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Sally Kipyego Has Faith in Her Olympic Marathon Trials Preparation—and in Herself

After giving birth to her daughter in 2017, Kipyego struggled to return to health and fitness. She says she’s feeling more like herself these days.

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, highlighting the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. You can find all our coverage here. 

Sally Kipyego has returned from three months of training in her native Kenya with confidence in her preparation for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials—it isn’t a feeling she’s had often over the past two years, so she’s enjoying the momentum which seems to be coming at the right time.

Kipyego won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in the 10,000 meters, representing Kenya. But she’s lived and trained in the U.S.—with a base in Eugene, Oregon, competing for the Oregon Track Club Elite—since her storied days competing for Texas Tech. 

In 2016, Kipyego finished second at the New York City Marathon, later discovering she was four weeks pregnant at the time. She and her husband, Kevin Chelimo, welcomed their daughter, Emma, in July 2017—the same year Kipyego became a U.S. citizen.

But the comeback after childbirth wasn’t easy. She was supposed to race the 2018 New York City Marathon, but came down with malaria and pneumonia. Kipyego started getting her health back in time to compete at the 2019 Boston Marathon, but she dropped out at 18 miles with cramping in her calf. She rebounded to race the Berlin Marathon in September, finishing in 2:25:10, a three-minute personal best.

Kipyego decided to train for the Olympic Trials in Kenya because she wanted a hilly, high-altitude location where she had family to help with childcare. She considered racing the Houston Half Marathon as a tune-up in January, but decided to stay in Kenya. She ran an 8K cross-country race in Eldoret instead, where she placed fifth, sustaining a 5:13 per mile average at altitude. In other words, Kipyego seems fit.

“Everything went well and I feel fantastic,” she said. “Everything I intended to do, I was able to do. I’m really pleased and hope in a few days it will be enough.”

Age: 34

Olympic Trials Qualifying Time: 2:25:10 (2019 Amsterdam Marathon)

Marathon PR: 2:25:10 (2019 Amsterdam Marathon)

Peak weekly mileage: 120

Favorite workout: About three weeks from race day 15-mile run 5 x three miles alternating marathon pace and half marathon pace.

“I like it—and there’s no way around it,” Kipyego said. “It’s painful. When I handle it well, I know I’m ready to go. I can almost predict how fit I am based on that session.”

Best part of training for the Olympic Trials: No one day stands out to Kipyego as the best, but she has enjoyed her consistency. She’s remained healthy throughout three months of training.

“I’ve struggled before when I’m training for a marathon. My body tends to fall apart when I’m training for a marathon and I’ve had to patch things up here and there,” she said. “This time around, I was able to train for an entire block without having any issues. Everything went according to plan, I was healthy and able to chip those miles away every day.”

Worst part of the training for the Olympic Trials: Aside from the typical highs and lows that are mostly brought on by fatigue during a buildup, Kipyego never weathered any disasters, she said.

“You can have a week that you feel untouchable and another week that you feel like you can’t finish—you go through it, but you grind,” she said. “I never had a terrible week or day, I just felt a little tired and drained some days. That’s just adapting. The marathon will do that to you.”

Best piece of advice or encouragement given: Kipyego said she often reminds herself that she already has what she needs to succeed.

“Sometimes we look outside ourselves, but ultimately we already have the tools within ourselves,” she said. “That’s how I approach running. That’s how I approach life. I already have all the tools I need within myself, I just have to listen to myself, pay attention, and trust that I have it within me to be great at what I do.”

Taper tantrums: Kipyego and her family arrived in Atlanta from Kenya about 10 days before the race. Normally she’d pass the additional free time by taking walks outside with her daughter, but it’s been rainy. Nonetheless, Emma is a nice distraction from overthinking the Trials.

“It’s just a lot of time on your hands,” she said. “You don’t feel really tired. We’re staying indoors, but trying to stay calm. The good thing is a little child. If I were in this hotel room by myself, I’d probably be a little stressed right now—but she runs around and plays a lot.”

Pre-race superstition or good luck routine: Kipyego doesn’t have any superstition, but she does say a prayer on the starting line.

Race-day shoes: As of February 20, Kipyego hadn’t decided if she’s wearing the Nike Alphafly or the Next%.

Looking forward to most on race day: The gun going off.

“It’s insane—the field is incredibly deep and the quality is so good,” Kipyego said. “The stress of it is a little bit high. A lot of work has been put in and you know everybody is ready to go, I just want to get it done. I’m itching for it. It’s time to get down to business.”

Dreading on race day: She’s not a fan of later race starts (the women’s begin at 12:20 p.m. Eastern). 

“I like getting up, eating breakfast, and right away going to get it done,” Kipyego said. “So the sitting around and waiting for race time, I don’t like that.”

Impressions of the Olympic Marathon Trials course: Although she’s already in Atlanta, Kipyego has no intention of previewing the course. She’s looked at the maps and the elevation charts, but would rather not experience it before Saturday.

“To me, it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “I’ve prepared myself for a really tough course and either way, running 26.2 miles is hard.”

Support crew in Atlanta: Her husband, Kevin Chelimo, and daughter, Emma, plus her coach and his wife

Morning routine for a late start time: In the two weeks before the race, Kipyego has been trying to mimic the schedule she’ll keep on race day, timing her run for later in the day than she normally would.

“I’ll to sleep in and relax a bit and take the morning easy,” she said. “I’ll take my time, eat breakfast—I’ll have enough time to have that in my system before the race.”

Olympic Trials breakfast fuel: A bagel, a cup of tea, a banana, and although she doesn’t have any good-luck charms, Kipyego almost always eats a blueberry muffin before all her races.

“I used to eat a muffin in college all the time before cross country races,” she said. “I remember one time when a woman asked me at the hotel if I was eating it before the race and I said, ‘Yes, I do this all the time.’”

Race-day mantra: Kipyego leans on her faith and repeats, “I can do all things through Christ.”

“I always remind myself over and over again that ‘I can do this,’” she said. “I repeat to myself, ‘You’ve done this before. You know how to do this.’”

Slow and strategic or fast and furious: She’d prefer a fast, hard race.

“It’s the Olympic Trials, so I wouldn’t want to leave feeling like it was a sit-and-kick race,” Kipyego said. “The best athletes should go to Tokyo and the only way to know the best athletes is to grind for 26.2 miles. I’d take a hard run from the get-go—then the athletes are the ones who have a higher chance of performing well at the Olympics.”

How she’ll know that she did everything she could, even if she doesn’t make the team: A great day would mean that Kipyego stuck to her race plan, she said.

“If I come up short because somebody else is fitter, I’d congratulate them and move on,” she said. “If I check all the boxes and give my best, I’ll know I did everything I could.”

Celebration beverage of choice: A glass of red wine.