Helah Kiprop out to turn second of pain into gold


Mare Dibaba of Ethiopia crosses the finish line to win gold in the Women's Marathon ...
Mare Dibaba of Ethiopia crosses the finish line to win gold in the Women's Marathon final during day nine of the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships Beijing 2015 at Beijing National Stadium on August 30, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images for IAAF)

In most aspects of life, one second, that is the base unit of time in the International System of Units (SI) qualitatively defined as the second division of the hour by 60, the first division by 60 being the minute, does not matter much.

Hardly anyone notices when seconds pass but in sport, it can be the margin between glory and failure, triumph and disaster, joy and tears. Just ask Helah Kiprop.

After pounding the streets of the Chinese capital for over two hours and 34 minutes in the ultimate distance race at last year’s IAAF World Championships, the climax for the women’s marathon boiled to a sprint finish for the line inside the iconic Bird’s Nest in Beijing.

Chasing hard after the favourite, Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba, Kiprop gave it her all over the last 100m of the 42.195km race but painfully, lost the crown by a second with the clocks returning 2:27:35 against 2:27:36.

That fraction of time denied the 31 year-old a place in history as the third Kenyan female world marathon champion after Catherine ‘The Great’ Ndereba and Edna Kiplagat, both two time winners.

“During the World Championships I did not expect to win a medal. I had a problem with my big toe and it was really uncomfortable so I maintained my pace to avoid making it worse.

“When we were almost finishing I decided to kick but my toe was really paining me so I slowed down and that’s how I missed the gold medal by just a second.

“When I came back I decided to recover the one second I missed and so that I may win a medal. I actually don’t know if it was the heat or my socks were the issue but I got a nasty blister,” She explained.

It also hit her hard in the pocket too. The prize money for victory was USD 60,000 (Ksh6,086,460.00) and USD30,000 (Ksh3,043,230.00). Few Kenyans would live with losing over Ksh3m in a second.

A year later, Kiprop has dusted herself and although her place in the country’s women marathon team for Rio has come under scrutiny, she is determined more than ever to make up for that one second that cost her glory in China.

Selectors favoured her over titans such as two-time London Marathon winner, Mary Keitany and two-time Berlin champion, Florence Kiplagat and she is out to grab her chance after she powered to her 2:21:27 career best to win the World Marathon Majors Tokyo race on February 28.

At the same event last year, another Ethiopian Birhane Dibaba (2:23:15) led her down the finishing isle (2:24:03) and this time, she found the superior finish to fend off Amane Gobena (2:21:51) for the bouquet, giving her the belief she can turn the tables on the neighbours from the north in Rio.

Kiprop who was longing to be called up in the Olympics will run besides London titleholder; Jemimah Sumgong and Paris winner Visiline Jepkesho and is confident they can go for the podium shut out in Rio for Kenya’s first women marathon gold medal.

A podium sweep at the marathon in a major event was witnessed for the first and only time when Kiplagat led Priscah Jeptoo and Sharon Cherop to the 1-2-3 at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.

Speaking to Citizen Digital after a light training session at the marathoner’s Naiberi Camp in Usain Gishu County, Kiprop assured she is ready to fly her nation’s flag on August 14 when their event takes centre stage at the quadrennial showpiece.

“I thank God; my preparations for the Olympics are going on well. We are now training together as a team. But we are taking it easy with our training since it’s now less than a month and we are going to compete as a team and we are very hopeful each one of us will win a medal.

“There is nothing sweeter than listening to the national anthem being played in your honour. The tune is different every time and it has a funny way of ending very fast,” she offered while bursting into laughter.

She is no stranger to races with no pace makers saying that she gathered the necessary experience needed from the 2015 World Championships.

Kenyan turned Bahraini; Eunice Kirwa followed her home for bronze in 2:27:36 in a race where her teammates for Rio, Sumgong and Jepkesho ran to fourth and 20th in 2:27:42 and 2:36:17.

-International debut-

Kiprop took up running as a Kaprilos Primary School pupil and has not looked back, with the sport exposing her to a world she could only dream off.

“When I was young I used to hear about Kipchoge Keino and I loved running. So I was very interested in running and I wanted to be like him. When I was in class four I used to run in cross-country and win.

“My games teacher discovered my talent and he used to encourage me very much telling how running could help change my life,” she disclosed.

Her humble beginning did not make her shy off from success she maximized on her talent to make something meaningful out her life.

While her friends were pursuing their secondary school education, Kiprop who was forced to drop out when her parents could not afford fees focused on training and prayed that she would have something to hold on to by the time her friends completed their O Levels.

In 2005 she made her international debut in France during the Nogent-sur-Marne 10K run where she took the honours in 32:55 minutes and since then, her career has seen her compete in major cities across the world that her friends can only envy.

She has also managed to school her siblings through her earnings from the sport with Kiprop proud her gamble in athletics paid off.

“Although I was not fortunate enough to attend secondary school due to lack of school fees, I was able to run until the national level while in primary. I promised myself to do something productive in my life so that by the time my age mates were receiving their KCSE results I would also have something to show off too.

“It truly happened that way by the end of four years I got an opportunity to go and race abroad which I won. It was an adventure to me. That was the first time I came to Nairobi and things were very different from my village.

“It was also my first time boarding a plane and when I got to France there were so many white people in one place,” she narrated with a grin.

“Being my first time to compete in a race that also had white people and I did not know how they ran. It was challenging for me but I did my best and won,” Kiprop told of her culture shock at her first outing outside her country of birth.

-Juggling responsibility-

Runners start the Women's Marathon final from Yongdingmen Gate Tower during day nine of the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships Beijing 2015 at Beijing National Stadium on August 30, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images for IAAF)
Runners start the Women’s Marathon final from Yongdingmen Gate Tower during day nine of the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships Beijing 2015 at Beijing National Stadium on August 30, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images for IAAF)

Kiprop is a mother of three with her husband, David Marus acting as her coach and trainer besides as she juggles between being a parent, wife and athlete.

“I try to balance my family life in the best way I can. Considering that my dear husband is also my coach and he is also a pacemaker. When I’m almost about to race, I hardly see my kids who are very supportive of my career. We have people who help us to keep an eye on them.”

“I drive my inspiration from my family. One day the kids sat me down and started asking why we ran. We explained to them why we love running and also told them that through running we are able to provide for them.

“They also love running and when I’m leaving for a race they pray for and tell me that I’m going to win,” she added with a smile.

The 2014 Frankfurt Marathon was her most memorable moment after she soldiered on to the finish after running through the pain barrier to finish inside the top five after even contemplating dropping out of the race.

Aberu Kebede of Ethiopia won the race in 2:22:21 while Cherop stopped the timer in 2:23:44 for silver ahead of another Ethiopian Ashete Bekele (2:24:59).

“I was not feeling well and had chest pains. I had difficulties in breathing and by the time I got to the 30km mark I wanted out. I was encouraged by one of the attendants and I went on with my race and ran my personal best,” Kiprop who ran her then lifetime best of 2:27:14 added.

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