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The news of Kelvin Kiptum’s death came as a shock. I was in India for a book festival when, scrolling through social media, I saw a post announcing his passing. I stared blankly at my screen, in shock. I texted S, a friend with whom I have shared an obsession for athletics for years, and with whom I’d attended the 2017 IAAF World U18 Championships in Kasarani, and asked him if he’d heard the news. He had. He too was grief-stricken. He’d thought it was a badly written, mistimed April Fool’s joke. It had only been a year since the two of us first spoke about Kiptum. And now his career was over, the promise he’d held forever lost.

I have an avid interest in many sports but, partly because of the breadth of my interests, I often lose track of what’s happening in a particular sport for months on end; in April last year, athletics was one of the sports that had escaped my daily attention. Still, I broadly knew what was happening, knew who was winning what, knew who was breaking what record, who was being accused of doping. But I was no longer watching every Diamond League meet with rapt attention, wasn’t scouring the World Athletics YouTube channel for broadcasts of old races, and hadn’t gone to a physical meet in about a year. So, naturally, I didn’t know about new runners, and had barely heard of Kiptum. I hadn’t paid attention to what had occurred in Valencia in 2022. Then London happened.

Even during my spells of inattention, I pay attention to the big marathons, particularly the World Marathon Majors – Berlin, Tokyo, Chicago, Boston, New York and London. And so, on the day of the London Marathon in April 2023, I knew what was happening, and I saw what Kiptum did. I remember the rush of that day. The exhilaration of his London run. The crazed split times. This was not Bekele in 2019, who had come within a second of Eliud Kipchoge’s then world marathon record. Bekele had almost taken the record for himself, but in that moment one understood that this was Bekele at his apex, that he would never again come close to the record. In any case, Kipchoge would break the record again in 2022, extending it by thirty seconds to 2:01:09, putting it forever out of Bekele’s reach. And now, on this day in April 2023, Kiptum, a marathoner I had never heard of, had, in only his second marathon, smashed past the previous world record, and, by setting a time of 2:01:25, come to within sixteen seconds of the record. And in London. The temerity.

London is no Berlin. It is not a track that, in the men’s marathon at least (the women’s marathon has a different logic as several women’s marathon world records have been set in London), has encouraged such fast times. Khalid Khannouchi broke the world record there in 2002, the first and, so far, the only time this has ever happened. Paul Tergat obliterated the record the following year in Berlin. London doesn’t encourage world record pace – the hills and the sheer number of corners do not make for a fast pace – and nor does the frequent rain (again, the women’s race works differently). World records are set in Berlin. Berlin is flat, with very few corners. From Tergat in 2003 to Kipchoge in 2022, eight consecutive world records were set in Berlin. I fell in love with the Berlin race when Patrick Makau set his record there in 2011. If Iten is the home of champions, Berlin is where they become champions. 

And then Kelvin Kiptum, the gentleman from Iten, set the second fastest time of all time in London.

I called S immediately after the race. He hadn’t been paying attention to the London race, and didn’t understand what I was saying. What did I mean that a relatively unknown kid, running only his second ever marathon, had come within sixteen seconds of the record? And in London? He cursed. It was unbelievable. Well, this meant that the world record was surely gone, I said. But those split times were so unbelievable that both of us could see him running an official sub-two-hour marathon. The proverbial nirvana of road running.

His split times: The first half of Kiptum’s London run was pretty humdrum as marathon-record pace goes: fast for London, but not for Berlin. Then he sped up. Between the 20 km and 25 km marks, he ran 14:22, a second faster than Kipchoge at the same point in his 2022 Berlin run. Then in the next five kilometres he was two seconds faster than Kipchoge. Then, and this is where it got plain crazy, between the 30 km and 35 km points, he was 41 seconds faster than Kipchoge. Kiptum was a man in a hurry. He was 42 seconds faster in the next 5 km split, and six seconds faster in the final 2,195 km of the race. Before the race, Kiptum had said in a press conference, “I’m not ready to go for a world record now,” but he clearly was, and had he known this in the first half of the race, he would have broken the record there in London.

After the call with S, I emailed one of my editors. Were they interested in a profile of Kiptum? In my email, I wrote, “This is a pre-empt: Kiptum will smash the marathon record in Berlin in September, and I want to write something about him: a profile that veers around his preparation for Berlin, and what it means for a human being to run a sub-two-hour marathon.”

Now, I did not think he would run a sub-two-hour marathon in Berlin. But I also didn’t think it was impossible. In Valencia, Kiptum had run the fastest debut in history (and fourth-fastest time ever). He was a man in a hurry. Nevertheless, whatever I thought didn’t matter: the pitch was turned down; the publication didn’t assign pre-empts. In any case, I was wrong. Kiptum didn’t break the world record in Berlin in September. He broke it in Chicago in October. His time was only 35 seconds off sub-two hours. Then he died in a car crash four months later, and that was the last marathon he ever ran.

I did not know Kiptum, and had never met him. And yet I was overwhelmed by the sorrow of it all. I walked along a beach in India, the wash of the Arabian Sea breaking before me. The sadness of the remove is an odd sadness, as heavy as it is illogical since you are sad about someone you don’t know, but baked into this is the shock that accompanies the death of someone younger than yourself. When the other is a sports star, the shock doubles. Athletes seem immortal to us, our idea of them built on the awareness of their physical superiority. I remember Marc-Vivien Foé dying, and feeling sad about it, but I was too young to properly understand the finality of mortality. More than two decades later, I mourned Kiptum, a stranger whose exploits I had worshipped.

Kiptum died in a road accident alongside his coach Gervais Hakizimana. Days to Kiptum’s funeral, I came across something Hakizimana had said about his charge’s heavy training regimen right after he’d broken the world record in Chicago: “At this rate he is in danger of breaking. I offered him to slow down the pace but he doesn’t want to. I told him that in five years he’d be done, that he needs to calm down to last in athletics.”

Kiptum only ever ran three marathons, but his pace was so furious that two of them are two of the four fastest marathons ever run, and the other is the seventh fastest, and so his legacy will survive. After his death, Kipchoge, who holds the two other fastest times, wrote, “I am deeply saddened by the tragic passing of the marathon world record holder and rising star Kelvin Kiptum. An athlete who had a whole life ahead of him to achieve incredible greatness.” That’s part of the heartbreak of Kiptum’s passing: that whatever he had achieved so far was only the beginning. Gone, for instance, is the sub-two-hour marathon. He was aiming to achieve this in April in Rotterdam. We’ll never know if he would have, but in all likelihood, he would have become the first person to ever run a sub-two-hour record-eligible competitive marathon in the Dutch city.

A friend and I have been talking recently about old age and mortality. Recently, we started speaking about Michael Jordan, and the fact that he will be seventy years old in nine years. In our minds, whenever we speak about Jordan, we see him as he was in his twenties and early thirties, a dominant athlete in Chicago, and not as an old man long retired from sports. Jordan is a myth, and now, in his passing, Kiptum will forever be the mythical figure he was in his early twenties.