Faith Kipyegon of Kenya, winner of the gold medal, during the medal ceremony after competing in the 5000m women's final during day nine of the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. (Photo by Andy Astfalck/BSR Agency/Getty Images)
On a July morning, the warm-up tracks outside the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi are a hive of activity. Several legendary Kenyan athletes are present, including David Rudisha, Catherine Ndereba and Vivian Cheruiyot.
They all stop and speak to the star of the show: Faith Kipyegon. She is pulling a crowd even though she is there only for training.
Kipyegon runs around the track so many times I lose count, yet she shows no sign of tiredness. She brings the same level of commitment to the warm-up that you see when she is racing on the world stage.
And girl, can she race: Already a two-times Olympic gold medallist, she smashed the women’s 1 500m world record in Florence on 2 June. A week later in Paris she broke the 5 000m world record (broken again on Sunday by Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay).
When she was training at Nyayo, she was preparing for the World Athletics Championship in Budapest, where she went on to win gold in the 1 500m and 5 000m. Days later, she broke the women’s mile world record in Monaco.
As she walks through the stadium she is stopped every few steps by people asking for a photograph, an autograph or just to tell her how much they admire her. She graciously accommodates all the interruptions.
Her life could have been so different. “When I was a child, I wanted to be a policewoman,” she says. “I just wanted to study, enjoy life, and join the police, being an athlete never crossed my mind.”
Asked about the celebrity treatment she receives now, she laughs. “I don’t see myself as a celebrity; I see myself as Faith. Athletes do need to be careful when we meet people, particularly during flu season, but I never say no. It is such an honour for me to be celebrated by people, to be known here at home. In many ways it’s a motivating factor in itself.”
Running up that hill
Kipyegon’s life began 29 years ago in Bomet, southwestern Kenya, in the Rift Valley area from which most of Kenya’s long distance legends hail.
Today, nearly half of the people in Bomet are poor, and very few have electricity.
Kipyegon’s early life was just as humble. She ran barefoot to and from school.
“I have been doing this since I was a little girl. You would run to school, then back home for lunch. I enjoyed it but never thought I would one day become an Olympic champion,” she says.
That all changed in Moscow in 2013.
Prior to that, Kipyegon had competed in international junior events, and done well. But Moscow was in the big league; the World Athletic Championship, where Kipyegon would run on the same track as the world’s fastest women. Aged just 19, she came fifth. The legend was born.
“That year I saw my potential in running. I thought this is something I could pursue. I could enjoy the process and see if I became an elite athlete.”
Therein lies one of the secrets to Kipyegon’s success. Rather than chase any particular accolade, she wants to “enjoy the process”. Immersed in the process, she often reacts with surprise at her own greatest feats.
In Florence, she merely wanted to finish the race under 3:54:03, the fastest anyone had run it this year. “I didn’t expect a world record,” she told journalists.
Despite her success, her process hasn’t changed. She continues to push herself, training every morning and evening. Words such as “discipline” and “consistency” are like the scripture to her. “Whether you’re an athlete, a nurse or a teacher, you need consistency and discipline. The days you don’t want to work, you still have to get up and go do the work.”
We suggest that there might be days when even ace reporters struggle to get out of bed and drag themselves off to the gym.
“Absolutely yes. Some mornings I just want to sleep. It’s 5.30am, everyone is sleeping and you’re the only one awake,” she laughs. “But I push past. I tell myself it’s time to get to work and get going. Before you know it, the day is done, and you feel fresh and ready for tomorrow.”
But what if there is gym tomorrow too? She just smiles.
The race of life
Off the track, Kipyegon has been on another demanding journey: bringing a human into this world, and then keeping her alive. Her daughter is called Alyn, and she was born in 2018.
Kipyegon is proud to be a parent, and she has had to work hard to reconcile her twin identities as athlete and mother.
Both are incredibly demanding, but in different ways, she says. “Oh, losing weight [after pregnancy] was difficult. You’re used to weighing 43kg and now you’re 63kg. It took a lot of mental strength but I just focused on one thing: I want to come back as Faith Kipyegon.”
On the track, she chooses not to hide the stretch marks pregnancy left her with, because “not covering them up shows pride in being a mom, in being a woman”.
But, like working mothers everywhere, she is plagued by “mom guilt”. Her first meet after Alyn’s birth tore her in all directions.
“I travelled to the USA for the Prefontaine Diamond League meet [in 2019]. It was hard. I kept telling myself that ‘this is for my career’, but while I was there she was all I could think about.”
Kipyegon still won. “Here is where mental strength is important. You remind yourself that the career path you’ve chosen is your right as a woman, as a girl. You tell yourself that ‘this is what I want to do with my life’.”
And then, if you are Faith Kipyegon, you do it. And keep doing it — faster than anyone else in the world.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian, which is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.