Kiptum: Widow of Kenya's marathon legend mourns 'joker and hero'

Kiptum was inspired to become an athlete by a cousin who was a pacemaker

In Summary

•Kiptum's mother has accepted that she must now "live for my grandchildren".

•The athlete's generosity was not reserved just for his family - the London and Chicago marathon champion wanted to change the lives of other ambitious athletes.


Kelvin Kiptum, the athlete who is being buried on Friday in a small village in western Kenya, is remembered by those who loved him as a joker - as well as a young man with incredible drive, determined to help those who sacrificed so much for him to be able to break the marathon world record last year.

The 24-year-old's death in a road accident nearly two weeks ago on his way home has devastated the farming community in Chepsamo village.

"He was always joking - we spoke on the night of his death and he was joking about the Africa Cup of Nations final," his mother Mary Kangongo told the BBC.

The match was being played in Abidjan, with hosts Ivory Coast surprising many by beating Nigeria to take the title.

"He told me that I should support Nigeria but I told him I wouldn't be watching football as it was on too late," she said.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, his grief-stricken mother was admitted to hospital for several days.

Now back home, she tells me in a softly spoken voice reminiscent of her son: "He was a simple, humble boy, you'd never know he was a world-record holder who had made some money. He always helped and supported the community."

His widow Asenath Rotich agrees with her mother-in-law: "I remember him most for his jokes… he was loving and caring, a man who liked to tell jokes."

She also lives in Chepsamo with their two children, saying Kiptum doted on his seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter.

"He'd arrive home on the weekend, and they'd spend the whole time together until he returned to camp," Ms Rotich told the BBC. Like most athletes in Kenya, Kiptum spent the week at a training camp - his was in the nearby town of Chepkorio.

On the main road about a few kilometres from his village there is a roadside memorial with a framed picture of the athlete and some fresh flowers.

Nailed to the tree hit by his car on the night of Sunday 11 February is a board renaming the street "Kiptum Road".

People passing by often stop their journey to pay their respects. Most here remember him as a jovial and generous man.

Kiptum was inspired to become an athlete by a cousin who was a pacemaker - this area in Kenya's Rift Valley region is famous for producing some of the world's greatest long-distance runners.

His widow also puts his determination to succeed down to his parents.

He entered his first major race five years ago at the age of 18, competing in borrowed shoes. Last October he took 34 seconds off the marathon record time in Chicago - his final race.

"He was very dedicated to athletics," Ms Rotich said. "I would tell him: 'Rest today, don't go for training,' but he'd say: 'I am working hard to make our lives better and our kids happy.'"

This discipline and drive can be gleaned from Kiptum's father, Samson Cheruiyot, who spoke to the BBC outside a house where he lives with his wife, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

"I worked burning charcoal to make sure that he had everything he needed, and his mother would shop for second-hand shoes for him," he said.

"There are days we slept on floors while travelling for local races just so we could survive.

"He promised that once he succeeded, we would be comfortable. But now he is gone," he said about his only child.

The athlete's generosity was not reserved just for his family - the London and Chicago marathon champion wanted to change the lives of other ambitious athletes.

"Kiptum was my mentor, he used his own funds to help upcoming athletes like me pay rent and buy food and help us register for races," upcoming athlete Henry Kipyego told BBC.

"If it wasn't for Kiptum, my life would've turned out differently. I might have been in the village drinking alcohol and engaging in other vices," the 23-year-old said.

"He had big dreams for this region, he wanted to make sure it was doing well in athletics and he'd promised to build us a training camp."

His widow agrees that especially since setting the London Marathon course record last April, he wanted to live up to being the local champion. As well as sponsoring local runners, he helped elsewhere in the community, she said.

"He recently bought high school kids shoes and books and offered his car to ferry them to schools and helped with school fees."

Novestus Kirwa, who was due to be Kiptum's pacemaker when he tried to become the first person to run a competitive marathon in under two hours in Rotterdam in April, said his friend and colleague was not selfish in his goals.

"Everything Kiptum planned, he achieved. He was courageous and believed in himself to break the record.

"I couldn't eat for three days or train after the crash. This is the person that I would have raced with and maybe improve my personal best," he said.

"My target now when I go to Rotterdam will be to run my personal best in honour of Kiptum."

As the village and country come to terms with losing a sporting champion, a massive funeral is planned for him this Friday.

It will be held at the local primary school in Chepsamo and will be attended by the country's leaders, including President William Ruto, as well as World Athletics President Sebastian Coe.

He will be interred on the land he had bought to build his family a home - and where over the last week, the government has been erecting a house for his widow. A separate house will be built next to it for his parents.

Kiptum's mother has accepted that she must now "live for my grandchildren".

His widow is thankful for the government's support but says nothing will make up for her husband's love and support.

"My son always says he wants to be like his father, he even runs sometimes and tries to emulate what his dad would do. He used to ask his dad to take him training, but he would reply: 'Focus on your studies to get to university.'

"When he grows up, I will support his dream and I will always show him his dad's trophies and tell him his father was a hero."