Fans were treated to a festival of exceptional running at this past Monday’s Boston Marathon. In the men’s race, the 26.2-mile competition came down to a three-way dead sprint, while on the women’s side, eventual winner Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia bet the farm just five miles into her trip from Hopkinton to Boston.
But the show of the day was headlined by 39-year-old Edna Kiplagat of Kenya. She’s a two-time marathon world champion, top four finisher at all six World Marathon Majors, previous Boston, London, and New York City marathon champion with a personal best of 2:19:50, but at this point in her 23-year career, age adds yet another layer of spectacular to her performance.
At about 21 miles, Kiplagat, Jordan Hasay, and Meskerem Assefa trailed the leader, Degefa, by almost three minutes. That’s when Kiplagat made her move, and goodness, it was picturesque. Careful marathoner transformed into soaring miler—up on her toes, arms swinging, flying for home. Within seconds she’d gapped Hasay and Assefa. People, pavement, sirens passed in a blur as she reeled in the leader, closing the gap to two minutes, then one minute, less than a minute, within sight.
Take a moment to imagine the rare talent, training, and guts needed to sprint the last five miles of a marathon off of a 5:35-ish pace. Then try to embrace that this rolling thunder was a woman with five children, a home, a farm, and 20 marathons in her legs. Kiplagat’s 16:05 last 5K was the quickest close of her marathon career, certainly the fastest of any woman in the race, and many of the men.
“I didn’t know how much time there was between her [Degefa] and me,” Kiplagat said during a phone interview with Women’s Running on Thursday.
Then, she laughed.
“My strategy? I tried to run fast to close the gap. I did not go with her early on because I thought the pace was too fast,” Kiplagat said. “I was not sure of the hills and wanted to be conservative. In my mind, I wanted to finish the hills and see if I still felt strong. I did feel good, and I know the last 7K is flat and downhill, so that’s where I tried to push.”
— Edna Kiplagat (@KiplagatEdna) April 15, 2019
Degefa’s final 5K was much slower than Kiplagat’s—17:26—but such was her lead that she held on for the win in 2:23:31. Kiplagat, after her decisive surge, came home second in 2:24:13.
“For me, I was trying all means, thinking, how am I going to break away from this group? Who is stronger?” Kiplagat said. “The only way is just to try and make sure I put all my effort to sprint away from the group. My body responded. I was lucky to be able to maintain.”
Experience is on her side. The fourth of six children, born to parents who worked a small farm in Kenya, the local athletics coach took the school’s best runner to a district race in 1995, where 16-year-old Kiplagat caught the eye of Brother Colm O’Connell, legendary teacher, coach, and proven judge of young talent.
O’Connell invited her to a three-week training camp. Though it would mean a little less help on the farm, Kiplagat’s parents supported this first step in her running career. The opportunity paid off immediately, as Kiplagat placed fifth at world junior cross country just a few months later, and second in the 3,000 meters at world junior track and field later that August. Though still in secondary school, her professional career was underway.
After graduating, she moved to Iten to join the throngs of up-and-comers training there. Kiplagat reconnected with Gilbert Koech, who’d grown up in her area, and was already established on the running circuit. Two of a kind—steady, practical, thoughtful, grounded in family and faith—they married in 2001. Unlike American women who sometimes put off having children until their running career is over, Kenyan women often use pregnancy as a break from intense training. In Kiplagat’s case, motherhood came before her biological baby was born. Her older sister passed away from breast cancer in December 2003, leaving two children, Collins, 7, and Mercy, 2.
“It was the right time for me. I was not training and taking care of [Collins and Mercy] prepared me to be a mother,” Kiplagat said.
She and Koech adopted her sister’s children, and a few months later, their son Carlos was born. Again, in Kenyan practice, she took 12 months off from running to focus on rest, recovery, and unexpectedly, being a mother of three. Daughter Wendy came in 2008. And in 2013, after a neighbor died in childbirth, Kiplagat and Koech adopted the child. While she said she’s passionate about running—and feels lucky to be able to make a comfortable living doing it—her priority has always been family. Her Twitter profile lays it out— Mother. Wife. Christian. Nike athlete. Two-time marathon world champion.
— Edna Kiplagat (@KiplagatEdna) March 30, 2019
In 2010, with 14 years of successful competition on her résumé, Kiplagat turned her attention for the first time to the marathon. The 26.2-mile race favors a person with endurance and strength, yes, but also pragmatism, patience, focus, and courage. That year, she won the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:25, and found her calling.
Up until that time, theirs was a two-athlete family, Koech writing out their training plans. But shortly after her eye-opening marathon debut, their manager, Brendan Reilly, gently suggested Koech shift to a coaching and support role so Kiplagat could focus on running.
“This is a Kenyan man, remember, who has a running career of his own,” Reilly said. “I’m sure it was a humbling experience for Gilbert, but he thought about it and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He’s the first Kenyan guy I’ve ever met who had enough humility to voluntarily dial back his own career to help his wife’s.”
Listening to coach on today's programme pic.twitter.com/lHn1kB6VDh
— Edna Kiplagat (@KiplagatEdna) April 6, 2019
This arrangement has worked. Stacks of podium finishes in the world’s most competitive fields, still going strong after 23 years in a sport that’s notoriously tough on body and mind—how does she do it?
Koech explained the training philosophy, which includes an increased focus on strength training and recovery. After Boston, Kiplagat took four days off before starting swimming, biking, and some strength work. As she’s gotten older, she’s also increased massage and flexibility exercises, while decreasing her mileage. Ten years ago, Kiplagat ran up to 124 miles per week, with three hard workouts (speed on Tuesdays, tempos on Wednesdays, speed again on Thursdays). Now she tops out at about 100 miles per week and takes recovery days when she needs them, Koech said.
“If she’s not recovered from a workout, we step back. The times she is running on the track are not as fast as she was running ten years ago, but her tempo runs are faster,” Koech said. “Of course, we focus on eating right, sleeping—she gets seven or eight, sometimes nine hours a night. Heartrate is assisting us in analyzing if she is recovered, if she has a fever. We sit down as a family and say, ‘Mom is doing this or this. Don’t disturb Mom.’”
Many world class marathoners, Eliud Kipchoge and Mo Farah among them, seclude themselves in a training camp away from their families for months at a time. Focusing on training while staying with her family is vital to her success and her longevity in the sport, Kiplagat said.
“My husband is taking care of a lot of things; my job is to train. I don’t see any reason to go away from my family. And when I get my goal, then I see our plan is working,” she said. “That’s why I’m still going strong.”
The family, with 15-year-old Carlos and 11-year-old Wendy, moved earlier this year to Boulder, Colorado, where they’ve spent time over the years. Kiplagat still represents the Kenyan Police (like the corporate system in Japan, Kenyan institutions sponsor running teams), and a manager will take care of their farm in Iten in their absence. Carlos is especially keen on golf, but the parents encourage both kids to try everything—swimming, baseball, soccer. Safe to say, they already know exactly what’s involved in running.
“Sometimes we take them along, to follow me [in the car with Koech], so they see mom was doing a hard job,” Kiplagat said. “If they ride along, they can see the magic that I can’t explain, how much I put in training, and they understand. They see me running, sweating. It will also be in their minds, if they do any sport, they will know you have to put in a lot of effort.”
For now, she’s enjoying being an incredibly fit mom who happens to be one of the most decorated distance runners on the planet. Kiplagat, who turns 40 in November, doesn’t have any plans to retire now—and after another stunning performance in Boston, why would she?
“I can say, as long as I’m still in good health and have passion for sports, I’ll keep running,” she said. “Maybe when the time comes [to retire] I’ll know.”