Kelvin Kiptum, world record holder in the marathon, jogs along the Coolsingel, the central thoroughfare in Rotterdam. Passersby turn their heads to see who he is. The group of photographers and cameramen swarming around him reveal that this must be a special man. “I think I’m a marathon runner,” someone mutters as they pass. “An Ethiopian,” says another. In the Rotterdam drizzle, few appear to know the 23-year-old Kenyan.
Even for those who know who he is, it turns out not to be easy to know him. The man who set the world record at 2:00:35 in Chicago is not easy to look into, as became clear at the press meeting prior to the photo shoot. He answers every question asked to him without further ado. A few words, nothing more.
He is in Rotterdam this Wednesday afternoon because he will be there at the start of the marathon in the spring, on Sunday April 14. It is his preparation for the Olympic Games, where he is aiming for gold.
Kiptum has been to Rotterdam before. Maybe even on the Coolsingel, although he did not reach the finish line that was set there. In 2019 he was hired as a pacemaker for the first kilometers. He walked 26 of the 42 kilometers and got off just before the Erasmus Bridge.
After his stunning race in Chicago, he is welcome to run anywhere in the world. The organizers of the major marathons are prepared to dig deep into their pockets. But he has a special bond with Rotterdam. After the race in 2019, he already expressed his fervent wish to return to the port city.
It is not Kiptum who says that, but his manager Marc Corstjens. It is not entirely coincidental that the Belgian is also the ‘race director’ in Rotterdam, the one who puts together the field of participants. “He wanted to run fast here, he said then. And that has always remained in his mind. We didn’t have to talk him into getting him here.”
That leaves a hole in the organization’s budget. Amounts are not mentioned, but usually in the hundreds of thousands. The new director of the marathon, Wilbert Lek, is committed to it. The competition wants to count globally again.
Between 1985 and 1998 the world record belonged to Rotterdam, first in the name of Portuguese Carlos Lopes (2.07.12) and from 1985 in the name of Ethiopian Belayneh Densamo (2.06.50). The latter record stood for ten years and thanks to Tegla Loroupe’s world record (2.20.47) in the spring of 1998, Rotterdam was briefly the undisputed marathon city in the world. With Kiptum we have to revive those times.
When asked, Kiptum says that he can still remember the flat course, the enthusiastic audience and the good atmosphere from four years ago. “I’m happy to be back,” he says with a polite, almost shy smile on his face. They dug up footage of his performance then. His long body and thin face bobs anonymously in the group of hares. No name on his starting number, only a 52.
Now he is sitting on a podium on a high stool in an orange sweater and white sweatpants. He is certainly not anonymous in this room in the Hilton Hotel. Opposite him, Dutch and Flemish journalists try to find out a little more about him than what they were able to see in the three marathons he ran: 2.01.53 on his debut in Valencia in 2022, 2.01.25 in London this year and beyond his world record in Chicago.
Whether he has had contact with Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon great from whom he stole the world record? “I am very busy, Eliud is very busy.” Did he think it was special to break the time of his famous compatriot? “I wanted to improve my personal record. It became a world record. I felt happy.” Has his life changed? “No not really.”
Sometimes there is a hint of depth. Often especially when the question is not about his life but about his sport. When asked why he did not start his sport like most of the Kenyan athletes on the 400 meter track, but immediately started with road races, his answer is telling. “I didn’t have the money to travel to an athletics track.”
In Western Kenya, where Kiptum comes from, running can be a way out of poverty. He only started walking around the age of 15 and had his first child soon after. His son is now seven, his daughter four. Although it wasn’t the reason he took up running, the sport allowed him to support his family.
He would do a lot for that. As if it is nothing special, he tells how in the run-up to his competitions he spends training weeks in which he sometimes covers up to 300 kilometers. That’s an average of just over a marathon per day. It characterizes his unyielding character and his very strong body. Other top runners cannot manage such a mileage. “My coach sometimes has to slow me down.”
Kipchoge is nicknamed ‘the philosopher’ because of his verbosity. Kiptum has no nickname, he says. He takes the starting number that the organization gave him. The paper shows number 1 and his last name. “Kiptum,” he points. That’s what people call him.
No one on the sidelines will wonder who he is when he sets out to tighten his world record with that song next spring. Then they will know him on the Coolsingel.