Eliud Kipchoge is the undisputed king of marathon running – but what makes him tick?

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The sun has barely started its ascent on a chilly morning in the Kenyan highlands and Eliud Kipchoge, a man who stops for nothing and no one, is forced to wait.

The problem is a puddle. There has been some overnight rain and, with the heat of the day yet to emerge, the back straight of the basic dirt training track has become one large mass of water.

The air is thin in this part of Kenya’s Rift Valley and the world’s finest collection of distance runners are primed for action after their 30-minute, pre-dawn drive from their Kaptagat camp to this university track in nearby Eldoret. But the puddle is in the way. So they stand and chat instead.

Conventionally, athletics training sessions are a closely guarded secret worldwide, but Kenya plays to a different tune. A sense of openness prevails and in addition to the 25 elites who possess multiple global titles between them, there are clusters of other unknown runners secreted into the group.

Most are talented locals, although some are betrayed as rank amateurs by their body shape, and one lone, lanky, white American stands out from the crowd. No one is quite sure how he fits in, but the track is open to anyone the university grants access.

The group run past the offending puddle at the Moi University track

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When the sun rises slightly higher in the sky, the mass peel off their tracksuits in the middle of the track. There are no changing rooms near this 400-metre loop, just parched grass and a smattering of trees around the edges of the field. A few leisurely jogged laps is the sum total of a warm-up and then the mile-repetition session begins.

An initial oversized swarm soon separates into an orderly single-file procession. Kipchoge, one of very few athletes running with a watch, maintains position near the head of the group, although he rarely bothers leading. The two-minute 50-second per kilometre pace is exactly the same as he maintained when becoming the first man to run a marathon distance in less than two hours. Today, he must only run one-mile intervals. Watching from the sidelines, where Telegraph Sport has been given rare access into the inner sanctum of Kipchoge’s life, it is apparent how easy he finds it.

By the end, the inside lane – a misnomer given the total absence of any markings on the track – has been churned into a soggy channel. There are smiles all round, back-slapping and hugs; every session ends with mutual congratulations. Then it is off back to camp for breakfast. No one has yet eaten anything.

Without changing rooms, the runners get changed where they can

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The sporting superstar that fame forgot

Kipchoge is the sporting superstar that fame forgot. Officially 35 (but rumoured to be some years older), he exudes wisdom, radiates calm and eschews luxuries in a manner unbefitting of his multi-millionaire status.

Few figures transcend athletics in the manner he has. A fine track runner who won world 5,000m gold in 2003 and made two Olympic podiums over the same distance, it is only since moving up in distance on the road that he has attained true greatness.

His achievements are staggering: in 12 marathons, he has been victorious 11 times; only on his debut did he run slower than 2hr 5min; he is Olympic champion; he holds the world record of 2hr 1min 39sec; and, of course, last October he managed what many thought not humanly possible when running a marathon distance in less than two hours.

That it was not eligible for record purposes was of negligible impact to the celebrity status bestowed on him outside the sport and he would justifiably have held star billing at the London Marathon on Sunday, had it not been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet while his stature has grown, his own life has remained largely the same for almost two decades.

“I don’t envy people with cars and helicopters and everything,” he says. “That’s their life. What I want is to inspire people. I don’t think I need a $1million car to do that.”

Kipchoge describes Patrick Sang as his 'life coach'

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The youngest of four siblings, Kipchoge was raised by his mother after his father died when he was a boy and he describes his childhood as “difficult”. By the time he was 16, he was showing promise as a runner and sought out Patrick Sang, an Olympic steeplechase silver medallist, a neighbour and the man who would become “not just my sports coach, but my life coach”.

It is an appropriate description for the man who is effectively his surrogate father. Whatever Sang said, Kipchoge did and it remains so to this day.

“When he was younger, Eliud qualified for a running jackpot and was given a cheque,” recalls Sang.

“He came to me and asked what to do because he had no account. So I told him to speak to his mum about opening an account and give her the money. He went and did exactly that. He didn’t ask, he just did it.

“Last year, I asked about that account and he said it’s still running and has a lot of money now. That’s wonderful. I always saw someone who was really honest and obedient.”

‘I don’t want to be a boss, I want to be a leader’

It was in 2002, just after he had taken Kipchoge under his wing, that Sang found the current site for what is now officially named the Global Sports Communication training camp, located 2,400m above sea level and hidden down a series of red dirt tracks in the remote Kenyan hills. “When we came here it was just a bush, so we had to clear it,” says Sang.

