Joshua Cheptegei Talks After Breaking The 5000m World Record
“12:30 Could Be Possible, Maybe Also Sub-26:00? I Don’t Know” — Highlights from LRC’s Chat with Joshua Cheptegei
August 24, 2020
Last Tuesday, five days after he ran 12:35.36 in Monaco to break Kenenisa Bekele‘s 16-year-old world record in the 5,000 meters, Joshua Cheptegei spoke to LetsRun.com for 45 minutes in a conversation that spanned a variety of topics, from his race preparation to his desire to become the greatest distance runner in history to the stormy political history of Uganda, which delayed the emergence of its distance stars compared to East African neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia.
The entire video interview and podcast was initially available only to LetsRun.com Supporters Club members (join our club to get exclusive content, huge savings on running products, a private forum and more), but now is available to everyone as a video below, and in the podcast player at the bottom of the page and here on your favorite podcast app.
“I never had any doubts”
While many were surprised by Cheptegei’s world record, the man himself always believed he was fit enough to do it. As the race drew near, he had only one concern: Uganda’s borders were closed to international travel.
“The only obstacle was how was I going to get to Monaco because of the travel restrictions,” Cheptegei says. “That was the only challenge to me. The shape was really great.”
Cheptegei was ultimately able to leave the country thanks to a Uganda Airlines charter flight organized by the Ugandan president, and though it took three-and-a-half days to arrive in Monaco from Cheptegei’s training camp in eastern Uganda, he knew he was ready to roll once he arrived.
“I never had any doubts about me, although so many people are still commenting on my personal best (which was only 12:57.41 on the track prior to Monaco). Remember the fact that after the Commonwealth Games in 2018, when I won the [5k/10k] double in Australia, I was really looking up to running a sub-12:50 in a 5k on the track in 2018 Diamond Leagues.”
But a knee injury cost Cheptegei the entire track season — which also meant he missed out on the fastest 5,000m race of the decade at the 2018 Diamond League final in Brussels.
“[Selemon] Barega, the likes of [Yomif] Kejelcha, Hagos [Gebrhiwet] that did in 2018 12:43 in Brussels (Barega ran 12:43, Gebrhiwet 12:45, and Kejelcha 12:46), that was really fast. But I missed it, and I still had something in my mind that, ah, yeah, I never got a fast 5k. I just wanted to have another challenge of doing something crazy and something special.”
Cheptegei doesn’t believe he benefited much from Monaco’s Wavelight pacing technology
Cheptegei’s was the first world record race to feature Wavelight pacing technology — a series of lights on the rail that light up to indicate world record pace for the athletes. And while the lights may have helped Cheptegei’s rabbits stay on pace during the first half of the race, Cheptegei says he didn’t need the lights during the second half.
“My mind was not actually on the Wavelight. After the pacemakers were going, I was not after the light. It was Cheptegei and the world record.”
Cheptegei’s manager Jurrie van der Velden says the pacing lights are mostly designed for spectators and TV viewers.
“It’s fairly low on the ground, so it’s quite difficult to see unless you are watching your feet, and I think most of the runners, they are looking a little bit more ahead in the distance,” van der Velden says. “After pretty much halfway, Joshua was pretty much on or ahead of the light. So then it’s pretty hard to see it unless you’re really paying attention to it.”
Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of Cheptegei’s record was the consistency of his pacing. His final six laps were all run between 59.64 and 60.33 seconds — even though, as van der Velden noted, Cheptegei was ahead of the light for the final mile. Cheptegei says locking into 60-second pace wasn’t hard for him — once he passed three kilometers in 7:35, the target times for each subsequent lap were simple. 8:35, 9:35, 10:35…
“I’m not still good for fastest last 400, but when it comes to pacing, maintaining a 60, maybe a 59, Cheptegei will always do a 60,” Cheptegei says, referring to himself in the third person.
Cheptegei does not train on a 400-meter track — there is only one in the entire nation of Uganda — but says locking into a pace is not difficult for him.
“If [my coach] is saying the first k is 2:35 [in practice], even if I don’t have a watch, I can still do a 2:35 even without looking at my watch. It circulates [in my] mind. I can know I’m doing a 60, I can know I’m doing a 65, 63.”
“Everything is special at every time”
Cheptegei broke Bekele’s record in Nike’s new Dragonfly spikes, which have already produced several fast times this year (Moh Ahmed was wearing them when he ran 12:47 in Portland in July). While the shoes may be better than what Bekele wore when he set the previous record in 2004, Cheptegei says that is nothing new; the technology available to Bekele was superior to that of his predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s.
