Kelvin Kiptum’s Final Workout

What the marathon world record holder's last long run, on the notoriously challenging Fluorspar Run in Kenya's Rift Valley, tells us about the meteoric yet enigmatic athlete who died tragically on Sunday, and the suddenly uncertain future of marathoning

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Michael Doyle
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Investigative journalist and editor based in Toronto

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Kelvin Kiptum's Final Workout 1

On Saturday morning, Kelvin Kiptum, the fastest marathoner of all-time, set out on what would become the last workout of his life. The 24-year-old, who tragically died in a car crash on Sunday night, had nine weeks to go in his training for the Rotterdam Marathon, which takes place on April 14. Kiptum recently confirmed what the running world anticipated with uncharacteristic transparency: that he would attempt to become the first person ever to break two hours in the marathon in a formal road race.

His world record of 2:00:35, set in October in Chicago, was delivered in shocking fashion. He somehow managed to run the second half of that race faster than the first. It also took place before even close followers of the sport became fully acquainted with who Kiptum was as both a runner and a person. He was an impenetrable figure, and yet his performance in Chicago almost immediately felt like a prelude to something bigger this spring.

In less than sixteen months, Kelvin Kiptum went from being unknown to being inevitable.

Those present described Kiptum’s last workout, fittingly a long run, as a relentless, pulverizing 30K effort that just got more intense the longer he ran.

The Kenyan grew up in Chepsamo, a farming hamlet south of Eldoret in the Rift Valley, which is famous for producing many of the greatest runners of all time. But Kiptum was an unlikely superstar. He emerged on the scene a total unknown in 2021 and systemically dismantled our notion of what was possible in the marathon.

His three marathons — a 2:01:53 in Valencia in December of 2022 (the fastest debut in history), a 2:01:25 in London in April of last year (a course record and the then second fastest run of all-time) and his world record last October in Chicago—can only be compared to the work of a math savant resolving three related problems that have haunted us since the beginning of time, en route to answering some greater, prophetic mystery of the universe. Each race was astonishingly precise, inscrutable in its structure and approach, and almost scary in its clarity of vision and purpose. He made simple what causes the rest of us, including the likes of Eliud Kipchoge, to struggle and fail.

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Kiptum’s last workout incorporated a legendary stretch dubbed the “Fluorspar Run” into his long run. The Fluorspar is a notoriously gruelling point-to-point climb, with it’s starting point at lower altitude in the Kerio Valley, near the Kenya Fluorspar Mining Company location, to Nyaru on the Eldoret–Eldama Ravine Road, which steadily rises 4,000 feet over 13.1 miles.

The Fluorspar has been called “a rite of passage” for Kenyan athletes. Elite runners are desperate to run it in under an hour and twenty minutes, and are happy to call it quits upon reaching the finish line. Last Saturday, Kiptum progressively increased his speed over the half marathon worth of climbing at a 5.8% grade, and then kept going for another five miles.

According to The Nation (Kenya) Kiptum was joined on this last long run by a group that included Timothy Kiplagat, who finished second at the 2023 Rotterdam Marathon, and Edward Cheserek, a former NCAA champion who is training for the Boston Marathon, along with Caroline Chepkwony and Eunice Chebichii, who won Rotterdam last year.

Kiptum was “attacking” with “deep focus” according to a local coach, Nahashon Kibon, who observed the workout from a vehicle. He told The Nation that he suggested Kiptum take the edge off his pace, but the marathoner continued to push, wanting “finish on a high.”

It’s unsurprising that Kiptum appeared undaunted by running under two hours in the marathon, and doing something that was, until recently, considered perhaps beyond the limits of human endurance. If Eliud Kipchoge pioneered a new form of ultra-aggressive marathoning in the era of the super shoe and bleeding edge performance tactics, Kelvin Kiptum mastered it.

Throughout 2023, Kiptum became something of a folk hero on running-related subreddits and the message board. What his followers lacked in terms of knowledge of Kiptum the man, it gained in terms of raw numbers in the form of his training logs. Running nerds desperately devoured every detail when his coach would occasionally share his athlete’s training regimen. Kiptum’s workload quickly became the stuff of legend, even spawning articles that the marathoner was “bad for running” because he might inspire others to try his maximal mileage campaigns.

His coach, Gervais Hakizimana, who died in the crash with Kiptum on Sunday, recently said that he was afraid for Kiptum’s career, as the runner appeared to be a man possessed, and that Kiptum always demanded to do more.

In January, Hakizimana revealed Kiptum’s weekly training for the lead up to Rotterdam, which included few easy days and seemingly constant high volume, high intensity sessions.

“On Saturday, like Tuesday, he does track or split on the road, plus [a] soft trot in the afternoon,” Hakizimana shared.

According to the Nation, Kiptum must have moved ahead his training on his final workout, as it aligns more closely to what the athlete had in store for a day most Kenyans traditionally take as a one to visit family and relax:

“Mr. Kiptum will not rest on Sunday, because he will start between 32K and 40K at a good pace.”

Kiptum opted for 30K, albeit on a course that has humbled even the greatest distance runners in history.

Like many aspects of Kiptum’s inner life, we may never know why exactly he moved up his typical Sunday long run to Saturday. But what is known and lingers with those drifting behind him on the Fluorspar Run is that he ran it with absolute conviction, and always seemed to only get faster the farther he ran.

This seemed to be Kiptum’s style: to always do more, and always do it with more intensity. This is a recipe for disaster in endurance sports. But until Sunday night, he seemed unstoppable, and outside of the laws of physics. Kiptum made you believe the cliched sloganeering cynically spouted off by shoe brands (and naively regurgitated by elite runners), that “nothing is impossible.” Maybe this was actually true for one man?

The one personality trait that Kiptum did outwardly portray was confidence. By all accounts, Kiptum was convinced that he would run under two hours in Rotterdam. His father, Samson Cheruiyot, said he spoke with Kiptum on Saturday evening about Rotterdam. “He had told me that he was feeling his body was in good shape,” he told local Citizen TV after his son’s death, “and [that Kiptum was] ready to run 1:59 or 1:58.”

Not much is actually known about Kelvin Kiptum the man. He wasn’t as media savvy as Eliud Kipchoge, who, with some help from Nike, has carefully cultivated a Zen master, Instagram-friendly personae. Kiptum remained a cipher until the end, even as he was paraded around by Nike executives to promote the Alphafly 3 in the aftermath of his world record in that shoe. Perhaps Kiptum was less interested in the spotlight; maybe he felt he he nothing to say that he couldn’t communicate with his actions on the course. More probably though, he just wasn’t afforded the time to reveal to us who he truly was, and if he was even capable of imperfection.

Kiptum seemed to have materialized fully formed as a mature yet adventurous marathoner. After a few impressive half marathons, and no real failures or time spent as a pacer or training partner to an “A” lister, Kiptum catapulted onto the top-tier marathon scene with three of the seven fastest marathons in history in his first three tries at the distance. Instead of having to make major training adjustments, or ironing tactical errors that can only be understand with experience, Kiptum seemed borne complete, and wholly preoccupied with just running the next one slightly more ferociously than the last.

All of this—his relentless attack on what was possible in the marathon—seemed pre-ordained somehow once he appeared in Chicago last fall. He was clearly Kipchoge’s heir apparent. It no longer seemed to even matter if Kipchoge were to win another Major in Tokyo next month. The focus was now past the old master, trained in on something more terrifyingly exact. Rotterdam was emerging as an event horizon in distance running. No one was prepared to talk about what would come next. After all, what is more perfect than perfect?

With Kipchoge preparing for his GOAT-emeritus role, and Nike positioning the younger athlete as the new face of its flagship shoe, Rotterdam was to be the formal changing of the guard moment in distance running, with the Paris Olympics as either an end-of-career retirement prize for Kipchoge, or the ruthless dawn of a totally new era in distance running, with Kelvin Kiptum all alone at the top of the mountain.

Now we are left with a vacuum at the apex of men’s marathon running, and Kiptum remains an illusive figure. He’s now running’s James Dean or Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix or Vincent Van Gogh—someone we almost came to know, but vanished before we were able to reconcile their brilliant output with their human frailty.

Kiptum is now frozen in time. He will never fail in a marathon. He will never disappoint. And we will also never come to know him. He will never be at the finish line of the Rotterdam Marathon. He now remains out there on Fluorspar Run.

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Investigative journalist and editor based in Toronto

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