To the outside eye it remains little more now. A series of basic single-storey structures with corrugated iron roofs make up the entirety of the place Kipchoge calls home for eight months of the year. Its inhabitants live a modest existence, separated from their families, with only one another for company. Here, running is everything.

On one side is the male dormitory and on the other a female one. There is a TV room – which contains a three-shelf ‘library’ and a few simple weights used solely by the track runners – a rudimentary physio room, a kitchen and a tiny dining room comprising two long tables and benches. Everyone shares a bedroom with a training partner. Well, almost everyone – Kipchoge is the sole inhabitant deserving of a room of his own. There are communal squat toilets.

Group exercise takes places twice a week at the camp

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While a recently-installed tank now collects water and solar panels on the roof provide warm showers, it is striking that as recently as 2016, when Kipchoge won Olympic marathon gold, water was gathered from a well and, when that ran dry, a nearby river.

The simplicity of the infrastructure reflects the monastic nature of life in the camp. For the six days a week the 20 to 25 athletes live there – returning to their own homes only briefly at weekends – running is their sole purpose. During the extensive down time, they sprawl in the cool shadows under trees as running kit dries on the lush grass. It is utterly peaceful. There is nothing to do but rest.

For many, the lack of stimulation might prove mind-numbing, but for Kipchoge the uncomplicated structure is key.

The training programme is set in stone and marathon runners like Kipchoge average around 210km per week: on Tuesday a track session, Thursday a long run (up to 40km) and Saturday intervals. Every afternoon features an easy 10km recovery run, with group stretching and strengthening sessions twice a week.

Meals followly a similarly fixed structure and everyone eats the same thing at the same time each day. Ugali, the African maize flour porridge, is a staple and meat is eaten only every other day. Everyone is asleep by 9.30pm.

Kipchoge helps himself to some bread after a morning track session

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The communal nature of the camp extends across every element of daily life. Regular camp meetings are held and a president – currently marathon runner Laban Mutai – is elected by the residents, alongside various other roles.

There are no cleaners or people employed to do laundry, which means everyone must chip in on a rota basis – even the headline act.

“I wash the toilet, I wash everything,” says Kipchoge. “I am like the young boys. That’s what I enjoy. I don’t want to be treated in a different way because I’ll lose focus. I don’t want to be a boss. I want to be a leader to lead the young ones.”

A week in the life of Eliud Kipchoge

Fifteen notebooks to greatness

Speak to anyone who knows Kipchoge and there are certain words that are repeated on a cycle: “humble”, “respect” and “discipline” chief among them. He even had to be cajoled into sipping a glass of champagne after his historic two-hour marathon feat.

“Everybody follows Eliud’s lifestyle,” says Augustine Choge, his long-time friend and past roommate. “We all know he is one of the greatest athletes in the world, but he doesn’t see himself that way. He’s the most punctual, most disciplined guy I’ve ever seen.”

Half-marathon world record holder Geoffrey Kamworor – who Kipchoge predicts is the training partner most likely to follow in his footsteps – agrees: “We have learned a lot from him. He is a hard-working guy, a simple guy, a respectful guy, a humble guy and a guy who always believes so much in himself.”

It was this attitude that his wife Grace reveals first attracted her to him when they met as teenagers through her brother, Kipchoge’s best friend Amos. Back then, Kipchoge was one of thousands of young Kenyan hopefuls dreaming of success as a runner and it was “the humbleness in him” that she fell in love with. “He is still the same now,” she says.

'Disciplined and humble' – Kipchoge's family and friends say he has never changed

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Based at the family farm about 25km away with their three children Lynne, 13, Griffin, nine, and Gordon, six, Grace has become accustomed to her husband spending the lion’s share of time away from home.

Daily phone calls provide updates of family life and each week Kipchoge arrives home from camp on Saturday afternoon before returning on Monday lunchtime. She paints a picture of a man who maintains a sense of regimented life at all times.

“He’s a good father to his children,” she says. “He is strict and fun. I don’t think being strict is a bad thing, but he is very strict. He is always on time, on time, on time. The kids like spending time with their father.”

Kipchoge admits his father’s death early in his own life means he is learning on the job: “I don’t have experience as far as having a father is concerned. I always wanted to be a good father because I don’t know how a father loves his children. I didn’t get love from my father because he was not around.”

