Jacob Kiplimo cruising to victory at the World Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 (© AFP/Getty Images)
The road to the top of the world started in Kween, a rural district in the east of Uganda, close to the Kenyan border.
There, at an altitude of about 1900m (6200ft), Jacob Kiplimo would run five kilometres to and from school each day. As a child, he was building an aerobic engine that would eventually allow him to outrun the world’s best.
The manner in which the 19-year-old dismantled the field at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia last weekend suggests a future paved with gold, but those who’ve been tracking his progress these past four years know just how much he has already achieved.
Kiplimo is a world U20 cross country champion; a World Cross Country silver medallist at senior level; he’s run 7:26.64 for 3000m, 12:48.63 for 5000m, and, as of last weekend, he’s the world half marathon champion.
It started from humble beginnings. Kiplimo’s family were maize farmers, and his entry to competitive running came about through his older brothers. Four of them were athletes, and one of them – Victor Kiplangat, a half-brother – competed alongside him in Gdynia last weekend, finishing 16th in 1:00:29.
Growing up, Kiplimo would watch them head out the door every morning to train. “To my mind, I said: ‘I want to be like them,’” he says.
His first proper race was in 2015, a selection trial in Uganda ahead of the World Mountain Running Championships. Kiplimo won it, but his federation told him he was too young to compete internationally. In December that year he moved to Tuscany in Italy to work under a new coach, Giuseppe Giambrone.
The following year he won bronze over 10,000m at the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, clocking 27:26.68, and he then competed at the Rio Olympics over 5000m. In 2017 the World Cross Country Championships were on home turf in Kampala, and Kiplimo became a hero to the thousands thronging the course when winning gold in the U20 race.
“The president was there and when (foreign athletes) come and take your medals it’s not okay, it looks bad,” he says. “It was fantastic to win on home soil.”
After that he came to a crossroads. Kiplimo wanted to remain in Uganda but his coach wanted him based in Italy. In the end Kiplimo chose Uganda, and he has trained primarily in Kapchorwa over the past few years.
That’s also where Joshua Cheptegei is based, and while Kiplimo joins in with him from time to time, most of his work is done with a different group. Through 2018 and 2019 he followed either his own plan or that of the locals in Kapchorwa, but since the start of 2020 he has been coached by Italian Iacopo Brasi, a colleague of Kiplimo’s manager, Federico Rosa.
The journey to senior success wasn’t always smooth. Kiplimo appeared to be hitting the big time after last year’s World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, where he won silver just four seconds behind Cheptegei, but his track season was ended before it began.
After victory at the Great Manchester Run in May he developed a pain beneath his knee that ruled him out for four months, and he was forced to watch from afar as Cheptegei took 10,000m gold at the World Championships in Doha. The mental toll of the injury was as tough to deal with as the physical pain.
“When you are not training,” he says, “you don’t want to see other people train.”
His first event back was the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in October, where he helped pace Eliud Kipchoge around the streets of Vienna, and last December he went to Brazil for the Sao Silvestre 15km road race on New Year’s Eve.
It proved an embarrassing outing for Kiplimo, who had victory in his hands approaching the line but failed to hear the footsteps of Kenya’s Kibiwott Kandie, who crept past just as Kiplimo was raising his arms in celebration.
“I was angry,” he says. “I was very disappointed.”
In 2020 he planned to make amends, though before he could get back on a start line the world of sport had come to an abrupt stop.
Short but strong campaign on the track
“I was disappointed about all the problems in the world,” says Kiplimo. “But for me (the pandemic) was not so bad. There (were) restrictions, they closed everywhere, even the schools. We were at home. I knew this (period) will finish so I used the time to improve.”
Before his first race of the year in Ostrava last month, Kiplimo had only done one month of specific training on the track, so when the pace was set to target the meeting record of 12:48.81, Kiplimo’s coach advised caution.
“He said: ‘it’s better to use your own pace, if you follow that pace you’re not going to finish.’ Then I realised after four laps, the body was moving (well).”
Kiplimo beat Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega to win in 12:48.63, and after a week of training in Italy he went to the Rome Diamond League high on confidence. There, he outkicked Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen to take victory in a Ugandan 3000m record of 7:26.64, moving him to eighth on the all-time list.
Only after that did his mind turn to the World Half Marathon Championships.
“I just train two weeks for it,” he says. “I didn’t prepare very well, but it worked. I did two long runs and the body was moving and I knew maybe I could be on the podium.”
Entering the event all eyes were on Cheptegei, but given it was his debut at the distance, and the race came just 10 days after Cheptegei had set a 10,000m world record (pending ratification) in Valenica, Kiplimo figured he had a shot at gold.
“I knew Joshua was maybe still tired after breaking the record, to come here then is something that’s not easy,” he says. “People were so excited (in Uganda): many people were betting about me and Joshua, betting we would be 1-2.”
After a steady early pace – 10km was reached in 28:23 – the wheels started to turn up front with Kiplimo’s old foe, Kandie, pushing things along. Kiplimo cranked the pace up even more with a lap to run, covering the fourth 5km section in a blazing 13:37.
With less than a kilometre to run, he turned for home with a 20-metre lead over Kandie, and this time there was no mishap at the finish, Kiplimo crossing the line a comfortable winner in a championship record of 58:49.
Cheptegei wasn’t far behind, finishing fourth in 59:21, the result providing more evidence that Uganda has become a true super-power of distance running. Kiplimo believes the catalyst for their achievements was Stephen Kiprotich’s Olympic marathon gold in 2012.
Double ambitions in Tokyo
“That’s why they gave us a lot of encouragement,” he says.
While Kiplimo says the road is his favourite surface, his emphasis will be primarily on the track on the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics. He plans to double over 5000m and 10,000m but to win gold in either, he knows he needs a bigger range of gears.
“I am going to focus on finishing,” he says. “I have to work together with the coach (on) my speed. The last 400 you have to run 52 or 53. When you have that kick, no one will pass you, so I’m going to focus on that.”
But before he worries about the track, there’s another key appointment on the road: a half marathon in Valencia on 6 December, where he will square off with Kenyan star Rhonex Kipruto, who beat him to 10,000m gold at the World U20 Championships in 2018.
The world record stands at 58:01 to Geoffrey Kamworor, but given Kiplimo ran such uneven splits in Gdynia – his 5K sections were 14:20, 14:03, 13:55 and 13:37 – and that Valencia is a much quicker course, it’s fair to ask if Kamwowor’s mark is in his sights.
“I think maybe let me sit with my coach and we plan the training programme,” he laughs. “I am not thinking of that now.”
In time, Kiplimo reckons he will run the marathon but not for “three or four years”. Given his youth and his prowess across a range of surfaces, and indeed distances, there seems little reason to rush that way.
He has already reached the top. Now he just has to stay there.
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics