From 4:14 to 4:01 in One Season — How Janat Chemusto Emerged as Uganda’s New Female Distance Star

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Sometimes there are performances in professional track & field that make you step back and ask, where the hell did that come from? Janat Chemusto‘s victory in the women’s 1500 meters at the Kip Keino Classic in Nairobi on May 13 certainly qualifies.

Chemusto, a lanky 24-year-old from Uganda, clocked 4:01.79 to run away with the victory in a seven-second personal best — an almost unheard-of one-race improvement at this level of the sport. The time moved her into #6 on the 2023 world list and #2 all-time among Ugandan women, behind only Winnie Nanyondo‘s 3:59.56 national record.

But it wasn’t just Chemusto’s time that drew attention. It was the way she ran it. After hanging with the pack for the first two-and-a-half laps, Chemusto, running in a plain black crop top with a white Nike swoosh on the left shoulder, exploded to the lead with 500 meters to run. Within 10 strides, she had two meters on the field. By the bell, it was nearly 10 meters, and over the last lap, she buried the field, closing in 59.8 seconds for her final 400 to win by almost three seconds.

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The list of active women who can run their last lap sub-60 in a 4:01 race — at 5,000+ feet of elevation — is not long. Ten names? Perhaps fifteen? Last year, Sinclaire Johnson closed in 59.28 in a 4:03 race to win the US title. Four weeks later, she finished 6th at the World Championships. Chemusto’s run in Nairobi was elite stuff.

It’s easy to see why Chemusto was overlooked ahead of the race. Though she had run 2:01 for 800 and 4:08 for 1500 at the East African Police championships in Rwanda in March, the results were not listed in her Tilastopaja or World Athletics profiles. And before this year, Chemusto had never run faster than 2:06 or 4:14 — not the sort of athlete you would expect to win a World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meet.

Even those closest to Chemusto were surprised by the result. Her coach, Addy Ruiter, had expected a time around 4:04. Her agent, Jurrie van der Velden, had been hoping for the World Championship standard of 4:03.50. Chemusto herself was just hoping to win.

“I knew that I was in great shape, and from the moment I was aware of it that Faith Kipyegon was not running, I was telling myself, ‘you must win this race,'” Chemusto says in an email interview with LetsRun.com. “But the 4:01 was also a surprise to me.”

None of that really answers the biggest question, though. Once more: where the hell did that come from? Let’s start at the beginning.

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Bright start, then an interruption

Chemusto showed promise from an early age, running 9:10 for 3,000 meters as a 16-year-old in 2014 at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China where she placed 7th. The following year, she earned silver in the 1500 and bronze in the 3,000 at the African Youth Championships in Mauritius. When Jos Hermens‘ Global Sports Communication agency brought Ruiter to Uganda in the fall of 2016 to begin a training camp built around Joshua Cheptegei in Kapchorwa, Chemusto was an obvious candidate to join and she did.

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But Chemusto’s time in Kapchorwa did not go smoothly. Ruiter and van der Velden both use the same words to describe Chemusto: “strong character.” Van der Velden says that is rare among Ugandan athletes he works with, most of whom are reluctant to speak up about problems, and not necessarily a bad thing. But Chemusto, who was only 18 when she joined the group, had a bit of an independent streak, which caused problems when it came to living the professional lifestyle.

“She was young, so we need to be honest,” van der Velden says. “…I think it was in those years where you’re maybe a little bit more rebellious. We want the athletes to be back by 8:00 in the evening, for example, to have dinner and after then after that, go to bed, sleep, and relax. Because the next day, a hard training session is coming. If you go out of the camp past the hours, you’re disturbing others and you’re also disturbing the process. So some of those simple guidelines, she didn’t really follow because she was enjoying life a little bit like people in college do as well. But we’re trying to be a professional training group. That’s why at some point we said it’s better for us to part ways.”