Kipchoge says if you don't write down what you are doing, 'you are empty'

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This desire to acquire knowledge and constant quest for improvement extends to all aspects of Kipchoge’s life. While the younger members of the camp spend much of their time on social media, Kipchoge has a reputation as the biggest reader in the group, mainly opting for “inspirational books” or “books about business”.

He logs every training session in his career and has filled 15 notebooks accordingly, insisting his elevation to greatness was “a process” rather than one single turning point.

“If you don’t write anything you are doing then you are empty,” he says. “Sport has been seen as something from which you can earn and that is all.

“You need to write everything down to show the next generation that you were well organised and knew what you were doing.

“It’s like going to class, just listening and not getting any notes. They say, ‘ink it and you will remember it’. So I’m doing that for the next generation.”

‘If you cheat, guiltiness will kill you’

When Daniel Wanjiru, the 2017 London Marathon winner, was provisionally suspended for an alleged doping violation earlier this month, he became the latest in a long and continually-growing list of Kenyans accused of drug offences.

Wilson Kipsang, the only man ever to beat Kipchoge in a marathon, was also provisionally suspended in January for alleged whereabouts failures and tampering with samples, while around 60 Kenyan athletes have been sanctioned for doping violations in the past five years.

No element of doubt has ever been cast Kipchoge’s way over the legitimacy of his performances and he chooses not to use words to convince people he is clean.

“I convince you by training and going to race,” he says. “There are those people who believe in me and there are those people who don’t believe in me. That’s how the world is. You can’t convince everybody that this is the way to do it.

“People should have a clean career. They say the moment you are on your deathbed, guiltiness will kill you. What makes sense is true humanity. You can’t lie to yourself.”

Most training sessions take place on dirt roads in Kenya's Rift Valley

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For its part, the NN Running Team – the road-running branch of Kipchoge’s Global Sports Communication management company – operate a firm policy on doping. If anyone in the Kaptagat camp commits an offence, they are thrown out. It is something that is yet to happen and there is confidence that it is harder for drugs to penetrate Kipchoge’s group because their camp life cuts out such external influences.

Sang says anti-doping improvements are being made across Kenya through advocacy programmes and increased education, but he admits there is a “serious problem” in the country and it is impossible to eradicate the threat entirely, even in his camp.

“These are individuals – they are human beings,” he says. “So I don’t want to claim that I have full control over everything they do. Even my kids I don’t have full control over what they do.

“But it gives an environment where you can easily see people and get the right messages to people. You can easily monitor and control the negative influences coming in. In terms of total control, I can’t. But we have very strong-minded athletes.”

Auditioning to be the next Kipchoge

There are close to 50 people illuminated by thousands of stars as they wait for Kipchoge and his training partners to emerge at the entrance to the Kaptagat camp for another early morning session. For some, this long run is their shot at the big time and the only way to ensure it finishes before the heat of the day is to begin in darkness.

Among them are a handful of elite athletes in their own right: Kenyan-born Kaan Kigen Ozbilen, who was named Mike Kigen before switching allegiance to Turkey in 2015, broke Mo Farah’s European marathon record in December, and American Bernard Lagat is a double world champion on the track.

Dozens of local runners take their chance to run with Kipchoge (wearing red) and his team-mates on their long run

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Others are locals eager to prove themselves against the world’s best. It is no forlorn hope. Impress Sang on a regular basis and you may well be invited to join the camp. “It’s continuous recruitment,” he says.

Today’s run across about 40km of undulating dirt tracks is to be taken at “medium intensity” with a speed of around 3min 10sec per kilometre. As with all morning sessions, Kipchoge’s group have eaten nothing beforehand and they will take on no fluids throughout.

The huge swell of runners quickly thins out after a few kilometres as even highly accomplished athletes struggle to keep up at this lofty altitude. “That guy won the World Championship marathon in London in 2017,” says Sang, pointing out Geoffrey Kirui, who is languishing a minute or so behind the leaders around halfway. “We have so many Olympic and world champions in the group.”

Kipchoge (wearing red) looks at ease as the lead group thins out

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It comes as no surprise to see Kipchoge finish in a lead group of five that also includes Kamworor and Ozbilen. Some time later, China’s elite marathon squad – who have been training in the region for two months – also reach the end point. Unlike their Kenyan counterparts, they received liquids from a support van during the run and – much to the locals’ amusement – hastily seek a bush to hide behind and produce urine samples for analysis.

The Chinese contingent will soon depart Kenya with tales of training with the greatest marathon runner in history. But for Kipchoge, it is just another morning’s work completed on his endless quest for improvement. Log it in the notebook and time for breakfast.

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