What you need to know:
- Lotiang’s story is a tale of agony and redemption in the most miraculous of ways.
- Once they take the cows to a safe place, they would then sell the cows from the previous raid and keep the latest ones. It was a cycle, a dangerous one.
“I cried like a kid, then decided to call it quits. I couldn’t believe that my friend had been shot dead. It still pains me to date.”
Life’s twists and turns forced John Kipsang Lotiang to drop out of school aged 13 so as to take care of his parents’ livestock. Little did he know just how life changing this move would be.
Lotiang’s story is a tale of agony and redemption in the most miraculous of ways. Little wonder a powerful message hangs on the wall of his sitting room: "God can lift you from nothing to something." A message, he says, keeps him going even in his darkest moments.
Lotiang was born on March 18, 1991 in Karanyakwat, West Pokot near the Kenya-Uganda border. Describing his upbringing as “tough” would be an understatement, he says with a light chuckle as we settle down for an interview in his house in Iten, Elgeyo Marakwet County.
Make no mistake, Lotiang is proud of his roots and boldly says that his childhood shaped him for times like these. He says this in reference to the unprecedented times the world is going through as it battles the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We didn’t have food to eat at home. I decided as the first born to go out and help my parents feed the rest of the family. That meant that I stopped going to school though I didn’t have a choice,” an emotional Lotiang recalls as he struggles to contain tears.
“But I’m happy I managed to do something for them and that makes me very proud.”
He started by going to look after livestock in stints that would have him away for up to three weeks at a time. Then the allure of earning some money in 2004 drove him into wait for it…cattle rustling.
Since he was only 13, the older members of the team gave him the “easier task of driving the stolen cattle to their hiding zone” as they created a buffer zone from behind to prevent anyone from attacking them.
“I was recruited to the cattle rustling team by one of my friends.”
“I used to run after the cows very fast to prevent the enemy from catching up with us. I didn’t know this was preparing me to be an athlete later in life,” he adds ironically, his voice breaking up between words.
Once they take the cows to a safe place, they would then sell the cows from the previous raid and keep the latest ones. It was a cycle, a dangerous one.
“We kept stealing cows and creating mayhem between the Kenya and Uganda border until one of my friends, William Ang’uran, was shot in his waist in Kolongolo, Trans Nzoia where he died.” The 29-year-old can’t hold back the tears as he breaks down.
The tragic incident happened in Kolongolo, Trans Nzoia as the group escaped after a raid, Ang’uran was not so lucky. The victim’s brother informed Lotiang of the incident after he had passed on the following morning.
“I was shocked to learn that my friend had been shot. I knew I could be the next one and that is why I decided to quit,” Lotiang, who is now under the US-based Posso Sports Management, recalls.
“I decided to be a peace ambassador.”
On April 12 this year, Lotiang was set to line up for the Wuhan Marathon in China but the event organisers and the city’s leadership, which was where the coronavirus is believed to have started, decided to cancel the race.
Lotiang says he was headed to China for victory after what he says was good preparation for the race.
This would have been his second marathon this season, after emerging sixth in the Kobe Marathon in Japan in 2:15:03 last November. The race was won by compatriot Geoffrey Kusoro in 2:08:42.
“I wanted to improve on my personal best because the sixth-place finish in Kobe had impressed my managers.”
In 2017, Lotiang broke the Cardiff Half Marathon course record after winning the race in 60:42, beating countryman Shadrack Kimining by seven seconds while Kipkemboi Kiprono came in third in 61:10.
Lotiang was second in the 2014 Paris Half Marathon, won the Marvejols-Mende Half Marathon in France in 2016, and was runners up the following year.
Make no mistake, Lotiang is not your typical athlete. For a man who spent his childhood in the bushes trying to hurt the enemy, his recent gesture – where he allowed seven athletes to stay in his houses without paying rent – brings up his other side.
It is no secret that most athletes are suffering after the cancellation of races and competitions because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Using his savings, Lotiang constructed rental houses in 2019 with the plan that he would make money in the 2020 Wuhan Race and return on his investment.
Lotiang has earned a tidy sum pacing for some of the biggest names in the business.
“I was privileged to pace one of the best in the world, Mo Farah, during the 2017 London Marathon race where I dropped after 21km.”
In 2018, he paced his neighbour, Mary Keitany, in London as she attempted to break the then world record mark that was held by Briton Paula Radcliffe. Keitany slowed in the final kilometres and eventually finished fifth after clocking 2:24:10 in the race won by compatriot Vivian Cheruiyot.
Lotiang says that after seeing some upcoming athletes suffering with no money for rent and food, he offered them a place to stay in his rentals.
“Many athletes are suffering especially during this time and having gone through a tough upbringing, I decided to help eight athletes by housing them until things normalise because there are no races right now.”
But how did he start running?
The day his friend died, Lotiang decided to join the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation camp in West Pokot in 2007 where most reformed cattle rustlers find solace. Coach Joseph Domongole encouraged and gave him training programmes to start his career.
He started training with the rest of the athletes in the camp, where 2012 London Olympics 5,000 metres bronze medallist Thomas Longosiwa advised him to focus on athletics.
“I didn’t even know how to train and I used to follow the other athletes with no objective. My target was to stay at the camp for a short while then go back home but alas, the training sessions became interesting and I decided to stay.”
Another heartbreak awaited him in the form of rejection. Lotiang and three other athletes travelled with Tegla Loroupe to her home in Nairobi. His first time to be in the capital, Lotiang couldn’t stop looking at the skyscrapers in awe.
They later applied for visas to travel to the United States of America but Lotiang wasn’t successful while his training mates went through.
“After failing to secure the visa, I really cried. I was demoralised but my coach encouraged me to continue training.”
He later changed his training base in 2011 and shifted to Iten where he met a big team that was training.
The same year, he managed to secure his first 10km road race in the Netherlands.
“I didn’t know the procedure before someone travels abroad and had to be guided all along by athletes who were also going for the same race.”
“The experience from that first flight made me vow to never look back. I decided that I would become one of the best in the road races.”
“I believe I have a bright future in marathon. I want to be a star like Eliud Kipchoge who is my inspiration,” he says of the world marathon record holder.
The father of one is married to Maureen Chepngetich.
“He is always ready to support those who are in need. I’m lucky to have found such a man and I will always be supportive,” says Chepngetich.
Their daughter, Sharon Chepkemei, is away in West Pokot with her grandparents…playing in the dusty valleys her father left a trail on almost two decades ago.