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Finishing third at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (2:28:52) in Atlanta last February, Sally Kipyego sealed her position as one of the six current qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics, re-scheduled for this summer.
Along with Aliphine Tuliamuk and Molly Seidel, Kipyego will represent the United States in the marathon on Sunday, August 8 in Sapporo, nearly 700 miles north of Tokyo.
Kipyego, 35, 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. This summer will be her first time competing at the olympics for the United States.
Speaking to a group of reporters over a virtual call hosted by USATF, Kipyego answered questions from her home in Kenya regarding how she’s handled the past year during the pandemic and how she’s feeling as she starts to focus on her summer goals.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Tell us a little bit about what the last year has been like for you:
“Mostly the last year has been kind of laid-back for me. After the games were postponed, coach and I decided it would be an easy year. Running wise has been simple. I had been hoping I was going to race this past weekend, but it didn’t happen so yeah so nothing much really.”
What do your racing plans look like this year?
“Now we’re looking at running in March. We have a race planned out, hopefully we get to do that [if it does not get canceled]. Hopefully I get to run a 10K in April or May, to get a qualifier for the 2022 World Championships in Eugene. After May, I’m pretty much preparing for a marathon for the next three months.”
What does laid-back training look like for you?
“When I say laid-back, that basically was 70, nothing more than 80 miles [per week]. Mostly single runs, some fartleks, tempos, hills, but nothing intense. Then in August of 2020, we basically started our regular program. [With the Olympics postponed] we just wanted to be fresher in the coming year. But that’s behind me, we’re full-on Olympic season for sure.”
Are you a 10K runner who’s now focused on the marathon, or are you a marathoner still trying to compete in the 10K?
“That’s tricky. I feel like I really love the marathon, but to this day I have not been comfortable in the marathon. I think my head still thinks I’m a 10k runner, obviously my body says something else. I think now I’m a marathon runner who’s trying to get faster.”
What’s behind the decision to stay in Kenya?
“The main reason really is just convenience for our family. Since we had Emma (our 3 and a half year old), we’ve spent more time in Kenya than the U.S. because my husband and I have family back in Kenya and that has been a lot of help. That has made it possible for me to train the way I’d like to train to be an elite runner. So basically the decision is child care. But I have to come back to the U.S. once every 2 months or so to train with the team and be part of the group.”
What has the pandemic experience been like in Kenya?
“Kenya has been really good at limiting exposure. And because we’re on a farm, we’ve tried to stay away from the city. Infections have not been as high as other parts of the world; I think the government has done a good job. We still have curfew at 10pm each day, and that was just started a few months ago. There was a 6pm-6am curfew a few months ago, since the beginning. Schools were closed pretty much all of last year. Masks are mandatory and you will be fined if you don’t wear them. But as a family we’ve tried to stay away from the populated areas, and living on a farm that’s been pretty easy to do.”
You’ve won an Olympic medal in 10K, what do you think your chances of medaling in the marathon are?
“I feel that I haven’t gotten a good marathon in and I feel like if I get good consistent training, which I have been able to do for the last 1 and a half years, I think I’ll have a chance at medaling. That’s really the objective. I’m trying to get myself into 2:20 shape and if I can do that my chances are pretty good at medaling.”
You’ve experienced coming back after having a child. Have you talked to Aliphine at all and shared any advice with her?
“We’ve talked with Aliphine a few times. I tell her to enjoy motherhood and the other things will follow. It’s different for different people. General rule of thumb is listen to your body and let your body guide you. I think that’s the best thing I can tell anyone. Because people are different. My experience was that it wasn’t easy to come back. Your body changes. Your priorities change. So it’s challenging, it’s not easy, but obviously it can be done, a lot of women have done it. She tends to get fit quicker, so I think she’ll be fine.”
Have you been paying attention to the races happening in the states?
“Yes, I have been paying attention. Women’s American distance running is doing amazing things at the moment. [I saw the results from the race this past weekend.] I thought it was incredible running. I still have hopes of running a good [10K], and hopefully being in Eugene for 2022.”
Since the postponement of the Olympics, they’ve relocated the marathon course. It will be a relatively flat course compared to [the U.S. Marathon Olympic Trials]. How are you preparing for that?
“That’s why I’m planning on a 10K. Because with that kind of flat course, you won’t be relying so much on your strength compared to Atlanta. This one is mostly flat so I think it will test the speed a little more. We’ll be focused on shorter distances until May, trying to get my speed a little up there so i can compete in Tokyo.”
What makes that relationship [with your coach Mark Rowland] work?
“He’s not a very hands-on kind of a coach. He lets you bring in your ideas and how you perceive things; he allows that. Mark and I from the get-go have gotten along really well, our personalities kind of blend together. If he gives you an overview of what you need to do, he doesn’t micromanage at all. I thrive in that. I just want to be left alone, tell me what I need to do and I’ll come back with the results. I’ve spent the last 10 years with him. He knows my body really well. That’s why I come to Eugene all the time, because he needs to watch me run because he knows my body so well and how I run.”
Only a handful of people have gotten to run in the Olympics for two different countries. What will you feel wearing Team USA for the first time?
“I’ve said this many times, I think running for America was something I wanted to do, but it was a choice. I chose to actually wear the USA jersey. For me, it’s an honor. It is a way to be grateful for the things that America has done for me. Coming to America and being in America has changed my life and my family’s life in so many ways. For me, it is an honor. I know I will have strong emotions, there’s no question about that. And I hope to represent well.”
You’d mention a 10K in April or May. Will that be in Kenya or the states?
“It’s in America. I’m actually traveling to the U.S. in two weeks’ time and all the way through May, so I hope to have some chances in the U.S. to run some track races.”
Lastly, how’s [your daughter] Emma doing?
“She’s fantastic. She started school. She’s 3 and a half, so she’s not really the age to start school. But there’s a school about 9 miles away, and she’s spent the last 3 years at home with us, so we felt like she needed to be around other children. They have these classes that are really daycare but they come home with homework. She’s doing really well.”