What you need to know:
- Kenya Olympic team member and mother of one now runs close to 170km per week in training as she prepares for her debut in London Marathon
- Reigning world champion confesses how self-training with a mix of group runs have turned her from just another athlete to the preeminent woman runner over the distance, laden with many titles but looking for more
Ruth Chepng’etich kept postponing the interview but it was quite understandable considering the Covid-19 contagion in the country.
There have been no sporting activities in the country since March this year after the government instituted measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus following the first case in the country.
By Saturday, Kenya had reported 35,969 cases with 22,771 recoveries and 619 deaths from the disease.
We checked into Vapor ground, Ngong, Kajiado County, where she had directed us and found her warming down after her morning workout in readiness for the delayed London Marathon due on October 4.
The diminutive athlete was alone.
On a normal day, Vapor ground could be teeming with elite and the not so serious athletes going through their paces.
Though well-kept, the place looked like a ghost arena...thanks to Covid-19 restrictions on social gatherings and social distancing.
Only a handful of athletes were working out separately at the venue but observing strict Covid-19 guidelines.
Well, many top athletes whether in athletics or other sporting disciplines can barely perform without the input of a coach.
They will go to greater lengths to hire or take along their coaches to major championships so that they reap the benefits of the “second eyes” to the maximum.
Majority of professional athletes have made it big after aping or getting inspired either by family members or friends, who were great sportsmen or women in a particular event.
However, there are always unique cases where some sportsmen and women are self-made right. Some have gone on to perform well at the highest level without a coach.
Chepng’etich is one of them.
The only time she had a coach, briefly, was when she was still in Kericho before shifting her base to Ngong in Kajiado County in 2015, a move that would toss her into a roller coaster of athletics achievements.
She has never thought about engaging a coach since setting foot in Ngong, an area that has produced some of Kenya’s top athletes like World 5,000m champion Hellen Obiri.
It would sound strange but self-coaching and group training are what have unleashed the best in the 26-year-old Chepng’etich and the best is yet to come through.
Within four years of moving to Ngong, she already has a world title and is ranked the fourth fastest women in marathon history, an accomplishment most female athletes can just but dream about.
Her manager Federico Rosa of Rosa Associati Management opines that the mother of one is destined to go places.
Rosa believes that Chepng’etich will soon have the whole world under her feet if she continues working hard and staying focused.
“I have never handled such a strong athlete who is dedicated to her athletics career,” says Rosa. “One will definitely get anxious with an athlete, who has never had a competitive track career and doesn’t want a coach.”
Rosa notes that training with strong men has been the key to her success. “At only 26, she is still young with good years and a bright future ahead of her. Ruth is quite unique and different,” says Rosa.
Chepng’etich says that coach Samuel Bii briefly handled her when she moved to Kericho town in 2015 from the village.
“It’s November of the same year when I moved to Ngong, joining yet another group of male athletes,” says Chepng’etich. “I obviously know what works for me in training, so I don’t need a coach. So long as I have some good male training partners that can push me, then I am fine,” explains Chepng’etich.
She reckons that her decision to move straight into road running upon completing her secondary school education at Momoniat Secondary School in Kericho is the reason she has never had the hustle of engaging a coach.
Chepng’etich acknowledges that she never knew what really constituted track and field events at the highest level, having only been exposed to primary and secondary school athletics championships that really didn’t have serious programmes for athletes.
“I think the technicalities in track events might have forced me to have a coach if I continued with track events upon finishing primary and high school. I didn’t know about Athletics Kenya weekend meetings then,” says Chepng’etich, whose love for athletics started back at Sigowet Primary School where she competed in 400m before moving to 3,000m and 5,000m from Class Six in 2007.
“It was just a self-driven initiative. I just loved athletics since my days in primary school level. I remember reaching the district level in 5,000m in my last two years at Sigowet,” says Chepng’etich, who went on to reach provincial level in cross country in Form One first term in 2011.
“I took a shot at 10,000m in track but seems I had bitten off more than I could chew. I dropped the race for 3,000m and 5,000m,” Chenpng’etich, who dumped the two races altogether to take up 3,000m steeplechase and would reach provincial level in 2013 while in form three.
Chepng’etich, who is the first born in a family of two sisters and three brothers, would stay away from athletics during her final year in 2014 due to age factor.
Chepng’etich father Steven Langát wanted his daughter to continue with her education to college level, an idea her mother Milcah Langát and some of her siblings supported fully.
However, Chepng’etich, whose dream was to become a cop, had a different idea.
“I simply told my parents that it was needless for them to spend money on me in college yet my desire and focus was to pursue a career in athletics."
Chepng’etich would join a group of athletes closer home at Chepsion Centre before moving to Kericho town in early 2015 where she trained for nine months.
Flopped at Ndakaini
Her first race was at the Ndakaini Half Marathon on September 12, 2015 where she returned home in 15th place as seasoned Matthew Kisorio and Pauline Korikwiang triumphed.
Her next stop was Kisii Half Marathon where she finished 11th before securing her maiden victory at Kericho 15km race.
“I returned to Kericho but some athletes who I later came to know came from Rosa Associati Management inquired about my presence in the training group and whether I had a manager,” says Chepng’etich.
Chepng’etich would be guided to Nairobi where she would sign with Rosa Associati Management, went back to Kericho briefly before returning to Nairobi in November 2015 where she settled in Ngong.
As they say, the rest is history.
Chepng’etich tested the waters in 2016 with two half marathon races.
She would embark on her first trip outside the country to Morocco where she finished fourth at Rabat Half Marathon in 1:11:33 on March 13, 2016 but an injury would keep her off training for some time.
She would bounce back at Nairobi Standard Chartered Half Marathon on October 30 finishing second in 1:14:13. “I competed in these races but I had no clue on how to plan for the races and how to spread the energies over the distances,” said Chepng’etich.
However, 2017 would see a major turning point in her career.
“This is the year when I realised that there is more to athletics than just running. I had to change my approach towards training and how I planned for races so as to run good times that could secure quality races,” said Chepng’etich, who was born on August 8, 1994 in Kericho.
She competed in eight races including six half marathons. She bagged victories in four of them -- Adana, Paris, Milano and Istanbul. It’s in the Turkish capital where she ran a personal best time of one hour, 06 minutes and 19 seconds in April of that year.
She returned to Istanbul seven months later for her marathon debut, claiming victory in 2:22:36.
“I think the Istanbul Half Marathon remains my best ever outing in my road running career. I learnt a lot on how to stay focused, determined and disciplined. I simply enjoyed the race,” says Chepng’etich.
World Half Marathon
Come 2018, Chepng’etich competed in five races that included two marathon and two half marathon races.
It’s the year she finally managed to represent the country at a championship event.
The World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia proved tough as she finished 13th with compatriots Joyciline Jepkosgei (1:06:54) and Pauline Kaveke (1:06:56) winning silver and bronze respectively. Ethiopian Netsanet Gudeta reigned supreme in a world record time of 1:06:11.
However, 16 days later, Chepngétch finished second on her debut at Paris Marathon in 2:22:59 before defending her Istanbul Marathon crown, improving her personal best to 2:18:35, which was ranked the seventh fastest time ever in women’s marathon history.
Chepng’etich set the 2019 season rolling with victory in the Dubai Marathon on January 25, not only in a course record but the third fastest time in history then of 2:17:08.
The only other faster athletes then were Paula Radcliffe (2:15:25) and Mary Keitany (2:17:01).
‘I expected a good race since I was in good shape and had trained well but running sub 2:18 was beyond my imagination,” said Chepng’etich.
“It shocked me when I glanced at my watch to see I was at 2:16 at 40km and that is when I kicked hard. “I was so happy. I felt like I had not covered a full marathon. I still go through the clip to see how I achieved that time,” explained Chepng’etich.
That performance was enough to see Chepng’etich picked alongside Vilisiline Jepkesho for the World Championships in Doha on September 27.
She warmed up for Doha with her third successive victory at Istanbul Half Marathon. She also won Seiryu Half Marathon, Gifu in Japan and Bogota half Marathon in Colombia for good measure.
“I really wanted to make it up for the 2018 World Half Marathon where I didn’t perform well. I had also posted the third fastest time in history in Dubai hence I had to prove a point in Doha,” says Chepng’etich, who defied the harsh weather on the day to claim the world title.
She clocked 2:32:43 to pip defending champion and favourite Kenyan-born Rose Chelimo of Bahrain to second place in 2:33:46 as another surprise package Helalia Johannes from Namibia claimed bronze in 2:34:15.
“I almost quit the race at 17km after I started experiencing stomach pains. I went deep in prayers telling God to ease the pain. I almost forgot I was running as I prayed and I pulled through."
“That was my toughest race and nobody knew what I went through. I only talked about it with my parents and now with you.”
Chepng’etich says after the race, she felt appreciated for the first time since taking up athletics. “The celebrations from Doha and back home at the airport were simply awesome." “For the first time the local athletics fraternity realised there is someone called Ruth.”
Chepng’etich, who will be making her debut in the World Marathon Majors in London is also excited to be in the marathon team for the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games.
“We were so excited when the year started and especially after being selected in the team. I had started giving the world record a critical thought from last year but the pandemic ruined everything,” says Chepng’etich, who covers a maximum of 170km per week when preparing for a major marathon. “But I am not giving up since everybody has been affected. Only time will tell.”
Chepng’etich attributes her success to good planning, hard work, focus and commitment.
"I have succeeded without a coach since it’s about individual effort. A coach won’t hold your legs to run fast. It’s the commitment you put into something,” she says while holding her 10-year-old daughter Sharleen. “She inspires me a lot and is one of the reasons why I work hard.”