Chemusto improved slightly during her first stint under Ruiter, running 4:15 for 1500 and 15:49 for 5,000 in 2018, but she also battled a series of injuries, which made it difficult to make consistent progress.

“I think I have had just about every injury possible,” Chemuto says. “The main reason was that I had too many periods that the motivation was not there to train and then starting training hard without building up slowly.”

Chemusto left the group in 2018 and that November gave birth to a son, Ibrahim. After that, van der Velden lost touch with her and between the baby and COVID lockdowns, she did not return to competition until 2021. In March 2022, Chemusto ran 4:14 for 1500 in Kampala — her first pb for four years — and later asked Ruiter if she could rejoin the group. Initially, he said no.

“I told her that she must show me first that she could train seriously for a longer period,” Ruiter says.

Chemusto, who was renting a room in Kapchorwa while spending the weekends with her parents, was determined to show that she was a different athlete than the one who had left the group four years earlier. Eventually Cheptegei and Abel Sikowo, a 61-minute half marathoner who serves as “captain” of the Global camp, noticed the work Chemusto was putting in and her newfound dedication to the sport. In November, they came to Ruiter and van der Velden and asked for Chemusto to be readmitted to the group — with a condition.

“I had to make a promise to them that I should stay full-time in the camp and should follow the instructions of the coach,” Chemusto says.

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Back to camp

When Chemusto rejoined the group this year, Ruiter’s first priority was to build Chemusto’s physical and aerobic strength. Physiotherapists Tobias van Helden and Tom Oomen assigned Chemusto exercises geared toward addressing the weaknesses that had led to her injury problems in the past. Ruiter, a former triathlete, supplemented Chemusto’s training with cycling sessions — up to five per week. By April, Ruiter felt confident enough in her training to start assigning race-pace 800m and 1500m workouts.

Chemusto was overwhelmed after her huge pb in Nairobi

When Kenya and Ethiopia emerged as global powers in men’s distance running in the 1960s and 1970s, it took a few more decades until Kenyan and Ethiopian women caught up. It’s a similar story in Uganda, where men such as Cheptegei, Stephen Kiprotich (2012 Olympic marathon gold), and Jacob Kiplimo (reigning World Half/World Cross Country champion) have conquered the world while the women have yet to reach the same level of success.

In Kapchorwa, Chemusto now trains with the women looking to close that gap: Olympic steeple champ Peruth Chemutai, Ugandan marathon record holder Stella Chesang (2:20:23 pb), and 19-year-old Prisca Chesang (30:19 road 10k, 7th at World XC). Between coaching, training partners, and access to physiotherapists, Chemusto believes she has all she needs to be successful (Ibrahim lives nearby with Chemusto’s parents while she is at camp; she visits on weekends).

After her breakout performance in Nairobi, it’s natural to wonder what is next for Chemusto. She is scheduled to run an 800 in Oordegem, Belgium, on Saturday, then the 1500 at the FBK Games in Hengelo on June 4. She’ll be at the World Championships in Budapest in August as well, but those close to Chemusto are trying to temper expectations. Ruiter views 2023 as a learning year — his biggest aim is for Chemusto to make it through the season healthy.

“If she breaks 4:00 this year it wouldn’t surprise me, and then we’ll just have to see how much the body can take and how much she can improve from there,” van der Velden says. “…She is already one step ahead of what we expected from her, so that’s a good sign. She’s not a Faith Kipyegon, let’s be honest, or a Gudaf Tsegay, those girls, but her finishing speed is pretty good…We’re not expecting her to make the final [at Worlds], but if she does, it wouldn’t surprise us either because she is really talented.”

Chemusto agrees that staying healthy is a big priority. But her run in Nairobi shows that is is world-class, right now. How good wil she ultimately be? Chemusto, who has never run a Diamond League or a senior global championship, says she is excited to find out.

“I’m happy to be qualified for the World Championships and coach Addy is saying no pressure for this season and get first more experiences on this level,” Chemusto says. “But I’m looking for it to run against the best in the world.”

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