The Unfinished Marathon: What We Have Lost With Kelvin Kiptum’s Tragic Death

By Andy Hardt, guest columnist
February 20, 2024

This is not an obituary for Kelvin Kiptum, who, along with his coach, Gervais Hakizimana, died in a car crash in Kenya on February 11. I never met the man, you’ve probably never met him either, and I have neither the knowledge nor ability to do his life justice.

Plus, any obituary would be insultingly short. Aside from some early half marathons, which were excellent but far from record-setting, Kiptum’s major accomplishments consist of three transcendent marathons, all of which took place in a 10-month stretch from December 2022 to October 2023. Kiptum was 23 years old when he ran those races and had just turned 24 when he died.

Kelvin Kiptum in his final race, breaking the world record at the 2023 Chicago Marathon (Kevin Morris photo)

Instead, this is an obituary for a part of us, for the dreams we placed on this unique individual, as part of or in lieu of our dreams for ourselves and the world, and which have vanished, suddenly, into unreality. Think of it as a coping mechanism.

There are at least three reasons why one might grieve a death:

1) Sadness for the individual and their loved ones

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2) Loss of time spent with the person

3) Loss of potential

If you are a family member or personal friend of Kiptum or Hakizimana, the first two features are surely the most important. For most of the rest of us, speaking honestly and selfishly, it is the third factor which predominates. The loss of one 24-year-old is not inherently any sadder than another, and few of us were likely to meet and befriend Kiptum.

What we have lost–again, speaking honestly and selfishly as an observer from afar–is the promise of Kiptum’s talent and the chance to see it fully realized, to bask in a potential with unknown limits and eventually see and experience those limits, to predict and anticipate Kiptum’s career, and then to see the results borne out as reality.

The rest of this essay will be in two parts. The first part discusses as concretely as possible what we have lost, while the second reminisces about Sammy Wanjiru’s death and those of other famous athletes.

What we, the fans, have lost

A chance at a (legitimate) sub-2:00 marathon: This is the big one. Kiptum was making preparations to run Rotterdam this April, with the stated goal of breaking two hours. Famously, Eliud Kipchoge ran 2:00:25 and 1:59:41 in two “exhibition” runs in 2017 and 2019, in which he had several advantages over a regular race, including rotating pacemakers helped by a lead vehicle, fluids delivered via bike, and no “short-course prevention factor.” Before Kiptum, the two-hour barrier was considered currently unreachable without these advantages. Even Kipchoge himself has so far maxed out at 2:01:09.

Kelvin Kiptum before the 2023 Chicago Marathon (Kevin Morris photo)

That’s why Kiptum was such a revelation. In three marathons, he’s averaged 2:01:17, and in Chicago last fall broke through with a big world record of 2:00:35. Not only that, but his second-half splits were nothing short of phenomenal: 1:00:15 in Valencia, 59:45 in London, and 59:47 in his Chicago world record run. Kiptum’s margins of victory were historic: 2:58 at London and 3:27 in Chicago. Not only was the two-hour mark less than a minute away, but from the way Kiptum closed his races, it felt like the best was yet to come.

An Olympic battle with Kipchoge: The other big one. Kiptum never ran a tactical marathon or one on a slower course. Meanwhile, Kipchoge, the uncontested GOAT, is the two-time reigning Olympic champ. While not Kiptum-level margins of victory, Kipchoge’s gap to the silver medalist in both Olympic races was over a minute: historic, dominant wins.

Kipchoge is aiming for an unprecedented third Olympic gold, and while chinks in his armor have appeared over the past year, by far his scariest threat was Kiptum. How could Kipchoge possibly win again, at age 39 no less, racing against one who has surpassed even his own peak? Conversely, how could Kiptum be considered the best in the world until he had raced Kipchoge? You’ve got to beat the champ to be the champ.

It’s a marathon, and you never know what would have happened on the day. Either or both of them could have faltered, or another runner could have broken out. But this had the potential to be the “race of the century.”

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A unique and potentially long career: I’ll add some realism below. But think uncritically for a moment. Kiptum is a level above every marathoner who came before him. In less than a year, he ran three of the greatest marathons ever, with massive margins of victory and the three fastest closing splits in history. What if this was just the beginning? Suspend disbelief, and think what might have come to pass:

Kiptum might have won up to four Olympic gold medals, in 2024, 2028, 2032, and 2036, during the last of which he’d have been 36 years old. He might have had a winning streak akin to Kipchoge’s, but lasting significantly longer and with more dominant victories. He might have not only broken two hours but run a plethora of 1:59 and 2:00 times, representing most or all of the all-time top-10 list. He might have set a world record that would last 50 years, the jewel of the sport for decades, the time all high school runners had memorized. And with his marathon strength, it’s not out of the question that he could have moved back down to the half marathon and broken the world record there too.

Would he have done all these things? Likely not. But our loss is that we will never know.

Full appreciation of the next champion:  Kipchoge ensured the first official sub-2:00 marathon will come with a caveat. Now it will come with two. When sub-2:00 inevitably happens, any attempt to place it in context must mention Kipchoge’s 1:59 in Vienna. And it must mention Kiptum, and what he might have accomplished in Rotterdam and beyond. Whoever wins the Olympics in Paris, whoever breaks Kiptum’s record, whoever is the next superstar of the sport, all of them will live in the shadow, not just of Kiptum’s accomplishments, but of what he might have achieved.

