Stephen Kiprotich may be better known for his accomplishments on the road, but the Ugandan distance running star has cross country in his blood.
Growing up in the rural and mountainous East African country, the 2012 Olympic and 2013 world marathon champion insists he has been weaned on running over the surface since childhood.
“In Uganda we have a very strong tradition in cross country running,” says Kiprotich. “It has always been a key for any athlete preparing for track season. I have been competing in cross country from the start of my running career since I have been in school and it’s very easy to find good places to train for cross country in Uganda.”
Three U20 World Cross appearances set solid foundation
A highly gifted teenage athlete, Kiprotich made his debut at the 2006 World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. Competing in the U20 race at a windswept Seaside Park, he finished a respectable 24th and fourth counter for Uganda in what was a huge learning curve for the youngster.
“Everything was new to me,” he recalls. “First time on a plane, first time in a hotel, first experience of a foreign language, first time to see so many people from different nationalities. I found it very interesting.
“The race was tough as it was my first time competing in the winter; I didn’t know about winter until then. I was happy with my performance as I was very proud to represent my country for the first time and gain international experience.”
Twelve months later he returned for the 2007 edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, Kenya. In contrast to the cold of Fukuoka, athletes in Kenya faced sizzling temperatures of about 38C and humidity of 80%.
Despite the brutally tough conditions, Kiprotich stuck to his task to finish 19th behind Asbel Kiprop, the man who the next year would become Olympic 1500m champion and has subsequently gone on to become a three-time world 1500m champion.
“I learned more in Mombasa as the conditions were so hot, and although so many people DNFd, this was a more difficult race,” recalls Kiprotich.
With a growing level of maturity and experience, the Ugandan placed 12th in his final U20 experience at the 2008 edition of the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh and picked up a team bronze medal.
He recalls the challenge of the connecting flight and long journey to the Scottish capital and the cold winter weather before the following year making his debut in the senior race at the 2009 event held in Amman, Jordan.
Facing the prospect of competing at the longer distance of 12km up from the 8km trip as an under-20 athlete, coupled with the additional challenge of higher quality athletes, it was no easy task.
However, on the Al Bisharat course, Kiprotich – still aged only 19 – produced a respectable run to finish 23rd behind Ethiopian Gebregziabher Gebremariam.
Punta Umbria helped form world and Olympic marathon champion
Kiprotich returned two years later to compete at the 2011 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria in Spain as preparation for his marathon debut just four weeks later in Enschede in the Netherlands.
And that day everything clicked as the Ugandan produced his most memorable cross-country outing to date, finishing just 17 seconds behind race winner Imane Merga of Ethiopia to place sixth. As the top Ugandan finisher, he led his country to a bronze medal finish in the team competition. It was an outstanding display and one he recalls with fondness.
“For me, 2011 was great. The course, the weather, the race, my shape. At that time my coach Patrick Sang and my manager had planned a marathon debut for me, as I was an average track runner and didn’t excel on that surface.
“To me this performance was very motivating. I competed for the first time in my career at the highest level, battling for global medals. It confirmed what my coach and management have always told me, ‘train hard, be committed to your goals and you’ll achieve’.”
Buoyed by a new wave of confidence following this performance in Punta Umbria, just four weeks later – one day before his 22nd birthday – he blitzed to a Ugandan record of 2:07:20 to win his marathon debut in Enschede and so a great marathon career was born.
Later that year he placed eighth over the 42.2km distance at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu. Then in 2012 he emerged as a superstar on the global running scene by storming to the Olympic marathon crown in London and 12 months later adding the world marathon title in Moscow.
With the 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships taking place in Kiprotich’s homeland, the 27-year-old marathon great is buzzing with anticipation at the prospect of racing in Kampala. He believes the iconic event can act as the perfect springboard for his ambitions of running well at the Hamburg Marathon just four weeks later.
“In the past I used to use cross as part of training towards the outdoor track season," explains Kiprotich. “In my opinion, cross can serve as a build-up to compete on any surface or any competition. Whether you’re preparing for road races, marathon or track, cross country will make you stronger and will make you a better athlete.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF