‘Till death do us apart’: How marathon world record holder Kelvin Kiptum and coach Gervais Hakizimana became friends

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 12 – World marathon record holder Kelvin Kiptum and his coach Gervais Hakizimana, who died together in a road crash on Sunday night along Eldoret-Kaptagat road, were bossom buddies who were joined at the hip.

Their relationship goes all the way back to when the Rwandese was still an active athlete whereas the 24-year-old was a still a schoolboy.

Even back then, it always seemed that Kiptum was naturally inclined towards and destined for a bright future in road race.

During his homecoming at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) after smashing the world record at Chicago Marathon in October, Hakizimana narrated the twists and turns that transformed him into a kingmaker to the man who would become a marathon G.O.A.T.

“We knew each other when he was still a kid…going to school or tending his father’s livestock. I used to train on his father’s land and he would always want to train with me. It was around 2009 to 2011…he was very young back then,” Hakizimana said.

The 37-year-old Rwandese had enjoyed a chequered career that included wins at the Lons-Le-Saunier 10km race in France in 2010, Pezenas National Meet in 2012 as well as a second-place finish at the Beauvais Half Marathon (2015) and Francoville French Club Championships (2010).

However, niggling injuries would force Hakizimana to hang his spikes and begin another journey in athletics as a tutor.

“By 2015, I was already struggling with injuries. I used to go a lot to France where the only running I would do is to jog to keep fit. By then he had also began training and would seek advice from me on how to become a better runner. It was at the same time I was also training certain Rwandese athletes in France,” Hakizimana said.

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The Covid-19 pandemic proved a blessing in disguise and a blossoming of their relationship during which Hakizimana officially took on the responsibility of forging Kiptum into a world beater.

Kevin Kiptum celebrates with his new WR

“During the covid-19 pandemic, I was stuck here in Kenya and couldn’t go back to France. It so happens that he had competed in two half marathon races in a space of 10 days and performed so well. That’s when I knew he had a lot of potential. From then on, I officially became his coach,” Hakizimana revealed.

A father figure

Samson Cheruiyot, Kiptum’s father, described the relationship between his son and the coach as one of mutual respect.

Hakizimana was Kiptum’s father in athletics who he was eternally indebted to for holding his hands and steadying him in the world of road races.

“In our Kalenjin culture, it is wrong for you to throw away the plate that has fed you. I am happy that my son has stuck with his coach even when he is enjoying success. He (Hakizimana) has been like a father to him throughout this journey,” Cheruiyot said during the homecoming.

Cheruiyot, a born-again Christian from Chepsamo village, further exalted his son for his obedience and sticking to the lessons he learnt from him since childhood.

“I am a very proud father because he has not digressed from what I taught him. I was taught by my own parents never to drink alcohol and I’ve stuck to that until now. I thank my parents, although they are no longer here, for these things they taught me,” he said.

The road to glory for Kiptum was full of bumps and potholes in the form of initial pessimism from family as well as lack of training equipment.

His uncle, Kiplangat Cheruiyot, recounted the squalor conditions the London Marathon champion had to contend with in pursuit of better days ahead.

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“He came to Chepkorio and decided to rent a house. It was a wooden structure with earthen floor and next to it was a bar that was playing loud music all the time. I went to visit him and was shocked at the conditions in which he was living…I asked him whether it was a sacrifice worth making but he said he wanted to use it as his training base,” Kiplangat said.

Kiplangat added: “I told him that he was wasting his time but he begged me to give him a chance to try out athletics. He promised he would be coming back to his father’s home, but he never used to do that.”

Kelvin Kiptum crosses the finish line to win the London Marathon. PHOTO/COURTESY

Won souls eventually

The family’s initial misgivings eventually waned when Kiptum emerged victorious at the Eldoret Half Marathon.

Kiplangat said the win convinced them that, maybe, there lay a future in athletics for the 24-year-old.

“We started to see that athletics was his goldmine. People started to greet him with two hands because they were seeing him differently. Then he went to the Kass FM Marathon and won and at that point we were convinced he had found his true love,” the uncle narrated.

So convinced about his nephew’s abilities was Kiplangat that on the morning before he broke the marathon world record, he had already begun preparations for celebration.

“I went to his wife and told her I needed to send one of the boys to fetch a tall bamboo stick. I asked her to fetch the national flag that was in the house and the plan was to hoist it high along the road in the evening. In my heart, I sensed he was going to smash Kipchoge’s record,” Kiplangat said.  

Kiptum was married to Asenath Rotich with who he bore two children aged seven and four years.

During his homecoming, she was described as the centrepiece to Kiptum’s success and a stabilising force in his life.

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“She has been a blessing to the family and a calming force. When she came to the family, Kelvin became more disciplined and focused. His star shone brightest with her in his life and has given him two beautiful kids,” Kiplangat explained.

His demise leaves behind a huge gap in his family as well as Chepsamo village in Elgeyo Marakwet county.

His friendship with Hakizimana is an exemplification of the importance of good chemistry in attaining unrivalled success in sports.

One wonders what more medals and records that could have emerged from this partnership and friendship that began from childhood.

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