When Joshua Cheptegei and Kololo Independence Grounds are mentioned in the same sentence, the narrative always has a poignant ending.
Cheptegei ends up being reduced to an object of shame, with his meltdown at the 2017 World Cross-Country Championships an abiding source of pity.
Since it’s well documented that Kololo besmirched the distance runner’s honour, claiming the leafy suburb helped consolidate his current powerful place in global athletics is a hard sell. Only, it isn’t.
Three years before the devastation of the 2017 World Cross-Country Championships was visited upon Cheptegei, Uganda hosted a continental showpiece. The 2014 African Cross Country Championships were staged in, you’ve guessed right, Kololo.
The event spawned new opportunities for a wide-eyed country boy. Cheptegei wasn’t born into wealth; he was born in Kapchorwa’s tiny village of Kapsewui where life moves at a different pace.
Cheptegei didn’t start out in track and field; his first love was football. He soon gravitated towards long jump, then triple jump before settling on running. His initial performances were hardly noteworthy. But things would drastically change in 2014, and Kololo would play a telling role.
Junior world champion
The 2014 African Cross Country Championships retain a nostalgic appeal for Cheptegei. The event handed the then teenaged upstart an opportunity to catapult himself into long-distance running stardom.
Whereas a seventh placement in the junior men’s race went virtually unannounced for the uninitiated, Global Sports Communication representatives had seen enough to volley directives into their phones. Cheptegei needed to be snapped up.
“For insiders the seventh place was a sign of his potential and the capabilities he has,” says Jurrie van der Velden who now manages Cheptegei.
“It’s also the race which earned him his first international opportunity to compete in Bangalore 10K in May in India where he finished second behind Geoffrey Kamworor.”
More on Kamworor shortly. After the podium finish in Bangalore, Cheptegei headed to 2014 World Junior Championships in Eugene, USA, teeming with confidence.
Van der Velden says Cheptegei went into Eugene as “one of the favourites” especially since he was a world junior leader in the 10,000 metres. The Dutchman adds that his new client nailed the 25-lap event “in good style”, leading at every kilometre split with under eight laps left.
A star had been born. “I feel so much happy and delighted,” Cheptegei said of his gold medal-winning performance post-race. “I was confident and I knew I was going to make it.”
Rivalry with Kamworor
The youngster talked quietly, and he measured every word. “Starting slow,” he said, “and finishing fast is how I usually run.”
The conservative style saw him finish 11th in the junior men’s race at the 2015 World Cross-Country Championships in Guiyang, China.
At the same championships, Kamworor enjoyed enormous good fortune, taking the tape in the senior men’s race ahead of compatriot Bedan Karoki. Kamworor would go on to share an intense rivalry with Cheptegei.
The rivalry is still spoken of in the present tense. You cannot mention one without the other. Both athletes are peerless at the distance where pressure can be as brutal as the power is seductive. The rivalry, which for the most part came to life in two World Cross Country Championships, best captures the ebb and flow of Cheptegei’s career.
It all began at a sunbathed Kololo in March of 2017. Cheptegei was in the process of building what looked like an unassailable lead over the defending champion, Kamworor with a lap to run.
The boisterous home crowd had coaxed Cheptegei into breaking ranks with his conservative running style. The consequences would be profoundly unforgiving. The colossal weight that Cheptegei had admirably carried was brought to bear in the most spectacular of fashions as Kamworor defended his senior men’s title.
The meltdown, which saw Cheptegei drop from first to 30th place, produced a deep-seated sadness in him so much so that he didn’t leave his house for weeks. “We stand behind him in terms of the decisions he made in the race. In the end it’s part of the learning curve,” Van der Velden notes, adding, “The weeks after were more in terms of supporting him, [and] giving him positive energy.”
There was, however, little time to lick wounds with the 2017 World Championships on the horizon. Success could yet be salvaged.
If feeding off Kamworor, the necessary enemy, was not appealing enough, then coming up against Mo Farah in London sure did whet the appetite. While a long distance double at the Rio 2016 Olympics acclaimed the Briton as a considerable success, Cheptegei’s performances passed virtually without comment.
The Ugandan finished the 10,000 metres final in sixth position, 5.43 seconds behind Farah. The 5000 metres final showed an even wider chasm between master and young pretender. Cheptegei placed eighth, 5.87 seconds off the pace.
The 2017 World Championships in London would see a new page turned, much to the satisfaction of Cheptegei’s coach, Addy Ruiter.
Ruiter is the man credited for moulding Cheptegei into what he is today. The Dutchman is the brain behind the tightly controlled training environment. He has also helped Cheptegei appreciate that suffering and sacrifice come with the job.
“Months after Kololo I was in Kapchorwa for a period of time starting the preparations for the World Championships in London,” Ruiter recalls.
“The preparations went perfectly and that meant Joshua was standing with a lot of confidence at the start line in London.”
Going into the 10,000 metres final at the 2017 Worlds, Ruiter knew that Cheptegei stood no chance if the race wound up being slow and tactical.
“We knew that Joshua’s final sprint was not good enough to beat everyone. He had to make it into a fast race, which he did. The silver medal was a very good result!”
Farah, perhaps unsurprisingly, took gold.
Ruiter has been working with Cheptegei since 2015. Most training sessions play out in the undulating contours of Kapchorwa, which squats on an altitude of 5900 feet. The boy from the dusty tracks of Kapsewui followed up his silver in London with a distance double at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast albeit with Farah absent.
What is frequently overlooked about Gold Coast 2018 is the shift Jacob Kiplimo put in en route to placing fourth in the 10,000 metres final. Still only 17 then, the performance brought Kiplimo into the orbit of the seniors.
By the time the 2019 World Cross Country Championships blipped on the radar in Aarhus, Demark, it was not just Kamworor that had Cheptegei looking over his shoulder. Kiplimo was a threat too.
Winning two world titles
The Aarhus course notably had a punishingly steep climb and headlong descent. Kiplimo went into Aarhus on the back of a nine-month, nine-race winning streak.
This included outgunning Cheptegei at the National Cross-Country Championships in Tororo. To that end, Kiplimo was challenging the idea that an unexpected speed bump awaits whoever dares to make the transition from junior to senior ranks.
Cheptegei wasn’t laying low though. The preparation and attention to detail that he put in before Aarhus was relentless. He remained devoted to the idea that grit and preparation could deliver his atonement day.
He says: “I was really well prepared mentally and physically. The course was very demanding…anyone who would be patient until the last moments would win the race.”
Cheptegei won his second world title in 2019, exhibiting astute racing smarts in the 10,000 metres final when the World Championships made a stopover in Doha, Qatar.
“What led me to [that] world title was winning the Diamond League final over the 5K in Zurich. It gave me a lot of confidence and proved to me that I was at the right moment.”
The 23-year-old was a shoo-in for a podium finish before the coronavirus pandemic forced the hand of organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Professionalism has helped Cheptegei develop a fitter, stronger body. Ruiter believes a long, storied career beckons. “Joshua is an intelligent athlete who now knows how to handle his body.
There’s a plan to move over to the marathon after the Olympic Games of 2024.”