Above, I mentioned what could have been coming for Kiptum. But the reality was likely much more muted. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been suited to tactical or hilly races. Maybe he would have folded under the pressure of a close race.

And maybe we saw Kiptum’s absolute peak. Aside from Kipchoge, marathon peaks tend to last only a couple of years. In fact, going back 70 years, no man has set the world record more than twice. Let’s look at those men:

  • Abebe Bikila: 2:15:16 in 1960; 2:12:11 in 1964 (broken by others several times in between)
  • Derek Clayton: 2:09:36 in 1967; 2:08:33 in 1969
  • Khalid Khannouchi: 2:05:42 in 1999; 2:05:38 in 2002
  • Haile Gebrselassie: 2:04:26 in 2007; 2:03:59 in 2008
  • Eliud Kipchoge: 2:01:39 in 2018; 2:01:09 in 2022

One big thing jumps out: it’s been more than 50 years since a double record-breaker has dropped as much as the 36 seconds Kiptum would need to to break two hours.

Aside from that, these are the very best cases, the runners whose talent, longevity, and performance all came together just right. There have been several other comets in recent years, runners whose performances briefly dazzled, who for a year or two seemed unbeatable, who appeared to have a long career ahead of them, but whose marathon peak lasted only a short time, and who broke the world record only once or not at all.

I’m talking about runners like Dennis Kimetto, Geoffrey Mutai, Patrick Makau, and Sammy Wanjiru.

Yes, Sammy Wanjiru…

Kiptum and Wanjiru

In May 2011, I navigated to and was greeted with the “black page” customary for world records and top performances. Only this time, the black page meant something different. Sammy Wanjiru, prodigy, Olympic champ, and the man who broke the marathon, had died after falling from a balcony.

Since that day, whenever I’ve checked LetsRun, I’ve braced myself to see that screen again. It was a feeling I’ve never forgotten.

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Wanjiru was a legend. He set a world junior record in the 10,000m that still stands, and a world record in the half marathon. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, though, were something else entirely. In hot conditions, Wanjiru pushed the pace, burning off everyone else and hanging on to win the marathon in 2:06:32, an Olympic record by almost three minutes. While Kiptum recently has redefined the second half of the marathon, this was Wanjiru redefining the first half, showing that the marathon is less dangerous, caution less necessary, than previously thought — at least for a runner of Wanjiru’s talent.

After that, he started to spiral. Fame and success was too much for him in many ways, and after setting course records at the London (2:05:10) and Chicago (2:05:41) marathons in 2009, he was never quite the same.

Wanjiru’s last race was the 2010 Chicago Marathon, which both cemented and concluded his legacy. Battling injuries and possibly alcoholism, he was a shadow of himself on the starting line, and didn’t even have the goal to win. Nevertheless, he was able to stay in the main pack, and the race eventually became a duel with Tsegay Kebede. Kebede appeared to be the stronger runner, and dropped Wanjiru no less than three times. Wanjiru always came back, however, and with 800 meters to go, took off for a shocking victory.

Wanjiru’s death was a mystery, and much of the ensuing chatter concerned what had “really” happened. By morbid coincidence, Wanjiru, like Kiptum, was 24 when he died. His career, however, was already on the downslope, and had he not died, it’s unlikely we would have seen him at his Beijing best again. Still, for the several years until the rise of Kipchoge, Wanjiru’s shadow hung over the sport. In a few brief years, his legacy had grown so strong that even being a World Marathon Major winner, world record holder, or Olympic champion could only rank you second to what Wanjiru was, or could have been.

There are many other runners, and athletes in other sports, whose deaths have shocked the world the way Kiptum’s did. Steve Prefontaine, Agnes Tirop, Ivo Van Damme, Rudolf Harbig, Ryan Shay, Kobe Bryant, Len Bias, Roberto Clemente, Fran Crippen. Ayrton Senna, Pat Tillman, the athletes from the Munich massacre, just to name a few. It’s useless and perverse, and far too personal, to try to sort or rank them. To paraphrase Tolstoy, each tragic death is tragic in its own way.

Still, there seem to be few if any historic parallels to recent events. Kiptum was not only elite, but seemed to be the transcendent marathoner of his generation. And his death occurred precisely at the moment, still so early in his career, when he had emphatically stepped out of the shadow of others before him and turned alone to explore a new part of the human experience.

The king of the marathon is dead; a new one will not soon be crowned.

At the very tip of the spear that is elite sport, there are always two questions. Who is the greatest now? And who is the greatest ever? Last year, Kiptum was the easy answer to the first question; now, by strict and morbid definition, he no longer is. The king of the marathon is dead; a new one will not soon be crowned.

And for the second question, there are two Kelvin Kiptums. One Kiptum did all his best running over the course of a year, broke only a single world record, and didn’t live long enough to be called the greatest. The other Kiptum, the one that lives only in our minds and in our yearning hearts, will run for many years to come, two races per year and the Olympics every four. A simple extrapolation of real life, yet slowly, imperceptibly slipping the human bonds of physics and biology to reach the boundless dreams that our minds construct.

Andy Hardt is a swimming commentator, occasional writer, and longtime visitor to

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