“We are in 2020,” Cheptegei says. “We are not in 1980s, we are not in 1990s, we are not in 1970s. So every time, we have to accept the new developments in the sport, the new technology. You spoke about the Wavelight, you spoke about the watches, you spoke about the pacing, and yeah, even the shoes. We are really getting new innovations. Like you saw in Vienna [with the INEOS 1:59 Challenge], Eliud was doing with the lights and in a different shoe. It tells you that everything is special at every time — the spikes in 1980, the spikes that Gebrselassie was using, the spikes that Kenenisa Bekele was using at that time, they were special at that time.”
Cheptegei has wanted to become the greatest ever since his earliest days in the sport
Cheptegei first emerged on the global scene in 2014. He met van der Velden, who works with Jos Hermens‘ Global Sports Communication, at the TCS World 10K in Bangalore in May, where a 17-year old Cheptegei finished second behind Geoffrey Kamworor, picking up $15,000 in the process as the race is one of the richest 10ks in the world (Kamworor ran 27:44 to Cheptegei’s 28:24). Later that summer, Cheptegei won the 10,000 at the World Junior Championships in Oregon.
After the race, Cheptegei told van der Velden of his big goals in the sport.
“I always told Jurrie I really want to be the best. I want to be the best in the world, I want to do amazing things like Kenenisa, like Gebrselassie, like Eliud.”
While van der Velden could tell from Cheptegei’s accomplishments and smooth running stride that the youngster had talent, he preached patience. To become one of the greats would require time and a strong support system, which had to be put in place around Cheptegei. To Cheptegei’s credit, he has been willing to play the long game.
“There’s a lot of talented athletes [in Africa], but they all jump straight to the roads and to the marathon,” van der Velden says. “Joshua has always been [patient]. In 2014, when we met in Bangalore, he was like, ‘Hey, so I can run a half marathon this fall?’ And we’ve always been able to convince him not to do so. And we are now six years down the road, he still didn’t run a half marathon.”
That will change soon, however, as Cheptegei is expected to clash with Geoffrey Kamworor at the 2020 World Half Marathon Championships on October 17.
Uganda on the rise
While Uganda is comparable in size to its next-door neighbor Kenya (Worldometer estimates Uganda’s population at 45 million compared to 53 million for Kenya), Kenya has claimed far more success in distance running over the past 50 years. Only recently has Uganda started to develop major stars, such as Cheptegei, 2012 Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich, and 2019 800m world champion Halimah Nakaayi. Cheptegei says there’s a reason for that: after gaining its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, Uganda suffered from political instability for several decades, with a series of coups and a brutal dictatorship under Idi Amin in the 1970s.
“When you look at Kenya and Ethiopia, it’s really a long distance running nation,” Cheptegei says. “We have similar talent, but the other thing is that the previous governments for Uganda, you can see a lot of wars in Uganda. From independence, there are now nine presidents. That means that the part of the country, Kapchorwa, where we come [from], the high altitude where our training mates live, we had a problem of the Karamojong warriors who are killing people and raiding animals. We had the Pokots of Kenya who are also doing the same. That means that we never realized our potential in the early ’60s, ’70s. If we had an organized government back then, that means we would be like Kenya. But now we’re still just beginning. The good thing is we are really motivating a lot of the young generation.”
(Editor’s note: Uganda’s current president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, has been in power since 1986 after a protracted six-year guerilla war)
The future: look out for a 10k world record attempt soon
When Bekele broke the 5,000 WR in 2004, he followed it up by breaking the 10,000 record eight days later. We asked Cheptegei whether he might try something similar.
“If all goes well, I might do something special. I have a surprise. I might run a 10,000 meters very soon. We are almost getting close to it. Maybe Jurrie will have more of an update than me, but I’m sure that maybe in two weeks, you’ll really see something cooking up. There’s something on plan, but I don’t want to mention about it. Jurrie will say about it.”
van der Velden wouldn’t confirm anything — he said Cheptegei’s next “confirmed” race is the World Half Marathon Championships on October 17 — but a knowing smile crossed his face during Cheptegei’s response. Expect an announcement soon.
As for 2021 and beyond? Cheptegei believes there could be even great accomplishments in store and did not want to place limits on himself.
“12:30 could be possible, maybe also sub-26:00?” Cheptegei says. “I don’t know. It’s possible. It’s possible. And of course, I would really love to run a marathon in the future. That’s where my dream is now, maybe five years from now. I still have a lot of things to fix now, from now until 2024, 2025. I still have a lot of things to accomplish and perhaps maybe try to run the marathon.”
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