. When he announced just last week that he was going to break two hours for the marathon in his next race in Rotterdam, no one thought he was crazy, or arrogant. No, this guy was that good, we just accepted it as a simple statement of fact. The Olympics was being billed as the big showdown between Kipchoge and Kiptum, and of course nothing is guaranteed, but the way Kiptum had run every one of his marathons so far, it wasn’t really going to be a contest. Nobody but nobody could turn on the power midway through a marathon like he could.
And now none of that will happen. All those stories, all that brilliance, taken out by Kenya’s crazy, dangerous roads. I’m numb just thinking about it. And his poor family. Two young children. I never met him, but he seemed like a warm, humble man who was well loved by the Kenyan running community. RIP.
As the guy who wrote the book about Kenyan running, I’ve had BBC TV and radio on my case all day asking for me to talk about him. I’ve been saying pretty much what I’ve just said above. It’s weirdly nerve-wracking, exciting and sad to be going on TV and radio to talk about this today - such a stewpot of emotions that leave me feeling a bit jarred. Yet, it feels important that someone explains to the world just how good Kiptum was, just what a phenomenal talent. Last night when I first heard of his death on social media I quickly went on to the Guardian and BBC websites (my main news portals) and neither had any mention of his death, not even in the sports sections. I had half been expecting to see it as the top news story. But nothing. So yes, I feel a need to tell people: that this guy was special, that the sport has lost the most swashbuckling talent it has seen in years. Maybe, in the marathon, the greatest that ever lived. He’ll never be able to prove that now, but like Wanjiru, like Steve Prefontaine (who also died age 24), he burned brightly and his death will forever be a tragedy for the sport.
My own little injury woes pale into significance after this, but the short version update is that I managed to run 13 miles (21km) last week, but ended the week with my heel still a bit glitchy. Apologies to anyone who read my midweek Way of the Runner newsletter in which I proclaimed that I’d had a miraculous recovery. I wrote that after a pain-free 5km on Wednesday and I thought I was cured. But after an 8km run on Friday, it felt sore again. So it’s still a work in progress.
This does mean I’m starting to reconsider my options regarding upcoming races. I was down to run the Manchester Marathon in April, but the thought of that looming has been totally stressing me out. I had planned to run the Exeter half marathon as my warm-up race, so I got a shock when I realised that that was this past weekend. I should have been close to half-marathon PB fitness by now, cranking out ever more intense training weeks. Instead I managed to jog 13 miles with a dodgy heel.
The thought of pulling out of Manchester fills me with a feeling of relief. That way I can just focus on getting my heel fixed properly, and then building up to the big run around Ireland. That’s the key now, to be fit for that. Another shot at a fast marathon will probably have to wait for another day.