The most significant news about Wilson Kipsang after September’s Great North Run wasn’t that the Kenyan won the half-marathon in Newcastle, England, with a dramatic surge in the final 50 meters. Nor was it that he ran 59:04, the No. 2 time in course history and just five seconds off his personal best.
The biggest significance is that Kipsang pronounced himself recovered from his third place in the London Olympic Marathon in mid-August. He now sets his sights on the November 4 ING New York City Marathon.
“Of course this gives me a lot of confidence for New York,” Kipsang says, “because I can see that my body has recovered and is ready for competition.”
That is bad news for any field, no matter how deep. Kipsang is one of only three marathoners—the others are Ethiopian legend and former world record-holder Haile Gebrselassie and 2011 New York champion Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya—to have run three sub-2:05 times. His personal best of 2:03:42, set last year at Frankfurt, Germany, is the No. 2 time ever on a record-eligible course.
In April, he ran away from a strong field at the Virgin London Marathon, winning by two minutes in 2:04:44, just four seconds off the course record.
Many experts, including NYRR’s elite athlete coordinators David Monti and Sam Grotewold, consider Kipsang, 30, the world’s top marathoner. He’s fast and consistent, qualities honed in training near his home in Iten, Kenya, in the heart of the Rift Valley—the birthplace of so many outstanding distance runners.
Kipsang does much of his training about 40 miles from his home, in Kapng’etuni, logging 110-mile weeks at altitude. The camp sometimes includes Mutai, who set the New York course record of 2:05:06 last year and owns the all-conditions marathon record of 2:03:02. But even in a group, Kipsang is very much a lone wolf.
“He is very disciplined,” says his agent, Gerard van de Veen. “He’s a guy who knows what he wants. He’s very much a leader in a group. He is completely independent.”
Kipsang is largely self-coached. He solicits opinions from experienced coaches such as Italy’s Renato Canova and adapts his program based on how he is feeling. He listens to his body, but he also likes the structure imposed by an overall training plan.
“For me, it’s good,” he says. “From the time I started to train like that, my performance has been very good. Some athletes, if they are not really coached, they don’t perform. Some athletes are not in position to accept discipline or control themselves.”
Kipsang thought he had nailed his training leading to the Olympic Marathon in London. He led past halfway and at one time had a 20-second lead on the chase pack, but he struggled in the last few miles. He finished third (2:09:37) behind Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich (2:08:01) and Kenya’s Abel Kirui (2:08:27).
“I was happy with the result because the last kilometers I was exhausted,” he says. “Considering this was my first Olympics, I think it is a good start.”
He will have had 83 days after the Olympics, 48 of them after the Great North Run, to prepare for his New York debut.
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg