Tributes poured in on Monday for Kenyan running sensation Kelvin Kiptum after the marathon world record-holder was killed in a car crash at the age of 24.
The death of Kiptum just months before the Paris Olympics has shocked Kenya and the world of athletics, with his rival, the legendary marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge saying he was “deeply saddened”.
Kiptum, a father of two, was driving from Kaptagat to Eldoret in the Rift Valley, the heartland of Kenyan distance running, around 11pm on Sunday when his car careered off the road and hit a tree. Police said Kiptum and his Rwandan coach Gervais Hakizimana were killed on the spot while a woman passenger was injured.
“He lost control and veered off-road entering into a ditch on his left side. He drove in the ditch for about 60 metres before hitting a big tree,” said an official police report from Elgeyo Marakwet County where the accident occurred. Images on Kenyan media showed the mangled wreck of the vehicle, its windscreen shattered, the roof and doors buckled and almost ripped off.
From herding goats just a decade ago, Kiptum had announced he would attempt in April to become the first man to run an official marathon under the mythic two-hour mark. He burst onto the marathon scene when he ran a world record 2:00:35 in Chicago in October, slicing 34 seconds off Kipchoge’s previous record. He was just 23 at the time, and competing in only his third marathon.
Kiptum also won his other two efforts – his debut in Valencia in 2022 and a follow-up in London the following year – recording three of the seven fastest marathon times in history. Kipchoge, regarded as one of the greatest marathon runners of all time, described his younger rival as a “rising star”. “An athlete who had a whole life ahead of him to achieve incredible greatness,” Kipchoge said on X.
Kiptum and 39-year-old Kipchoge were expected to face off for the first time at the Paris Olympics. As the tributes flowed, mourners gathered at the family home in the Rift Valley village of Chepsamo, consoling his father Samson Cheruiyot and his wife Asenath Rotich.
Cheruiyot told local station that he last spoke to his only son on Saturday and that Kiptum had said “if he was to run, he could do it in one hour 59/58 minutes since his body was feeling fine”.
Kenyan President William Ruto described Kiptum as “one of the world’s finest sportsmen who broke barriers to secure a marathon record”. “An extraordinary sportsman has left an extraordinary mark in the globe,” he said on X.
World Athletics said Kiptum’s Valencia debut was the fastest in history and mourned the loss of “one of the most exciting new prospects to emerge in road running in recent years”. “An incredible athlete leaving an incredible legacy, we will miss him dearly,” said its president Sebastian Coe, who last week had been in Chicago to officially ratify Kiptum’s historic time.
Kenyan 1,500m record-holder Faith Kipyegon left a wordless tribute on X: three crying emojis and a Kenyan flag, while two-time Olympic 800m champion David Rudisha said Kiptum’s death was a “huge loss”.
“We had been looking forward to welcoming him into the Olympic community at the Olympic Games Paris 2024 and seeing what the fastest marathon runner in the world could achieve,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said on X.
Ten years ago, barely a teen, Kiptum herded goats and sheep and then began following Hakizimana and other runners as they trained in the legendary high-altitude Eldoret region. By 2019, Kiptum ran two half-marathons in two weeks in Europe. He began training with Hakizimana, who stayed in Kenya when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Kiptum’s death is the latest in a saga of tragedies to hit Kenya’s athletics hopefuls. In 2011, Kenyan marathon great Samuel Wanjiru died at the same age in a mysterious accident at his home after capturing the title at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In 2021, distance running star Agnes Tirop was found stabbed to death at the age of 25 at her house in Iten, near Eldoret. Her husband Ibrahim Rotich went on trial for her murder in November last year.