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Marathon world record holder Kelvin Kiptum, from Kenya, left the world far too soon at age 24. He was a shooting star with an upward potential yet to be fulfilled. If he had lived, who knows how much faster than 2:00:35 he would have run. He was the first to go sub-2:01:00. His next race was to be in Rotterdam in April when he was hoping to break his world record or perhaps become the first person to run under two hours. And he was looking forward to the 2024 Paris Olympic Marathon this summer.

Shades of Sammy Wanjiru

Sammy Wanjiru was a Kenyan marathon runner who won the 2008 Beijing Olympics Marathon in an Olympic record time of 2:06:32. He was the first Kenyan to win Olympic marathon gold. At age 21, he became the youngest gold medallist in the event since 1932. The way Wanjiru ran the race was unique in that while the temperatures were very warm, he shot off with reckless abandon, especially after halfway, to finish well ahead of his competitors — there was no working with others to break the wind and share the workload.

Wanjiru broke the half-marathon world record, which Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie broke in early 2006, in the time of 58:53, in February 2007 at the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon. Wanjiru improved it to 58:33 in March 2007 in the City-Pier-City Loop in The Hague, Netherlands. While improving his own record, he recorded an unofficial time of 55:31 through 20K, which was faster than Gebrselassie’s world record but was never ratified due to the lack of a timing mat at the 20K mark.

Wanjiru also won the London Marathon and the Chicago Marathon twice. He improved the course records in 2:05:10 and 2:05:41, respectively.

Wanjiru died from a fall off a balcony at his home at age 24 in tragic circumstances that have not been resolved to this day. His 2:05:10 marathon personal best was not a world record but at the time was impressive. Gebrselassie held that mark with his 2:03:59 (pre-super shoes) in Berlin in 2008, but Wanjiru’s potential had yet to be fulfilled. Fellow Kenyan Patrick Makau improved it slightly in 2011 to 2:03:38 in Berlin.

Kiptum’s short career

Like Wanjiru, Kiptum crashed into the marathon scene with apparent reckless abandon. The running community turned its collective head asking, who is this athlete debuting at the 2022 Valencia Marathon at age 21 winning in 2:01:53? Customarily, it takes several years and several marathons to get the distance right. Not now, and not Kiptum, who crushed the course and debut records like Wanjiru did when winning in Bejing gold.

Within 10 months Kiptum would run 2:01:53 (Valencia Dec., 2022), 2:01:25 (London April 2023) and 2:00:35 in Chicago in Oct. 2023 to break fellow Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge’s world record of 2:01:09 which he set in the 2022 Berlin Marathon.

He seemed infallible.

Kiptum’s crash

He was driving his car with Rwandan coach Gervais Hakizimana. He lost control, and both were killed in the single-car crash at around 11 PM on Sunday, Feb. 11. Another Kenyan athlete, Milcah Chemos, confirmed their deaths to The Associated Press. She was at the hospital mortuary where the bodies were taken and had seen Kiptum’s body. She said, “I have no words to explain the loss of Kelvin.”

The crash happened on a road between Eldoret and Kaptagat in Western Kenya. It was in the middle of the high-altitude region which is known as a training base for athletes from Kenya and from across the world.

Chemos said she went to the hospital with other athletes and members of Kiptum’s family after hearing the news. The family members, which included Kiptum’s father, were there to identify him.

Kiptum had been thrown out of the car. It appeared the car had run off the road at high speed and collided with a tree before rolling.

A third person, a woman, was also in the car and had been taken to the hospital with serious injuries.

Sadly, Kiptum like Wanjiru’s potential is just dust in the wind.

*Cover photo: profile from World Athletics.

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