Who Was Gervais Hakizimana, World Record Holder Kelvin Kiptum’s Coach?

The Rwandan former steeplechaser died with Kiptum in a car crash on Sunday night in Kenya. He was 36

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Michael Doyle
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Investigative journalist and editor based in Toronto

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Gervais Hakizimana and Kelvin Kiptum at the Chicago Marathon in 2023

When Gervais Hakizimana first travelled to Kenya, he didn’t plan on becoming a coach. And he certainly never anticipated that one day he would be guiding the fastest marathoner of all-time.

The Rwandan first crossed the border into epicenter of distance running in 2006, when he was just 18. Hakizimana traveled from Nyaruguru, a northern province of Rwanda, to Kaptagat to train for the 2007 World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa.

Hakizimana was forced to leave Kenya when political tensions flared in the country, but soon returned in 2007.

While training around Kaptagat in this second stint in Kenya, Hakizimana began running hills around the local farmland. Local kids would join him and his training partners, trying to keep up. One of those hangers-on was a young Kelvin Kiptum.

Kiptum badgered his older protege to provide him with a training plan, and Hakizimana would share with him what he was doing as a cross-country athlete and 3,000m track runner. The elder runner would warn Kiptum not to try the entirity of the weekly mileage.

He wrapped his career by running a Rwandan national record in the 3,000m steeplechase (8:39.05). He also raced the 2016 London Marathon (a race that Eliud Kipchoge would go on to win; Kiptum would break Kipchoge’s world record in 2023). Ironically, Hakizimana’s incredible success as a marathon coach, the Rwandan dropped out of that London race, making it his last attempt at the distance.

Hakizimana subsequently settled in France, where he studied and lived on and off for a number of years.

Eventually, Hakizimana reconnected with an eager Kelvin Kiptum, who asked for distance training advice via WhatsApp.

Hakizimana visited Kenya in early 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was stuck here in Kenya and couldn’t go back to France,” he told journalists last year. “It so happens that [Kiptum] had competed in two half marathon races in a space of 10 days and performed so well. That’s when I knew he had a lot of potential. From then on, I officially became his coach.”

Hakizimana, who was 37 when he died in a car crash with Kiptum on Sunday night, began feeding the young unknown runner workouts, eventually guiding him remotely when Hakizimana made it back to France.

“Before Valencia Marathon, I used to send him training programs on phone, I was in France that time,” the coach told media after his world record in Chicago. “Kiptum really surprised me in [Valencia]. For sure I did not expect him to run that time of 2:01:59. I expected him to run like 2:05.”

Following Kiptum’s London Marathon victory in 2023, Hakizimana began spending more time in Kenya with his athlete as he prepared for the Chicago Marathon in the fall.

“After winning the races,” Hakizimana said of Kiptum’s first two marathon victories, which are both the top 10 fastest of all-time, “he wanted to introduce me to the world, but I did not want.”

Hakizimana remained an enigmatic figure, occasionally indulging in the curiosity of the running media and Kiptum’s fans, by revealing the athlete’s training programs, which involved jaw-dropping weekly mileage peaking at over 300 kilometers per week, and multiple hard sessions.

In the lead up to the Rotterdam Marathon, in which Kiptum stated he would attempt to crack the two-hour barrier and become the first person to do so in a sanctioned race in history, his coach was cautious. “I really don’t know about that,” he told the media after Kiptum said he’d shave at least 36 seconds off his world record and do something long thought impossible.

Now we will never know what these two men could have achieved in Rotterdam, at the Paris Olympic marathon, and beyond.

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Investigative journalist and editor based in Toronto

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