Had it not been for a rookie error in his first ever international race, Timothy Cheruiyot may not be the same runner – and three-time Diamond League champion – that he is today.
He can now look back on the experience and smile, but in the aftermath of the 2015 IAAF World Relays in The Bahamas he faced backlash back home in Kenya for throwing away the chance of a world record in the distance medley relay.
Cheruiyot, aged 19 at the time and far less experienced than almost everyone else in the race, covered the first lap of his 1600m leg in a lactic-inducing 51.96, opening up a three-second lead on the USA. Over the last two laps, though, USA’s Ben Blankenship clawed back the deficit and overtook Cheruiyot in the closing stages, clocking a world record of 9:15.50.
“It was amazing but also nerve wracking,” he says. “I was young and inexperienced but I also had a lot of adrenalin. I was told by the team coaches that I’d be running the anchor leg and my goal was to bring the baton home in a world record. It was a lot of pressure.
“Looking back on it now, of course I know that I went out too fast. Ben Blankenship was a great competitor that day and he and his teammates deserved the world record. I was still really pleased to get silver, but people at home blamed me for not getting gold. It was quite difficult for me.”
It wasn’t long before Cheruiyot redeemed himself. He set 1500m PBs of 3:35.24 and 3:34.86 in the months that followed and went on to finish seventh in the World Championships final in Beijing. The race in Nassau acted as the catalyst for Cheruiyot wanting to improve as a runner.
“The experience gave me a hunger for wanting more international races and to get better at 1500m running.”
Throwing away the chance of a world record wasn’t the first missed opportunity of Cheruiyot’s career, nor was it the last.
One year earlier, he finished third over 800m at Kenya’s trials for the 2014 World U20 Championships, missing a place on the team by 0.07. He finished fourth in the 1500m at Kenya’s 2016 Olympic Trials, missing a place on the team for Rio by half a second.
He also has a streak of four successive major championship silver medals, but he doesn’t count those as disappointments, especially the three that have been earned when finishing second to training partner Elijah Manangoi.
The world champion doesn’t always get the better of Cheruiyot, though, especially on the IAAF Diamond League circuit. In fact, Cheruiyot has been the more dominant in that arena, winning 11 of his 12 Diamond League races between 2018 and 2019, capped last weekend in Brussels with his third successive Diamond trophy.
The success of the two men has been very much a team effort, spearheaded by coach Bernard Ouma.
“We help each other,” Cheruiyot says of Manangoi. “Elijah is three years older than me but he has assisted me in my running. We work hard together in training under Bernard’s guidance, each pushing the other so we both improve.”
New coach, new group, new focus
When Cheruiyot finished third at Kenya’s 2014 World U20 trials, it came with a silver lining.
Ouma, the founder and head coach at Rongai Athletics Club (RAC), was there at Nyayo National Stadium and watched the middle-distance races with keen interest.
Earlier that year, 1994 Commonwealth steeplechase silver medallist Gideon Chirchir had told Ouma to keep an eye out for Cheruiyot at the Kenyan World U20 trials. After seeing him run, Ouma invited Cheruiyot to join RAC.
“After missing out on a place, Timothy looked dejected and frustrated,” recalled Ouma. “I was surprised he could run 1:45.92 with his rugged and unpolished running style. But I soon came to realise his trainability and his motivation to run well.”
Cheruiyot – whose uncle was a national-level 5000m and 10,000m runner – had dabbled with running during his younger years. He started to get more serious in 2012 when, with the support of a good friend, he attended a training camp. He returned home in 2013 but continued to train.
“It was tough when I was in Bomet County when I was training there in 2012 and 2013,” says Cheruiyot. “It was difficult to combine my desire to be a good athlete with the responsibilities to my family home life. I had to do small jobs here and there for money.”
Joining Ouma’s club in 2014 was a significant turning point in Cheruiyot’s career. With Ouma’s guidance, quality training partners, and a tailored training plan, Cheruiyot thrived.
“At RAC I have set up a structured working system with individual goals, prioritised to individual efforts and capabilities,” says Ouma. “Just like the others, Tim is very disciplined, dedicated, and knows what he wants. He believes in himself, his coach and the training plan, which he follows to the letter.”
In his first full season as a member of RAC, Cheruiyot finished seventh at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015. He took the silver medal at the African Championships in 2016 and reduced his PB to 3:31.34. After breaking 3:30 for the first time in 2017, he took the silver medal behind Manangoi at the World Championships in London and won his first Diamond trophy.
Further sub-3:30 clockings and Diamond trophies followed in 2018 and 2019. Manangoi, meanwhile, followed his world title with gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and African Championships.
“Timothy and Elijah are unique in their own ways,” explains Ouma. “The age difference is a factor, but Tim happens to be rising faster to join Elijah at the world-class level. Elijah is more of a talent-dominant athlete while Tim is sheer hard work and some percentage of talent. Championship races require experience, which they are both acquiring gradually and differently.
“Above all, they are dedicated individuals exploring their capabilities and limitations,” he adds. “They don't fear making mistakes and are not risk-averse. And they always encourage each other, regardless of which one wins or loses.”
Cheruiyot and Manangoi – and, in fact, the whole of RAC – are just as supportive of each other during their training sessions. And given that many of their runs take place in Nairobi National Park – home to more than 400 species of wildlife including lions, giraffes, zebras and rhino – it pays to look out for one another.
“Lions are lazy. And leopards and cheetahs are no problem,” says Ouma. “But buffalo are a big thing for us. They're a huge threat, especially if you find one or two isolated from a group. They might feel threatened and so will get aggressive and want to defend themselves.
“We encountered that once with Winny Chebet (world indoor 1500m finalist). From the back of the pack, I could hear her calling out, 'Coach! Coach!' I said, 'what is it?' and she told me she could see a buffalo charging. I was able to use my motorbike to scare it away while the others crossed the road. The shock was notable because after then she struggled to keep up with the pace in that long run.”
Such experiences haven’t put off Cheruiyot. In fact, his favourite session is an 11.5km threshold run around Nairobi National Park.
“It’s all about endurance,” says Cheruiyot. “I do that session each week and it’s always good to compare my times from before and with others. George Manangoi (world U20 champion) actually has the record for this session, not me or Elijah.”
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Turning silver and diamonds into gold
Cheruiyot’s greatest achievements so far, he says, are his three Diamond trophies and his world silver medal. But at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, which will be held from 27 September to 6 October, he will have the opportunity to add to his medal collection.
“First I need to qualify,” says Cheruiyot, who will be competing at Kenya’s World Trials on 12-13 September. “In Doha it will depend on the conditions and how the heats go. Anything can happen at a championship but I have the solid belief that the past two years of experience since the World Championships in London has given me everything in my tool kit to know I can be on the start line and believe in myself and my right tactics.”
Cheruiyot’s three fastest times this year – 3:28.77 in Lausanne, 3:29.97 in Monaco and 3:30.22 in Brussels – have been set in races with differing paces. The outcome has been largely the same, though: Cheruiyot opens up a big gap on the rest of the field before the last lap and holds his lead to the finish to win by a comfortable margin.
Cheruiyot’s lifetime best of 3:28.41, set last year in Monaco, puts him seventh on the world all-time list and is just 2.41 seconds shy of Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record. He is confident of climbing up that list and perhaps one day even beating El Guerrouj’s 3:26.00.
“I’m not the kind of person to talk about world records and I don’t really know when the time may be to properly try,” says Cheruiyot, who won the Kenyan 800m title last month in a PB of 1:43.11. “But this season I have tested out various approaches to racing. I take confidence from my run in Lausanne, for example. 1:49 for the opening 800m wasn’t a mistake. People always criticise when the pace is fast at 400m and 800m but everyone else ran a PB or national record in that race.
“I can run 3:26 something if the conditions are right and with good pacers,” he adds. “I have to believe that I can break the world record. If I don’t believe that, then I am limiting myself. Eliud Kipchoge believes he can break two hours and that’s what drives him. As professional athletes, the mind is crucial and over the past four years my confidence has built steadily.
“A world record is a dream, and a realistic one, but it takes so much hard work. It has taken me four years to get to 3:28, but I know I am very close to 3:27 and better still. I also want to run as long as I can and over longer distances in future.
“But medals – that’s what is important to me,” he adds. “I want to be world, Olympic and Commonwealth champion in 1500m.”
Cheruiyot’s achievements over the past few years have turned him into something of a celebrity back in his hometown of Singorwet. He usually goes back there for six or seven weeks when the season is over and will spend time on his various business ventures, including farming, building rental houses, and hiring out his tractor. “I love this time with family and friends,” he says. “When I’m training, I try to go back one weekend every month.”
When he next returns to Singorwet, he hopes to do so with a gold medal around his neck.
“Winning the world title would be such amazing achievement for me,” he says. “I really took on a lot of risk two years ago in London by making it fast and leading from the front. I have learnt so much in my running, whether for my club (Kenyan Prisons) or for my country at the African Championships, Commonwealth Games or Diamond League races. This time I am focused on trying to win gold for my country.
“I can’t really describe what it would feel like as it has never happened to me before,” he adds. “But as a professional athlete, we must have the biggest goals and a vision for how to get there – and this is one of them.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF