Joyciline Jepkosgei gave a little skip as she crossed the line to win the Birell Prague Grand Prix. It was a well-deserved demonstration of joy. She had just dismembered her own world record for 10 kilometres by 21 seconds, with 29min 43sec, the first woman to go under 30 minutes in a 10k road race. That feat gave another boost to Kenyan long distance domination, and considerable kudos to the running scene in Prague, where she has now set five world records this year. If there was an official world record for five kilometres, she would have that too. The previous four world records all came in the same race, the Prague half-marathon last April. It’s an unlikely feat, but Jepkosgei, 23, set records for 10k (30.04), 15k (45.37), 20k (61.26) before finishing in 64.52.
Kenyans are not generally given to boasting, but Jepkosgei had her own oblique way of demonstrating intent. Asked at Friday’s press conference why, when several women had run sub-30min on the track for 10,000 metres, it had not been done on the road, she replied that sub-30min on the road was eminently possible.
She went about the task with intent. On a warm, windless Saturday evening in the Czech capital she practically leapt away from the start-line and went into a lead which increased with every stride, against women who on paper were only a handful of seconds slower at the distance. She virtually harassed her (male) pacemaker into running faster, such that when she passed halfway in 14.33 (13 seconds better than the previous best, in a stand-alone 5k), an even more extraordinary finishing time looked likely; but inevitable fatigue and a slightly harder second half of the course slowed her progress and she had to be content with only breaking her own world record by 21sec. Second in the race last year, she beat her vanquisher by 40 seconds this time.
Explaining her aggressive running, she said, “I like to run the way my body feels, and my body felt good, so I was feeling confident”. Suggesting quietly that it doesn’t always work that way, her manager said later, “She does run on feeling, and if it sticks it sticks; if it doesn’t…?” The state of her demise was left unsaid.
It sounds reminiscent of the ‘crash and burn’ tactic of the great Ukrainian distance runner, Vladimir Kuts. Throughout his career in the 1950s, Kuts would hurtle into the lead, defying the opposition to follow. The first couple of years, he would be reeled in and roundly defeated. “One day,” he averred, “they will not catch me”. So it proved. He broke the 5000 metres world record, lost and reclaimed it twice, and won the 5000/10,000 metres double at the Olympic Games in Melbourne 1956.
Virtually unknown internationally until her breakthrough race, winning the Karlovy Vary half-marathon (again in the Czech Republic) just over a year ago, this latest recruit to the Kenyan International Academy of Excellence is a relatively late beginner. Born in the tiny community of Cheptil in Nandi County, she didn’t start training until around four years ago, following the birth of Brendan, now aged five.
She credits her husband, Nicholas Koech, a former 1min 46sec 800 metres runner as being the motor for her achievement. “He was my inspiration. I used to watch him running when I was in High School”. Nicholas, who was here in Prague to support and celebrate her latest achievement was rather less gallant in describing his reasons to supporting her decision to run. “She was large,” he said, before responding to your scribe’s quizzical look with a bald, “She was fat!” She nods ruefully, though pointing out, somewhat needlessly in view of her alacrity on the road, “I’m only 51 kilos nowadays”. It’s only fair to record that Nicholas is rather portly himself nowadays. “I’m not fast enough to run with her,” he excuses himself, “so I have to follow in the car”.
As part of her development in 2014, she decided to join the Kenyan Defence Force which, among many institutions in the country, welcomes and supports athletes, without expecting too much of them by way of soldiering, because of the good publicity they bring. “They also have good coaches,” she explains, though hubby remains the mainstay in that department.
One of the reasons for her regular races in Czechia (as the authorities now wish it to be called) is that she is a member of the RunCzech Running Team, a joint enterprise between her management and the Prague Marathon organisers, who have developed the annual seven-race RunCzech series in Prague and four provincial capitals.
Her manager, Davor Savija describes how a member of his team, based in Kenya, ‘discovered’ her two years ago. “It’s unusual for someone to come completely out of nowhere, even in Kenya. She placed in the top ten in a good standard 10k in Nairobi, but it was the way she ran. She was fearless, very aggressive, yet in person, very humble, not arrogant at all. She sparked our interest immediately, because we try to work with athletes who are strong and stable”.
She has run on the track in Kenya, and even finished third in the African 10,000 metres championships in Durban last year in 31.28.28. On her own estimation of the little difference there should be between track and road times, that personal best is due for substantial revision next time out. She says she currently favours 5000 metres on the track (personal best: 15.40!), and the half-marathon on the tarmac. But post-race questions inevitably turned to the marathon.
For the time being, it seems that common-sense in a still undeveloped career seems to be prevailing. She will only be 24 in December. After this summer’s performances, she will inevitably be canvassed by big-city marathon organisers across the world; and she reluctantly admitted at the post-race conference that she does want to run the classic long road distance, but still prefers the half-marathon; and both partners seem happy to defer to management in offering them choice of races.
Savija says, “She wants to run the Olympic marathon in Tokyo 2020. That would mean running two or three marathons beforehand, and pacing a couple of marathons before that, to get used to the idea and the distance. So, that’s a programme that would begin late 2018 or early 2019″. For the immediate future though, she is planning two more half-marathons before the end of the year, one at home and one abroad, venues to be decided.
Watch this space!