Right before the New York City Half, MarathonGuide.com caught up with Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, winner of the 2006 Chicago Marathon and three time winner of the Boston Marathon (2003, 2006, 2007).
"The marathon is a very strange thing," said the soft-spoken Kenyan who has become an outstanding competitor in the marathon distance. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot is riding a winning streak of three consecutive marathon victories. Nonetheless, Kipkoech Cheruiyot remains humble, even when asked about the $500,000 World Marathon Majors' prize purse which he will most likely receive for acquiring the most points for wins in any of the series' races during 2006 and 2007. With that bonus, Cheruiyot will become one of the highest paid runners of all time, yet places more emphasis on the quality of his performances - his focus for the future remains on good health and running well.
A Formidable Start
Cheruiyot began running while in elementary school in Kenya where his headmaster incorporated running into the students' daily regimen. While stories abound of famous Kenyan athletes having started by running to and from school, Kipkoech Cheruiyot along with his fellow classmates would run forty minutes - in their school uniforms - at the beginning of each school day before going to class. Later, they would run varying distances in the evening.
It wasn't until around eighteen years of age when Kipkoech Cheruiyot became interested in the marathon distance and the dream was born. Kipkoech Cheruiyot fondly recalled the exact moment he was inspired to pursue running in earnest: "The 1996 Olympics were in Atlanta and we watched on a black and white television set back in Kenya. The guy standing on the podium was my classmate!" Further inspiration and the desire to pursue the marathon came from watching fellow countrymen Paul Tergat training with Kenyan marathon pioneer and two-time Boston Winner Moses Tanui.
With the encouragement of both Tanui and Tergat, Kipkoech Cheruiyot went to Milan in 2002 and ran his first marathon, winning in a time of 2:08:59. After that impressive debut, Cheruiyot was invited to run the 2003 Boston Marathon and won with a time of 2:10:11. Despite the early success, Cheruiyot believes these wins to be beginners luck. "I was too young. When you are young, you can run one or two [marathons] and win, but you don't truly know the marathon. It takes training and the right mind to run them and run them well. I was young when I won those races. I did not grow up until 2006."
Heart, Head & Health
Kipkoech Cheruiyot currently trains at altitude back in Kenya with a group of about twenty others, especially his primary training partner Paul Tergat. Lately, Cheruiyot has taken young runner Ruto Kipkoech under his wing and has begun to mold him into an elite athlete. Despite his international status, home is where his heart is, which is made obvious as his face lights up when he speaks about Kenya. Kipkoech Cheruiyot also gives back to the community by supporting local races including the Safaricom Half Marathon whose races raise money for the community and to promote wildlife conservation in Northern Kenya.
Beyond the marathon distance, Kipkpech Cheruiyot enjoys shorter distances as well. He competes in two to four half marathons per year along with a few 10K races.
There is a certain nervous edge to his voice when the line of questioning turns to his health and recovery from the head injury incurred during his famous fall at the finish line of the 2006 Chicago Marathon. After numerous tests and CAT scans, Cheruiyot was given a clean bill of health, yet something remains amiss. Cheruiyot shared with us how that moment was the worst day of his life and he replays the nightmare over and over in his head while still feeling remnants of pain. Since that time he answers most questions about his training with brief responses of "Not good, not bad." Yet when asked about the head injury, he does not hesitate to express how the moment still haunts him.
"There is pain inside my head. When I run too much I feel it. I want to be back to run well like before." The expression of worry erases the gentle smile that normally graces his face. He goes on to detail how his head hurts on the longer runs. When assured that he will be back running stronger than ever, he replies, "I hope so."
With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in the near future, Kipkoech Cheruiyot awaits the Kenyan Federation's selection for the marathon team. Unlike the US team whose selection is based on performance at one race - the Olympic Trials - the Kenyan Federation has full discretion to choose its team from their top athletes.
When the question of retirement arises, Kipkoech Cheruiyot who is just beginning a stellar marathoning career has his future planned out: "I'd like to retire in 5-7 years and do it like Michael Johnson [an American sprinter who has amassed many world records, five Olympic gold medals and nine World Championship wins before retiring at the height of his success]. Retiring on top is better, but I will not retire until I get my Gold in the Olympics or World Championships." He adds with a smile, "...or Silver."
Kipkoech Cheruiyot's career is still on the rise. While he becomes an inspiration to young Kenyans and runners around the world, it should be exciting to see if his Olympic dreams will come true. When asked if he would ever give us his strategy for winning a specific race, he broke into a wide grin, "That's in my heart. And I don't want to tell anybody."
Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot has signed on to defend his title at the 2007 Chicago Marathon in October. Following the 2007 New York City Half Marathon, Kipkoech Cheruiyot was taken to the hospital and received an MRI after feeling weak and confused upon crossing the finish line in third place. As per his agent, Federico Rosa - "He was there about an hour, everything is ok."
As always, we are impressed by Kipkoech Cheruiyot's heart, talent, humor and strong spirit. We look forward to many successes from a man who won his first two marathons and is currently on a string of three marathon major wins.
Do you train on a track?
No, no track work at all.
Do you enjoy racing shorter distances?
Well, I do two to four half marathons each year. (And) normally I run 10Ks but this year I did not. After Boston, I took a rest. I wanted to do Peachtree, but I was not prepared.
Do you ever get nervous at the races?
Everybody is nervous, but in five minutes (of standing at the start line), it's finished.
What do you eat the morning of a race?
Tea and some grains/bread, but no eggs. My stomach cannot have eggs. Black loose tea.