Geoffrey Kipkorir Kirui after winning the men's marathon in 2:08.27 at the IAAF World Championships in London / Photo credit: Getty Images for the IAAF

On the Team Kenya bus to the Heathrow Airport, Geoffrey Kipkorir Kirui, one the two Kenyan gold medallists travelling back home after the IAAF World Championships in London – the other being 1500m World champion Elijah Manangoi – said: “Time to go back home. Staying in London was like a rest for me, Marathon is not easy, it breaks your body.”

Geoffrey Kirui is the world marathon champion and the 2017 Boston Marathon Champion. He wasn’t among the popular names in the marathon world until this year, even though he set a lifetime best of 2:06.27 in Amsterdam last year.

Kirui confessed that Athletics was never his thing – after all. He is a good story teller, he wore different facial expressions as he narrated his athletics journey.

There wasn’t a shade of regret, just a bit of sadness, but beaming face of victory subsided other expressions. His life wasn’t easy. He owned only a pair of sports shoes, he got pricked by thorns.

“I didn’t know I would run, I didn’t care much about running. I never ran in primary school, I never liked athletics. I could refuse and hide during athletics events and the teacher would find me and force me to run. While in class 8, I ran 10,000m that is when I knew I could run,” said Kirui.

However, he went on to practice farming upon clearing primary school education. “I wanted to be a farmer, so I went into farming for one year before joining secondary school.”

He was strong in training, he said. A man he went to church with saw him in training and kept on encouraging him to pursue athletics. Young Kirui then joined a camp. A sport which he had absolutely no interest in turned out to be the saviour.

Saving grace

Through Athletics, Kirui got a sports scholarship to study at Riruta Central Secondary School in Nairobi which he joined in 2007 and completed in 2010. That scholarship saved his family some money at a time they were struggling financially.

“The money meant for school fees went into helping my other siblings. All my mum could sent was some pocket money,” remembers Kirui. He has 7 other siblings after him, they are 8 in total.

Slowly the Keringet-based athlete followed his younger brother Gilbert Kirui in training. Geoffrey wasn’t serious in training. Gilbert went on to be the World U20 and World U18 steeplechase silver medallist.

“I went for Athletics Kenya meets, I would double in 5000m and 10,000m. I made the team to Botswana for African Junior championships in 2011,” said Kirui who won the 10,000m gold medal in Championship record and personal best of 27:55.74.

The World junior championships in Barcelona came next for Kirui in 2012.

“I went to Barcelona for World juniors and won bronze in 10,000m. I didn’t know how to run, all I did was just run. I didn’t know what I was doing, I saw two athletes passing me and finished third and got the bronze (medal),” said Kirui while laughing.

Subsequently he picked a very bad injury – he fell off a motorbike and broke his fingers. He sought medical attention in Europe. He was out for a whole year until 2014.

“During that time, I went to the Kenya Airforce College as I recovered,” he recollected.

Big break

Gradually he made headway in training, his training was not co-ordinated but he trained very hard covering very long hours. He didn’t realize he could run the marathon until he went to pace the Chicago Marathon, and then the Amsterdam marathon.

His marathon debut was in Rotterdam in 2016 where he finished third in 2:07:23. “That’s when I knew there was something in the marathon for me even though 10,000m wasn’t easy,” said Kirui.

His second marathon was in Amsterdam in 2016 – he improved his time and run 2:06:27 to cross the line seventh.

Some marathon careers take long to take off, but for others it takes a short time. In April Kirui won the Boston Marathon – his first marathon major victory. His performance earned him a national team call up for the world championships.

He went on to win the World marathon title extending Kenya’s dominance as the most successful nation in marathon in the history of World Championships. London was his 4th marathon.

“2017 has been well, from Boston to London all went well as expected although it is hard to explain. Boston was not easy, London was not easy either but it all boils down to training,” he said.

“I didn’t know I would run, I didn’t care much about running. I never ran in primary school, I never liked athletics.” – Geoffrey Kipkorir Kirui

Kirui is based in Keringet, he trains mainly with his boys whom he has drafted under the Keringet Athletics Club. Unlike most of professional marathon runners, he has no coach assigned to him.

“My training involves long runs, speed work and more. I go really hard, I train for long hours. You know I don’t have a specific coach that I work with, I only get a coach to assist me.

“Recently I had coach Kirwa to assist as I was part of Kenya marathon for London, we trained in Naiberi,” offered Kirui, “I have recruited boys that I train with, we assist each other, I have 10 boys now who stay in one house – we learn from each.”

“Each marathon is a different experience, “he said “I would take off at 30km but I learnt that the race begins after a certain distance. I also keep on remembering Eliud Kipchoge’s advice.”

Team work in London

He offered details on the marathon in London. They had spoken amongst themselves – Gideon Kipketer and Daniel Wanjiru – to focus on team work.

“We told each other, if our bodies respond well, let us support each other, and keep together. And at some point, I slowed the race as I waited for Gideon Kipketer to catch up because Daniel Wanjiru had dropped back completely.

“When Kipketer closed the gap, I asked him to go in front but he said ‘My body is not responding well, just go on and save us, save the country.’

“At that point, I got scared to go alone but I had to do it. My team mates were relying on me, my whole country was looking at me. I pushed on. I panicked a bit when Tola surged after 30km since he was more experienced than I am,” added Kirui.

Kirui remained focused but he kept his eyes firmly on Tola.

“I remembered marathon is not just about running but about making the right calculation. I listened to the advice Eliud Kipchoge gave us. So I tackled the hill.

“I kept on looking at his movement, and I realized he was struggling at some point, he was getting slower, he missed the water bottles.

“Then I gained the energy, slowly I closed up the gap and when I did, I went ahead with all my strength,” narrated the 24-year-old who went on to win Kenya’s first Gold medal at London 2017.

“It was a tough race but in the end I’m thrilled that I’m a World champion, it is not an easy title. London victory has inspired and changed me and my life, it has placed me and my life on another level, it has given me lots of strength, ” said Kirui.

“I always write down at the corner of my training programme book whatever I want to achieve from God in a race. Before Boston, I wrote that I wanted victory, same in London.

“I thank God for this far he has brought me. God is my keeper, I’m a prayerful person, prayers come with blessings. Before I ran in Boston, my aunt prayed for me, we pray together, she came to London to pray for me. Without Faith, nothing can work.”

The father of three looks up to Eliud Kipchoge for inspiration. He is under the same management with Eliud – Global Sports Communication.

“I respect Eliud, he has been running for all those years until now, he is still the best, I want to follow in his footsteps, his behaviour, he is good adviser, I have paced for him before. The only way to succeed in athletics is to remain disciplined in training and out of training.”

Now it is time for rest for the father of three boys as he wait for one last race this year. “Maybe a half marathon in November or December,” he said.