Cheptegei turns focus back to 10,000m for Paris 2024
Just a few miles away from the site of his world 10,000m record three years prior, Joshua Cheptegei stumbled towards the finish line of the Valencia Marathon, George Mallet reports for World Athletics.
On the track, the Olympic 5000m gold medallist and three-time world 10,000m champion is renowned for his unbeatable finishing strength. But in his debut over the marathon distance, with each foot supporting a tired body on the brink, the Ugandan had to be content with 37th place in the Spanish city, clocking 2:08:59.
Cheptegei wasn’t too disappointed or surprised, though. Supported by race organizer Marc Roig, Cheptegei hobbled to the elite finishers’ tent immediately after the race, beaming from ear to ear.
A few days before, Cheptegei had warned: “The marathon has no respect for people.”
Not even Olympic champions, it would seem.
Fans have grown used to Cheptegei finding his rhythm in a leading pack, so seeing him there at halfway was no surprise. Going through 13.1 miles in 1:00:36 wasn’t part of the plan – not that there necessarily was one.
When asked in the build-up to the race what he wanted from his debut, Cheptegei said: “I want to learn.”
Collapsing over the line with a rueful smile, Cheptegei clarified that his objective had been achieved.
He knew that his preparation for the event had been far from perfect. It started with pulling out of the Wanda Diamond League final due to a reaction to wearing spikes in defending his world 10,000m crown in Budapest. Once he did return, the following weeks saw his usual runs around the rolling hills of Kapchorwa deemed too dangerous due to constant deluges.
Cheptegei never ran more than 160km a week – which, by the standards of most current marathon specialists, was a light schedule.
Yet in Valencia, he still chose to go with the pace. Many would expect little else from a world 5000m and 10,000m record holder consistently pushing the margins of the possible.
For many fans, their first clear memory of Cheptegei at a senior level was his performance at the 2017 World Cross Country Championships on home soil in Kampala.
That day, the 2016 Olympic 10,000m sixth-place finisher ripped the senior race apart, striding away through the middle section and building a massive lead into the final kilometer.
The Ugandan fans chasing him in bursts around the course almost went as far as to hand over the red, yellow, and black flags.
As the commentators proclaimed his title, Cheptegei had pushed himself to the limit, a smooth stride rolling to a wayward struggle.
Defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor – a former mentor to Cheptegei during his time in Kenya in 2015 – silenced the crowds, passing the struggling Ugandan in a fleeting second and going on to win. Cheptegei eventually finished 30th.
“Joshua had a great belief and determination in running,” Kamworor commented on his Ugandan rival. “Whenever you talk with him, you can see in his mind that he has great aspirations in life.
“He’s even becoming one of my mentors.”
Cheptegei won the senior title at his next attempt in Aarhus in 2019, the year of the first of three consecutive world 10,000m titles. An Olympic silver in Tokyo in that event accompanied 5000m gold.
Risks taken, lessons learned, all in a bid to break new ground. It’s core to Cheptegei’s philosophy as a runner and, ultimately, a role model to those who follow him worldwide, perhaps most importantly back home in Uganda.
It’s also followed him since his first days as a professional.
While training with Kamworor, Eliud Kipchoge, and the rest in Kaptagat, barely aged 20, the 2014 world U20 10,000m champion made a problematic but bold decision.
“I told my management that I wanted to go back home and build a running culture and to inspire the young generation here in Uganda.”
As a young athlete – and although it happened 24 years before Cheptegei was born – Cheptegei was made aware that John Akii-Bua earned Uganda’s first Olympic athletics medal when taking the 400m hurdles gold in Munich in 1972.
It’s clear that Cheptegei now feels a sense of responsibility when it comes to developing the sport in his country, much like Akii-Bua did more than 50 years ago.
“It’s a privilege to have had great guys like him open the way for us, especially in a difficult time where the country was unstable,” says Cheptegei.
Akii-Bua was forced to live much of his life outside Uganda, moving to Kenya towards the final days of the Idi Amin dictatorship.
Likewise, Uganda’s next Olympic gold medallist, Stephen Kiprotich, trained in their eastern neighbor for much of his career.
The then-15-year-old Cheptegei admits taking a break from kicking a football around the schoolyard to watch Kiprotich win Olympic marathon gold in 2012, which was the moment he made his plans for global success.
“I was like, ‘right, it’s in my heart. I want to become a champion, a national hero like him.”
Cheptegei has developed those ambitions. For better or worse, he aims to show the next generation they need not leave home deliberately: no altitude camps elsewhere, high-tech facilities, or trips to some winter sun.
“I have always trained in Uganda, always and always,” he reiterates.
Despite the world records, Olympic gold, and world championship titles, Cheptegei still feels that to prove that one achievement remains to tick off.
It’s all about the number 10.
“2024, it’ll be ten years running internationally,” he says. “10 years at a high level.
“I’m still in love with the 10,000m, the special distance. I still want to go to Paris and win.”
Only Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie have won more world 10,000m titles than Cheptegei. Both won two Olympic golds in the event.
Cheptegei will head to the French capital hungry to find his first, motivated in the knowledge that he’ll send a message to that young Ugandan watching, hoping to follow in his path.