Despite all she had achieved in athletics – world titles, Olympic gold medals – Faith Kipyegon still felt there was a ‘but’.
The Kenyan middle-distance star started 2023 determined to remove that word from any assessment of her superb CV. Focused, but also with an eye on the bigger picture, Kipyegon achieved her aim in phenomenal fashion, breaking not just one world record, but three, and adding two more world titles to her haul.
“I was working hard to get the world record over 1500m because I have history from the youth category to the senior category (in the discipline) with medals, but not a world record,” said the 29-year-old.
“If you do something and somebody is like: ‘She is world champion, she is Olympic champion, she is world junior champion… but… BUT!.. she doesn’t have a world record.’
“I wanted to remove this ‘but’; to have the world record in the 1500m and complete my historical journey in the 1500m. It’s something special.”
It’s something incredibly special. But she didn’t stop there. After completing that part of her journey by running 3:49.11 in Florence on 2 June to take almost a second off the previous world 1500m record, Kipyegon went on to break the world 5000m record and the world mile record before winning 1500m and 5000m gold medals at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23.
Those performances led to her being named World Athlete of the Year for women’s track at the World Athletics Awards 2023 in Monaco, giving Kipyegon and her coach, Patrick Sang, the perfect opportunity to reflect on all that has been accomplished, not just this year but as part of that whole historical journey.
“I’m so proud of myself. To achieve what I achieved this year was magnificent,” said Kipyegon. “It was a dream come true.”
Kipyegon has never been short of motivation.
Her international career began back at the World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz in 2010. Running barefoot in the freezing conditions, the then 16-year-old finished fourth in the U20 race. The following year she got gold in Punta Umbria, before winning that year’s world U18 1500m title in Lille – her first global gold medal in the discipline.
World U20 gold followed in Barcelona in 2012, before senior world titles in London in 2017 and Oregon in 2022, plus Olympic gold medals in Rio and Tokyo.
As Kipyegon – who got within 0.30 of the world 1500m record last year – prepared for a season in which a seventh global 1500m gold was on offer, she also took aim at another target.
“The best way to reflect is that for any success story, it starts with an idea,” said coach Sang, who also guides two-time Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge.
“Faith started the season with a lot of optimism. She felt like she had done good work. She had got two Olympic medals, four World Championships medals, but in all this collection, one thing that was missing was a world record, especially in the 1500m – an event she has done for ages.
“She had the focus. We changed a few things in training because we wanted her to also try the 5000m. Because of those few changes we made, she was not anticipating that she was already in the position to run (the world record at that early stage of the season). So we went to Florence, she was like: ‘Okay, I am beginning.’ And she runs a world record!
“Human beings thrive on incentive. When you run out of incentives, you get to a plateau, where whatever effort you put in, it gives the same returns. If you create a new set of incentives, then – whether it is an employee in a workforce or an athlete who is performing, in this case specifically Faith in her running – the output is greater. That’s what we did.
“We opened space for Faith to understand that the world of athletics is bigger than just performance on the track. That window was opened, and it created new sets of incentives: ‘You know, besides running very fast, I can also influence the society positively.’ This has come in as an interesting set of incentives for Faith.”
Being a role model is something Kipyegon relishes. As she went on to break the world 5000m record (14:05.20 in Paris on 9 June) and the world mile record (4:07.64 in Monaco on 21 July), plus win her two world titles, Kipyegon continued to inspire.
“This year I had a dream of breaking a world record, especially the 1500m. But I didn’t know I could also do the world record in the 5000m,” said Kipyegon, who achieved that record – since improved to 14:00.21 by Gudaf Tsegay – despite having previously completed just two 5000m races, both in 2015. “It was a surprise. I finished in Paris and I was emotional. I usually don’t cry. But I cried a lot.”
She had initially planned to attack the world 1500m record in Monaco (“everybody knows Monaco has a really fast track”), as she didn’t anticipate breaking it so early in the season in Florence. But with that record already achieved, she ran the mile in Monaco instead.
“I wasn’t expecting what I did this year – breaking three world records and then winning two gold medals at the World Championships,” she added. “I’m really happy and I know that I have not only done this for myself, but I have inspired many young girls out there.”
Her performances and personality have made a mark on her fellow athletes, too, and that was demonstrated in Florence and Monaco, where she was joined on the track in celebration after her world records.
Receiving her trophy at the World Athletics Awards, Kipyegon dedicated it to all middle-distance runners.
“For them to come along and celebrate with me in Monaco and in Florence, it really touched my heart – to know that besides what we do, we also have humanity and love,” she said.
“I am happy when we are all together, helping the other women with passion to do something. You see Sifan Hassan, Gudaf Tsegay who did 14:00 (to improve Kipyegon’s world 5000m record), which was really amazing. For us to come together and compete and break barriers.
“I think next year a woman can go under 14:00. I don’t know who will be the first one, but we are going to try our best to push ourselves to the limit.”
Awards and displays of on-track appreciation are not the only forms of recognition Kipyegon has received. Most recently she was feted with the Elder of the Order of the Golden Heart – the highest award in Kenya – by President William Ruto. She also received a house and money – which she used to buy a car for her father – following her historic feats in Florence and Paris.
“Going back home after breaking world records and being recognised by the state, I really thank the government of Kenya for doing that because I think I was the first athlete to be recognised,” she said.
“I was not expecting to be welcomed back home as I was welcomed, and it really motivated me.”
Sang has no doubt as to how important all recognition is, for athletes and support personnel alike.
“It’s everything. It’s really important for the athletes because when they are competing they are always under pressure and sometimes probably we don’t give them enough appreciation,” he said.
“I want to acknowledge what World Athletics is doing – at the last World Championships we had in Budapest they also recognised the support personnel, especially the coaches, for the role they play in making the athletes who they are, because it’s a team effort. No individual athlete can make it to the top on their own – there’s a big support system behind them. Being here (at the World Athletics Awards), it makes me feel happy that the support system is recognised. It’s a privilege to be in this picture.”
The journey continues
Sang is a key component in that picture, having coached Kipyegon since 2019, when she returned to competition following the birth of her daughter, Alyn.
“To give the best to an athlete, you need to also learn more about the athlete,” he said. “Since that time (2019), I have been in a learning process. I wanted to learn more through small adjustments. One of the key adjustments for 2023 was to adjust our base training. We expanded a little bit because we wanted to see what she could also do in the 5000m.
“For this building to go up, you need to go deeper – solid foundations,” continued Sang, who guided Kipyegon back from a stress fracture she sustained at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where she claimed 1500m silver. “Solid foundations means that in the beginning of the season you do a higher milage at a lower intensity so that you have strong endurance, so that when you come back to event-specific training, you have a good base.
“It was a two-pronged approach: one, to mitigate on stress fractures and other challenges; and, secondly, to see if we try, what are the other possibilities in the longer distances?”
While she has taken a step up this year, Kipyegon’s ambition doesn’t end at the 5000m. Like Kipchoge, she is motivated by the marathon.
“I am only happy that we have somebody continue thinking positively of our sport,” said Sang when asked about Kipyegon’s future aims.
“Whatever the outcome in this journey, the new journey that has been revitalised, whether it goes all the way to the marathon – we will be happy. We still want to see her more on the track and she will probably end up where that dream is: running a marathon.”
For now, her next major target is Paris, and inspiring even more people with a journey that she hopes will lead to an Olympic gold medal hat-trick.
“The goal for 2024 is of course the Olympics in Paris,” Kipyegon said. “That is the big goal. I want to defend my title, make history, and motivate young girls and mothers out there to know that everything is possible.”